Q: Since your diving accident at age 17, you’ve been confined to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. How do you view the last four decades?
A: What I have endured in my wheelchair for over 40 years was time well spent. And (I’m taking a deep breath here) all of the indignities, heartbreaking limitations, crushed hopes, days of sorrow, excruciating pain, and loss of so many simple joy so of life rising out of my injury and paralysis have been worthwhile. I can say to God, “Thank You for this chair.”
Q: But there was a time that you begged God to heal you, to free you from your injury and your wheelchair. So you didn’t always thank God for your wheelchair.
A: If there was ever such a thing as a time machine, I wish I could go back to that scared, angry, bitterly unhappy teenage girl named Joni Eareckson, hold a ruby to the light, and show her a little of what could come of her sorrow . . . and her baby steps of faith. But time moves on, and there is no going back. So I share these few rubies with my readers.
Q: So if your journey began with fear and anger, how did you grow into gratitude and joy instead of living in bitterness and hopelessness?
A: One of the first places I turned after my accident was to the Book of Job. What meant the most to me in my suffering was that God never condemned Job for his doubt and despair. For some odd reason it comforted me to realize that God did not condemn me for plying Him with questions. He wanted me to express the true contents of my heart, to dump out all the jumbled, jagged shards of my soul before Him.
Sometimes we’re afraid to talk to God this way-like Job crying out in the night on the ash heap behind his house, like the psalmist treading water in the dark, like a furious teenager welded into bed with a broken neck and bolts in her head. We repress those murky, edgy emotions about our suffering. We choose to be polite, speaking sanitized words, or not speaking at all. We bottle up our troubling questions and unspeakable feelings toward God, hiding behind an orthodox, evangelical glaze as we “give it all over to the Lord.”
Q: Do you advise people who are suffering to vent their deep emotions, even anger, to God?
A: Strong emotions open the door to asking really hard questions-and I asked so very many of them in the early days of my paralysis. Does life make sense? Is God good? More to the point, our deep emotions reveal the spiritual direction in which we are moving. Are we moving toward the Almighty or away from Him? Anger makes Someone the issue of our suffering rather than some thing. And that’s moving in the right direction.
The newly paralyzed Joni, for all her seething rage at the God-behind-the-ceiling-tiles, was aiming those emotions at Him. Whether she understood it at the time or not, she was moving toward Him in her despair, venting her disappointment, expressing hurt, and even questioning His goodness. But she wasn’t talking about God behind God’s back. She was angry enough to engage Him head-on. And then the anger melted into tears, and she was a scared little girl again, calling out to a daddy she couldn’t see.
“God, I can’t . . . I can’t live like this. If You won’t let me die, then please show me how to live.” It wasn’t exactly a ringing prayer of faith. But it left the door open for Him to respond. And he would. Because “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are churches in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).
Q: You write about the confinement and loneliness of your disability. How have you learned to deal with the despair that can creep in when you are alone?
A: The Bible has a remedy, a prescription, a medicine for melancholy-we are to remember and remember and remember again the way God worked in the past. So that’s what I do. That has been my practice when my pain and the darkness try to push me into a lonely corner. I talk of his deeds. Right out loud.
That’s what I’ve done on sleepless nights of neck pain. Mouthing the words quietly, so as not to awaken Ken, I whispered all the wonderful ways Goad had revealed Himself to me in days gone by. I remember, and the memories come like a flood. The songs in the night, the tender mercies, the miracles, the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit . . . I remember how Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our diseases, how He understands and sympathizes with my weakness. And how He considers my frail frame and remembers that, after all, I’m only dust. I remember, remember, and remember again.
This isn’t the old, trite cliché of “count your blessings, name them one by one.” This is an authentic, viable spiritual transaction between you and the God who listens and considers your every word. When loneliness settles over your spirit like a lead apron, when paid and grief and anxiety conspire to push you to the edge of despair, remember God’s mighty deeds in your life. Remember His kindness, His special, tailor-made graces that fell out of the sky like a gentle spring rain.
Q: You share many pieces of wisdom in your new book, such as, “We have to keep living while we’re waiting” and “There are more important things in life than walking.” Are these wise words drawn from years of suffering?
A: The pieces of wisdom I share in my book are, to me, priceless rubies. They have been mined from the dark places, and they are so very valuable, so terribly hard-won. I think back to my early days of paralysis-so many years ago now-and wish I could bring a new perspective to that young girl in her strange new wheelchair, trying so hard to find her way in an alien, frightening world where everything has changed. What would I say? How could I comfort her?
I would tell her to set her thoughts on Jesus. You can’t wrap your mind around Him, but He will wrap His arms around you. The more you learn of Him, think of Him, fill your eyes with Him, the more you will find the comfort you crave in your brokenness. He is so impossibly far beyond anything you have ever imagined or conceived him to be. Don’t think of cheesy color plates from children’s Bibles, vacation Bible school curriculum, medieval paintings, or stained glass windows. That would be like mistaking your best friend for a crayon image from a four-year-old. This is the One who created music and starlight, cherries and summer roses, a man’s strong touch and a woman’s laughter, snow-capped mountains and April rain, a baby’s eyelashes and vast planets where no one has walked but angels. Consider Him. Adore Him.
For more information on Joni or her newest book, A Lifetime of Wisdom: Embracing the Way God Heals You, please visit www.zondervan.com or Joni’s Web site, www.joniandfriends.org.