How Can God Help You Deal With Chronic Pain, Disability, and Illness?/Program 1

By: Joni Eareckson Tada, Dr. Michael Easley; ©2012
Joni Eareckson Tada’s life has inspired millions of people around the world, but few know the background of her tragic story. At the age of 17, a diving accident left this healthy, teenage athlete a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair, including many difficult surgeries to save her life. In addition, a few years ago Joni was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Through these difficult struggles, she has turned to God as her source of strength. She has authored numerous books, leads Joni and Friends, one of the world’s largest Christian organizations serving those affected by disability. In this program, we will discover some of the details of Joni’s story and see how God has worked in her life despite her pain.


Today on the John Ankerberg Show, how can God help you deal with chronic pain, disability and illness?

Michael Easley: For the believer who’s an American in Jesus Christ, we’ve got this wrong. And we think if we do this, then God will do that—bigger, better, newer, more; healthier, prosperous, so forth and so on—when it may be, you’re going to struggle; you’re going to suffer.

Joni Eareckson Tada: I was frightened. I heard whispers of spinal cord injury, quadriplegia, paralysis, broken neck. And I was terrified.

My guests are, Joni Eareckson Tada, the founder of Joni & Friends, an international ministry for people with disabilities. She has authored over 70 books, is the speaker on the daily Joni & Friends radio program. And second, Dr. Michael Easley, President Emeritus of Moody Bible Institute. Michael is an author and lead pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. We invite you to join us for this special edition of the John Ankerberg Show.



John Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. We’ve got a great one for you today. You’ve heard of our two wonderful guests. We’ve got Joni Eareckson Tada; we’ve got Dr. Michael Easley. And, folks, we’re going to talk about suffering. Joni, people all around us, folks that are listening right now, are suffering. Some in our audience may have an extremely painful cancer. They may have a heart problem. They may have migraine headaches. They may have rheumatoid arthritis. Some, like you, have either spinal cord damage where they’ve got paraplegic, or they’re quadriplegic. Others, because of diabetes, have even had their hands or feet amputated. Some, like my mom, have Lou Gehrig’s, or ALS disease, and can’t walk or talk. Some are suffering from a painful brain tumor or multiple sclerosis. And they’re saying something like this, “Joni, I can’t take it anymore. Why does God let me suffer like this? Does God really care about my problems? Why did He allow this to happen,” alright? And you said some these exact same words when your accident took place. And I want you to go back 45 years to 1967, if you would, and take us back to the time. People want to know the story. What happened? Why have you been confined to that wheelchair? You were a vibrant 17 year old girl, excellent horseback rider, the whole shooting match; you loved the outdoors; and boom, all of a sudden you were faced with the fact you never had the hope of walking again. What happened?
Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, I’m so grateful that you mentioned all those medical conditions at the onset, because people don’t have to be in a wheelchair to identify with those questions. The kinds of angst that I went through as a young kid; I was athletic, happy, on my feet, looking forward to college in the fall. My sister Kathy, because we were close, suggested that I go to the beach with her that day just for one more sisterly connection before I headed out to college. And I went down to the beach. I went into the water, swam out to this raft that was maybe anchored 20 yards off shore, and saw little children jumping, diving off of it; didn’t think anything of it. Athlete that I was, I didn’t even touch bottom, so I really didn’t know the depth of the water. Hoisted myself up on to that raft and didn’t even take a deep breath, but plunged into the water. And immediately, my head hit something hard, snapping my neck back, crunching my vertebrae, severing my spinal cord. I didn’t know what had happened at first. All I knew was that I lying face down in the water and my breath was going fast.
I did not realize it, but my sister Kathy, she had her back turned toward me. She was facing the beach. She was ready to walk up on to the sand. But just at that instant, a crab bit her toe. And it so startled her that she whirled around in the water to scream to me, “Joni, watch out for crabs.” And when she did—now this is really odd—when she did, she saw my peroxided white blonde hair floating on the surface of the water. It just so happened, the night before, on a whim, I’d gone to the drugstore and gotten a bottle of Nice & Easy® Midnight Summer Blonde Peroxide to color my hair. And we decided later on, she said, “Joni, I would never have seen you had there not been that shock of white hair against the murky water.” Well, I’m still lying face down, holding my breath. But this crab had alerted her. She saw my hair. She knew something was wrong, and she came swimming for me quickly. And just as I started to drown, just as I ingested water, she put her arm under my chest and jerked me up out of the water. That snapped my head back against her chest. But in that instant I saw my arm slung over her shoulder, dangling, and yet I couldn’t feel it. It was like separated. It was like somebody else’s arm. This wasn’t me. What is this, a bad dream? And I didn’t realize at the time, but I was experiencing what paralysis really feels like.
Well, they put me on this raft, dragged me up onto the beach, called the ambulance, whisked me off to the hospital, ripped off my bathing suit. And in the next instant I’ve got crowds of nurses and doctors around me. They’re shaving my head. They’re drilling holes into my skull. They’re attaching bolts to my skull. They’re putting me onto this Stryker frame, this long flat canvas sandwich, to stretch out my neck with weights at the far end of the frame. And I’m thinking, I just want to go home. I just wanted to go home. And I was frightened. I heard whispers of spinal cord injury, quadriplegia, paralysis, broken neck.
I mean, the only thing I knew of a broken neck was when I was a kid and read Black Beauty. And there was some guy who jumped his horse and fell off—and he was the Squire’s son—and he died of a “broken neck.” That’s the only thing I knew about it. And I was terrified when I heard those words, because I had a tennis date next Saturday, and I had to get back to the house to get my books together to truck them up to Western Middle College and get into my dorm and put up my pennants, and…. And all of a sudden life just, it just changes. And you don’t expect it, and you can’t be prepared for it. But it just changes when you get hit broadside with suffering. I didn’t even know what that word meant yet. I was to find out what it would mean, but it was my first experience that life from now on was going to be very, very different.
Ankerberg: Along the way, in your rehabilitation that went for almost two years, okay, you learned some things. You went through operations, and that led to despair and a real full realization of what you were dealing with. Talk about how you came to know what you were really dealing with.
Tada: Well, some people might look at me and say, “Well, you’ve got your looks, Joni.” But I would trade blonde hair and Revlon® Golden Bronze Lipstick and mascara any day for hands that would work. But, for the sake of people watching who struggle with facial disfigurements or whatever, there’s all kinds of suffering. Handicaps come at us in all shapes and sizes. And I didn’t even look in a mirror for a good month when I was first injured. I was a healthy 140 pound girl who dropped down to 80 pounds real quick. The medication was turning my teeth black. I had a rash from another reaction to a different medication. I was starting to lose my hair. And, I remember one time a girlfriend of mine from high school—she was a hockey player, a burly girl, a rough, muscular girl and very athletic, and we were good friends—and she came into the hospital and took one look at me and grasped the guardrail to my hospital bed and then shook her head and said, “I got to leave.” And I could hear her outside in the hallway retching and vomiting. And I asked my sister to quick, get me a mirror, because I had not seen what I looked like. And when I saw what I looked like, I didn’t recognize me. My eyes were sunken back into their sockets. I was thin and gaunt, drawn, pale. And lying there on that Stryker frame, it was as though I had turned into some ghoulish figure.
I remember it was around my birthday, and somebody had brought into the room one of those smiley balloons, with the big smiley face. And the birthday had passed and the smiley balloon was still in the corner. But its smile was becoming gnarled and crinkled and ghoulish looking. And it was like this big balloon up in the corner looking down on me with this ghoulish, crooked smile. And I just felt like my whole life was in the middle of some nightmare, like some haunted funny house where you turn every corner and see some other image, and you’re shocked awake again and then you think are you ever going to get out of here.
And that’s when I began to sink into depression. I really didn’t know what depression was until then—maybe not having a date for Friday night; maybe twisting my ankle on the basketball court. But now this was real depression. This was emotional numbness. This was sinking down low and deep into a sullen kind of despair in which I could not even feel. As months went on, I even stopped feeling.
Ankerberg: You had operations on your hip, because the bones were protruding through your skin, without anesthesia, because you couldn’t feel a thing. And tell us why you had to have that operation. You had two of those operations.
Tada: Well, I lost so much weight that my bones began to protrude through my hips. My love ledges in the front were just poking right through my skin, and my tailbone was doing the same. And so I went through a series of operations to chip of… They took a hammer and mallet and chipped off what are called the iliac crests in the fronts of your hips, and removed my tailbone. And I had to lie face down on a Stryker frame for two weeks, during which time, adding insult to injury, I got the Hong Kong flu. And I cannot describe—when you’re paralyzed, and you’re strapped to a Stryker frame, and you already, what little bit you can move, you can’t move at all because you’re on that Stryker frame strapped, and then you get the flu, for two weeks lying face down. It was like, it was mockery.
And my girlfriend opened a Bible and put it, you know, when I was lying face down on the Stryker frame like that, lying face down on the floor; she put a little Bible on a little stool and a pencil in my mouth, and I began flipping this way and that trying to find, desperately finding answers. I kept landing on the book of Job, because I didn’t understand it. I was only a high school kid, and this was language far beyond me. But I knew in some strange instinctive way that this guy, this Job, he would understand. And I think I was just looking for the Bible to understand me, just tell me that I’m not alone, just horribly alone in all of this. And so, with that mouth stick, I would often land on Job. I would drool on the book of Job, because I’d be lying face down reading it like that, flipping this way and that with a mouth stick. And I saw a man who understood despair.
Ankerberg: I want you to hold it right there. We’re going to take a break; because after two years of these operations, and realizing you’re never going to walk again, and then the questions about God and why this had happened to you, and what was your purpose and meaning in life going to be. All of this started coming to the fore. You had a real struggle, and I want you to tell us about that struggle, because a lot of folks that are listening to you, they’ve got that struggle right now. Stick with us, we’ll be right back.


Ankerberg: Alright, we’re back. We’re talking with Dr. Michael Easley and with Joni Eareckson Tada. As you’ve heard, Joni severed her spinal cord in a diving accident at age 17, causing quadriplegia; has been confined to that wheelchair for 45 years. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; recently to a fracture in her sacrum, the large triangular bone at the base of the spine. For some reason, she’s living in constant pain, agony, okay.
And we’ll talk about Michael in a little bit here. But, Joni, let’s continue this story. As you came to grips with what you were facing, you also had to think about God and why He had let these things happen. And there were questions that you’ve written about. First of all, does God even exist? And if He does, you know, if “all things work together for good,” how in the world does this paralysis work for my good? And you said you didn’t know. Take me through your thinking, because a lot of folks in our audience right now are saying “You know, I’ve got this,” whatever they’ve got, and they’re saying, “I wasn’t expecting this one,” and you know, “so, I feel like God’s let me down. I’m disappointed with God.” Did you feel that way?
Tada: Well, I described for you in the other segment how I was on a Stryker frame, you know, three hours lying face up; strap on another piece of canvas, flip me over; three hours face down. And during that face down time I, with a mouth stick, was able to flip pages of the Bible. And went from Job and started perusing the New Testament. But I tell you what, it seemed to,… I mean, I’d read these verses like in James 1:2, “Welcome this, as a friend, consider it pure joy when you encounter trials of all kinds.” Yikes! You flip someplace else, Romans 5:3, “Rejoice in your suffering.” And then in Philippians, oh my goodness! I’m to consider this as a gift: “It has been granted unto you to suffer for His sake.” It’s like these Scriptures seem to blithely ignore the pain that I was facing. It just ricocheted off my heart, all of this.
Shortly after those operations, when I began to heal—and eventually they took me out of the Stryker frame and put me in a six-bed ward with five other girls, in an actual hospital bed—I was fighting God one night; two a.m., when all my roommates were asleep. Wanting so desperately to cry, but I dare not, because there was nobody around to wipe my nose or dry my eyes. And it’s bad enough being paralyzed without being messy and paralyzed.
And I remember one night, I turned my head on the pillow, and there, standing in the doorframe of this six-bed ward, was this silhouetted figure. I could see this person against the lights of the nurse’s station. All the nurses were on break; nobody was in the hallways. This figure gets down on its hands and knees and starts to crawl into our ward and past my sleeping roommates toward my side of the room. And I’m looking, scared to death. Who is this? And this individual comes close up by the side of my hospital bed, peers through the guard rail, and, oh my goodness, it’s my high school girlfriend, Jackie. She’s the girl with whom I shared boyfriends and milkshakes and hockey sticks. And she peers through the guardrail, and I said, “Jackie, if they catch you here, they’re going to kick you out. What are you doing here?” “Shhh” she said. And she gently stood up, and with a clunk, clunk lowered the guard rail to my hospital bed. And then, as high school girls will do at pajama sleepovers, she just kind of snuggled into bed next to me, just lying right next to me, and grabbed my arm, my hand. I could not feel this, but in the dark she held it up so I could see it silhouetted, my arm entwined with hers, raised up.
And then she turned on the pillow, and with her lips just an inch from my ear, began whispering “Man of sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came….” I can’t repeat it. It was 44 years ago, and the memory still hits me in the gut and in the heart. “Ruined sinners to reclaim, hallelujah, what a Savior.” And there was something about that, something that made Jesus very real. It was as if all those times the bullets of God’s word that ricocheted off my heart suddenly hit home; because she, in some way, embodied Christ’s love for me. And it was so profound that all my questions, even though they didn’t get answered that night, they just didn’t seem as urgent. They didn’t seem as insistent.
And so, when she left that night, this unbelievable peace that really passed all my human understanding seemed to safeguard my heart. And I think, looking back, I think what happened that night is that I experienced what we all experience when we ask why, or, God, how could You? Or, I don’t understand. We don’t want answers, because I’m not so sure if God answered us it would satisfy us. For me, had God answered me back then, it would have been like pouring million gallon truths into my one ounce pea brain. I just don’t think I could have understood it all. I think, when we’re hurting, all we want is assurance, just this fatherly, daddy-like assurance that, “There, there, sweetheart,” pat you on the back, “Daddy’s here; it’s okay, honey. Everything’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
Ankerberg: How did you come to grips with the question of what was the meaning and purpose of your life; because you thought, what am I going to do?
Tada: You know, after that night, in some strange way, the meaning and purpose weren’t even as urgent or insistent. I think I experienced what we all, when we are suffering, must eventually come to grips with, and that is just, it’s okay. God is not some meditating mystic on some far off mountain top, twiddling His thumbs, contemplating His navel. No, He’s up close. He’s real. He’s personal. He’s not at arm’s length distance from your pain. For Christ’s sake He is in the middle of it with you. And then, eventually, the purpose and the meaning, that’ll come.
Ankerberg: I loved what you wrote in your book. You don’t have to know why God let you be hurt. The fact is, God knows. And then your friend says, if He told you anyway, I mean, what difference would it make? I mean, would you really want to know? Okay, someday you’re going to know, but He knows. And some of these things helped you. We’ve got just a couple minutes left, and we’re going to come back to these themes, because we’re just scratching the surface here. But how did the girl that’s paralyzed, can’t walk, can’t use her hands, laying in this cocoon, and for two years rehabilitated, and was confined to a wheelchair, how did the girl in the wheelchair become the leader of an international ministry that goes around the world, where you’re the speaker on a radio program, over a 1,000 stations every day? You’ve got Wheels for the World. You’ve gone to 48 nations. How did you go from this to this?
Tada: Well, John, you’re making a cosmic jump there. That’s a big distance between the pain that I experienced as a kid and what I’m doing now as an adult. All I know is, there are one billion people with disabilities in the world, 80% of whom live in abject poverty, and who are struggling against hopelessness and despair. And what little bit I have come to grips with my paralysis, and what little satisfaction that I have gleaned and gained by knowing Christ, to whom much is given, much is going to be required. Oh, my goodness, Joni, squeeze every ounce of ministry opportunity that you can get out of this quadriplegic body and go help somebody else.
I mean, half of my joy and satisfaction of life in a wheelchair is finding somebody else in more desperate need and looking at their plight and understanding that they’re pain is far more stringent than mine. Oh, my goodness! Let me give you the balm of Gilead. Let me apply the salve. Let me speak to you of my Jesus, and in some way encourage, get underneath, condescend, help lift them like I was once,… like Jackie once lifted me in that hospital. Oh, that I could do that with those one billion people. I’ve only got a short time left. Oh, my goodness! Lord Jesus, give me health enough to enable me to do that, and my life will be so much more meaningful.
I think that’s what brought me to the point where I have a worldwide ministry now. I don’t desire it. I haven’t looked for it. I don’t bang on anybody’s door. I haven’t asked really for money. I didn’t ask to write a book, make a movie of my life. No, all that stuff, it just happened. It just was plopped on my lap. But I know enough that I want to be a good steward of what God has given me. And if it helps somebody else with a disability in Peru, China, Cuba, Thailand, Romania, Ukraine, you name it, I’m there.
Ankerberg: Yep. We’re going to talk more about this. Folks, what we’re talking about is suffering in the things that you are going through, and how to encourage you, and how to tell you about Jesus and the compassion that He has and what He can do in your life. You look at me and, the fact is, you might not believe me. I want you to believe Joni. And next week we’re going to talk with Michael. And these folks are in it, like you are, and that’s why I wanted them to be our guests. Next week, listen to this topic. Michael’s going to talk about, what do you do when all the props are knocked out, when your husband can’t help you, your wife can’t help you, your best friends can’t help you, the doctors can’t help you, your attorneys can’t help you, the church doesn’t help you, and you and God are all alone suffering? Okay, Michael’s going to tell us his story. I hope that you’ll join us then.

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