July 5, 2009

Theology of Suffering – Joni Eareckson Tada

Posted in Devotionals, Disability tagged , , , , , , , , at 5:49 pm by Sarah Bosse

Have you or do you continue to ask those hard questions about suffering both related to your life and the lives of those you love? I have. Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who sustained a spinal cord injury and has used a wheelchair for more than 43 years, answers some of the tough questions about Suffering during a speech given at Dallas Theological Seminary. If you need to hear the truth from someone who has “been there,” watch this video. To listen to MP3 or download the MP3/video file, visit Dallas Theological Seminary online.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The elder of our church, an elder, Greg Barshaw, at Grace Community Church in Southern California received a phone call one day. It was from a pastor, down the road, and this pastor called Greg frequently they often had Bible study times together, times of coffee in the morning.

This pastor asked Greg, “Greg, I have a family who has been coming to my church and I’m wondering if your church would want to take on this family and embrace them in a special way. I think that your church could specifically meet their needs. This is a family with a little boy with multiple disabilities and I just think that your congregation could best embrace this mom and dad and young boy, what do you say to that?”

Well, Greg thought it was a good idea, he would be happy to reach out to this particular family, but then, when he pressed the pastor further, he realized that there were more issues underlying there than just what met the eye.

And finally, the pastor on the other end said, “Well, to be honest, Greg, if you want to be truthful here, I’m just so afraid that one day that dad is going to walk into my study, he’s going to clench his fist, he’s going to slam it on my desk and tell me, you tell me why God has cursed me with this son. My son, with multiple disabilities. How is it that God has done this?” I cannot and I would not know how to answer him.

At that point, Gregg realized that this man had an issue, a tough issue with the theology of suffering and how it was that he was going to be able to address that family’s needs.

I can understand that pastor’s fear. God’s sovereignty is sometimes a very scary thing. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, even as I do right now with chronic pain that I am dealing with, somewhat related to my disability. And often we tend to think, who is this God, who are you, I mean does He say into this, into each life a little rain must fall and then aim a hose at earth’s general direction and see who gets the wettest? Laughter

I’m serious. That’s what I thought when I was first injured. I thought that my spinal cord injury, when I took that deep dive into shallow water, I thought it was a flip of a coin. I thought it was a fluke of fate and I thought if God had anything to do with it, I imagined that he had been caught off guard.

Perhaps he was off somewhere listening to the prayers of more obedient saints. I figured maybe he was off somewhere in the Middle East fulfilling prophecy, (laughter) or maybe he was listening to prayers of people with cancer.

I didn’t know where God was, but I knew he wasn’t on that raft when I took that dive. I figured that Satan probably was the one who came sneaking up behind me while God had His back turned, and Satan gave a big hard shove with his foot and off I took that dive. And then God turned around and when he saw what had happened it was one of these “oh my goodness,” “oh, man.”

How am I going to fix this thing up for this girl’s good and My glory? And then I imagined God had to go get His WD-40 and His fixit glue and come back and scratch His head and try and figure out how He was going to fix it up for my good and His glory.

I figured God had been caught off guard while Satan threw a monkey wrench into His plans for my life. A view like that may have been the view of a seventeen year-old girl lying on a striker frame frustrated, frightened, embittered, but a view like that shows God as helpless and as much held hostage by my handicap as I was, as I felt.

I realized, although I was only 17, God had to be bigger than that. He had to be bigger than that.
Now, I had enough sense to know, that the Bible probably contained answers for my plight somewhere squeezed between the pages, but I had no idea where to look. I had no idea where to turn.

After I got out of the hospital, a young man knocked on my door, he was a sophomore from the local high school where I had graduated just a couple of years earlier. He knew I had some tough questions about God. He didn’t have all the answers, but he said he was willing to help me in a Bible study, and he would assist me in tackling the tough questions about, why did this happen? Is it God’s will? What is the relationship between God and the devil? And when he told me he would be willing to do that, I tell you what, the first thing I did was sit him down and ask him straight on, how can this be God’s will?

I mean, just a year earlier, Steve, I told him, that was his name, Steve Estes, just a year earlier I had prayed that God would draw me closer to Him, and how can this be an answer to that prayer. I mean if this is the way God treats His believers, especially young believers, He’s never going to be trusted with another prayer again.

How can any of this be God’s will? That was a good question. It was a good question, 40 years ago when I broke my neck, and it is a good question now. Perhaps some of you are asking the same, it is what many people in our churches are asking and they don’t have broken necks. Some of them have broken hearts. They have broken homes, well, welcome to the theology of suffering and disability and the church because I’m not going to skate on the surface this morning.

My questions really are get down and get dirty and they are gut wrenching. I mean think of the times when suffering has ripped into your sanity leaving you numb and bleeding and you, too, ask, “God, can this be Your will?”

Steve said a very wise thing to me, he said, “Look, Joni, think of Jesus Christ, I mean there you’ve got the most god-forsaken man who ever lived. And if we can find answers for His life, they should be able to suffice for your life. So, Joni, let me turn your question around, do you think it was God’s will for Jesus to suffer as He did? Do you think it was His will for Jesus to go to the cross?”

Well, I thought, that’s a stupid question, of course, it’s God’s will for Jesus to go to the cross. And then he said something curious, he said, “Well, I want you to look at all the awful things that happened to Jesus on that cross. I mean, no doubt it was the devil who inspired Judas Iscariot to hand over the Savior for a mere 30 pieces of silver. And no doubt is was Pontius Pilate, Satan probably prodded him to hand down mock justice in order to gain political popularity.

And no doubt it was the devil who inspired that mob to scream for Christ’s crucifixion on the streets. And no doubt it was the devil who pushed the drunken soldiers to torture Jesus in the last hours of His life down here on this earth.

How can any of that be God’s will? Treason, injustice, murder, torture.” He had me there. Because I could not conceive of those things being part of God’s will. But then Steve did an interesting thing, he flipped open to Acts 4:28 and he read this special verse. “These men did (that is Judas Iscariot, and Pontius Pilate, the mob in the streets and the drunken soldiers) these men did what God’s power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

And the world’s worst murder suddenly becomes the world’s only salvation. “Joni,” my friend Steve said to me, and I’ve never forgotten his words, “God permits what he hates, to accomplish that which he loves. And heaven and hell can end up participating in the exact same event, but for different reasons.”

Ephesians 1:11 puts it plainly. “God works all things according to the council of His will.” I’ve found strange comfort in that thought. God reached down into the worst kind of evil and I think is was Dorothy Sayers who said “He wrenched out of evil, positive good for us and glory for himself.”

In other words, He redeems it, He redeems it. And that’s the only reason I can sit up in front of you here today and smile, because I know God redeems our suffering. The God of life is the only one, who could conquer death by embracing it, and so, death no longer has a victory and neither does suffering. Christ is giving it meaning, not only for our salvation, but our sanctification and that’s the best part.

And it speaks to me so powerfully and tells me I’m no longer alone in my hardship. My disability is not a flip of a coin. It’s not a fluke of fate. I’m not in the middle of some divine cosmic accident. No, my suffering can be redeemed. Oh, the wonder of such a thought, that it’s all for my salvation and for my sanctification.

So, God, bless His heart, will often permit suffering, as He’s allowing in my life even now after 40 years of quadriplegia, with my chronic pain and shortness of breath. God will permit that broken heart. God will permit that broken home. God will permit that broken neck, and suffering then becomes like a sheepdog.
Even in my life, now it’s like a sheepdog snapping at my heels, driving me down the road to Calvary where otherwise I might not naturally be inclined to go. He’s the one who takes suffering like a jackhammer and breaks apart my rocks of resistance. He takes the chisel of the pain and the bite of hardship and chips away at my pride, and then we are driven to the cross by the overwhelming conviction that we just ain’t got nowhere else to go. We have nowhere else to go but to the cross, and this is how suffering aids us.

Because nobody is naturally drawn to the cross, our flesh is not inclined to go there; our human instincts do not lead us there. And this may well be the most important reason every church needs a disability ministry in its congregation.

Because when you leave here from Dallas Theological Seminary, you are going to encounter people with disabilities. And they like no other population are driven to the cross by the overwhelming conviction that they just aint got no place else to go.

That’s eventually what happened to that father of that little boy with multiple disabilities, my friend, Greg Barshaw, counseled with. He ended up realizing that this was the very thing that God allowed in his life. He brought this child into their family life so that that family might be united around the cross of Jesus Christ.

So that they might find help in time of need. God shares his joy on his terms and those terms call for us, to in some measure, suffer as His precious son suffered when he was here on earth. And the union and the sweetness of intimacy with the Savior just can’t be beat.

So disability ministry is not a, off-to-the-side, nice, sweet ministry to pitiable, poor unfortunates, who need our help. No, rather, disability ministry is an in-your-face vehicle to showcase these valuable lessons I’ve been sharing from God’s word.

It’s an in-your-face vehicle to showcase redemption to everyone, everyone in the church. Helping us to learn how to respond to our own afflictions as well as helping us to understand God’s motives in our suffering. Because maybe when my accident happened, maybe the devil’s motive was to shipwreck the faith of that young seventeen year old girl. Maybe it was to use her to make a mockery out of God’s goodness.

Maybe it was to defame His sweet character, but remember God is in the business of aborting devilish schemes, always to serve his own ends and his own purposes. And God’s motive in my accident was to abort that devilish scheme and turn a headstrong, stubborn, rebellious teenager into a young woman, oh my goodness, young woman, I’m going to be 60 this year, I can’t believe it. Into a woman who can reflect something of His patience, something of His perseverance, something of endurance, something of His character.

And after 40 years in a wheelchair, I can say that my own suffering has lifted me up out of my spiritual slumber, it’s gotten me seriously thinking about the Lordship of Christ in my life. Its helped convinced the skeptical, cynical world that my God is worth trusting. I am loyal to him despite my affliction and infirmity.

The disability ministry should have priority in the church. That heaven is real and so is hell. And my suffering has shown me that there are more important things in life than walking and using your hands. Most of all, it has shown me that Jesus Christ, the man of sorrows, saves and sanctifies, always through suffering and the thing is, the wonderful part is, you don’t have to break your neck to believe it. God bless you and thank you for listening. (audience applause)


1 Comment »

  1. Connie Henderson said,

    Joni, I want you to know that I have followed your faith story for years. I am artist/ art teacher and had held up your faith to those students of mine age 5 thru 80 when they would say “I can’t learn this”. I had been teaching about 20 years when I too had Breast Cancer. I had learned from you and others to “fight in faith”. I had become Catholic so I went to Communion saying as I received, “Jesus you are within me . What could dare remain that was not of you?” I would feel the peace come in me. I had a kind that made a dent and I had 16 Lymph nodes involved. They gave me a short time. It has been 18 years. I have prayed with and for many and my faith has grown. I know God’s purpose in all that comes to me and know we go on in Jesus. You will have my prayers. My husband’s brother-in-law Chet is now struggling with cancer in many areas and he and his wife and daughter struggle too. Would you pray for them? Connie

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