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Pursuing Joy in Christ with Disabilities

Truth in Love 136

Special guest Joni Eareckson Tada discusses pursuing joy in Christ with disabilities.

Heath Lambert: This week on the podcast, I am uniquely excited about our guest and our topic. Our guest this week is Joni Eareckson Tada, and our topic is the one of pursuing joy in Christ with persons who are affected with disabilities. And Joni, we are so excited that you’ve joined us here on the podcast. You’ve done it before and we’re glad you’re back.

Joni Eareckson Tada: I’m happy to be back and I hope that this conversation between us really edifies, encourages, and builds up our listeners.

Heath Lambert: Well, I know it will, and one of the things that I have just grown in enthusiasm for over the last two and a half-three years is just connecting the ministry of biblical counseling with persons who are affected with disabilities. And I want to view your podcast that you joined us on before and this podcast this week as even just an introduction to that. And so, for people who are listening to our conversation and maybe they don’t know even what a disability is, how would you explain what a disability is?

Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, that’s a good question, Heath. And forgive me for being a little technical but a disability is any physical or mental impairment which makes it more challenging to fulfill any sort of different major life activity: walking, seeing, thinking, hearing. So, if we were to categorize it, disabilities would be disabling conditions such as hearing impairments, visual impairments, blindness, intellectual disabilities. We don’t use the words “retard” or “people with defects”. We talk about people with intellectual disabilities, people with cognitive impairments stroke survivors, let’s say, who have a bit more of a challenge to do math, let’s say. So, any impairment that makes major life activity a little more challenging, that would be a disability.

The important thing though is to remember that disabilities globally are on the rise with increasing advancements in medical technology. Many more people are surviving catastrophic injuries, illnesses because of environmental influences. There are many more autoimmune disorders that disable people, even bringing on chronic pain. Accidents and injuries, people are surviving more of these types of disabling occurrences. So, it’s a growing population and the church, my goodness, needs to understand how to reach out and help people with disabilities and their families because the statistics are burgeoning, and disability is on the rise globally.

Heath Lambert: Well, and isn’t the church the location where so much help is possible, where this community of faith and support that’s unlike anything else the world has to offer, isn’t that right?

Joni Eareckson Tada: Oh, absolutely, but so many Christians do what those in the world do. They feel awkward. They feel embarrassed. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. So, rather than do that, they say nothing, or they back off, or step away. And yet, it is the church that is the repository of grace through the Word of God, through help, through encouragement. Yet, God never intended people with disabilities to suffer alone. They need to get connected to the spiritual community, which is why it’s so critical for the church to showcase what the love of the Lord Jesus looks like by extending help to people with disabilities.

Heath Lambert: Well, and that’s why I’m so excited about this conversation to begin to introduce, I pray, more people to how to help. We’re talking about disabilities and we’re talking about joy. And joy is a hard thing for any person in a trial. The miracle of a trial is finding joy. Why is it so hard to find joy in the life of a person who’s affected with a disability?

Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, joy is connected with our fellowship, our intimacy, with the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the Lord of joy. He told us in the Gospel of John, “I have come that you might have joy.” And even when He faced His own cross, it was for the joy that was set before Him. So, joy is wrapped up in Jesus. If we want to be joyful, it is leaving behind ourselves, so to speak, dying to self, and then rising in resurrected joy with Christ. That’s particularly challenging for people with disabilities because suffering just gets in the way. My friends who are in chronic pain, and I deal with chronic pain, we often talk about how easy it is to focus if we can find a good distraction. You know, and sometimes I’ve had to make Christ my good distraction because my pain screams for my undivided attention, and disability will do the same. It’ll provoke questions that sometimes people feel they must resolve until they can find joy in Christ. Such as, if God is good, why in the world would He have allowed my child to be born with such serious, multiple disabilities? And we can’t reconcile the goodness of God with the reality of suffering in this world. We have a fundamental fear of suffering. We want to do everything but live with it. We want to medicate it, drug it, escape it, avoid it, divorce it, institutionalize it. Christians, for the most part, we just don’t know how to live with serious affliction. And so, we think that for us joy is impossible if you have a disability because there’s no distraction powerful enough and good enough to outweigh the benefits of let’s say knowing Christ. That’s a matter of faith. You’ve got to believe that Christ is ecstasy beyond compare to push through the sometimes very painful distractions of your own disability and how much it screams for your undivided attention and how much it makes you focus on yourself. And self sometimes is the “enemy” of knowing Jesus more intimately.

Heath Lambert: I want to ask you a question that in some ways is very basic, but in another sense is where all of the action is and you’ve even kind of come up against it a few times. There’s these things Christians say and sometimes we have these things Christians say and it just becomes a thing that Christians say and it’s nothing more than that kind of platitude. Joy in Christ can be one of those things one. When am I going to find my joy in Christ, that’s a real thing. What is it? How do we understand it for what it is and not just have it be a phrase we toss out?

Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, joy in Christ is and what it feels like is this profound, sweet, happy contentment that sees you through the toughest of times. And again, that only comes by drawing near to Christ. Personally, I think that fundamentally true joy in Christ is knowing your own need of a Savior.  We recently celebrated the Christmas season and how wonderful it was to exult over the fact that Christ became flesh for us, and we don’t stop to realize that when Christ came to earth it was the end of enmity between God and man. It wasn’t just as though Christ came to earth to wave a white flag. He wasn’t a truce announced. No, this was a peace treaty between God and man that He came to rescue sinful men and set them free. That is and should be the fundamental platform that springs forth the happiest joy to know that Christ has come for us and that we can be free, that we are freed from the power of sin, maybe not the presence, but the power of sin. This is a cause for great rejoicing. And for people with disabilities, I think, if we can start there, start with our own salvation, and recognize that we have been freed from the power of sin, we have citizenship in heaven, we are new creatures in Christ, we’ve been given a bent for good, our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, we have a home in eternity, one day we’ll have resurrected bodies, and on, and on, and on. If we could but focus on and recount all the many good things that have come from the death and resurrection of Christ, right there’s a great cause for joy. That deep-seated, profound, sweet satisfaction, I like to call, with God.

I don’t know why it is or what it is about God our Father but if we were to get to know His Son and the joy that He gives, it’s on His terms and those terms call for us to in some measure suffer and suffer hard. The path to the cross is blood-stained and it’s hard and it’s rocky and difficult and bruising and unrelenting at times. Yet, these are the pathways through which we come to apprehend Christ on such a level that, oh my goodness, were I on my feet, I would never, I don’t think I could possibly experience this kind of satisfaction, this kind of joy, this kind of, I don’t know, sweet contentment with my Savior to the point where, and I’ve shared this with you before, I’m flat on my back in bed in terrible pain, and I’m looking up at the ceiling, and I’m so happy. I’m just so happy in Jesus. I cannot explain how that happens except that the closer we draw to Christ, especially through suffering, for some reason, that’s a little caveat, whatever our suffering may be, it doesn’t have to be chronic pain or quadriplegia, but however our sufferings present themselves to us, don’t waste them. They can be the thing that opens up to you and your heart joy such as you’ve never experienced.

Heath Lambert: Well, and that’s where I want to go next. How does a person with a disability get to joy? One of my great thrills in life is when the motor of someone’s heart turns over with just love for Jesus. And that moment when maybe the eyebrows go up, or they laugh, or you can just see that they get it. They get it. This is going to be okay. Maybe the problem is not going to go away, but Jesus is real. How do we help that motor turn over? How do we get to joy?

Joni Eareckson Tada: I think the key in that ignition turns when the person with a disability or chronic pain or the mother with a special needs child, whatever, realizes that God is bigger than their problems, that God is a whole lot bigger than they are and that knowing Him is worth any amount of suffering. How do you get there? Well, I think the body of Christ is key and instrumental. God never intended that we suffer alone. That’s why He created spiritual community. If we have a disability, we need to get plugged in. We just must. I’m a manager of a private Facebook page for chronic pain sufferers and several of these people on this page have been bedridden for decades. One of them lives in South Africa and she cannot get out to go to church and hardly anybody can come to see her because of her autoimmune disorder that makes it very difficult for her to be in an environment where there’s noise or light or anything that’s out of the ordinary. And she posted the other night, “Thank you for being my spiritual community. I don’t have community. I don’t know what community feels like, but this Facebook page is my community.” First, my heart broke to read that because if it’s a community, my goodness, it certainly is very virtual, and she can’t see us. In fact, I’ve never met her. But nevertheless, that’s how important community is that we are connected with community. So, I think one ingredient to joy is getting connected with a caring community.

But number two, I think it’s knowing Jesus through His Word. Right there is a key. Memorizing passages of the Word of God that point to Christ and help you take the steps necessary to get up out of your depression by gritting your teeth and obeying the Word of God even if you don’t feel like it. And so many people with disabilities, we’re looking for the feelings first before our faith can be confirmed. We want those feelings to confirm our faith and we, like anybody else, have to take a step of faith and trust God at His Word, do what His Word says, and believe that eventually He will infuse into our hearts the joy that He has promised for those who suffer.

So, spiritual community, number one, and of course that goes without saying that people no doubt are praying for you as you’re on that search. And then number two, getting into the Word of God, learning who Jesus is, discovering Him in His Word, and I think it always begins with salvation, always begins with going to the cross, it always happens when we really understand what happened at the cross of Christ. When you dig into that, you’re putting your finger right on the pulse of joy, right there.

Heath Lambert: This morning I was reading in Psalm 119, and I got to Psalm 119:50, and it was like God just threw open the shades of my heart with this verse and it says, “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your Word…

Joni Eareckson Tada: …renews my life.” What a powerful verse.

Heath Lambert: I think if there were a banner over the biblical counseling movement, perhaps if there were a banner over your life, we would want it to say Psalm 119:50. “Your Word…” I think there are people who would find it impossible to believe that that is true, a word could revive you. Affliction is a fill in the blank. It’s quadriplegia. It’s childhood abuse. It’s sexual assault. It’s “I lost my job”. It’s a fill-in-the-blank. In affliction, Your Word revived me. How can the Word do that?

Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, just recently, I was in the van with my husband going to the headquarters of Joni and Friends, and it was one of those days where, well, I always wake up having a hard time with my disability. Chronic pain and disability is a bad mixture. And sometimes I’m almost afraid to open my eyes because it’ll awaken the pain. So, I beg God, “I cannot do quadriplegia today, but I can do all things through You as You strengthen me, help me, Jesus.” And then my girlfriend goes through all the routines, the toileting routines, the bathing, the dressing, feeding, brushing hair, blowing nose, brushing teeth. And I get in the van and the pain is not going away. I’m up and sit in my wheelchair, so I got the quadriplegia part down, but I don’t have down the chronic pain part and Ken is driving down the 101 to the headquarters of our ministry and I am just so discouraged and I just feel so shriveled and small and I just want to go home and go back to bed, but then if I get in bed, there’s nobody around to stretch me and that’s going to hurt worse.

And so, I almost ask Ken to turn around at the next exit, but then this verse that you just mentioned popped into my mind. Psalm 119:50, “My comfort in suffering is this, Your promise renews my life.” I think some translation says, “preserve my life”. So, it just occurred to me, ‘Okay, well, I’m going to just put God to His Word here.’ and all the way down the freeway until we got off at our exit, I started claiming God’s promises out loud and very loudly. I didn’t want there to be any hesitation on my part and I certainly wanted demons and powers and principalities that might have been listening in to know where I was heading with this. And so, I just started saying out loud, “Lord Jesus, You promise me that Your grace is sufficient. I don’t feel like that right now, but You promise me it is, and You promise me that You are my ever-present help in trouble. You promise me You’re not going to leave me in this state. You’re not going to abandon me. You’re not going to forget me. You promise that You will help fight my battles. You…” and I’m going on and on reciting all these promises. And when I got to the headquarters of Joni and Friends, I was still in pain, it hadn’t gone away, but I had this amazing courage. And I could wheel through the front door and be happy and smile at my co-workers and really mean it.

To me that was such a dramatic evidence of how you take a Bible verse and you eat it. You just stuff it down your throat and you wait for its energy to be released in your weary soul. And if it happens in your body, great, but if not, God has revived you and you can have courage to face the day. It’s most remarkable, Heath. It’s the way I live. Eating the Word of God almost every day because like, what is it? Abraham Lincoln said he’s driven to the cross every single day by the overwhelming conviction that he just ain’t got nowhere else to go. And I do not have anywhere else to go except to the cross and the Word of God.

Heath Lambert: There’s the Word and then there’s singing. I’ve heard you tell this story of laying in the hospital bed recovering after your accident and your friend came and held your hand. You couldn’t feel her holding your hand, but you could hear her singing Man of Sorrows. And as you told the story, you said, “As we sang Man of Sorrows, something changed, the motor turned over.” What was it that changed?

Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, it’s odd, Heath, because I knew that hymn very well. I had memorized it in Young Life when I first came to Christ, but my friend, her name was Jackie, who laid in bed next to me that night in the hospital and broke all the rules and nurses weren’t around they were on break so she snuck into my hospital room and snuggled up next to me and began singing, “Man of sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim, hallelujah.” And I think what changed is that not only her words, which were the Word, basically, but it was her. Like I said earlier, we can’t live isolated when we suffer. We will shrivel. We will die. God created spiritual community and I think that Jackie helped me encounter Jesus Christ. I think she was the sweet conduit as it were, or the representative, the ambassador, she was the visible presence of the invisible God. She was grace to me. I think God imparted grace through her and of course we know that fellowship is indeed a means of grace and I think that what happened to me that night was that my heart was filled with God’s grace by this strange fellowship which took a most unusual form but nevertheless it was what connected me to Christ so much more intimately. Something had changed. I didn’t have any answers to all my struggles, but boy, my questions sure weren’t as urgent, and I just felt connected to the Lord Jesus in a way that I hadn’t earlier.

And I think the lesson here is that when we want to minister to someone who is suffering deeply, we’ve got to become the gospel to them. Not just give the gospel. We’ve got to become the gospel. We’ve got to be the personal representation of Christ to that person. Jackie did not know that’s what she did. But years later, I can look back, and see that God used her that way. She became that personal representation. She became the gospel for me and that’s where transformation happens when we encounter Christ at that level. Most people sometimes wonder what the normal Christian life is supposed to look like. According to the Word of God, it is dying and rising with Christ every day. Every day we die and rise with Christ. It’s much like Philippians 3:8-10. I want to know Christ. Well, of course, we all want to know Him. And the power of His resurrection. Well sure, yeah, the power of His resurrection. Power sounds really cool. But then, if we realize that the power of the resurrection it really is the ability to say no to sin and yes to God, that’s what the power of the resurrection means, which links us directly into becoming like Him in His death. We become like Him in His death when we die daily to the sins that He died for when we say no to ungodliness whether that may take the shape of self-pity, or bitterness against God, or resentment, we say no to those things and yes to the grace of God like we’re told in Titus.

And so, when we become like Him in His death, we then rise with Christ and the verse continues and so somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead. Well, I think we have a precursor of that, a foreshadowing of that, every time we die to self and rise with Jesus and the best evidence of rising with Christ and living the risen life of Christ is joy. It’s such a hallmark of the resurrection. I mean, oh happy day, Jesus has washed my sins away. Again, circling back to what I said in the very beginning, so much of joy is connected with our understanding of what happened at the cross and how sin and Satan were defeated, and we’ve been freed and that power to say no to fear, doubt, resentment, bitterness, anger, impatience, and say yes to Jesus is within our grasp, if we would but believe and take that step of faith.

Heath Lambert: Well, I want to thank you for your work and your ministry. And, you know, I think one of the reasons for affliction is that we would receive God’s comfort so that we can turn around with others who are in affliction and give them His comfort. And there is so much comfort that overflows from your life and your ministry and I’m grateful to God for you.

Joni Eareckson Tada: Oh, thank you for that. And again, seeing that we’re talking about joy, I think the joy then is multiplied when we pass it on to others. It’s why at Joni and Friends, I’ve helped to develop retreats for families with special needs, you know, 50 of them domestically and in developing nations. We take wheelchairs around the world. We give Bibles. We give hope. We give encouragement. We give disability ministry training in places where they still think cerebral palsy is a curse and a local witch doctor. I mean, you got to pass it on and that’s half the joy right there. And in fact, Heath, if somebody’s listening to us right now and they’re struggling with depression and they’re wondering where the joy is, do a little dying to self, get up, take a shower, eat breakfast, get yourself dressed to go out the front door, and find somebody else who’s hurting worse than you are, and invest your time in that individual. Right there is the open door to what it means to die to your own wants and wishes, and start living for others, which is a broad pathway to joy.

Heath Lambert: Wow, that’s a good word. Well, thank you and God bless you.

Joni Eareckson Tada: You too.