Joni Earkeckson Tada’s life was forever changed in an in instant at the age of seventeen. A reckless dive into shallow water broke her neck, rendering her young, athletic body a quadriplegic, wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. But instead of wallowing in misery, Joni found God in her disappointment and has lived a life of faithful triumph over pain and suffering, pointing others to a God of hope and love, ever since. Over fifty years after her accident, Joni is still impacting the world in extraordinary ways through her speaking, writing and ministry Joni and Friends. She joins us to talk about how she finds strength and joy for each day, the hope of heaven and what it means to her to be fearfully and wonderfully made. Joni’s story will give you the faith and courage to overcome the unthinkable in your own life and inspire you to press on with joy and perseverance. To connect with Joni and get her book, please visit the show notes at wonderfullymade.org.
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Overcoming The Unthinkable — With Joni Eareckson Tada
Joni, welcome to our community. How are you?
I am so good, Allie. Here’s a special greeting to all your followers. It’s great to be talking with women. I’m doing well. Thanks to the Lord Jesus.
I can still remember hearing about you and your story as a little girl. It is such an honor to be able to talk with you. Thank you so much for being here.
You are making me feel a little old. How old were you when you were a little girl when you were watching me?
I remember watching you paint and make this beautiful drawing. I was flabbergasted by you and your story. I don’t know how old I was.
The book came out in 1976. Billy Graham made a movie of that book. I’m so honored that all these years, I still get to share what the Lord Jesus is doing in my life. What an honor. Who would have thought that years later, after breaking my neck, I would still have this chance? It’s awesome.
It is so special to have you here. We are going to have you share your story with us for those who have not yet heard it. You are a true Renaissance and also a very humble woman. I’m going to brag on you here if that’s okay. You are the author of over 48 books. You are a beautiful and award-winning singer. You have recorded many albums. You are a highly acclaimed artist. You draw award-winning art with your mouth.
In 1979, you founded Joni and Friends. Your ministry has delivered over 200,000 wheelchairs and over 100,000 Bibles throughout the world. Your autobiography, Joni: An Unforgettable Story, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2022, has sold over 5 million copies. It was also made into a 1979 feature film, which my husband and I watched. You played yourself.Believe that your life is worth something after all. Click To Tweet
I qualified because I used to sell toothpaste in my bathroom mirror when I was ten years old. That was about the limit of my acting experience.
You played yourself but you are still an amazing actress. You are also a two-time cancer survivor. You have had friendships with many spiritual giants, including Billy Graham and Corrie ten Boom, who hid many Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. What an extraordinary life. What is it like to reflect on your life? I’m going to have you share your story here shortly. It’s going from a teen girl who envisioned her life would look one way and looking back and seeing what God has done through you and your story.
Years ago, when I broke my neck and became a quadriplegic diving in that shallow water when I was only seventeen years old, never did I dream and think my life would go beyond the four walls of my hospital room, let alone my house. Thankfully, there were Christian friends, good friends who were praying for me, and friends who did not treat me like an invalid. They envisioned success for me when I was way too weak and depressed to envision it for myself. They did it in the gentlest and most kindhearted of ways.
I began to believe them and that my life might be worth something after all. I started to listen when they would open up their Bibles, come to my bedside, and read to me. They learned how to transfer me out of my wheelchair and into the front seat of their Camaro or Ford pickup truck. They took me to the beach, the mall to check out the local sales or restaurants. When they would feed me a hamburger in a restaurant because my hands don’t work, out of the corner of my eye, I see everybody staring and gawking.
I chose to think they were looking at me, not with pity but with admiration that I was able to go out and expose myself like this, expose my weakness, and expose how much I needed desperate help. That perspective helped me to know that God was up to something. If I would go along with him, partner with him, and follow my friend’s advice when they would read to me out of the Bible and pray for me, I was in for an adventure.
You say, “I would rather be in this wheelchair knowing God than on my feet without him.”
I know that this show is all about helping women to understand their identities in Christ and who they are. Nothing showed me more quickly who I am than my suffering and disability because suffering is one of those things that will sandblast you to the core and expose you. Suffering is the textbook that teaches you. It reveals to you who you are. There’s this wonderful verse in Colossians Chapter 3 that says, “For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” That verse infers that if our life is hidden with Christ in God, then we can know who we are at the core. We can best understand ourselves when we first get to know Jesus because we are hidden in him.
The more we know Jesus, the more he will peel back the layers of himself, revealing who we are, how much we need him, where we need to change, and how much we need his promises. My suffering drove me to Jesus like a sheepdog snapping at my heels, growling, barking, and driving me down the road to Calvary, where otherwise I would not have been inclined to go. When I came to the cross and died my wants and wishes, I discovered myself hid with Christ in God. I’m still on that journey but I’m loving it. He’s always exposing something about myself that needs to be changed. I want to partner with him in being a better Joni than I was yesterday. It’s how I live.
The dear friend that we have in common, Katherine Wolf, always says, “We have our unique brand of brokenness.” Many of the girls and women reading can relate to a form of brokenness. For many, for you, and myself, suffering is what has led them to the foot of the cross to Christ and has transformed their lives. In the book of Corinthians, Paul talks about the thorn in his flesh.
Instead of taking it away, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.” I know from reading your book and watching your movie that you believe that God would heal your body after your accident, and yet he had other plans. How have you seen God’s strength made perfect in your weakness?
Every morning when I wake up, I don’t think I’m better in this quadriplegia. I’m no professional. I don’t have it all figured out. The older I get, the harder it gets in many ways. Every morning I wake up, and I’m exhausted before the day has begun. I bet that there are a few readers who identify, and they might not even be in a wheelchair. You wake up in the morning, and already you are thinking, “I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.” I feel that way.
I could either go through the day with a stoic self-resignation, “This is my lot in life. I’m going to have to get on with it or I could wind my way into self-pity.” I have been down that dark, grim path to stoicism and self-pity. It’s not fun. It is so depressing. Instead of choosing those self-centered paths, I wake up in the morning and say, “I can’t do quadriplegia one more day, Jesus. I’m so tired of this but I can do all things through you as you strengthen me.”
I don’t know how it happens but all of a sudden, I have this surge of grace. When I say grace, I mean the favor, strength, power, and goodness of God surging in and through me and giving me hope, a brighter perspective, and the power to live the day out as it should be lived. Even in the middle of the night, when I’m in chronic pain, I can’t get to sleep, and I don’t dare ask my husband to get up for the third time to turn me in bed and reposition my hips because they are hurting so bad. I can’t do that to him.
I will often pray to God, “I don’t think I can do this but you think that with your grace, I can. You are asking too much of me but you don’t think you are. I’m going to believe you rather than my peevish feelings at 2:00 in the morning.” In Jeremiah Chapter 32, God says, “I will only do good toward my people.” I’m going to believe you are doing me good in the middle of this pain.
I trust in his character and before you know it, this is in the middle of the night, and I’m singing some hymn. Where did that come from? “Jesus, I am resting in the joy of what thou art. I am finding out the greatness of thy loving heart.” I sing my way back to sleep. It happens more times than you can imagine. It starts with needing Jesus desperately.We can best understand ourselves when we first get to know Jesus because we are hidden in Him. Click To Tweet
You mentioned grace. God gives grace. His grace is sufficient. He gives grace to the humble but he resists the proud. If you want to be the happy recipient of God’s grace, then do everything you can from your end to step into his shower of mercy. Position yourself in such a way that you are under that shower of mercy, blessing, and grace, partner with his Holy Spirit, and agree with him that he knows what he’s doing and resting on his promises. It’s a hard way of living but it’s a good way.
I believe it’s in your book God’s Hand in Our Hardship. You say, “The weaker I am, the harder I must lean on God’s grace. The harder I lean on him, the stronger I discover him to be and the bolder my testimony to his grace.”
I’m talking to our friends reading. Often all of us are driven to the cross by the overwhelming conviction that we don’t have anywhere else to go. God is the one who has hope. God is the one who is sovereign and in control. God is the one who can give peace in the midst of anxiety. Why wouldn’t we run to him? The most beautiful prayer and scripture are what Peter said when he started to sink in the water. Christ was standing there on the waves in front of him, and he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Sometimes when I can’t put two sentences together in prayer because I’m in so much pain, I will start saying, “Lord, save me.” God is looking for your heart to be bent toward him. Don’t you think?
Thank you for that. Following your accident, you experienced several bouts of severe depression. What do you want to say to the girl or the woman who is barely hanging on and doesn’t think she can make it through one more day?
God certainly understands that feeling. Jesus collapsed in the garden at Gethsemane. The God of the universe is there saying, “I can’t do this. Please, if there’s any other way, take this cup from me.” Once Jesus agreed that he would prefer his father’s will over his own will, then at that instant, it says an angel appeared to strengthen him. That same angel can appear to any one of us when we need strengthening, whether it’s depression, chronic pain, bewilderment over a bad marriage, a career choice gone south or children who are unruly, disobedient, or even rebellious.
We come to the end of ourselves and at the point where we say, “It’s not my will, God but yours. Show me, Holy Spirit, how I can partner with you because I know you want to bring me up out of this miry pit. Let me agree with you. I avail myself to you. Show me the way. Give me the strength.” As soon as we choose his will over our own, there’s an angel there to strengthen us. You can read about it in the garden at Gethsemane in the Gospel of Luke. That same angel can strengthen us as well when we choose him in the tough times.
What does being fearfully and wonderfully made mean to you?
The context of that in Psalm 139 is the physical body. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. We are created in the image of God. We are all God reflectors. We are mirrors of the image of God. We are image-bearers. That’s a wonderful thing. As Piper says, though, “It’s not a particularly hopeful thing because even murderers and rapists are made in the image of God. Rebellious and wicked people are made in the image of God.
That’s why the Gospel message is so life-transforming because we as Christians bear the recreated image of God, Jesus Christ, which is a saving effort and much more hope-filled. When I look at Psalm 139 and the Bible verse, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” I look at my body and it is decrepit, aging, paralyzed, and weak beyond description but I am so fearfully and wonderfully made. This body is a vessel through which the living Lord of the universe has chosen to take residence.
He’s no longer dwelling in a tabernacle or an Old Testament temple with gold, bronze, smoke, and fire. The God at Mount Sinai is inside of me. What a privilege and an honor. I want to do everything I can to keep the temple of my heart a sanctified place where he feels good about dwelling. I want God to feel good about dwelling inside of me. I don’t want to grieve the Holy Spirit and quench him with stupid, willful, and stubborn choices. I want to create a place inside of me where this wonderful God feels happy to live.
I knew you would have some amazing insights on that. We have interviewed maybe 130 women on our show. We have never once asked a woman that. I knew you were the person to ask. Those are beautiful insights. Thank you so much for sharing that perspective. It’s illuminating.
Let me say one more thing about that perspective to our readers. I remember a sermon that I read shortly after I’ve got out of the hospital. I was still depressed. I still hated full-length mirrors because they revealed my wheelchair and paralyzed body. I did not like my body one bit. I will never forget a friend who shared with me a sermon that was given by a man named Major Ian Thomas. He was the Founder of the Torchbearers, which is a global ministry to young people.
In the sermon, he spoke about how God appeared in the burning bush on Mount Sinai to Moses. It’s the great, “I am,” in that burning bush. After he spoke to Moses and Moses took the directive to go back to Egypt and lead his people out of slavery, I wonder what happened to that bush. I don’t think Moses snipped off a twig to keep it as a relic and built an altar there in front of this burning bush. The fact is any old desert shrub or bush would have done.
The bush didn’t matter. What mattered was God in the bush. That’s you and me. It’s God in the bush and in the body that is fearfully and wonderfully made, which is why you will never hear me say that I hate my body, “I hate my hair and nose. Look at that big nose.” It’s because all I’m doing is agreeing with the Devil. The Devil would love nothing more than to get me to hate this amazing vessel in which the Holy Spirit resides.
This is a temple that is as precious, if not more precious, than Solomon’s temple. I’m to keep it clean, honor it, and take good care of it. I’m never to say that I hate it because all I would be doing would be agreeing with God’s prime enemy. Never say that you hate the shape of your nose or your height. Don’t be caught saying words that would shame the Lord Jesus, who created you, and give the Devil the chance to get one up on the Lord.
In that verse, David says, “I praise you.” He’s not praising himself. He’s praising God, who created him. It is a prayer of praise to God. Your insights on Psalm 139:14 are very profound. I will take those with me forever. They are impacting our readers as well. You wrote a book called Heaven: Your Real Home. As a Christian and as a quadriplegic, what does the hope of heaven mean to you?This body is a vessel through which the living Lord of the universe has chosen to take residence. Click To Tweet
Heaven is the bottom line for all of us as followers of the Lord Jesus. Down here on Earth, this is but a short little blip on the radar of eternity. This is not even a speck of dust compared to the sprawling landscape of heaven that will go on forever, and yet everything we do down here on Earth as Christians has a direct bearing on our eternal state. Everything we choose to say, do, think, decide, and act upon has a direct bearing on our capacity for worship, service, and joy in heaven, which would, in turn, resound to glory to God.
I’m going to do everything I can to increase my eternal estate because there will be some who will be less and greater in the kingdom of heaven. I don’t want to be those who are considered least in the kingdom of heaven. I don’t want to get to heaven and have a thimbleful of capacity that I created in heaven by laying up treasure there or making the right decisions that honor God. It would be great if I had a thimbleful of vessel capacity, overflowing with joy.
That would be great but I want a tanker truck, an aircraft carrier, and something the size of a blimp. I want a capacity that has been so stretched and made large and roomy for God so that in eternity, I won’t be least in the kingdom. I will be somewhere. I don’t know what will the world be but I hope that it’s more than a thimbleful of a chance to worship, serve, and be joyful to God in heaven. I do what Paul the Apostle did. I beat my body into submission as it worked. I make tough and hard choices.
I want to obey God so that I will have an increased capacity for joy and service in heaven. Besides, it won’t be the day of Joni. It’s the day of Christ in heaven. My new glorified body and even my capacities for joy, worship, and service in heaven are not the big deal. It’s Christ’s coronation day. All the things that I might enjoy in heaven will be merely fringe benefits because it’s all his party. It’s all going to be grand because of him. I want a great capacity so that I can glorify and praise him more for all of eternity.
How has memorizing scripture changed your life? When I hear you speak or see your writing, I can tell that you are filled with scripture and truth. When did you start memorizing scripture? How has it changed your life? Also, is there one verse that is especially important to you?
I love memorizing scripture. It’s what I need in the middle of the night. When I can’t get to sleep because of pain, I will start quoting any number of scriptures and say, “Preserve me, God, for in you I take refuge. My soul cries and longs for you in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. Who have I in heaven but you? I desire nothing but you.” I go on and on repeating to God his words and language. It comforts my heart so much.
I’m in the middle of memorizing Ephesians Chapter 1 and also Psalm 63. I finished memorizing Psalm 16. I’ve got to do it because the world is filled with so many deceitful messages. If we sit in the world’s culture long enough, our brains become pickled. We stop even recognizing what our soul needs. We are so saturated in the world’s messages. I don’t want that to happen. The real estate of my brain cells is too darn precious.
I’m not going to yield them to banal television shows that don’t even mention God for a full hour. Why should I yield myself to something that for a full hour doesn’t even mention God and often is anti-God? I’ve got to be careful of what I read and watch and, in the meantime, keep clearing out the junk and dunk and keep filling my soul with God’s ways and thoughts. I want to know his ways. They are so much better than my own.
God’s word is so precious to you. It’s hard to pick but can you share one of your life verses with us?
The verse I chose as my life verse when I was confirmed in my confirmation class at the age of fourteen is Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” When I’m at the kitchen table, and my husband is absorbed in some magazine rather than talking to me during dinner, I’ve got to decide, “Am I going to live in Christ here at this moment or am I going to live in the kitchen, be resentful, and let bitterness begin to harbor and take root?”
I will not do that. I’m going to be in Christ and pray for my husband quietly and silently as I’m eating my dinner. It’s my role as a wife to support my husband and be his best cheerleader even when he does things that I might not like. God placed me in his life to be his partner. That’s why I’m going to be his best supporter. Sometimes the best thing I can do is to continue to pray and ask questions, “Tell me what you are reading. What’s up there? What’s so interesting?” I don’t let bitterness grab me. That’s an innocuous example but I’m just trying to show you how I live in Christ.
I needed to hear that for sure. I’m going to take that for myself right there. If you could go back and give your younger self some words of wisdom, how old would she be? What would you say to her?
She would be seventeen years old. I would tell her to love Jesus more. When I was in high school, I had professed Christ as my savior but I ended up doing things with my boyfriend on a Friday night that was flat out wrong. Over time, I became enslaved to my sexual desires. By Sunday morning, I confessed everything, “Jesus, I won’t do that again. I’m going to honor you. I promise.” By Wednesday, I’m already thinking of Friday night. I remember right before I graduated from high school.
I recalled praying a prayer that went something like, “God, I’m going to go off to college and blow it. I know it. I’m going to shame your good name and stain your reputation. You are worthy of much more than that. Jesus, do something in my life to jerk it right side up because I’m enslaved to my desires and I don’t know how to break free.” I prayed that prayer. It was around April of 1967. I broke my neck three months later.
I would tell my young self, “Don’t even start going down that path because some kinds of sin are so compelling, enslaving, and addicting that once you are deep down into them, you will never be able to break free unless God intervenes in a miraculous and sometimes very painful way. Break that relationship and habit with that boyfriend and spend time memorizing.” I do it now. I wish I would have done it when I was in high school, “Let God grip your heart. Become a slave to Christ rather than to your desires.” It starts with the small choices you make.
Joni, thank you so much for being our guest and sharing your inspiring story, insights, and wisdom with us. I want to invite you to read Joni’s autobiography, Joni: An Unforgettable Story. You can also watch the movie. Joni, thank you so much for being here. I hope we can stay in touch with you. We are just up the highway from each other. It is such an honor to talk with you. We are so blessed by you. We want to cheer you on and all that you and your ministry are doing. We are so grateful.Create a place inside of you where this wonderful God feels happy to live. Click To Tweet
Thank you, Allie. Thanks for giving a double thumbs up to the 45th-anniversary edition of the Joni book. It has been fun to celebrate it with you.
We are so excited. Thank you.
Blessings on you. Tell Christie I’m sorry, I missed her. Maybe next time.
Joni, I would love to stay in touch. I’m going to go on your ministry’s website again and see if you ever need volunteers or anything. I’m going to be sharing this conversation. I will do some ministry with Bethany Hamilton, the surfer. She has a foundation called the Beautifully Flawed Foundation for amputee men and women.
I know so many personally that I’ve gotten to know through their retreats. I’m excited. I have already shared your book with one of them and this conversation. It will be a blessing to them. There are several women who are quad amputees and have gone through the unthinkable. I know that your life and testimony will encourage them.
Bethany has quite a calling. I met her years ago. Give her my greetings when you see her. She’s a remarkable young woman.
God bless you.
Thank you, Allie. Lord’s blessings.
Thank you. God bless.
Thank you so much for reading this episode with Joni. I want to hop in and say if you feel like you can’t make it through one day, if you are battling depression, believing the lies that the world is better off without you in it, and having thoughts of ending your life, I want to ask you to please call or text a friend and share these thoughts and feelings with them. You are not alone.
You can make this world a more beautiful place. Depression is a real illness. There is so much hope and help available. Many people have walked through it and gone through the other side. I hope that you will seek the support that you need and know that God is with you and God can carry you through this. Thanks so much for being part of our community. We are praying for you. God bless.
- Joni Eareckson Tada
- Joni: An Unforgettable Story
- God’s Hand in Our Hardship
- Heaven: Your Real Home
- Beautifully Flawed Foundation
About Joni Eareckson Tada
Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and CEO of Joni and Friends, an organization that communicates the gospel and mobilizes the global church to evangelize, disciple, and serve people living with disability. Joni is the author of numerous bestselling books, including When God Weeps, Diamonds in the Dust, and her latest award-winning devotional, A Spectacle of Glory. Joni and her husband, Ken, were married in 1982. For more information on Joni and Friends, visit joniandfriends.org.