Joni Eareckson Tada on words that hurt, actions that help
Q&A | Marvin Olasky
I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years, but none has moved me more than Joni Eareckson Tada. We have excerpted that recent interview, which took place before students and local residents at Patrick Henry College in Virginia, in the last two issues of WORLD (see “Loving life” and “Choosing to sing”). Here are some questions and answers that didn’t make it onto paper.
When you were in the hospital room, in despair about becoming a quadriplegic through your diving accident, were some comments people made—with good intentions—hugely irritating? I had many well-meaning friends my age who said well-meaning things, but they were uninformed because the Bible says weep with those who weep. Many friends would say to me, from Romans 8:28, “Joni, all things fit together to a pattern for good.” Or, from James 1:3, “Welcome this trial as a friend.” Or, from Romans 5, “Rejoice in suffering.” These are good and right and true biblical mandates, but when your heart is being wrung out like a sponge, sometimes the 16 good biblical reasons as to why all this has happened to you sting like salt in the wound. When people are going through great trauma, great grief, they don’t want answers. Because answers don’t reach the problems where it hurts in the gut, in the heart.
What does help? When I was a little girl, I remember riding my bike down a steep hill. I made a right-hand turn. My wheels skidded out on gravel and I crashed to the ground. My knee was a bloody mess. My dad comes running out. I’m screaming and crying. Although I didn’t ask why, if I had, how cruel it would have been for my father to stand over me and say, “Well, sweetheart, let me answer that question. The next time you’re going down the hill, watch the steepness, be careful about the trajectory of your turn, be observant of gravel.” Those would all have been good answers to the question, “Why did this happen?” But when people are going through great trauma and great grief, they don’t want to know why. They want Daddy to pick them up, press them against his chest, pat them on the back, and say, “There, there, sweetheart, Daddy’s here. It’s OK.” When we are hurting, that’s what we want. We want God to be Daddy: warm, compassionate, real, in the middle of our suffering. We want fatherly assurance that our world is not spinning out of control.
When you were in the hospital, what from your friends did sink in? One night my high school friend Jackie, with whom I shared boyfriends, milkshakes, and hockey sticks, came into the hospital late one night, like 2 in the morning, past visiting hours. The nurses were on break. No one was in the hallway. She crept up the steps of the hospital, snuck in the back way, came into my six-bed ward. I was with five other spinal-cord-injured girls who were all asleep. My friend came sneaking into the room, crawling on her hands and knees. She came over to my bed, stood up slowly, and lowered the guard rail of the hospital bed. Just like high schoolers will do on pajama sleepovers, she climbed into bed next to me, snuggled real close, and softly began to sing: “Man of sorrows, what a name. For the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim. Hallelujah, what a Savior.”
Hallelujah … I get choked up thinking about it 45 years later. She gave me something that night that was priceless. She helped me encounter Jesus Christ in a warm and personal way. That’s how precious the body of Christ is to healing the hearts of those who are hurting, to come up close to them, to infuse into their spiritual veins life, hope, healing, health. That’s what Jackie gave me that night. She gave me Jesus in a real and personal way. That’s really what I needed. So, Patrick Henry students: Don’t you dare be caught rejoicing with those who weep. Weep with those who weep.
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