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A Theology of Suffering

with Joni Eareckson Tada | July 2, 2009

What can we learn from those who have disabilities? Joni Tada says there’s a lot we can learn…about suffering, about holiness, and about the Church’s mission to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in every circumstance, including those faced by our brothers and sisters with disabilities.

What can we learn from those who have disabilities? Joni Tada says there’s a lot we can learn…about suffering, about holiness, and about the Church’s mission to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in every circumstance, including those faced by our brothers and sisters with disabilities.

A Theology of Suffering

With Joni Eareckson Tada
|
July 02, 2009
| Download Transcript PDF

Joni:  Disability ministry is a ministry of redemption, if the cross can be redeemed from a symbol of torture, to a symbol of hope and life, then a wheelchair can be redeemed from a symbol of confinement, for that which represents a close and an intimate fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 2nd.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine. 

Just as it is a redemptive work to care for the needs of the disabled, so also there is redemptive work going on in suffering. Stay tuned.

Andwelcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition.  You know if you needed someone to coach you through a season of suffering, and all of us need someone like that from time to time. 

 

Dennis:  We do.

 

Bob:  Because we go through those seasons.

 

Dennis:  Yes.

Bob:  But there are not many people as uniquely qualified to help us navigate the hard path as the person we are going to hear from today.

Dennis:  That’s right, Joni Eareckson Tada is going to be our guest on FamilyLife Today. Actually, as the CEO and founder of Joni and Friends, she gave a message, Bob, at Dallas Theological Seminary, my alma mater, at chapel. We thought it was so good that we’d share it with our listeners.  In fact, they thought it was so good at Dallas Seminary that they have actually introduced a class that will begin this fall that’s called the Theology of Suffering.

 Bob:  And that’s what’s at the heart of the message we are going to hear today.  For those who don’t know, when Joni was seventeen years old, she was vacationing with her family in the Chesapeake Bay.  She dove into the water and hit her head, and as a result was left a quadriplegic.  She has been in a wheelchair ever since, and she has been a marvelous ambassador for Christ.

Dennis:  Yes.

Bob:  As she has demonstrated joy in the midst of her trial.  Here is Joni Eareckson Tada.

Joni:  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)

Bob:  Well, that of course, is Joni Eareckson Tada speaking at a chapel service at Dallas Theological Seminary, and far be it from me to correct Joni, but I do think that in order to believe the gospel that she is talking about, our stiff necks do have to be broken. 

And, in fact, I was thinking about the disability that all of us, I don’t even know that I want to call it a disability, the rebellion that all of us foster and God’s goodness to break our stiff necks so that we can bow our knees before him

Dennis:  Yes, and as she was talking, Bob, I was thinking about a couple of verses in First Peter chapter 4.  The first one is in verse 16, this is really true of Joni, “yet if any one suffers as a Christian, let him or her not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”  She’s really done that.

Bob:  Yes, she has.

Dennis:  For 43 years she has honored God through her affliction and then a little bit later on in the same chapter, verse 19, I think she demonstrates this as well “therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will, entrust their souls to a faithful creator while doing good.”  You know she has demonstrated a life that’s honored God.  A life of faith. 

And she has also demonstrated a life that’s purposeful.  I mean, she’s put over 50,000 wheelchairs in the hands of people who have no ability to get around in less fortunate areas of the world.  Her ministry reaches throughout the United States.   She has been a model of not allowing a handicap or a disability to hinder her from doing God’s work

Bob:  We don’t know what the apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh was that he talks about in 2nd  Corinthians, chapter 12, we think it may have been some kind of a physical disability, and Paul, says he asked God to take it from him three times.  And God said in response, “My grace is sufficient, in your weakness I am made strong.” 

And I think that’s what we’ve seen happen in Joni Eareckson Tada’s life and I think it gives us all hope in the midst of our own struggle with whatever the issue is that may be besetting us.  It may be a physical disability, it may be some temptation that plagues us, it may be circumstances of life that have left us feeling stressed or oppressed, or beaten down.

But in the midst of that, God gives grace so that in our weakness, he is made strong.  The message we’ve listened to from Joni today is available online.  In fact, we’ve got a link on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com.  You can view this message as Joni presented it at the Dallas Theological Seminary chapel back in February of this year. 

Follow the link when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and it will take you to the page where you can view the chapel service.  In fact, many of Dallas Seminary’s chapel services are available online.  It’s one of the great services that the seminary provides from which all of us are able to benefit.

 I also encourage you when you do stop by our website, FamilyLifeToday.com find out more about the book that your wife Barbara and your daughter Rebecca have finished writing, called A Symphony in the Dark: Hearing God’s voice in Seasons of Grief.  In this book, Barbara and Rebecca recount the events of a year ago when Rebecca’s daughter, Molly, was born and lived for seven days and how profoundly God ministered to all of you in the midst of that great tragedy. 

There is also information on our website about a very helpful book from Jerry Sittser called A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, and that really describes Joni’s experience of being disabled for more than 40 years.  Again all of these resources can be found at FamilyLifeToday.com.

If you are interested in getting a copy of either of these books and you’d prefer to call us, our toll free number is 1-800-FLTODAY.  1-800-358-6329. And when you get in touch with us, someone on the team will let you know how you can have the resources you need sent out to you. 

You know in the midst of seasons of struggle, with suffering.  One of the issues that we often have to wrestle with, in fact, it’s an issue that Jerry Sittser talks about in his book, A Grace Disguised is the issue of forgiveness.  We had an opportunity several months ago to sit down with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, the author and the speaker on the radio program “Revive Our Hearts,” and talk with her about this issue of forgiveness.

She’s written a book called Choosing Forgiveness.  This month we would like to make this conversation with Nancy on the subject of forgiveness available as a way of saying thank you to those of you who are able to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount. 

You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can donate by phone at 1-800-FLTODAY.  If you are online, when you come to the key code box on the donation form, just type in the word “forgive” so we’ll know to send a copy of the CD, or call 1-800-FLTODAY and you can make your donation by phone, just ask for a copy of the Choosing Forgiveness CD or the CD with Nancy Leigh DeMoss.  Again we are happy to send it to you, and we do appreciate, especially here in the middle of summer, we very much appreciate your financial support of this ministry.

Well, tomorrow we are going to have the opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation that took place between Barbara Rainey and a group of young wives and moms at a local church not long ago.  We’ll listen in as they interact, and I hope you can tune in for that.

I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine.  We will see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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