FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Death, Diagnosis & Divorce: Vaneetha & Joel Risner

with Joel and Vaneetha Risner | April 4, 2024
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If you could ask God one question, what would it be? Maybe, 'Why do bad things happen?' or 'Why did my husband cheat?' or 'Why this diagnosis?' Vaneetha Risner met her husband Joel following a searing divorce and a life-altering diagnosis. She asked her own questions of God--and shares how to find hope in difficult times.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

If you could ask God one question, what would it be? Vaneetha Risner found hope after a divorce and a difficult diagnosis.

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Death, Diagnosis & Divorce: Vaneetha & Joel Risner

With Joel and Vaneetha Risner
April 04, 2024
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Vaneetha: I was thinking, “Would anybody really want to marry me?” Just knowing that, “I don’t know where the end is. It could be quadriplegia. There’s a likelihood of that.”

I remember one thing that was so neat. We were engaged, and I said, “The thing I’m dreading is walking down the aisle, not with you, but because I hate my limp. It reminds me, probably from the time I was seven, This says to somebody, ‘You have a disability; you’re different.’ And Joel said to me, “I love the way you walk, and I’ve loved it from the beginning.”

Ann: Oh!

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Ann: Alright, I have a question for you: when people say, “I can’t wait to get to heaven to ask God this question, the hard question,” what question would you ask God?

Dave: How does the hypostatic union work? [Laughter] I’m kidding, I’m kidding. It would probably be about my brother.

Ann: What about him?

Dave: —about his death—

Ann: —as a five-year-old.

Dave: It’s been a long, long time ago, obviously. But watching my mom and dad get divorced, my dad having affairs, [his] alcohol, and then the divorce happened, and months later, my brother died.

Ann: You were only seven, and he was five.

Dave: I was seven. Obviously, I didn’t know at the time the trauma that I was navigating, then to add that on top of it. It isn’t so much, “Why?” as “I’m so sad,” even to this day. It would have been such a beautiful thing to grow up with him, [and I] especially needed him during that time. I think that’s probably one. I’m not asking God, “Why?” I understand God’s sovereignty.

Ann: But I think you probably did as a little boy [ask], “Why God?”

Dave: —as a little boy, yes.

Ann: I think all of us have questions when we go through pain of, “What was the purpose? Why this?” and “God, how could You allow this?”

We’re going to get to those questions today. I think our listeners [should] pull in close. If you’re working out, get that earbud in there good, because we’re going to answer and look at some of these questions.

We have Vaneetha Risner back with us today, in the studio with her husband, Joel. 

You guys, we are excited to have you with us.

Dave: —to have you both.

Ann: Yes.

Vaneetha: We are so excited to be here.

Joel: —excited to be here.

Dave: It’s a little better than Little Rock, isn’t it, this studio? [Laughter]

Vaneetha: Yes, and the weather.

Joel: I wasn’t going to say—

Ann: —the weather.

Joel: —but now that you brought it up, sure.

Dave: I mean, Little Rock is awesome, but man, oh man! You’re in Orlando now, and this studio is amazing.

Vaneetha, we’ve had you on. You’re going to have to tell your story again, because we’re going to talk today about your devotional, Desperate for Hope.

Ann: It’s a Bible study.

Dave: It’s really a Bible study. But we’ve got Joel with you. This is a—we want to hear both sides of this story. Give us a little bit about—you came in here in a wheelchair.

Vaneetha: Yes.

Dave: How did this happen?

Ann: Take us back.

Vaneetha: “Take you back.” Okay, well, I got polio as an infant. I was in India, three months old; and the vaccine had been developed, but in India, they often didn’t give it at three months. I got polio, but the doctors had no idea what it was. I could not move my arms or legs, complete quadriplegic, so, they told my parents, “Just leave India. There’s nothing we can do here.”

In India, disability is a curse. So, there were, at the time and maybe even today, very few services. People are ashamed of having a disability because it means you did something wrong, your parents did something wrong, [or] somebody did something wrong.

We moved from India to England, and then to Canada, and started having surgeries in Canada. I had 21 operations by the time I was 13; lived in the hospital for, one time, a year [with] my back in a body cast. I was seven years old. I remember—seven was a time of a lot of trauma. You start to have, for me, continuous memories of what that was like.

I was angry at God. My parents were Christians, and they would often say, “God is with you.” I thought, “God is not with me! I am alone in this hospital room.”

Ann: You thought that as a seven-year-old?

Vaneetha: Yes, I remember thinking I didn’t want to hear anything about God. That was for years, because it felt like people had cliché answers to hard questions.

Dave: Yes.

Vaneetha: You know, “Trust God. It’s all going to work out,” [and] “Look at the bright side.” Things that made no sense to me.

Ann: You still, at that point, couldn’t move?

Vaneetha: When I was seven years old, after multiple surgeries, I was able to walk. That was incredible, and a lot of miracles went through with that.

Ann: But you had been through a lot physically and emotionally.

Vaneetha: Yes.

Dave: If I’m in a cast for a week—seriously, there’s part of me that says, “Okay, how long is this going to take?” You were literally, for a year?

Vaneetha: Yes, I was nine months flat on my back in a body cast. My parents could only visit me on weekends—

Ann: Ugh!

Vaneetha: —so, it was just this interesting—interesting meaning really hard—existence. So, from that perspective, people would come in and visit me and talk to me about God, and I thought, “My life is these four walls and these people.” I couldn’t believe that a loving God would have let that happen to me.

Dave: How did you resolve that?

Vaneetha: It was interesting. All the way through grade school and junior high, I went to church with my family because they were believers and I just showed up there.

Ann: Were you picked on at school?

Vaneetha: Yes. In elementary school, when I was seven and just learned to walk, I was—

Ann: —you learned to walk at seven?

Vaneetha: Yes, and had gotten to kindergarten or first grade, around then. These kids threw stones at me as I was walking and pushed me down and called me a “cripple”

Ann: Oh!

Vaneetha: And I remember thinking, “This world is not fair.” It was just so gut wrenching to me, and I did not tell my parents. I didn’t tell anybody for 20 years, probably—

Dave: —20 years?

Vaneetha: —because it felt like shame [and] like, “I am that different that people don’t like me that much that they would”—

Ann: “I am so broken.”


Vaneetha: Yes.

Ann: Yet there you were, you’re going to church, hearing about God.

Vaneetha: —and thought, “This is for other people.”

When I was 16 years old, I got involved in FCA. My best friend and I would sit in the back and talk about boys. [Laughter] That was the only reason I thought anybody should go to FCA. Then one day, she went on a retreat, and she came back and said, “God is real.”

I was just so upset. I remember thinking, “She’s going to want to talk about God.” And she did. She wanted to talk about God all the time. Finally, one night, I went home, and I said, “God, if you are real, show me.” I thought, “Okay, God, what are you going to do?”

Nothing happened that night, so I got up the next morning—and I had a Bible from being confirmed at church, which is a little scary because I did not know Jesus, never picked up the Bible. So, I ripped the cellophane off it and opened it. I said, “Okay, God, show me. Are you real?”

I remember flipping first to Leviticus and thinking, “Hmm.” [Laughter]

Dave: That’s a good place to start.

Vaneetha: Yes, it’s a great place! I thought, “Um, I’m not sure.” This is kind of what I thought about faith. Then I asked the question—I said, “Why did this happen? Why did this happen to me? If You’re so good, and You’re so loving, what did I do for this to happen?”

I flipped open the Bible randomly (but with God nothing is random) to John 9, where Jesus is talking to His disciples. They see a man blind from birth, and they said to Jesus, “…who sinned, this man or his parents…?” [John 9:2]

Dave: You turned right to John 9?

Vaneetha: Yes. I was riveted at this point. Then Jesus says, “It is not that this man sinnedm or his parents, but that the work of God would be displayed in His life.” [John 9:3, Paraphrased]

That blew me away because my question was, “Why? What had I done?” and Jesus took—and that’s what the disciples were asking, and in a lot of ways, that’s our question to everybody. Somebody says, “I got divorced,” and you’re thinking, “What did you do?” We ask that question of ourselves and of other people, saying, “What did you do wrong?” Yet Jesus’ answer had nothing to do with who sinned, or whose fault it was, or the why that they were asking, but “Why?” [meaning] “What was the purpose?” and it was for the glory of God.

That blew me away. I still remember thinking, “Wow! God is real, and God is listening. God has heard. God knows me.” [Laughter] I knelt down by the side of my bed, and I committed my life to Jesus. I didn’t know Him, but I knew He knew me.

Ann: Wow! That is powerful, isn’t it?

Dave: I’m tearing up.

Ann: Me, too. It’s just like, “Wooh!”

Dave: I can see you on your knees. It’s interesting that there’s not—your friend went to the retreat and inspired you to even ask that question; but it was just you and the Word of God.

Vaneetha: Yes.

Ann: To come to the realization, you don’t know God, but He knows you [and] He’s seen you.

Vaneetha: Yes, right.

Ann: Did it give you hope for your future?

Vaneetha: Yes, yes; it really did. I thought, “Okay, God is in my future. He’s in my today.” But interestingly, what I took from that was “I’ve had my one piece of suffering. God is going to be glorified in and through my life."

Ann: Yes, “—my one thing!”

Vaneetha: I remember—I literally remember thinking, “You guys don’t know. You are going to have suffering one day. I’ve had mine. It’s in the rearview mirror. I’m good to go.”

Dave: “Let’s move on,” yes.

Vaneetha: Functionally, really, I had a little bit of a prosperity gospel theology after that, thinking, “If you do the right stuff, God is going to come through.” For ten years, I had success, grad school, married a classmate from there and just thought, “You’re faithful to God, you read the Bible, you love Him, and life is going to be good.”

Dave: It sounds like there is a “but” coming.

Vaneetha: Yes! Then, I turned 30 years old, and life fell apart. That was—I knew, back to when I was 16 [and thought], “Wow! There is a purpose,” but it surprises you. I think we all get surprised by suffering. When we have some success in life we think, “Okay, we need to just be with God, and He is going to bless us.” But our definition of “bless” and God’s definition of “blessing” are very different.

Dave: What happened at 30?

Vaneetha: At 30, my husband had an affair. So, that sort of rocked my world. I didn’t expect it at all, but we put our marriage back together in marriage counseling. I was very thankful for that; but then just as we had been through counseling for two years, got pregnant, and our son died of a heart problem.

Ann: Oh, Vaneetha, I remember when we talked about this before. I remember feeling the weight of—when you were born, when you had polio, when you were little [and] you were given the wrong medication—

Vaneetha: Yes.

Ann: And [then] you had a baby son who seemed to be okay. “Okay, he’s going to be okay.” Then he passed away.

Vaneetha: There was this guilt feeling like, “Should I have seen the signs? Should I have…?” You just do the “what ifs.”

Ann: You had already had two girls, and this was your little boy.

Vaneetha: I had one girl at that point, because my other daughter was born after Paul. But I remember just bargaining, begging; and just really thinking, “Okay, God is hearing me. We’re going to go to the hospital, and it’s going to be okay.”

Going to the hospital and having them say, “I’m sorry, your son is dead”—

Ann: Oooh.

Vaneetha: I just could not process those words. They were ricocheting in my head. They took me back to the room where he was, and it just didn’t make sense to me that I had been faithful, I had already been through suffering. It felt like, “God, where are You?”

I didn’t have understanding of lament or drawing near to God, so I [thought], “You’ve just got to buckle down.” My Bible was unopened, and I felt so distant from God.

Ann: You were mad at Him.

Vaneetha: Yes, I was very angry, but I didn’t even know how to tell Him that. I did notgo to God. I turned from God. I wouldn’t say I turned from God; I leaned away. I didn’t want to look at God; I didn’t want to talk to Him.

But then one day in the car, I was so, so broken, and I said, “God, help me.” And the presence of God filled my car. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life, similar to when I came to Christ. God was there. And it was [as if He said], “I’m with you. I’m here. I was there with Paul. This is not an accident; this is not a mistake. Trust Me.”

It felt unbelievable that that was one of the purest moments in my life. But recognizing that God is with you is really incredible. It’s better than not having pain; it’s better than not having suffering.

Ann: You needed it.

Vaneetha: It’s meeting Jesus in your suffering. There’s nothing like that.

Ann: All you did was cry out.

Vaneetha: Yes, that’s all I did.

Then I really discovered the language of lament. It wasn’t that that took away everything, but I knew, “I can trust You, God, and I can go to you with how I am feeling.” That transformed my relationship with God.

Dave: What do you mean, the lament part?

Vaneetha: Yes—

Dave: —that you could be honest?

Ann: —that you could be honest with Him.

Vaneetha: —being honest; realizing, “I don’t have to say things I don’t feel; [and] I can just go to God.” That was important because, six years after Paul died, I was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome.

We talked about the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. I was walking. I used to walk to work, lived in Boston, lived on the third floor. After all my surgeries, I lived a very normal life. But then, six years after Paul died, [I] was diagnosed.

Basically, post-polio syndrome means your body is going backwards. All the gains that I had made, they’re getting undone. I use a wheelchair more than I walk, although I had a procedure done yesterday, so I can walk, which is a huge blessing. But my arms are really weak, and I can do so much less.

Joel and I have been married nine years. My life is dramatically different than when we first met in terms of what I can do for myself, so I see it unwinding. But I knew God would be faithful, so it was after that experience with Paul that I thought, “Okay, God, this is hard, but we’re in this together.”

Ann: But then, you went through a divorce.

Vaneetha: Yes, six years after I was diagnosed with post-polio, my ex-husband came home and said he was leaving for someone else. That wrecked me.

Ann: If you are listening and you’re like me, you’re thinking, “What in the world? How many things can you go through?”

Vaneetha: Yes.

Ann: Yet, even after that, how did you lift your head back up to Jesus?

Vaneetha: Jesus was all I had, Ann. I realized, “I have no hope.” My kids were rebelling. Both of them walked away from faith. My body was weakening. There was nothing but God.

I would say those years were the hardest years of my life. But I would get up extra early, and I’d open my Bible. I remember saying, “My soul clings to the dust. Revive me according to Your Word.” That’s Psalm 119:25. God did.

That was the most incredible time. I can say Jesus was my joy. God was so near. I feel like that’s the hope in suffering; even though our circumstances can be so hard. There is an intimacy with Jesus that I think is reserved for suffering.

Ann: Ooh! That’s a quote right there. Whoo!

Dave: How do you explain—and Joel, you can speak into this, too, because you walk into her life—

Ann: Yes, Joel, bring us in—we’ve had you on before and talked to you—but bring us to this point of meeting Vaneetha. You know that she’s suffered and gone through a lot. What’s that been like for you guys together?

Joel: When we met, I had been widowed for eight years. I wanted to be married again, but I wasn’t—I had gotten to the point where I said, “Lord, if you want met to stay single, I’m fine with that; but I would really like to be married. I’m a better man when I’m married.”

I had met a number of people, some very fine people; but when I met Vaneetha, I can’t even describeahis was so different. The second weekend—I was living in Knoxville, Tennessee at the time. She was living in Raliegh. I drove over the first time we met in July of 2014. When I left that day I said, “I’d like to see you again.”

She was going to a writer’s conference in Charlotte, North Carolina the following weekend. I said, “That’s great because Charlotte’s even closer than Raleigh. How about your conference ends Saturday—” And then, she was flying out from Charlotte on Sunday to go visit her relative. I said, “I’ll drive over. After the conference, we’ll have dinner; we’ll talk. We’ll find a church in the morning, have lunch, and I’ll take you to the airport.”

We were sitting in a coffee shop after church that Sunday morning, and somehow, the topic turned to me visiting my father. My father and I had been widowed within six months of each other. We drew very close together after that. I would go out and see him in the Midwest twice a year.

I had not invited anyone since my late wife passed away to go visit my family with me. The second time Vaneetha and I had been together, I said, “I’m going to go see my dad in October. Do you want to come with me?” People who know me would tell you, I’m not impulsive. [Laughter]

It was the most—it wasn’t premeditated; it just came out—

Dave: —it made sense, yes.

Joel: It was the most natural thing to say; right. I think the fact that I had been through, with my late wife, watching her get weaker with cancer, one of the things that taught me was—and it should be obvious to all of us—your body can get weaker, but “I didn’t marry you for your ability to pick something up and carry it across the room. I marred you for her you are.”

Ann: It reminds me of “…outwardly, we’re wasting away but—”

Joel: —exactly.

Ann: “—but inwardly, we’re being renewed day by day.” [2 Corinthians 4:16]

Joel: Exactly. I remember saying to Vaneetha, “I can pick up anything and carry it around the house. That doesn’t matter to me, whether you can do it or not.”

Ann: Yes.

Joel: “But who you are inside, that doesn’t change. Your body may be wasting away, but that doesn’t change. In fact, it’s getting better.”

Ann: Vaneetha, what did you think of that, when he said that? What did you feel?

Vaneetha: I was blown away, because I was thinking, “Would anybody really want to marry me?” just knowing that I don’t know where the end is? It could be quadriplegia; there’s a likelihood of that. There was this question of, “Can I even ask somebody to sign up for that?”

I remember, after Joel and I were dating, I kept saying, “Are you sure?”

Ann: “Are you sure?”

Vaneetha: Finally, Joel said, “I’m sure. Stop asking me that.”

I remember one thing that was so neat. We were engaged, and I said, “You know, the thing I’m dreading is walking down the aisle; not with you, but because I hate my limp. It reminds me, probably from the time I was seven, this says to somebody: ‘You have a disability; you’re different.’”

And Joel said to me, “I love the way you walk, and I’ve loved it from the beginning.”

Ann: Ooh! Isn’t that marriage? We all come in with a limp.

Vaneetha: Yes.

Joel: Yes, right!

Ann: You know? We all have a limp! Some are visible, and some aren’t. The longer that Dave and I have been married, I can say—

Dave: —she can say I’m a big limper. [Laughter]

Ann: I can say, “I love your limp!” It’s part of who you are; it’s part of what is endearing to me. Or we can look at our spouse and say, “But you are so broken.” I choose—I think that’s the word—we choose to see each other the way God created us with the potential. Even toward the end of our lives, as we’re getting older saying, “Man, God has more ahead.”

But we haven’t even gotten to—some of you are listening, and you’re thinking, “I’ve got some hard questions for Vaneetha.”

Dave: They’re all in your Bible study. [Laughter]

Vaneetha: Yes.

Dave: Seriously, we haven’t even talked about any of them yet. We’ve got to go there, because I’m sitting here amazed, and I know our listeners are, that you are a believer.

Ann: Yes!

Dave: Do you know what I mean? You have every reason to say, “I’m out. I am out.” And many people have, and they didn’t endure half of what you endured, and they’ve said, “If this is what life with God is like, I’m out.”

And you are singing His praises, both of you.

Ann: You as a couple, you’re inspiring. The way you serve, Joel, and look out for what Vaneetha needs. Vaneetha, knowing that you contribute so much to Joel and to your marriage.

Joel: She does.

Ann: It’s beautiful.

Vaneetha: Oh.

Dave: But the listeners are thinking, “How do I get to where you are?” [Laughter]

Ann: Yes.

Dave: That’s tomorrow. You’ve got to tune in, because we’re going to go there tomorrow.

Shelby: Ugh! A cliffhanger. Well, you know what? I know Vaneetha and her story, so you will not want to miss any of what she has to say tomorrow when she and Joel come back.

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Vaneetha and Joel Risner on FamilyLife Today.

Vaneetha has written a book called Desperate for Hope: Questions We Ask God in Suffering, Loss, and Longing. Have you ever been there? I definitely have. Vaneetha is so good at speaking into these kinds of questions and topics.

Her book is a Bible study along with video access, so it gets you both of those. It’s practical wisdom for growth; gaining confidence in the Lord, strength in Him, and a deeper connection with God.

You can get your copy of Vaneetha’s book by going online right now to, or you can find it in the show notes as well. Or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”

One of the things that I am so proud of [as] a staff member with FamilyLife is the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway. It has helped so many couples over so many years to reunite and connect with one another under the banner of the gospel in ways that have been practically miraculous. Really, they are. God does incredible things at the Weekend to Remember getaway.

I wanted to let you know right now that you can enjoy three days of romance and reconnection with your spouse at the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway because it’s 40 percent off now through Thursday, April 11th. There’s no promo code needed. You can get the link in the show notes at to find out more, or you can go to

We still have 20 Weekend to Remember getaways coming up between now and mid-June. Don’t let any summer plans keep you from prioritizing your marriage right now. You can get ahead of the busyness and make your plans for just the two of you.

Again, you can find the link in the show notes at

Now, tomorrow, I’m excited to say that Vaneetha and Joel Risner are coming back. They’re going to talk about being mad at God and, also, at the same time, the importance of expressing your emotions to God, which is not something we typically think of when we think about talking with God. But Vaneetha and Joel Risner will be here with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about just that. We hope you’ll join us.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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