Joni Eareckson Tada might be mistaken for a modern-day Job. The disabilities advocate was severely paralyzed in a diving accident at age 17. For the past ten years, she has endured chronic pain. Now, at age 60, she confronts breast cancer. Sounding upbeat and confident after surgery, she spoke with Christianity Today about her latest book, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God's Sovereignty (David C. Cook), where she outlines her theology of suffering.
How has your perspective on suffering and healing changed since your breast cancer diagnosis?
Thankfully, it hasn't changed at all. You examine Scripture again and follow every passage regarding healing. I did that with my quadriplegia, and I did that again 10 years ago, when I embarked on a whole new life of chronic pain. Just a month ago, getting diagnosed with breast cancer, I looked at those same Scriptures, and God's words do not change.
Even though it seems like a lot is being piled on, I keep thinking about 1 Peter 2:21: "To these hardships you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps." Those steps most often lead Christians not to miraculous, divine interventions but directly into the fellowship of suffering. In a way, I've been drawn closer to the Savior, even with this breast cancer. There are things about his character that I wasn't seeing a year ago or even six months ago. That tells me that I'm still growing and being transformed. First Peter 2:21 is a good rule of thumb for any Christian struggling to understand God's purposes in hardship.
Can you elaborate on new ways you think about God's character?
In John 14, Jesus says, "Anyone who has faith in me will do … even greater things than these." We tend to think Jesus was talking about miracles, as if Jesus were saying, "Hey guys, look at these miracles! One day, you'll do many more miracles than me!"
The thing that Jesus was doing wasn't necessarily the miracles. He was giving the gospel; he was advancing his kingdom; he was reclaiming the earth as rightfully his. When Jesus gave that promise, he was saying, "I'm giving you a job to do, my Father and I want the gospel to go forth, and I promise you'll have everything you need to get that job done, and you'll do an even better job than me." Jesus ministered for three years, and at the end, he had a handful of disciples who half-believed in him. After Jesus went to heaven and the Holy Spirit came down—my goodness, Peter preaches one sermon and thousands believe. That's the greater thing that God wants us to do.
That's what I have been seeing this past month. Every x-ray technician, every nurse, every doctor's secretary, every clinician, every person I meet in nuclear medicine and at the MRI—it's amazing how many opportunities I've been given to see people hungry and thirsty for Christ. I knew that was true before, but there seems to be something special that is accompanying this diagnosis. I'm just so amazed by people asking me, "How can you approach this breast cancer with such confidence in a God who allows it?" And I'm being given the chance to answer.
The greater thing is not the miracle; it's the advancement of the gospel, it's the giving of the kingdom, reclaiming what is rightfully Christ's.
You have hinted at a classic question: How can a good God allow such suffering in the world? How does your latest book, on God's sovereignty, address that?
When people ask that question—even I struggle with that question—we aren't accepting the fact that this earth is wired to be difficult. The rule of thumb is that we experience much suffering because we live in a fallen world, and it is groaning under the weight of a heavy curse. If God being good means he has to get rid of sin, it means he would have to get rid of sinners. God is a God of great generosity and great mercy, so he is keeping the execution of suffering. He's not closing the curtain on suffering until there is more time to gather more people into the fold of Christ's fellowship.
That answer suits me, and I think it would suit others if they stop and think: Suffering is connected to sin; if God were to get rid of suffering, he'd have to get rid of sin, and then he'd have to get rid of sinners—and God is too merciful to do that.
Is it different when the cause of suffering is natural? For instance, you might not have control over getting breast cancer. Do you cope differently from someone who has something done to her by another person?
Certainly I could have controlled this one; I should have gotten a mammogram five years ago. I have no one to blame but myself. I can't point the finger at secondhand smoke in restaurants. I should've gotten a mammogram, and I did not. I failed to do it, and I regret that. (If I were to tell your female readers anything, I'd say, "Get a mammogram.")
Whether hardship is brought on by our own negligence or through the direct assault of the hand of a wicked person, or our own ignorance and misinformed decisions, or our lack of awareness or misdoings, or some catastrophe of nature—these things fall under the purview of God's overarching decree. A close look at the New Testament shows that God's sovereignty extends over all these things. God permits all sorts of things that he doesn't approve of. He doesn't approve of my spinal-cord injury or my cancer, but in his sovereign decree he has allowed them. I don't care if you use permit, allow, or ordained; it's all the same thing. Ultimately it goes back to God being in charge. I don't think there is a real difference.
The greater thing Jesus promises we can do is not the miracle, but the advancement of the gospel, reclaiming what is rightfully his.
Suffering is hardship and heartache. It's one package. Yes, God could have prevented it. He could prevent a thief from breaking in and stealing, he could prevent a wicked man with a gun from firing it, and he could have prevented my cancer. He could have put in my heart:Go get a mammogram. If he chooses to allow these things to occur, it doesn't mean he's any less caring or compassionate. His will, purpose, and sovereign design may be a bit more ob-scure and enigmatic on this side of eternity.
When you discovered you had breast cancer, was your reaction different from all your previous experiences of suffering?
I don't fall apart emotionally. There's a lump. Wow, okay, let's get this taken care of. I broke my neck. Yikes. What is this going to mean? Okay, let's buckle down and move forward. I'm the kind of person who cannot allow those emotions to go down the grim path of despair. It's too deep of a miry pit. I'd rather face life head-on and with full force and take things as they come, learn from those things, and move forward.
How should we respond to someone who is suffering?
It's important to follow injunctions from God's Word: Go to the elders, be anointed with oil, and confess sin. If you feel you need to go to a special prayer service, by all means attend it. Have a pastor anoint you with oil and lay hands on you. After you do, you have to keep on living. That's what happened to me when I was first injured. I confessed sin and was anointed with oil. Do I sit around for my hands and feet to get the message? I have to live in the meantime. If you feel led to, pray and seek healing, but keep living while you're looking for the healing.
Even if the focus is on living, shouldn't Christians prepare themselves for further suffering and death?
None of us, in our culture of comfort, know how to prepare ourselves for dying, but that's what we should do every day. Every single day, we die a thousand deaths. We don't just walk through the valley of the shadow of death when we get a medical report or when we survive a stroke. We go through the valley of the shadow of death every time we say no to our selfish desires. When we say yes to the grace of God, we are learning how to die.
This past weekend, I was singing hymns with friends. One of my favorites is "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," but the words in the hymnal we were using had been changed. They took out the verse on death: (singing) "Death of death and hell's destruction, land me safe on Canaan's side." They exchanged the wonderfully rich, pithy, deep, hard words with something vague like, "Help me through until the other side." They extricated those words about death and hell's destruction. Why do that? We need to learn how to die every day. Suffering does that. It prepares us. Every time we go to sleep, it's a rehearsal of the day when our eyes will ultimately close and we wake up on the side of eternity.
What teachings of Jesus especially help you understand suffering?
There's the portion of Scripture in Matthew 18 where Jesus says, "If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out." Here Jesus, the one who delighted in healing hands that could not work, restoring feet that could not walk, giving sight to eyes that could not see—here he is, saying cut off your hand, gouge out your eyes, if these things are causing you to sin. Jesus underscores his priority that yes, the physical body counts, but it does not trump the health of the soul.
When people ask about healing, I'm less interested in the physical and more interested in healing in my heart. Pray that I get rid of my lazy attitude about God's Word and prayer, of brute pride—set me free from self-centeredness. Those are more important, because Jesus thought they were more important.