“The Most Beautiful People…Have Known Defeat”
According to world-renowned grief expert, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, “The most beautiful people…are those who have known defeat, known suffering, struggle, and loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”
I remember my mentor and pastor, Tim Keller, saying something similar: “The strongest souls are the ones that have emerged out of suffering, and the most massive characters are the ones that have been seared with scars.”
One such soul is Joni Eareckson Tada. For more reasons than I am able to count, she has been a hero to Patti and me for years. Joni, the founder of a ministry for people with disabilities called “Joni and Friends,” has been paralyzed from the neck down since age seventeen due to a diving accident. Joni has also battled cancer more than once. She has endured seasons of wrestling and sorrow and “Why, Lord, Why?” because of her disability and illness. She has wrestled with chronic affliction and has emerged having also made her peace with God.
One of the things I love most about Joni, and one of the reasons why I keep going back to her writing to seek inspiration from her story, is that she has a vivid, hope-filled vision of heaven. She has a beautifully authentic way of conveying through her own story what C.S. Lewis once wrote, that “Heaven will work backwards and turn even…agony into a glory.” For example, Joni wrote the following reflection in response to a question that she, as a Christian, is asked often:
“If God is good and if God has the power to do anything, why hasn’t God healed you?”
“Those steps [following Jesus] 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 I’m still growing and being transformed…When people ask about healing, I’m less interested in the physical and more interested in healing 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.”
On her website, Joni summarizes these same sentiments in a single sentence, where she says that God will permit what he hates in order to accomplish what he loves. How can she say something like this? I suspect that it has to do with her deep awareness of the cross of Jesus, where God permitted what he hates (the violent marring and death of his only begotten Son) to accomplish what he loves (salvation for sinners, whom he loves).
Joni’s acceptance of her physical afflictions might trouble us, until we are also given a window into her thoughts about the New Heaven and New Earth, where, as the Bible says that there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain. In the New Heaven and New Earth, Jesus will make all things new, including frail, perishable, mortal and sometimes disabled human bodies (Revelation 21:1-5). Reflecting on her wheelchair, Joni said:
“I sure hope I can bring this wheelchair to heaven…I hope to bring it and put it in a little corner…then in my new, perfect, glorified body, standing on grateful glorified legs, I’ll stand next to my Savior…And I will say, ‘Jesus, do you see that wheelchair? You were right when you said that in this world we would have trouble, because that thing was a lot of trouble. But the weaker I was in that thing, the harder I leaned on you. And the harder I leaned on you, the stronger I discovered you to be. It never would have happened had you not given me the bruising of the blessing of that wheelchair.’ Then the real ticker-tape parade of praise will begin. And all of earth will join in the party.”
A friend of Joni’s named Lynn Wheeler, who was part of our church family here in Nashville, died a few years ago. Lynn, like Joni, had been confined to a wheelchair for over a decade, paralyzed from the neck down due to a car accident. Before her accident, Lynn ran marathons, played competitive tennis, coached swimming, and played the guitar. She was also a fully engaged as church member, friend, neighbor, wife, mother, and grandmother.
While many would grow cynical and angry toward God after such a harsh turn of events, Lynn dropped her anchor into God’s promises. I can honestly say that Lynn Wheeler—from her wheelchair—was one of the most joyful, faith-filled, affirming and other-focused people I have met. Her resolve that God is good in every circumstance, coupled with her optimism about the hope and future that God had prepared for her, led her to speak of her disability not chiefly as an affliction, but as her “assignment.” Lynn was determined that her disability would be an opportunity for God to receive glory in and through her.
According to Lynn’s loving and faithful husband, Doug, when she woke up after being sedated for seven weeks in ICU and he told her about the accident, the first thought that came to her mind was a verse from Psalm 139: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16). Trusting in the faithfulness of God, she would later write:
“My body is a mess right now, but it is well with my soul…I know my days are ordained for me, and [God] will comfort and strengthen me when I am weak. I cling to His truth, though it doesn’t make sense. His plans for me continue, though everything has changed…I take joy in the little things; find protection in my limitations. I think of heaven more.”
Lynn’s favorite hymn, which became the central hymn at her funeral just as it had been the theme song of her life, includes these lyrics:
Whate’er my God ordains is right:
He is my Friend and Father;
He suffers naught to do me harm,
Though many storms may gather,
Now I may know both joy and woe,
Some day I shall see clearly
That He hath loved me dearly.
Whate’er my God ordains is right:
Here shall my stand be taken;
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
Yet I am not forsaken.
My Father’s care is round me there;
He holds me that I shall not fall:
And so to Him I leave it all.
A runner, tennis player, swimmer, guitarist, singer, friend, grandma, mother, and wife in a wheelchair for the rest of her days after a sudden accident took it all away. And her conclusion to the matter was…
I think of heaven more.
Whatever my God ordains is right.
It’s no wonder that at Lynn Wheeler’s funeral, Rev. Dr. David Filson declared that in her lifetime, her wheelchair became her pulpit.
Joni, Lynn, and others who draw near to God through their disabilities give me hope for the day when my own mental, emotional, and physical decline arrives. They give me hope that when I am hurting, God will be near, and that as my “outer man” wastes away, my “inner man” will be renewed and made strong (2 Corinthians 4). For, just as the Apostle Paul said about the disability that he referred to as his “thorn in the flesh,” God’s grace is sufficient in every circumstance, and his power is made perfect through our weakness.
Indeed, we are treasures in fragile jars of clay. We do not lose heart, because in comparison to “the weight of glory” that awaits us in the New Heaven and the New Earth, even our permanent afflictions are made temporary, and our heaviest burdens are lightened. For the things that we see and experience now—things like diving accidents and car crashes and wheelchairs—are temporary. And the things that we do not yet see or experience—things like renewed bodies and perfect souls and youthfulness that is renewed and will soar like the wings of an eagle—these things are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:7-18, 12:7-10; Isaiah 40:28-31).
Oh, how we need the Lynn’s and Joni’s of the world to help us see the world, help us see God, and help us see reality, through their eyes.
It may be that these beautifully broken friends represent the very perspective that we need in the sometimes-difficult journey of making our peace with God.
Because, truth be told, we are all disabled.
And we all need The Physician’s care.
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