For forty-five years, Joni Eareckson Tada’s memoir of the years after the diving accident that left her paraplegic has remained in print and read by millions. Reading the latest anniversary edition, I wondered if Joni’s thoughts on her injury had changed since they were first put into print. A half-century of perspective will certainly change someone. I also wanted to talk with her about disability advocacy and what churches can do to be inclusive, empowering, and welcoming. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done just that, and to be able to share it all with you. Watch the video version for an exclusive peek at an original piece of art painted by Joni!
The Conversation | Joni Eareckson Tada
This interview transcript has been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity. A full transcript of the interview is available here.
Josh Olds: You speak very openly about the struggle that it was that, you’ve kind of gotten to a point where you talk about suffering and God’s glory, but those early days, those early days were really hard for you. And how important was it for you that people understood the realities of your struggle?
I still wake up in the morning, saying, “Jesus, I need you desperately. I cannot do quadriplegia today. I am so tired of the pain and the challenges, but I can do all things through you, Jesus, if you would but strengthen me.” – Joni Eareckson Tada
Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, let me correct something that you just said. It’s still hard. It is still very hard. In fact, the older I get, it gets harder. I deal with chronic pain. And so, I look back on that book, Josh, and I’m just so grateful that the insights I shared from the Word of God still apply. I still wake up in the morning, even after so many decades of paralysis. I still wake up in the morning, saying, “Jesus, I need you desperately. I cannot do quadriplegia today. I am so tired of the pain and the challenges, but I can do all things through you, Jesus, if you would but strengthen me.” Now that’s a principle that everybody can grasp.
And that’s why I felt it would be important too, you know, when I wrote the book Joni, with my co-author Joe Messer, I thought it would be very important to be as honest and visceral and gutsy and open and transparent as I possibly could be. Because not everybody’s a quadriplegic, and I knew that the average reader probably wouldn’t even have a disability, but handicaps come at us in all shapes and sizes. And so I just wanted to focus on the Word of God in that book, so that the reader dealing with whatever his challenge might be, would grasp those biblical anchors and just run with them. And that’s why I’m, I think it might still be, you know, it still might be a book that people want to read. Because those biblical insights, indeed, are timeless. Those anchors are applicable, even to me, the author, so many decades later, I’m still waking up in the morning needing Christ desperately. And shouldn’t we all be in that position? Right? Just needing Jesus?
Josh Olds: Obviously, you you’ve lived with this for decades. What…have you ever imagined or thought about how your life would be different if your injury had not happened?
There are nights I lie in bed even now, 55 years it’s been since my diving accident, and I can say “Oh, God, thank you. You were so wise. You were so good at allowing me to break my neck. Because I don’t know where I’d be. – Joni Eareckson Tada
Joni Eareckson Tada: I might be on my second divorce. I don’t know what I’d be doing. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here, Josh, talking to you about biblical anchors and the promises of God and the hope in His Word. I really don’t think I would be. I mean, I broke my neck in 1967. That was the year, it was the summer I was heading off to college. I am shamed to admit this, but I was sleeping with my boyfriend in high school. I was living a life of sexual impurity and immorality, and I knew it was going to get worse, and in college wasn’t going to get better. And I remember praying a prayer and I think it was like April or May of 1967, I’d come home from a sordid date with my boyfriend, and I felt so guilty. And I remember throwing myself on my bed and crying into my pillow saying, “Oh, God, I can’t break free. I have made myself a slave to sin. And I don’t know how to get free of it. So do something in my life to get right side up because I’m, I’m going to really mess up big time. In college, I might even recant faith, because I don’t want to be a hypocrite and I don’t want to shame you any further. And I just don’t want to live like this. So do something Jesus.” And then I broke my neck. And I look back on that. And what a strange answer to prayer. But it really was an answer to prayer.
Honestly, Josh, there are nights I lie in bed even now, what 55 years it’s been since my diving accident and I can say “Oh, God, thank you. You were so wise. You were so good at allowing me to break my neck. Because I don’t know where I’d be. Had you not rescued me. I am. I was my own worst enemy. And you rescued me from myself. Thank you. Keep doing it, Jesus.” So, you know, that’s kind of how that’s kind of why I feel almost Christians struggle with hardship. They just don’t see how God could possibly use it for good. Yet the promise is right there in Romans 8:28, isn’t it?
The Book | Joni: An Unforgettable Story
One of the most beloved Christian autobiographies of modern times, Joni highlights the unforgettable story of a young woman’s courageous struggle to find hope after a broken neck left her completely paralyzed.
On a hot July afternoon, Joni Eareckson Tada’s life was dramatically altered in a split second. A reckless dive into shallow water took an athletic young woman from health and success to life as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. In the forty-five years since the release of this book–which has more than five million copies in print in over forty languages–Joni’s earnest struggle to find hope has resonated with millions of readers around the world. The hard-earned truths she shares in this special edition reveal the power of God’s love to transform, as well as the triumph of faith over pain and suffering.
Joni’s message has inspired people facing all types of challenges, helping them overcome their own limitations with a determined smile. In this updated edition, you will discover how to stay satisfied in God through disappointment and affliction. Filled with practical insights, Joni will help you find hope in every hardship.
This commemorative 45th anniversary edition features updated photos, as well as an all-new afterword in which Joni describes her current battle against two different cancers, her daily struggle with chronic pain, and the joys of leading a global outreach to people living with disability.
The Author | Joni Eareckson Tada
Joni Eareckson Tada, the Founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, is an international advocate for people with disabilities. A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After two years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a fresh determination to help others in similar situations. She founded Joni and Friends in 1979 to provide Christ-centered ministry to special-needs families, as well as training for churches. Joni and Friends serves thousands of special-needs families through Family Retreats, and has delivered over 170,000 wheelchairs and Bibles to needy individuals with disabilities in developing nations. Joni survived stage III breast cancer in 2010, yet keeps a very active schedule.
Her book A Spectacle of Glory won best devotional book in the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s 2017 Christian Book Awards – it contains fresh biblical insights from her battle with chronic pain. Joni is General Editor of Tyndale’s Beyond Suffering Bible, a special edition published for those who suffer chronic conditions, and their caregivers. She and her husband Ken were married in 1982 and reside in Calabasas, California. You can learn more about Joni’s ministry at www.joniandfriends.org.