Fifty Years After a Tragic Diving Accident Paralyzed Her, Joni Eareckson Tada Still Offers a Message of Hope

Some incidents change your life forever. For Joni Eareckson, July 30, 1967, was one of those days. The day started out like a typical summer day, and the 17-year-old went to play in the Chesapeake Bay with her sister. Joni misjudged the depth of the water and dove in. She broke her neck and was paralyzed from the neck down.

An accident like Joni’s would shake most anyone’s faith, and her experience was no exception. She went through depression and anger and even had suicidal thoughts. Her life turned around when she learned how to paint with a brush between her teeth. She gave her life to Jesus, wrote her autobiography, and even starred in a movie based on her story.

And that’s not all. In 1979, the same year the film Joni came out, she formed Joni and Friends, a ministry to the disabled community and their families. She has gone on to write dozens of books and record albums of inspirational songs, and in 2010 she successfully battled breast cancer.

In other words, Joni Eareckson Tada is a tremendous inspiration. She recently reflected on five decades since the accident that altered the course of her life and sent her on a path of service and ministry in a post at The Gospel Coalition. She told the story of writing a letter of encouragement to Tommy, a young man who, like her, became a quadriplegic at seventeen. She says she understands her role as an encourager to people in situations like hers:

I’m in the zone whenever I infuse Christ-encouragement into the hearts of people like Tommy. It feels so right to agonize alongside them. Better yet, to participate in their suffering in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 1:6: “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation.” Can I do something for Tommy’s comfort and salvation? You bet.

In half a century of struggles with quadriplegia, Joni has learned what suffering means for those who believe in Jesus, yet suffer.

However, if I were to nail down suffering’s main purpose, I’d say it’s the textbook that teaches me who I really am, because I’m not the paragon of virtue I’d like to think I am. Suffering keeps knocking me off my pedestal of pride.

And she knows that joy comes with suffering:

The more my paralysis helps me get disentangled from sin, the more joy bubbles up from within. I can’t tell you how many nights I have lain in bed, unable to move, stiff with pain, and have whispered near tears, “Oh, Jesus, I’m so happy. So very happy in you!” God shares his joy on his terms only, and those terms call for us to suffer, in some measure, like his Son. I’ll gladly take it.

Joni says she thanks God for her wheelchair, for without it, she wouldn’t have the platform she has to encourage and lift up people in similar situations to hers. But more importantly for her, without her paralysis, she might not have had a relationship with Jesus Christ. In one of the most telling statements in her post, she says, “I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him.”

I’ve always found inspiration in Joni’s story. Although I was too young to read her book when it first came out, I remember hearing her story, and it played a part in my coming to faith in Christ. Joni Eareckson Tada’s incredible joy and commitment to mission in the face of unbelievable suffering reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Corinth:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV))

We will all surely see difficulty in our lives, but if we anchor ourselves to the rock of Jesus, we have a secure hope in eternity that makes our troubles pale by comparison. And that’s such a comforting truth.