Over the last forty plus years, I’ve had a lot of exposure to Joni Eareckson Tada. I’ve read her books (well, some of them), listened to her radio show and have met her personally four times. In many respects, I admire the woman, and I applaud much of the work that her ministry, Joni and Friends, does to bring the Gospel to people afflicted by disability. To my disappointment, my cassette tapes of her singing wore out, and I can’t find her albums on mp3 format (if any of you know where I could get them, please put a link in the comments section or on The Outspoken TULIP’s Facebook page).
Although I’m still a fan of Joni’s singing, during the past six or seven years little things about her theology have sort of nagged at me. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying Joni’s a false teacher on the level of Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer or Ann Voskamp. The bulk of her teaching lies well within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. All of us have blind spots, and perhaps my quibbles with Joni reflect blind spots in me. So I beg you not to misinterpret this essay as a denunciation of this woman.
At the same time, a few unrelated things about her have made me more cautious about her ministry than I used to be. I’ve been praying about my concerns for several months, knowing that things simply weren’t right. The other day, however, I watched a YouTube video that made me think seriously about her teaching and its influence on me. As a result, I believe I need to address an element of her teaching that troubles me.
Here’s the hour-long video, for those who would like to see it:
Whether you watch it or not, I want to explain why it bothers me.
In her talk, Joni began with a statement that I’d heard her make many times over the last forty years. In essence, she said that she wouldn’t trade her quadriplegia for anything because of the intimacy it has given her with Jesus. From there, she proceeded to describe various instances in which the Lord has comforted her in her suffering, encouraging those in her audience to likewise find His comfort during their times of hardship.
This type of thinking inspires people, most assuredly. I’ve found it inspiring on more than one occasion. But as I mulled it over the other day, it occurred to me that Joni had taken a by-product of suffering and was presenting it as suffering’s main purpose. While she frequently inched close to the truth that God allows and uses suffering with the primary purpose of glorifying Himself, she’d always revert back to the benefits of suffering to her. As a result, she (I believe unintentionally) communicated a self-centered view of Christianity rather than a Christ-centered one.
On one level, I understand how she would put such an emphasis on self. Those of us with severe physical disabilities live in worlds where large networks of people provide various services to us, ranging from intimacies like bathroom routines to impersonal acts like driving paratransit vehicles. In all these situations, our needs necessarily take priority. Understandably, we become accustomed to being the center of attention. Not surprisingly, therefore, we see the Lord as the ultimate Person Who takes care of us.
And the Lord indeed does take care of us. Our disabilities render us wonderfully dependent on Him in ways that most able-bodied Christians don’t get to enjoy.
As much as disability (or any suffering) facilitates intimate dependence on Jesus, and as wonderful as that intimate dependence may be, it’s really not the point. Later in her talk, Joni imagines a conversation she’ll have with Jesus in heaven. As she walks hand-in-hand with Him, He points to her wheelchair and tells her all the ways He’s used her because of it.
That’s not how I picture heaven. I imagine being before Him, overwhelmed by His glory and greatness. When I see Him face-to-face, I seriously doubt I’ll think about myself at all, unless it’s to grieve over the many ways I will have failed to honor Him. Frankly, I won’t be thinking about my disability in heaven. I’ll be too fascinated with Jesus and His magnificence to think about myself!
Does my disability give me an intimacy with Jesus that I wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise? I have absolutely no idea. Furthermore, if it does, that’s an added benefit. He’s sovereignly blessed me with Cerebral Palsy for purposes that glorify Him, and any intimacy that I have with Him because of it comes a a bonus. I tremble at the thought of teaching young women to regard suffering as something God allows in their lives for their sake.
Joni Eareckson Tada is not a false teacher, but I do believe her emphasis on self could reinforce the narcissism that plagues evangelical communities today. In a time when professing Christians need to turn attention away from self in order to proclaim the excellencies of the Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t need teachings that encourage self-focus…even as a means of coping with suffering.