Does Suffering Provide Intimacy With Jesus

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.

But.

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.

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Author: DebbieLynne

Most importantly I belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. Secondarily, I'm married to my wonderful husband, John. We've both used wheelchairs since childhood (he from Polio and me from Cerebral Palsy). I type with a headstick because I can't control my hands. I enjoy reading, creating digital art, and exploring Boston with John.

8 thoughts on “Does Suffering Provide Intimacy With Jesus”

  1. I read her biography this summer, and I found little things that raised flags….but I chalked it up to her being very young at the time, and not all believers have the ability to communicate truth as perfectly as they may believe it, if that makes sense. It seemed like she wrote the book while she was still growing as we all are.

    As far as ” I tremble at the thought of teaching young women to regard suffering as something God allows in their lives for their sake.” I would say that He allows it for thier good AND His glory. I agree with you that His glory is always primary, and we don’t want to become narcissistic. But the verse does say for our good as well. Just my thoughts…

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    1. I don’t deny that God also uses suffering for our benefit. But that’s a by-product, not the main event.

      Yes, she often confesses her self-pity, which is good. But if you’ll watch the video, I think you’ll see what bothers me. I have other concerns, which I may or may not blog about another time. Letting just say I find her questionable. And it’s more recent things that leave me uncomfortable with her.

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  2. Hi Deb, I believe as you do that Joni’s comments are troubling. On the one hand, she has her own relationship with the Lord and I do believe that He works with each of us as individuals. Each person’s life, personality, experiences, maturity and so forth are different, so we can’t always compare ourselves and our walk with others. However I believe that the Word teaches that intimacy with Christ is something that is given as a gift to Christians at salvation. We are close to Christ, not because of our circumstances, but because He has redeemed His Bride, the church, and as His bride, the church is precious to Him. Each one in the body has been specifically chosen by Christ to be a part of His body. This is a pretty intimate picture is it not? After all, our hands and feet, our ears and our eyes, are pretty intimately connected to each of us! It could be that at times we have more of a sense of intimacy with Christ, and perhaps that is what she means. But still I find it seems to imply that the worse off you are, especially physically, the closer you are/can be to Christ. This is not necessarily true. Both blessings and sufferings can actually take one’s eyes off of Christ. Also, there are all kinds of suffering: emotional, relational, spiritual, physical, etc. I do not presume to think that my suffering is worse than anyone else’s and I think Christians should be very, very careful here, for truly it is impossible to quantify suffering. There are all kinds of mitigating circumstances that people are in. One person may be suffering terribly but is surrounded by loving Christian friends and family. Another suffers virtually alone with very little human compassion. One suffers a short time, another for years. So who suffers more? See what I mean?

    Another thing is that Christianity does not teach that our suffering gives us merit before God. I think of “Mother” Teresa who believed that suffering was meritorious. It is not. But as discipline, it can be sanctifying and produce the fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).

    Also, there is a fellowship of suffering as Paul mentions in Philippians 3:10. I don’t begin to understand just what that all entails and again we have to be careful here. Perhaps the takeaway might be to praise the Lord for His goodness, to be thankful and to share that with others, rather than going into too much detail about just how one believes the Lord has dealt with them.

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  3. one other thing I wanted to add. Mention is made by Joni and maybe you as well to the effect that because of physical disabilities she is wholly dependent on the Lord. May I say, every Christian is dependent on the Lord! The Lord Jesus Christ said this: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” Christ is Creator and Sustainer of everything. The Christian is not only dependent on Christ for physical life and health, but also spiritual life and health. He gave me life, both physical and spiritual. Every day He keeps me, leads me, upholds me, strengthens me, etc. When my days are over, He will receive me into glory. Perhaps it is easier to grasp this when one has physical limitations, but it is true nonetheless for every single person, and especially every Christian.

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    1. Excellent points, Julie. I’d add that disability doesn’t automatically result in making me aware of my dependence on Christ. Perhaps it should, but I often forget and try dealing with life in my own strength. Not good, I know, but disabled Christians aren’t any more saintly than our able-bodied counterparts.

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  4. Interesting discussion. Thank you for your thoughts.

    One verse came to mind while I read your piece. The blind man in John 9:3. When Jesus healed him, the Pharisees asked if it was he or his parents had sinned (disability was then considered to be evidence of sin).

    Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

    I’m thinking about the difference in saying ‘my disability brings me closer to Jesus’ rather than saying ‘my disability exists so God will receive glory’. Thanks once again

    Liked by 1 person

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