Category Archives: Joni Eareckson Tada

What I Didn’t Say About Discernment

truth-in-lovePerhaps because I have a severe speech defect, I have a deep aversion to being misunderstood. I’ve been thinking over Friday’s essay, fearful that I might have inadvertently left people with the impression that I oppose discernment blogs and discernment ministry. Maybe I’m being overly cautious here, but I’d like to clarify my essay by affirming that I appreciate discernment ministry as being essential to the Body of Christ.

Friday I wanted to point out that many people who bill themselves as discernment bloggers aren’t really as discerning as they claim to be.They vet pastors and teachers on the basis of secondhand information without also vetting the source of that information. Case in point: using an article by a Charismatic writer who’s desperate to discredit John MacArthur as substantiation that MacArthur has ties to Freemasonry. Really? That’s the only documentation she could find? I’m sorry, but that approach shows a lack of real discernment.

What about my recent article on Joni Eareckson Tada, then? Am I guilty of trying to dig up evidence to brand her as a false teacher? To be honest, I’ve experienced that temptation in researching her. By the grace of God, however, I think I’ve avoided that sin, and I’ve approached my concerns about her with much fear and trembling (as well I should!).

As it stands now, I just have concerns about Joni. Those concerns don’t come from outside sources; they come from reading her writing, listening to her speak (in person as well as YouTube) and noticing various details that cause me some alarm. You’ll kindly observe my reticence to disclose those details. That reticence comes because I frankly don’t know whether I’m discerning actual problems or if I’m nit-picking. Therefore, I won’t write further about Joni until I’m certain that I’m genuinely discerning actual problems.

If I wanted to establish myself as a discernment blogger, I might turn my concerns about Joni into an arsenal of stink bombs to use against her. And surely some of my readers would admire my apparent gift of discernment. Thankfully, others would see that I would be tearing the woman down for the purpose of building my reputation as a woman of discernment.

That, my friends, was my point Friday. True discernment never attacks another person for the purpose of enhancing one’s own credentials. Consider the apostle Paul’s remarks to the Corinthians who thought they were masters of discernment.

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. ~~1 Corinthians 8:1-4 (ESV)

When discernment bloggers write for the purpose of displaying their supposed wisdom, they make it painfully evident (to everyone except themselves) that their knowledge has grossly inflated their egos. This self-serving attitude has absolutely no place among God’s people. Rather, whatever discernment God gives us should be used to cultivate personal holiness and to build up other Christians by steering them towards the Lord and His Word.

So in cautioning you against presumptive declarations of having gifts of discernment, I by no means want to imply that Christians shouldn’t cultivate personal discernment. And I fear that some of my readers might have inferred that I no longer endorse calling out false teachers or exposing aberrant practices in evangelical circles.  Please know that I would never make such a commitment.

The Bible clearly teaches Christians to contend for the faith. We just spent a few months studying the epistle Jude wrote, and we learned that all Christians bear a responsibility to practice discernment. The fact that some bloggers misuse the term “discernment” to slander people and/or to promote themselves doesn’t negate the necessity of Biblical discernment.

I pray daily that this blog will, more than anything else, honor and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. That means that it must never degenerate into a “discernment blog.” But it also means that, when necessary, we must look at teachings that deviate from Scripture. When those occasions arise, may the Holy Spirit enable me to address matters in humility, seeking only to direct women back to Christ.

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Soul Searching, Nit-Picking And Questioning Sacred Cows

joniYesterday’s essay voicing one of my concerns about the teachings and ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada certainly generated lively conversations on both The Outspoken TULIP  Facebook page and my personal Facebook page.  Several comments supported my efforts to be a faithful Berean. A few challenged me for nit-picking and misunderstanding the purpose of Joni’s ministry.  A dear friend, whom I respect immensely, challenged me in ways that caused me to think very seriously about what I’d written, while a reader I’d never heard of angrily scolded me for making judgments about Joni that I have no right to make.

In responding to both ladies,  I want to maintain a teachable spirit. As another commenter said, none of us has a complete grasp of truth.  Like everyone else on the planet, I have my blind spots and I desperately need faithful friends who will be honest enough to correct me when I’m wrong.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
    but he who hates reproof is stupid. ~~Proverbs 12:1 (ESV)

So I lay awake for a couple hours early this morning, praying and considering the various points that these women made. I also discussed it with John, who has shared most of my discomfort over certain aspects of Joni’s speaking ministry. I decided, at about 3 a.m., to write a clarification of my thoughts, or at least a glimpse into my struggles over how to express my concerns.

I’ve wrestled with a few red flags I’ve noticed in Joni’s speaking ministry for six or seven years, so I didn’t exactly come up with yesterday’s blog post on a whim. I’m deliberately not going to name my other concerns at this time precisely because I don’t know for sure whether or not I’m legitimately discerning problems. Regardless of the comments by the lady on The Outspoken TULIP  Facebook page, I honestly have wanted to avoid nit-picking. For that reason, I held myself back, many times, from writing about my concerns.

In writing yesterday’s piece, I do wish I had worked harder at making a distinction between Joni  as a person and the problems I see in her ministry. I do not doubt her love for the Lord, nor do I consider her a false teacher. I know she’s suffering terribly, and I applaud her willingness to use her sufferings to minister to other hurting people  the way the apostle Paul did in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. I have every reason to trust that she operates from right motives.

One comment encouraged me to show grace in disagreement. Yes. Joni Eareckson Tada is my sister in Christ, and ministers as she believes God wants her to minister.

The thing is, showing grace doesn’t mean never questioning someone’s teachings and practices. The dear friend who challenged me on Facebook about yesterday’s article showed me grace by voicing her concerns over what I’d written. This friend has loved me  enough to call out my behavior numerous times over the past 20 years, and I appreciate her for doing so.

By the same token, admiring Joni Eareckson Tada for her commitment to minister to hurting people doesn’t mean overlooking flaws in her approach. Yet most people I’ve tried to talk to about my concerns display curious reluctance to even consider my perspective. This reluctance scares me.

Yes, it’s right to believe the best of our brothers and sisters in Christ, as I did for decades in relation to Joni. But when we see things that don’t quite line up with Scripture, such as walking hand-in-hand with Jesus in heaven as He tells us how He’s used our afflictions, we should evaluate the Biblical merits of those things. Until recently, teachings of that nature  (especially from Joni, who I regarded as a role model) did, in fact, reinforce my narcissistic tendencies. I also envisioned heaven as being about Jesus focusing His attention on me, just as He would on Joni.

The Bible, in contrast, never once mentions anything like that. Therefore, Joni’s teaching  should be questioned. And if we can’t question what she teaches, perhaps there’s an even more serious issue.

I don’t believe Joni wants anyone to set her up as a Sacred Cow. But a resistance to any honest examination of her teaching does exactly that. I don’t want to nit-pick her teaching ministry for the sake of tearing her down, but neither do I want to ignore concerns that I believe should be addressed. Joni should be highly esteemed, but she must never be worshiped.

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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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I’m Not Joni

joniMy mother always looked at Joni Eareckson Tada (the famed Christian writer/speaker/artist who became a quadriplegic due to a diving accident at age 17) with a little jealously. Joni had financial advantages that I didn’t (plus an able-bodied husband) to give her steady personal care. I, on the other hand, require government assistance and constantly struggle to keep Personal Care Attendants. Joni could earn money without jeopardizing any benefits; I can’t.

But my mom, because she wasn’t a Christian, couldn’t make an accurate comparison between me and Joni. I believe the years have helped me see differences between Joni’s life and my own that matter far more than financial stability. To my surprise, these differences make me wonder if perhaps Joni should be the jealous one.

Joni Eareckson Tada has effectively used her disability, as well as her chronic pain and her battle against breast cancer, to minister to hurting people. The Lord has used her books, speaking engagements, artwork and singing to bring hope to many people. For years, I eagerly followed her ministry. I’ve met her on four occasions, and felt a bit star-struck the first three times. Joni indeed exemplifies how a Christian woman can use her disability to honor the Lord.

But I’ve never really appreciated it when admiring friends, well-meaning though they are, compare me to Joni. I’ve often threatened to write a  book titled I’m Not Joni.

Instead, I write an obscure little blog called The Outspoken TULIP  that focuses on the importance of sound doctrine, problems in the evangelical church, the Protestant Reformation and concerns over false teaching. Once in a while, I mention my disability, but only as a peripheral fact of life that I can’t exactly hide. But my blog reflects my passion for God’s Word and for leading women to contend for the faith.

Joni, I believe, suffers tremendously. She often recounts, in speaking engagements, how she typically wakes up in the morning telling the Lord she just can’t endure another day of quadriplegia and asking Him to let her borrow a smile to greet the ladies who get her up. Sometimes I wake up asking the Lord to let her wake up cheerful and  smiling. It must be terrible to begin so many days consumed with the weight of disability.

In  contrast, I have an awfully hard time (even during debilitating migraines) thinking that I really suffer. I compare myself to  disabled people in Third World countries, many of whom don’t even have manual wheelchairs, much less customized power wheelchairs that zip all over downtown Boston with and without the augmentation of public transportation.

I compare myself to Joni, who can’t even wake up cheerful.

Clearly, I’m nothing like Joni Eareckson Tada, and I don’t think I’d trade my life for hers.I admire her love for Jesus, of course, and praise God for the ways her organization, Joni and Friends, serves people afflicted by disability worldwide (though I’m not necessarily endorsing it at this point). But I am different from her in many respects. Please, join me in praying that she wakes up comfortable tomorrow morning.

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