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January is a month for mourning 40 years of Roe v. Wade abortion and some of its anti-life spawn, such as assisted suicide laws. Joni Eareckson Tada, 62, is the most famous Christian quadriplegic. She has written inspiring books and, through Joni and Friends, helped hundreds of thousands among the disabled. This interview took place before 300 Patrick Henry College students and community residents. We’ll run Part 2 in our next issue. (See also online-only excerpts from the interview: "Joni Eareckson Tada on words that hurt, actions that help" and "Joni Eareckson Tada on faith healing and marriage.")
It’s 45 years since your accident. Do you still flash back to it? Absolutely. Some background for the people here: This was the dreadful moment when I took a dive and my head hit the bottom of the sandbar. That snapped my head back, crushing my spinal cord, leaving me face down in the water. It’s a horrific image. Just think about it. If you were paralyzed totally, face down in the water and you hadn’t taken a deep breath. It’s so shockingly unthinkable. When I was first injured I couldn’t even think about it because it was so overwhelming.
You had thoughts of peroxide? Yes. The day before I had gone to the drugstore and picked up a bottle of Nice ’n Easy midnight summer blonde and I peroxided my hair as 17-year-olds did back then. Had my hair not been shockingly blonde, my sister Cathy would never have seen me face down in the water. She told me later on, “Joni, you were a mousy blonde and that water was dark and murky. Only because of the peroxided hair did I even see you.” God sometimes uses the incidental choices we make to change our lives.
As you were lying in the hospital bed, did you have faith in God? As a 14-year-old I had embraced Jesus as my Savior, but had confused the abundant Christian life with the great American dream: I was a Christian and would lose weight, get good grades, get voted captain of the hockey team, go to college, marry a wonderful man who made $250,000 a year, and we’d have 2.5 children. It was me-focused: What can God do for me? I almost thought I had done God a great big favor by accepting Jesus. And, to be frank, I had made some immoral choices: I finally got that boyfriend I was hoping would show up, but we were doing some things together that were wrong.
Did you feel that way at the time? In April 1967, I came home from a sordid Friday night date, threw myself onto my pillow, and cried, “Oh God, I’m embarrassing You, I’m staining Your reputation by saying I’m Christian, yet doing one thing Friday night and another Sunday morning. I’m a hypocrite. I don’t want to live like this. I want You to change my life. I’m powerless to do it myself. Please, do something in my life that will jerk it right side up because I’m making a mess of the Christian faith in my life and I don’t want that. I want to glorify You.” Then I had the diving accident about three months later. In the hospital, I was thinking, “Wait a minute. You took that prayer that seriously? God, I was disobedient, but I’m one of Your children. How can You deal with Your children so roughly? This is the way You answer prayer for a closer walk with You? You’ll never be trusted with another of my prayers.”
As you’re lying in that hospital bed, did you have suicidal thoughts? When first injured I was overwhelmed with the prospect of being paralyzed for the rest of my life. I used to lie in bed and wrench my head back and forth violently on the pillow hoping to break my neck up at some higher level and pass out. I was hoping that when I was strong enough to sit up in a wheelchair, they’d give me a power wheelchair so I could careen off a high curb and kill myself that way. But a person can only live with that kind of despair for so long. And thankfully, Christian friends of mine were praying. Eventually God used those prayers to turn my despair Godward. It’s in the Psalms: “Why are you downcast, oh my soul. Put your trust in God.” God began to bring back to my mind and memory those verses of Scripture that I had memorized.
When were you able to pray again with faith? Finally, under the power of other people’s prayers and hints and whispers of the Word of God, I prayed one short prayer that changed my life: “Oh God, if I can’t die, show me how to live.” That was probably the most powerful prayer I had ever prayed. My depression began to lift and the despair to dissipate.
That took time. If at that time there had been an assisted suicide law, would you have asked someone to kill you? Oh my goodness, yes. When I was depressed in the early part of my hospitalization, I begged my girlfriends to bring in their mothers’ sleeping pills, their fathers’ razors, anything. I’m grateful there was no physician-assisted suicide law around back then. I would have tried very hard to mount some court challenge to change the definition of terminal illness so that it might include spinal cord injury. I would have done anything to put me out of my misery. I was so miserable. That was 45 years ago, though. What a different world we live in now, because there really are people with disabilities trying to change the court definitions of “terminal illness” in states like Oregon and Washington. At our ministry we’re working hard to prevent that from happening and to give hope in Christ, so these people, like me, will find a way out of depression.
What do you think your life would have been like had you not broken your neck? I don’t say this in front of hardly any audience, but in front of this audience I will: I believe what happened to me was an example of Hebrews chapter 12 discipline. I do. I’ve had Christians ask, “How can you say that of God? That’s awful for you to say He would discipline you by making you a quadriplegic.” No, no, no. Read Hebrews chapter 12: God disciplines those He loves. Had I not broken my neck I’d probably be on my second divorce, maxing out my husband’s credit cards, planning my next ski vacation. I wouldn’t be here extolling the glories of the gospel and the power of God to help a person smile, not in spite of the problems, but because of them.
Read Part 2 of Marvin Olasky's interview with Joni Eareckson Tada and online-only excerpts "Joni Eareckson Tada on words that hurt, actions that help" and "Joni Eareckson Tada on faith healing and marriage."