Fifty years later, Joni’s answer is jubilant: “It sounds incredible, but I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without Him.” She celebrates “that glorious but awful, beautiful but sad, terrible but wonderful day I broke my neck—because look what God has done.”
Joni came to embrace God’s sovereignty in her suffering, and she founded a ministry that has helped hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in the United States and around the world. She’s written dozens of books and spoken out against abortion and euthanasia.
And she’s done it all without cultivating a superhero persona. Indeed, Joni openly talks about her weaknesses, her battle with chronic pain, and her dependence on God’s grace for getting out of bed each day—with joy.
For 50 years of exalting Christ in suffering and offering compassionate help and gospel-based hope to the needy, the weak, and the vulnerable, Joni Eareckson Tada is WORLD’s 2017 Daniel of the Year.
Spend a little time with Joni, and you’ll begin to discover a central truth about her extraordinary life: It’s fueled by ordinary rhythms of Christian living.
On a summer Sunday morning at Church in the Canyon (PCA) in Calabasas, Calif., Joni and Ken Tada, her husband of 35 years, sat near their usual spot at the front-left of the small church they’ve attended for more than two decades. Joni chatted with friends. Ken helped an elderly couple navigating the aisle on walkers.
A few minutes earlier, Joni had asked Ken for a favor in the parking lot: Would he please adjust her corset?
She wears the surgical binder to help her sit up straight and take deeper breaths. Fifty years in a wheelchair—and chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2010—wears on bones and body and has led to scoliosis and a displaced hip that cause chronic, sometimes severe pain.
But adjustments help, and Joni was cheerful as worship began. The service wasn’t flashy, but the content was rich and Biblical. Pastor Bob Bjerkaas talked about Christ’s sympathy in our suffering and pointed out that Jesus prayed the Father would spare Him from crucifixion: “Jesus Christ knew what it was to desperately want an experience to be removed from His biography.”
So did Joni.
After her accident, she faced a litany of what-ifs: What if she hadn’t gone swimming that day? What if her tennis date hadn’t canceled? What if she hadn’t jumped in head-first?
She begged a friend to kill her, and despaired she couldn’t do it herself. Eventually, she turned to hopes of miraculous healing and attended an event in Washington, D.C., led by purported faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman.
Ushers packed people with disabilities into a wheelchair section, and Kuhlman never approached them. Before the service ended, they herded Joni and others in wheelchairs back to an elevator. She felt disappointed and bitter.
Finally, Joni prayed: “God, if You won’t let me die, then show me how to live.”
She’d sit for hours with a Bible on a music stand, turning the pages of Scripture with her mouth-stick. Friends joined her for Bible studies around her family’s large farm table, and they read books about God’s sovereignty by authors like J.I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and J. Gresham Machen. “We just delighted that this accident wasn’t a mistake,” she says.
Not only was it not a mistake—Joni learned God uses suffering to make people more like Christ and to know Him more deeply. Indeed, He used the suffering of His own Son to accomplish salvation for sinners. Joni’s deepest need for healing was spiritual, not physical.
Her friend, Steve Estes, crystallized this truth in 10 words Joni still repeats often: “God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” It was a life-altering realization: God was fully in control, and He could use her suffering for good in her life and the lives of others.
From her farm table in Maryland, Joni had no idea how many others that would include.