Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
It was a terrible accident for a young 17-year-old teenage girl in July 1967. Joni Eareckson dived off a raft in a lake near Baltimore and struck her head on a rock, which broke her neck. She was instantly paralysed and had it not been for the quick action of a friend, Joni would have drowned there and then.
But she survived. She was rushed to hospital and after a few weeks, the doctors told her that she would never get better. Her condition was permanent, and she was now a quadriplegic, paralysed from the shoulders down. What a terrible tragedy!
She grew up in a happy family with lots of love and outdoor activity. But from that day on in hospital, Joni was fighting for her very life and having to accept the fact that she would have to live out the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Joni’s rehabilitation was not easy. As you might imagine she was angry and she raged against her fate. She struggled with depression and often she wanted to end her life. She could not understand how God could let this happen to her.
Her close friend Jackie stuck by her even when Joni said, “Help me die. Bring me some pills or a razor blade. I can’t live inside a grotesque body like this.”
She felt totally helpless and useless. But Jackie was not giving up on her friend: “Jesus knows how you feel—you’re not the only one. He was paralysed too. Remember He was nailed to a cross. His back was raw from beatings. He was paralysed by the nails”. This was something Joni had never thought of before. She said that at that moment, “God came incredibly close”.
Something else very significant happened to her one night some years later when she was in the hospital for a check up. That night they showed the Birdman of Alcatraz for the Monday night movie. After about an hour of watching—as Burt Lancaster clutched the iron bars and looked out into freedom—she became claustrophobic. She felt so imprisoned in her paralysis. She knew God was working in her life and believed that good could come from her accident, but the hurt and pain she was feeling seemed to overwhelm all positive thoughts.
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That same night Joni’s best friend Jackie slipped in after hours and hid behind the couch in the visitor’s lounge. When they turned lights out in the hallway and the nurses station cleared, Joni heard a movement over toward the door. There was Jackie crawling on her hands and knees across the linoleum floor. She lowered the bed, grabbed Joni’s paralysed hand, turned her face toward Joni on the pillow and began to sing a hymn they had sung in church together years before.
‘Man of Sorrows’, what a name,
for the Son of God who came.
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah, what a Saviour.
It met my need like nothing else. God does not give advice. He does not give reasons or answers. He goes one better. He gives himself. . . If you are the one who is at the centre of the universe holding it all together . . . you can do no more than give yourself.
From Despair to Rejoicing
After her faith in God was rekindled, Joni began sharing her experience publicly and soon became a popular devotional speaker. In addition to having a speaking ministry, she became a successful commercial artist, learning how to draw and paint using her mouth, a best-selling author and an actress, starring in the film version of her own life story.
Joni also has founded a ministry called Joni and Friends that reaches out to people who are disabled and suffering and to those who care for them. She can be heard daily on the Christian Radio across the United States.
But Joni reevaluated the fundamental meaning of life. She decided that life was more than mobility, that living was to be fulfilled with other talents and abilities, which were latent within her. She started to develop what has become an extraordinary skill in drawing and painting with her mouth. She also gained a spiritual perspective coming to see her paralysis as only temporary, and that one day by God’s grace she will receive a new and glorious body.
Meanwhile, her chair is a tool to fashion her to become more like Jesus Christ. On one occasion Joni told 2000 young people, “God transformed an immature and headstrong teenager into a self-reliant young woman who is learning to rejoice in suffering.”
Psalm 107 is one her favourite passages in the Bible—it says that:
Everyone the Lord has rescued
from trouble should praise him.
He brought you out
of the deepest darkness
and broke your chains.
Have a look at Psalm 107—a remarkable story.