CLJ was honored recently to talk with author Joni Eareckson Tada about her life and her most recent project, a new study Bible called the Beyond Suffering Bible. After suffering a traumatic accident at a young age, Joni has taken the best of her situation to inspire millions through television interviews, radio shows, books, and a movie. Fulfilling Joni’s desire to reach more people struggling with disabilities or families struggling to care for suffering people, the Beyond Suffering Bible hit the shelves in August 2016. Following are the highlights of our conversation:
Q: I wanted to start off and get just a little bit of background before we begin. Most people know your story but a few people don’t, and I just wanted to give them some information before we discuss the book. You were in a diving accident when you were very young, right?
A: Back in 1967, I was a teenager getting ready to head off to college and had just graduated from high school. With my sister on a fling, we went to the beach just to spend some sisterly time together before we both went off to college on our separate ways. I took a reckless dive into some shallow water. I didn’t realize it was as shallow as it was. I hit the sandbar, snapped my head back, crunched the vertebrae in my neck, and severed my spinal column. There I was, lying face-down in the water, hoping that my sister Kathy would notice that I had not surfaced from my dive.
It’s curious because Kathy had her back turned to me. She didn’t even see me take that dive, but right before she was ready to wade up into the shallow end and walk up on the sand to our towels on the beach, a crab bit her toe. And it startled her. So she quickly turned around in the water to scream to me, to tell me to look out for crabs. When she turned around, she saw my hair floating on the surface of the water, and I wasn’t bringing my head up. She knew something awful had happened and came quickly swimming after me and, thankfully, just as I was starting to drown, she pulled me up.
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t thank God for the fact that He’s in the little details of our lives–tiny details, incidental details. What are the odds of a crab biting somebody’s toe at the exact instant that person has to be alerted that somebody’s in trouble. It’s just amazing to me. So I never forget that we not only serve a God who’s into big-picture things, but He’s into incredibly minor, tiny-little-detail things. That’s an encouragement to me.
Q: So you were 17 or 18 when this happened?
A: I was 17 years old. When I learned that my quadriplegia was permanent, I sank into this deep depression. After I went home from the hospital my depression evolved into suicidal despair. I would wrench my hair back and forth on my pillow hoping to break my neck up at some higher level and thereby end my life.
Every morning for two or three weeks I would tell my sister JK, who invited me to live with her on the farm, to just let me stay in bed. Just close the drapes, turn out the lights, shut the bedroom door, and leave me alone. When you’re in the dark for that long, you can only relive so many memories of what it was like to be on your feet and then those memories start to wear thin like an old reel on a 38-millimeter movie camera. It just starts to splinter. I just started hating the fact that I was living in the dark, and I was suffocating with so much self-pity. I realized that I could not, that none of us can, live with that kind of hopelessness. I think the one thing that human beings thrive on the most is hope.
Finally, in that dark bedroom, I cried out. I said, “God, if I can’t die then You’re going to have to show me how to live. I don’t know how to live as a quadriplegic.” It was really a sincere prayer. It was short. It was sweet. But the Holy Spirit heard me, and the next morning I got out of bed and decided to face life.
My sister pushed me in a wheelchair to a music stand in the living room, just a black music stand where she’d set my Bible. Clenching a mouth-stick between my teeth, I began turning the pages of God’s Word. I knew, in a vague kind of way, that it contained answers for my plight. I just had no idea where to look. Thankfully, God brought wise Christian friends and specifically one friend–his name was Steve Estes, a young man who really had a good handle on the Word of God. And God brought that young man Steve along to help me discover some incredible life-transforming precepts. I found bread for my hungry soul. I’ve never been the same since.
Q: Wow, that’s a great story. I’m glad that I can include those details as I review this book because people need to understand where you’re coming from. You know suffering, and you’ve been through it for decades now. So you know what’s important to people and how to guide them through as they’re reading the Bible.
A: This is exactly why this Beyond Suffering Bible means so much to me. What I just described to you happened almost 50 years ago, and it’s always been my heart’s desire to help people who struggle as I once did. And I want this Bible to be that wise Christian friend—I want this Bible to be that Steve Estes, who comes alongside the hurting person and provides hope and guidance and encouragement. This Bible to me is a lifetime of work. It is what I want to give the 17-year-old Joni, who is struggling with depression and sitting in front of a music stand with her Bible, flipping the pages with a mouth stick and not knowing where to go. This is the Bible I want to give Joni. This will help her.
This pretty much describes my passion behind this special edition of the Word of God. I do not pretend to add anything to the Bible. I’m its general editor, and the people we chose to contribute to the Bible—whether they wrote book introductions or profiles or connection points or resources or whatever—none of us pretend to add to the Bible, but we just wanted to make it easier for depressed, hurting, hopeless people who don’t know where to look. We just want to make it easier for them to find the help they need in God’s Word.
Q: I think you’ve done an excellent job of that. I’ve been looking at the Bible since I received it earlier this week. It’s a study Bible, and you’ve got all the information on the first page of every new book of the Bible. You tell us who wrote it and when, the writer’s purpose, and the main message of the book. I like all of your connection points that are scattered throughout, that they go deeper into explaining the verses and the points. The profiles and the essays at the back that go even deeper are by people who also know suffering. It just speaks to my heart. I know you created it specifically for people who are dealing with disabilities or illnesses, but I think it would also be good for anyone who has ever suffered—which is everyone.
A: Absolutely. This is a Bible for anyone who has suffered–yes, a life-altering injury or illness, a parent who gives birth to a child with special needs–but it could touch the life of someone going through bankruptcy, an unexpected divorce, an unexpected death in the family. You’re a mother and you find out your son’s on drugs. You turn to the back of this Bible and you read Steve Arterburn’s article on accidental drug addiction–and wow, there’s salt here. There are resources. I love it that people care for those who suffer, for those who hurt—family members, nurses, professional people, caregivers. I love the fact that in the profiles you see that Epaphroditus is a caregiver. We don’t think of Epaphroditus as a caregiver to the apostle Paul, but he was. He took care of Paul, and there are some principles in Epaphroditus’s life that really resonate with caregivers. I love that, and even in the book introductions, I’m sure you’ve noticed that from Genesis to Revelation the introductions go beyond what’s traditional to reveal things about suffering, things about disability. I believe that all those introductions were written either by people who have a significant disability or who are a family member of someone with a disability, and that’s pretty special.
To go back to your original point–yes, it’s for anybody who hurts; it’s for anybody that’s struggling with hopelessness. It’s for anybody that’s so depressed, yet they know God’s Word is where to turn to. They just need help, and this Bible can be that help.
Q: Would you like to tell us anything about the particular way the inspiration for this Bible came
about and how the team of contributors came together? I’m sure the germ of the idea started long ago, or maybe it came overnight. I was hoping you could share a little bit about that.
For a long time–decades–I’d wanted to be a part of creating a Bible like the Beyond Suffering Bible. There are all kinds of Bibles–Bibles for single women, study Bibles for students, Bibles for people who are in recovery–all kinds of special editions of the Word of God. When I saw how popular these various special editions were, I thought, wow, that is something I want to do. I want to help create a Bible that will bless people like these other unique editions of God’s Word are blessing.
So I asked my team here at the Christian Institute of Disability: is there any way that we can connect with a good publisher who would be interested in working with us? We put out some feelers and before we knew it, our friends at Tyndale took the bait. We met together about five years ago, and it was a great collaboration. It didn’t take long for us to sketch out the outline to assign the various contributors to several of the topics, and what special articles we wanted to include in the back. I did the article on accidental addiction, and it is just stellar. So many people are addicted accidentally to painkillers nowadays. These are the things that really resonate with our contemporary culture. That’s how it all came together, with a lot of prayer. I must confess that we had a group of people who were committed to pray for this Bible as it was being written and edited. I’m so grateful that praise, worship, and intercession covered this project from beginning to end.
Q: I think it’s a great guide and a great resource. I have several other Bibles in my home, but this one can help you in a very specific way. You can open up almost any page and find something that will help you to understand what’s written in that book of the Bible and to help you highlight the points of the Bible that are written for people who are hurting. I admire your work. I can tell that so much time went into this. How much time did you spend working on
This was a combined effort, a collaboration between not only myself but all the contributors who are listed in the front of the Bible. Our Christian Institute of Disability began this project six years ago, and we were so excited. We were, first, very thrilled to have a good partner in Tyndale, and secondly, it was just a joy to gather around us experts, expositors of God’s Word who were acquainted with disability.
It’s so needed today because most people hate suffering. They wish they could erase it out of the dictionary. Ours is a culture of comfort and instant gratification. We have no patience for suffering. Most people want to drug it or escape it or divorce it or do anything but live with it. We’re told in God’s Word suffering may be His choices toward shaping the character of Christ in us. As I often say, God permits what He hates to accomplish that which He loves. That’s something my friend Steve Estes once said to me years ago. God permits what He hates to accomplish that which He loves. That’s kind of a theme in my life, and I want the reader of this particular edition of God’s Word to walk away understanding that–that God permits what He hates. He allows all sorts of things He does not approve of and He hates them.
I’m thinking of the crucifixion of His own Son. When we think about what was involved—torture, murder, treason, injustice—we wonder how can any of that be God’s will. But we’re told in Acts 4:28 that these men–that is, Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate and the mob in the streets and the drunken Roman soldiers–did what God’s power and will decided beforehand should happen. So the world’s worst murder becomes the world’s only salvation. That same exchange that happened at the cross happens in our lives.
God permitted what He hated in my life, this spinal cord injury. He takes no delight in diseases and multiple sclerosis and cancer and the like, but He permits these things to accomplish Christ in us, the hope of glory. That’s wonderful.
Q: I agree with you wholeheartedly. I wanted to go back and ask you: you’ve made it your life’s work to encourage other people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. How long have you been working like this? What year did you start Joni and Friends?
A: When I got out of the hospital I was a mouth artist, and the Today Show saw me on some local Good Morning Baltimore television piece. They saw my story and asked if I would want to come to New York and be interviewed by Barbara Walters. A publisher of Harper-Collins Zondervan saw this interview and asked if I’d like to write my book. Then, Bill and Ruth Graham read the book, and they made a movie of the book. I began receiving so many letters, and I realized: Oh my goodness, God has placed me in an extraordinary position of influence. I’d better steward this well.
That’s why I started Joni and Friends in 1979. I wanted to be a good steward of the opportunities that God had just placed in my lap. It’s not like I went banging on anybody else’s door and asked will you please write my book, will you please do a story or movie on my life, would you let me speak on Mr. Graham’s crusade? These things just happened to me, so I knew they were from the Lord. Because of that, I really wanted to be a good steward, which is why I started Joni and Friends. That was in 1979. So we’ve been serving special needs families for about 37 years. But, again, it’s not just people with disabilities and their families. For instance, I do a daily radio program called Joni and Friends. It’s aired on 1100 radio outlets across the country, and mainly the messages are for the average hearers who go through their own kind of suffering, their own struggles. The insights that I learn in a wheelchair are just as applicable to anybody who wants to rise above their circumstances. Over these 37 years that we’ve been working at Joni and Friends, we’ve gained a lot of skill, gathered around us a lot of experts, and become an authoritative voice on a biblical worldview on disability. It’s a privilege.
Q: You give hope and inspiration to so many people. Your name is known and equated with someone who knows suffering and encourages others in such a good way. So I appreciate you, and I appreciate this copy of the Beyond Suffering Bible. I’m glad to have it. It’s a wonderful resource.
A: There’s a great article in the back of the Bible written by my friend Dr. Michael Easley. He was president emeritus of Moody Bible Institute, and he suffers with chronic pain. And I deal daily with chronic pain. Pain is at epidemic proportions right now in the United States. So many people are struggling with chronic pain, and this is the Bible that speaks to them. Disabilities come out in all shapes and sizes.
Q: They surely do. As you pointed out earlier, it’s not always just physical. Sometimes things happen in life that are just devastating. It can be physical or it can be emotional or spiritual, and I think your Bible does provide a pathway straight into the passages that speak directly to hope for people who are feeling hopeless in the moment.
Is there anything else you’d like to share specifically about this Bible that you’d like me to include?
A: It covers the topics that people wrestle with when they’re hurting–whether it’s miraculous healing; end-of-life issues; death with dignity; help for caregivers; the parenting challenges of children with special needs–when is it a disability and when is it dysfunction (that’s a question that a lot of these parents struggle with); how is the church going to embrace more families like these. I see this Bible as a real change agent. People aren’t going to find a better, more comprehensive resource for understanding affliction and how God uses it. I’m very, very grateful to you and our friends at the Christian Library Journal who are spreading the word.
Q: You’re welcome. I think this will be a great resource for many, many people, and I’m so happy to write the review and let people know about this great resource that’s available now.
Thank you so much, Joni.
Valorie Cooper, CLJ Special Features Writer