Joni Eareckson Tada is a hero to me. She has been the best example to me of how to handle suffering and difficult things for the glory of God. Joni was paralyzed in a diving accident as a teenage girl and has spent the last 40+ plus years as a quadriplegic. To make matters worse, she was diagnosed with stage three cancer just a few years ago. She has faced and endured more difficulty than nearly any person I know, yet she has done so with tremendous faith.
In a recent article I read by Joni she said, “I thought when I became disabled I had missed God’s best for me, and that the Lord was then forced to go with some divine plan B for my life.” She went on to say that she thinks this is the case with many people. She said, “Many people assume that Satan’s schemes throw a monkey wrench into God’s plans, catching Him off-guard, and presenting God with problems He wishes would have never happened.” This could not be further from the truth. The Bible teaches that God is infinitely more powerful than Satan and God is in complete control of every single thing that happens in our lives and in this world. Therefore, nothing passes into our life that does not first go through the hands of God! Joni said, “While the devil’s motive in my disability was to shipwreck by faith by throwing a wheelchair in my way, I’m convinced that God’s motive was to thwart the devil and use the wheelchair to change me and make me more like Christ through it all.” That is why I love Joni Eareckson Tada. Her perspective on pain and suffering always points back to Jesus Christ!
As Christians, we must understand that God is determined to have us share in His joy, peace, and power. But there’s a catch. God only shares His joy on His terms, and those terms call for us, in some measure, to suffer as His precious Son did while on earth. As 1 Peter 2:21 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.” Those steps lead us into the fellowship of Christ’s suffering where we become “like Him in His death”: that is, we daily take up our cross and die to the sins He died for on His cross!
I love what Joni has said, “While suffering sandblasts us to the core, the true stuff of which we are made is revealed. Suffering lobs a hand-grenade into our self-centeredness, blasting our soul bare, so we can be better bonded to the Savior.” God uses afflictions to make us holy, and we are never more like Christ, never more filled with His joy, peace, and power, than when sin is uprooted from our lives. Does this mean that God delights in our suffering? Absolutely not. In fact, in John 11:35, right before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He is found weeping. He is weeping over the grief He sees that death brings, even though He knew that He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. The same thing goes for our suffering. God permits all sorts of things He hates, in order to accomplish what He loves. Just as God permitted Satan to thwart Job’s life, so He often allows hard things into our lives, not because He doesn’t love us, but because He does love us. As someone has wisely said, “Satan may power the ship of evil, but God steers it to serve His own ends and purposes.”
The reality for Christians is that pain and discomfort are not God’s ultimate focus for us. He cares about these things, but they are merely symptoms of the real problem. God cares most, not about making our lives happy, healthy, and free of trouble, but about teaching us how to hate sin and to keep growing into the likeness of our Savior, Jesus Christ. As Joni says, “God lets me continue to feel sin’s sting through suffering while I’m heading for heaven, constantly reminding me of what I am being delivered from, exposing sin for the poison it is.” As I said earlier, “God permits what He hates, to accomplish what He loves.” As Joni so beautifully said it, “One form of evil, suffering, is turned on its head to defeat another form of evil, sin!” Therefore, Christian, in your suffering, you can smile, because you know that God is accomplishing what He loves in your life, uprooting sin in your heart and making you more like Christ! This is no “Plan B” for your life, but His good and loving Plan A!