Better than walking

One day, one choice and one prayer changed teenager Joni Eareckson’s life forever.

Joni Eareckson Tada
UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 7, 2014: Singer Joni Eareckson Tada attends the 22nd Annual Movieguide Awards Gala. Photo David Livingston/Getty Images

Joni Eareckson took what she describes as a "really stupid dive" into what ended up being extremely shallow water.

As a result her head snapped back as she hit the bottom of the water, crunching four of her vertebrae, which resulted in the severing of her spinal cord. Joni couldn't move a muscle.

There she was, lying face down in the water, desperately hoping that her sister Kathy, who had invited her out to the beach for a swim, would notice that she had not surfaced from her dive. But Kathy's back was to Joni and she hadn't even seen her dive off the raft! The minutes stretched longer and longer. Joni thought she was going to die.

Joni had had a happy childhood, growing up in a very athletic family who were very involved in tennis and horse-back riding.

"My earliest memory of hearing about the God of the Bible was around a campfire on the beach," Joni says. "I was with my sisters, my Mom, and my Dad, hearing stories of Noah, Moses, David, and Daniel. But God wasn't really personal to me."

All that changed though, when, at 14 years old, Joni went away on a church weekend retreat. She was challenged by the speaker there who asked the kids to measure their lives up against the Ten Commandments.

"As I measured my life up against those Commandments," Joni recalls, "one by one by one ... I got this overwhelming sense that I was missing the mark; that I was not going to make it."

Joni shares that she was hit with the realisation of why Jesus had come to Earth. He was the only One who kept the Commandments even when she didn't and even when she couldn't.

Joni and Ken
Joni gets a hug from husband Ken in 2013, during her fight against cancer.

"I was only 14," Joni remembers with a smile, "but I was able to reach out and embrace Jesus and say, 'I need You.'"

Joni returned home, very excited about her new faith. Through high school, however, the enthusiasm of what she had done began to wane.

"My prayers became very self-centred," she states. "I prayed things like, 'God, I need to lose weight,' 'God, I need a new boyfriend,' 'God, I need good grades on this test'. Unfortunately, I thought I had done God a great big favour by accepting Jesus as my Saviour."

Towards the end of high school, Joni was convicted about the way she was living. She prayed, "Lord, I'm not doing this Christian thing right and I know it. I don't want to go to college and defame Your Good Name. I know it's far more than about me so do something in my life to jerk it right side up because I'm really living this life wrong."

Just a few weeks after Joni's high school graduation, Kathy took her to the beach for a swim. There, Joni made the dive that tipped the entire course of her life upside down.

"As I was lying in the water," Joni shares sadly, "Kathy got bitten by a crab. She was so startled, she turned around quickly and called out to me, 'Joni, watch out for the crabs!' It was then that she saw my blonde hair floating on the surface of the water. I was ready to drown. Kathy swam over and pulled me out of the water. I was never so grateful for fresh air!"

Kathy had saved Joni. But for what purpose? For what reason? Joni couldn't help but wonder.

Lying in the hospital, Joni was told by the doctors that she would have to sit down for the rest of her life as a quadriplegic without the use of her legs and arms.

"I remember thinking, 'God, is this your idea of answering a prayer? A prayer for me to draw closer to you?'" Joni says. "How could He have taken me so seriously?"

Joni sank into deep depression. However, she had a few Christian friends who came to visit her in hospital.

A Bible verse that they shared with Joni was from Jeremiah chapter 29 verse 11: "I know the plans I have for you, plans not to harm you, but to help you, plans to prosper you, and to give you a hopeful future."

“God’s plans
for a hopeful
future for
me was not
me ... walking”
At first, Joni couldn't understand why the Lord had allowed her to become a quadriplegic if He had plans to prosper and help her. But, as she read the context around the verse, she began to understand.

"God's plans for a hopeful future for me was not necessarily me jumping up, dancing, kicking, running, walking, and getting back the use of my arms and legs," Joni explains. "No. God's plans for me go far deeper. A deeper healing – of my soul. When God says He won't harm us, it doesn't mean the body, or our circumstances. He is not going to do anything that will harm our soul! Our body may be harmed, yes, but it will somehow search to enrich our soul!"

A quadriplegic of 46 years, the sufferer of chronic pain and the victim of breast cancer, Joni still continues to praise God for her many blessings.

Joni is happily married to Ken Tada. They have no children, but nurture and encourage many other children as if they were their own.

For over 35 years they have run the not-for-profit organisation Joni and Friends, which shares Jesus and practical help with the disabled community.

Joni painting
Joni Eareckson Tada has never let her disabilities hold her back.

Joni is also a busy public speaker, author, singer and radio host.

One day, a few years ago, Ken was driving Joni home from chemotherapy (during the time when she had breast cancer) and they were talking about suffering being little splash-overs from hell. As they pulled into the driveway, Ken asked, "What do you think splash-overs of heaven are? Are they those easy, breezy bright times when everything is going your way?" Joni answered: "I said no. Splash-overs of heaven is finding Jesus in your splash-overs of hell. Nothing is more heavenly, nothing is sweeter, nothing is more poignant, and nothing is more precious than finding Jesus standing next to you in your hell. And I wouldn't trade it for any amount of walking in this world."

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