In truth, I’ve never met Joni Eareckson Tada. And yet I have. She has no idea who I am, yet sometimes I feel like she’s my very close friend. I’ve never had the privilege to shake her paralyzed hand or hear her voice speaking to me, yet it’s as though I’ve sat beside her for hours of stimulating conversation, listening so intently as she’s opened up the very deepest recesses of her heart and soul with such insight and godly wisdom that these amazing “conversations” have impacted multiple corners of my own life in incredibly significant ways.
Her book “Heaven…” came to mind again recently when someone on Facebook asked, “If you were stranded on an island, what’s the one book–besides the Bible– that you would want to have with you?” There are just a few books I consider to be that valuable, and hers is unquestionably one of them. Currently, I am reading her book, “Heaven…Your Real Home” for the fifth or sixth time –not counting the numerous times I’ve picked it up to re-read particular sections that I found needful to hear again at certain times– or the times I’ve read out loud thought-provoking excerpts to my husband– or the many, many times I’ve passed on to others some relevant thoughts and insights she’d written about, for strength and encouragement when they also were in their own times of terrible need. Several times, I purchased copies of the book and gave them to others.
Last night, my attention was captured again by her thoughts in the book about “suffering,” and– to those who “see God” in the midst of it– how suffering prepares us for heaven.
Suffering is not something we usually like to talk about. Yet, as urgently as we all try to avoid it, it’s something that’s common to everybody to some degree or other. We spend our whole lives trying to run from it, and yet ironically, life neither here nor in heaven would have meaning or depth, were it not for suffering. There would be no access to heaven, had it not been for the suffering of Christ. But do we really, truly understand that?
“Suppose you had never in your life known physical pain…” Joni writes. “How could you appreciate the scarred hands with which Christ will greet you?… If Jesus went through so much suffering to secure for us that which we don’t deserve, why did we complain when we endured on earth only a tiny fraction of what He went through on our behalf?…
“…Suppose you had never in your life known emotional pain. No stained reputation. No bruised feelings. No pangs of guilt. What if no one had ever offended you deeply? How could you adequately express your gratitude when you approach the Man of Sorrows who was acquainted with grief?…
“…Suppose you had never in your life known the struggle against sin… There is a distinct connection between heaven and this struggle…”
As I read that, while knowing of the suffering that Joni herself has endured (and continues to endure,) I felt guilty and wondered if the minor “suffering” I’ve had to endure comparatively here on earth might mean that I can only anticipate a very lowly position in the eternal Kingdom in heaven. Yet even Joni herself wrote of her awe to think that she herself might stand near the ranks of other men and women who–suffering so much more than she herself has– had been torn in pieces, burned in flames, tortured, persecuted, eaten by beasts, drowned…. She observed that, “maybe we would bite our complaining tongues more often if we stopped to picture the scene in heaven.”
In this life, everyone has (or will eventually know what it’s like to have) suffered to some degree or other, though very few of us have known suffering to the degree that Joni, or others that I know even now, must endure. Years ago, our friends Bruce and Ellen happened to be walking into our house the moment that I was on the phone receiving the news that my 25 year old nephew had just been killed in a car accident. Grieving along with me, Bruce later told me that as he witnessed my deep grief, he was incredulous to think that he himself had never really had to suffer, had never known grief. Yet almost immediately, one by one he began to think of recent events in his life– his wife’s cancer; his son-in-law’s death in a tragic car accident; some devastating broken relationships; heartaches in his family… Though he had indeed “suffered,” through it all Bruce had remained so fixed in his focus of Christ, and so consumed with God’s glory through his circumstances that he had actually failed to consider his own circumstances as “suffering!”
Likewise, reading Joni’s recounting of martyrs and victims of severe suffering in the past had almost created a momentary fear in me that because I had not been counted worthy of really suffering, I could not really know the joy of identifying intensely with Christ.
Yet immediately, I knew my perception wasn’t true. A picture immediately came to me with incredible vividness of a very difficult time in my life, though I don’t often think about it much anymore. At that time, terrible grief over a tragic event in my life had been compounded by some broken relationships with friends I had assumed would walk with me through the grief. Overwhelmed with the devastating sense of loss and hopelessness, I had been sitting on my front porch in unbearable grief, when suddenly a “revelation” of my identity with Christ literally flooded me. With a vividness I had never before comprehended, I “saw” the Christ who was “despised, rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…wounded for our trangressions, bruised for our iniquities…” Incredulous tears fell down my face as I sat in complete awe of having encountered Jesus Christ in such a way.
Though my own adversity was still so, so much less than what He Himself had suffered, I knew in that moment of my own grief that He did indeed understand the sorrow of my heart. He Himself really truly had gone that way before me– and He Himself had given me this unbelievable privilege of identifying, even in a such a small degree, with His own suffering. It didn’t change Him… but unquestionably, it changed me!
Suffering in itself is not necessarily redemptive.
Certainly, focusing on our suffering and holding on to resentment towards those who might have caused our suffering will only make us bitterness and anger.
But finding God in the midst of suffering is life-transforming, and as Joni writes, “moves us toward heaven.” A “Theocentric,” God-centered passion lifts us above the suffering–though it may not deliver us out of it. The pain may continue. But our hearts are fixed on what’s above, not on what’s below, and that makes all the difference!
Some day, in the new heaven and the new earth, I will actually, physically sit down face to face with Joni–or better still, we’ll hike together through breathtaking mountainous scenery– and I’ll listen as she recounts to me again the story of how God was truly glorified through her suffering on earth. I will rejoice with her. And I will completely understand.
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