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Joni's Joy

Peter picks up on this theme of rejoicing in the midst of suffering in the first chapter of his first epistle. “In this,” says Peter in v. 6, “you rejoice.” Then again in v. 8 he says that Christians should “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory”!

What makes these two declarations about joy so remarkable is that they surround a description of suffering and trial and hardship, the very experiences that many think would make joy impossible. How can a person rejoice in the midst of pain? How can a sane human being celebrate God when God has allowed them to fall into hardship and deprivation? How can a Christian joyfully embrace weakness and disappointment and tribulation and trial?

Is it all a ruse? Is Peter really serious when he speaks this way? Is he just pretending? Some would insist that it’s all make believe. It’s pretense.

In response, let me tell you the story of Joni Eareckson Tada.

I first met Joni Eareckson Tada in 1991, in Orlando, Florida, at a conference where we were both scheduled to speak. I felt honored to meet her and even more so when she agreed to write the Foreword to my book, To Love Mercy.

Perhaps you don’t know who Joni is. Joni was 17 years old in 1967 when she had a diving accident that left her a quadriplegic. She has lived the last 46 years in a wheelchair, learning how to cope and survive without use of her hands or legs. Her ministry, Joni and Friends, has reached out to help others who’ve experienced similar tragedies, and done so with remarkable success.

Don’t dismiss what I’m saying simply because Joni’s suffering is so severe. Note how Peter refers to “various trials” in v. 6. They can assume any number of shapes and expressions: cancer, rebellious and ungrateful child, financial strain, a broken heart from a broken engagement, loss of a job, divorce, a friend declares he/she is gay, daily derision at work from those who think you’re a fuddy duddy, a kill joy, a dupe for believing in the supernatural, etc.

In the months following her accident, she became horribly depressed and suicidal. “I would wrench my head back and forth on the pillow at night,” said Joni, “hoping to break my neck at a higher level and thereby kill myself. I would beg my high school girlfriends to sneak in their mothers’ sleeping pills or their fathers’ razors. Anything to put me out of my misery.”

As the years passed, Joni came to a deeper understanding of what had happened to her and why. Suffering is a mystery, said Joni, “but not a mystery without direction.” She explains:

“We know one thing in this mystery: nobody is glorifying suffering. God does not think that a spinal cord injury is a great idea. There is no inherent goodness in cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, brain injury, stroke, heart disease, manic depression, No, No, No! There is no inherent goodness in disease or disability, but . . . God can reach down into what otherwise would seem like a terrible difficulty and wrench out of it positive good for us and glory for Himself. There is no inherent goodness in disability, disease, or deformity but we are promised in the book of Romans 8:28 that all things can fit together into a pattern, a plan for good, our good and His Glory.

What is that good? I can’t speak for you. I really can’t, and I would never take my experience and lay it like a template over your life and say this is the way God ought to work in your life. No, it doesn’t work that way. We’re all individuals, we’re all significant, we’re all unique, and God’s plan for each one of us is so personal, so highly personal.

[As time passed] . . . other things began to matter to me as well. God used this injury to develop in me patience and endurance and tolerance and self-control and steadfastness and sensitivity and love and joy.”

How can a quadriplegic honestly and sincerely testify to experiencing joy in the midst of that kind of almost unimaginable suffering, in Joni’s case, for over 46 years? How?

It is impossible to overemphasize the frequency and focus of the Bible on joy. In God’s presence, says the psalmist, “is fullness of joy” and “at his right hand are pleasures evermore” (Ps. 16:11). In Psalm 37:4 we are commanded to “delight” ourselves in the Lord. Joy is one of the many fruit of the Spirit, as Paul says in Galatians 5. He exhorts the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (4:4). In summing up all that he had revealed and taught his disciples, Jesus said, “these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). And I could go on citing dozens and dozens of other texts that affirm the same thing.

The Christian life is clearly one of immense, intense, ever-increasing joy that is often, as in the case of Joni, experienced simultaneously with unimaginable hardship, like paralysis.

Here in 1 Peter 1 the apostle mentions two reasons why we can “rejoice” in the midst of often horrific and terrible suffering. We’ve already seen the first. I pointed out in an article a few weeks ago that when Peter opens v. 6 with the words “in this” you rejoice, the “this” to which he refers is the glorious truth of our having been born again by God’s great mercy and our having been given a living hope that we shall receive an incorruptible and undefiled and unfading eternal inheritance. In other words, thinking about and meditating upon and pondering the marvel of this truth of what we have in Christ by grace enables us to persevere under great stress and hardship and pain.

To be continued . . .

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