(RNS) Disability advocate Joni Eareckson Tada, long known as an evangelical icon and a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic who paints with a brush between her teeth, has faced a range of challenges since a diving accident left her paralyzed in 1967.
Now she’s facing another: breast cancer.
Tada, who turns 61 on Oct. 15, is undergoing chemotherapy and recently completed a new book, “A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty.” Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You have gone through a number of medical challenges — quadriplegia, chronic pain, and now breast cancer. What are some basic lessons you have learned about suffering?
A: It’s good not to simply resign yourself to it. It’s also good not to submit or yield to it with its overtones of `Oh, poor me. I give up. I give in” and not even coping or adjusting.
I think the key is to embrace what the Bible calls in Romans 12:2 a “good and acceptable and perfect will” from God. The only way to really let it do its work, and allow God to have his way, is to embrace and find God in the midst of suffering.
Q: So suffering is a part of God’s will?
A: God allows all sorts of things that he doesn’t approve of, even suffering. But when we do suffer, he tells us to commit yourself to your Creator — that’s trusting him — and continue to do good — that’s obeying him. Like the old hymn goes, “trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy” — especially in suffering — than to trust and obey.
Q: As a quadriplegic, you’ve talked about people offering to pray for your healing. Has your response to that changed over the years?
A: No, it’s pretty much the same. God can and often does choose to miraculously intervene in our circumstances, but it’s the exception to the rule. All we need to do is just look at the statistics of the many, many, many people who pray for healing and yet it never comes. I believe that God is focused on a deeper kind of healing, an inside kind of healing, a healing of the soul.
Q: How do you respond to those who connect lack of physical healing with some hidden sin or lack of faith?
A: We receive e-mail and letters from hundreds of people with disabilities who have been crushed in spirit because some well-meaning Christian — usually well-intentioned but misguided — has placed upon them this incredible burden, this sense of guilt for some hidden, unconfessed sin.
It’s incredibly sad that so many Christians place such a huge focus on the physical and the external, as though whether you’re up on your feet is the definitive evidence of whether or not your faith is strong.
Q: Is there a bottom-line answer to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people?
A: I think suffering is just one of the results of living in a fallen world. I often say that suffering is like a sheepdog snapping at our heels that drives us into the arms of God, where we otherwise would not naturally go.
Q: Can you talk about how you reacted to the breast cancer diagnosis?
A: It’s like God must be doing something big, and I believe that. I’m not sure what it is. I know it’s certainly something big in my own life, in my own faith. I think it will stretch it and cause it to grow and enlarge but there’s something else as well. I don’t know what that is.
Q: How are you feeling with the chemotherapy?
A: I’m feeling well and very hopeful but, boy, I’m very cautious. I don’t let people hug me or kiss me.
Q: You have long been known not only as an advocate but an artist. Have you been able to do that at all recently?
A: Not recently because of the chronic pain. Plus this cancer has made it very challenging to get to my easel. While I’m going through chemotherapy, I don’t want to put pencils in my mouth or anything that might cause an infection. I’m sure that when it’s all behind me, I’ll be thrilled to get back to my easel.