In her new book, A Place of Healing, disability activist and Christian author Joni Eareckson Tada takes on a question that has vexed the faithful for centuries: If God can heal people, why doesn't he always do so? Tada has a strong personal interest in the answer. A quadriplegic since a diving accident four decades ago, she has suffered from crippling chronic pain in recent years and was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this summer. Tada spoke with TIME about finding peace through suffering and continuing to fight for acceptance 20 years after the landmark signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
How are you feeling?
Cancer and chronic pain on top of quadriplegia is a little challenging. Right now I'm tired from the chemotherapy and that, coupled with the pain, makes it difficult. At times I've thought, "Lord, this is an awful lot to bear. Are you sure you know what you're doing?" And yet, I know the answer.
Some people think there's another answer, though. At the beginning of your book, you describe an astounding encounter you had in a church parking lot.
Yes, this very earnest young man named David came up to me, knelt down by my wheelchair, and asked me, "Joni, are you sure there's no unconfessed sin in your life? I just know that God wants to heal you." He was basically saying my faith wasn't big enough or strong enough or righteous enough. I reminded him of the story in Luke where the four friends brought their paralyzed buddy to Jesus to be healed. But it was the faith of those friends — not the man's own faith — that Jesus used as a channel for healing. Well, there you go, David, the pressure's on you.
Why do you think people need to believe that you're to blame for your suffering?
If we can come up with a simple explanation, "You did something wrong," then it's something we think we can control. In the Christian faith, God really puts suffering front and center. He doesn't get squeamish about it. But our human inclination is to turn the other way, to assume that this person must have a bad track record with God. We just don't want to embrace the God who can be found in the midst of pain. We'd rather listen to Jesus preach sweet sermons about lilies.
So why doesn't God always heal people when they ask?
There is this verse in Matthew 18 where Jesus is delighted to heal people who come to him. But he says, if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. Now right there, it shows that Jesus has a different priority, and that is our spiritual healing. If I had been granted a miraculous physical healing back when I was 17, I know I wouldn't be in a ministry serving other people with disabilities around the world.
So when you work with people in great pain, do you encourage them to let go of the desire to be healed?
We can certainly ask to be healed. Even I ask for healing regarding this pain, regarding this cancer. Anyone who takes the Bible seriously agrees that God hates suffering. Jesus spent most of his time relieving it. But when being healed becomes the only goal — "I'm not letting go until I get what I want" — it's a problem. There comes a point at which if you don't start living, your whole life is spent jumping from one healing crusade to the next. And I believe I have been healed — just not in the way that others expect.
A lot of people would look at you and find that hard to believe.
I know. But I'm happy. And on that level, I have been healed. People who have been healed in the way I think I have been healed, we don't care about wealth, success, comfort. Having that peace makes up for any amount of walking that I have missed. One problem I have with faith-healing is that it tends to be focused only on the physical aspect of healing. But Jesus always backed away when people came to him only to get their physical needs met. My goodness, he was ready to have you lop off your hand! His real interest was in healing the soul.
You were involved with passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which has now been law for 20 years. What still needs to be done for people with disabilities?
On the day the ADA was signed into law, we all went back to the hotel for a reception and our national director Paul Hearne gave a toast. He said, "This civil rights legislation is great in that it will open up doors of opportunities in employment, it will put ramps into restaurants. And yet this law is not going to change the employer's heart, it's not going to change the heart of the maître d'." He lifted his glass and said, "Here's to changed hearts." Paul understood what makes our society value or not value people. It's a matter of that moral center. I think the advancements will only be accomplished when we make friends with people with disabilities, when we stop tiptoeing around that person with MS, when we make ourselves see the woman in the wheelchair. You can't legislate that.