BreakPoint: Joni and Suffering Well


John Stonestreet

A test of a worldview is whether it is big enough to weather sickness, disability, and the scorn of a culture.

A week ago Monday, my friend Joni Eareckson Tada had surgery to remove a cancerous nodule. This less than three years after being declared cancer-free. I’m thankful to say that the procedure seems to have been a success.

Please pray for Joni, her husband Ken, her family, and the continuing work of her ministry, Joni and Friends.

Soon after she received this new diagnosis, Joni wrote me about what it means to “suffer well.” And I thought: If there’s a category of life more alien to the secular, progressive mind, I don’t know what it would be. A dominant message in our culture is that suffering is irredeemable, worthless, and to be avoided at all costs—even at the cost of life itself. That’s the thinking behind doctor-assisted suicide for instance, something Joni has fiercely opposed.

Still what continually stuns me, and convicts me, is how Joni understands—even now, even after fifty years in a wheelchair and even in the midst of a second battle with cancer—that her suffering is not about her. It has eternal potential.

She knows (and she’s told me herself) that the way she handles what’s happening to her right now will send a message: not only that life with disability is worth living, but that God has a special place in His family for those our culture considers inconvenient. She understands that members of Christ’s body who can’t walk, or see, or interact on the same level as others are not only indispensable parts of the Kingdom of God, but are needed by the rest of us for our own edification and sanctification.

Unfortunately, many of us in the church fail to grasp this. In a recent piece in the Washington Post, sociologist Andrew Whitehead described how he and his family have struggled to find a church home. They have two sons on the autism spectrum, and he tells of degrading comments and behaviors by congregants who see these boys as interruptions instead of Image-Bearers.

Whitehead says he and his wife have spent years watching worship and sermons on screens, or just giving up and staying home. Christians have told him his children probably shouldn’t attend church, because they can’t really “get anything” out of it.

His experience, sadly, isn’t unique. He cites a survey of over 400 parents of children with special needs, which found that a third of them had switched faith communities because their children weren’t welcome. In his own research, he’s found that the odds of children on the autism spectrum never attending religious services at all are nearly double those of children without such a condition.

Church leaders, I get it. It’s hard. Dear friends of mine who have children with autism—including Chuck Colson’s daughter, Emily—have described their daily struggle and exhaustion in a way that leaves me in awe of their strength and faith. For a church to decide to prioritize, love, and serve a family with needs like this takes sacrifice.

But too often, the reason we fail to embrace these children isn’t because it’s too hard. It’s because kids with disabilities get in the way of the show on stage or the church brand. This type of Christianity, that’s focused on giving us a positive experience and making us feel good, is a small shriveled vision of the Gospel. This kind of Christianity will crumble in the face of true suffering. It won’t withstand the assaults of quadriplegia, of terminal illness, or of a child with a severe disability. It certainly won’t disciple it’s people to withstand the social disapproval of an angry culture, or a school full of angry peers. It leaves us poorer and anemic.

We will never be able to weather the ordeals that will come our way, neither as individuals nor as churches, unless we recover a theology, and practice, of suffering in Christ.

This Sunday I watched as a young man with disability served in my church for the first time as an acolyte. He didn’t do everything right, but we will all be better at following Jesus because he’s with us.


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