John MacArthur opened the Strange Fire conference, and then, for the second session introduced Joni Eareckson Tada as a friend and former member of his church. She was at the conference to share her testimony of living as a quadriplegic who has prayed for, but not received, a miraculous healing. As MacArthur said in his closing comments, if anyone has the faith to be healed, it must be her. In a sweet and spontaneous moment, Joni called MacArthur to the stage and, hand-in-hand, the two sang a couple of stanzas of “O Worship the King” together. I have been to a lot of different conferences, but that will now rank as one of my all-time favorite moments.
Joni Eareckson Tada
Joni began by reading John 5, the story of Jesus at the pool of Bethesda healing a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. She followed it with her story of going to see Kathryn Kuhlman, hoping that she would be healed and rise from her wheelchair. But Kuhlman did not heal her, and Joni wondered who this God was who would deny her what she was sure she needed. A bitter spirit began to take hold of her. If she couldn’t be healed, she wanted to be left alone in her despair.
When she did turn to the Bible, she had a special interest in healing, but soon saw that physical healing was not Jesus’ main interest; he was far more concerned with spiritual health. She realized then that her interest in Jesus had been more for what he might do to heal her body than for how she might serve him. That is when she began searching for a deeper healing and once she understood that healing, the Lord taught her that her disability was a means through which God was causing her to grow in holiness.
She went on to speak of the chronic pain that lasted for many years and the stage three cancer that followed it and expressed how she has learned to be grateful for the suffering because of the way it keeps her longing for Christ. The suffering that results from sin in the world, God now uses to get rid of sin. There is nothing sweeter than knowing the joy of the Lord Jesus in the midst of suffering and all the while she holds on to the hope and the confidence, that in heaven, the big deal won’t be getting a new body that works, but a glorified heart that no longer twists truth, becomes anxious, manipulates others, and all these other manifestations of sin.
Even today she often has well-meaning charismatics who come up to her and pray for her healing. Though she never says no, she does always ask them to pray for specific things and then highlights character issues. Will you pray for my bad attitude? Will you pray for my grumbling? She means to show them that she is far more concerned with indwelling, remaining sin than chronic pain and legs that do not work.
She went on to describe a trip to Jerusalem and going to the very place where Jesus had healed that paralyzed man so many years ago. And there, in a moment alone, she found herself praying to God to thank him for not healing her, because a “no” answer to her requests for physical healing had purged so much sin, selfishness, and bitterness. That “no” answer left her depending more on God’s grace, has given her greater compassion for others, has reduced complaining, has increased her faith, has given her greater hope of heaven, and has caused her to love the Lord so much more. She sees the joy of sharing in his suffering and would not trade it for any amount of walking.
And then, in classic Joni style, she led everyone in prayerfully singing the hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.”