Joni Eareckson Tada was a vibrant 17-year-old in the summer of 1967 when she inadvertently dove into shallow water, paralyzing her from the neck down. Desperate, depressed, and suicidal for years, one day Joni cried out, “God, if I can’t die, show me how to live.” And he did. Joni is now a sought-after international speaker, best-selling author of more than 50 books, renowned mouth artist, worldwide disabilities advocate, and founder of the ministry Joni and Friends. We talked with Joni, who is a TCW advisor, on enduring through suffering.

You have endured tremendous suffering—living with quadriplegia, surviving stage-3 breast cancer, and enduring intense chronic pain for more than 15 years. Given all of those trials, has persevering through suffering gotten any easier?

Well, my quadriplegia, even after 48 years, is not really a big challenge. Neither is my cancer, difficult as it was for several years. But dealing with chronic pain has become harder. The older I get, the more pain I’m experiencing. And that daily pain has a way of complicating even ordinary days.

When that happens, I remind myself of 1 Samuel 7, when Samuel put up a memorial, his Ebenezer, after the Philistine victory and proclaimed, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” I think about that all the time and tell myself, Thus far the Lord has helped me, so why would he fail me now, and why would he forget me in the future? God has constantly proven himself trustworthy.

What else helps you when you’re in pain?

Most often I will sing a hymn or quote a Scripture over and over in my head. I love hymns because they are set to a tune, so they stick in my mind and heart throughout the day.

In the past few days, I’ve been struggling with pain and have been singing the second verse of “Be Still My Soul”:

Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: The waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

I love those words. I was singing them to myself last night. Those are the kinds of things that really help me.

I also seek out prayer. Sometimes I have to lie down in the office to readjust my support corset, and if I feel overwhelmed by pain, I will ask one of the girls helping me to put her hand on my forehead and pray for me. I need prayer. I need help. That interdependence on others has become a blessing.

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You are a role model to so many who sufferer. Who would you consider your role model?

I have many, but they are mostly people who no one knows. One is a young woman named Tracy Traylor who was a bright, active student at Baylor University studying design. One weekend she was driving home in a rainstorm when her car hydroplaned and hit a tree, leaving her paralyzed with a terrible brain injury and very limited use of her hands. She is an amazing person. She designs necklaces that have a leaping deer imprinted on a clay medallion. Her mother puts them together and attaches the verse from Isaiah 35:6 that says that one day, the lame shall leap like deer. People like that inspire me. The ordinary foot soldiers. Not necessarily the generals or lieutenants or corporals, but the “ordinary platoons,” as Chuck Colson called them. These are my role models.

What would you say to a friend who is tempted to abandon her faith in the midst of adversity?

Don’t do it. Don’t deny Christ. The stakes are too high. Our life on earth is just a tiny blip on the eternal screen.

A friend recently told me about a Francis Chan sermon in which he took a long rope and encircled the entire sanctuary. It was many yards long, and he said to imagine it went on forever. He stood up at the pulpit and pointed to a small piece at the end and said, “This is your life on earth.” And then he gestured to the rest of the rope that surrounded the sanctuary and said, “This the rest of your eternity somewhere else.” We need illustrations like that to put things into perspective. We need to remember that this life is so short and our reward in heaven is going to be great.

Jonathan Edwards spoke about how rewards in heaven are capacities. And every obedience, every godly act, every response to a tough trial here on earth increases our capacity for things like joy, worship, and service in heaven. We shouldn’t jeopardize that.

How can we best encourage someone going through suffering?

Prayer. I know that’s what changed me. I was suicidal, distraught, frustrated, and angry at God. I was sullen and peevish with an ugly disposition. Yet I know there were friends who prayed for me in a committed and specific way. When people struggle with depression, doubts, and fears, they are struggling not against flesh and blood but against the rulers and authorities and powers of the dark world, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. That’s who they are really wrestling against. So prayer is what dismantles those strongholds. When I hear of people going through depression, we pray for them. We ask God to move heaven and earth to begin taking apart their wrong thinking.

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What do you mean by “wrong thinking”?

I think our minds are so saturated with cultural messages about suffering. We think that suffering just shouldn’t have to be because we don’t know how to see it in God’s grand scheme of things. We have this idea in American Christianity that Jesus has come to make our lives happy and healthy and free of trouble, but suffering is that sheepdog that’s going to drive us to the Cross. It’s that chiseling anvil that will chip away at our pride. It will totally decimate us, force us to our knees, and humble us before God.

One thing that helps to reorient our wrong thinking is to memorize Scripture. When we memorize Scripture, we are memorizing God’s thought patterns. We’re learning the way God looks at something, which helps renew our minds. God’s thought patterns are woven all throughout the Bible. There’s hardly a Scripture we can memorize in which we are not looking at things from his point of view.

What advice do you have for those currently suffering?

Our response to suffering matters. I love Ephesians 3:10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” I think about that verse when I’m in pain at night and I remember a great many somebodies are watching. They are observing me. I want my life to be the blackboard upon which God chalks these incredible lessons about himself. I don’t want to do anything to defame God or smear his reputation or make him look untrustworthy.

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Philippians 2:14 says, “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” And it goes on to say we do that “so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” So the whole point about not complaining is to make the gospel look good to skeptics and unbelievers and people who live in a dark world. They are supposed to look at us and wonder what makes us tick. We shouldn’t look like whiners and complainers. We shouldn’t look like the world.

Every single Christian, every reader of this article, is on a platform in which we act out our faith. And if angels and demons aren’t looking at us, then people are. Christians, who need to see other believers trusting God in their suffering, and non-Christians, who want to see whether our faith really is valid, are watching us.

Steve Estes, who led a Bible study I attended when I was first out of the hospital, really drilled that into me. Your life is on display. It’s on display before others who you rub shoulders with every day. But it’s also on display before angels and powers and principalities.

All we have talked about today boils down to Jesus. Glorifying him, uplifting him, making him look stunning.