Borrowing God’s Smile
by Joni Eareckson Tada
Honesty is always the best policy, especially when you’re in a crowded restroom at a Christian women’s conference. As I was refreshing my lipstick at the mirror, a woman standing next to me said, “Oh, Joni, you always look so happy in your wheelchair. I wish I had your joy!” Several others in the restroom agreed. “How do you do it?” she asked.
I glanced at the women around me, all sharply dressed. I knew the break-time would soon be over, so how could I honestly answer her question in sixty seconds? How could I sum up what has taken more than four decades of quadriplegia to learn?
Most people assume I am a strong person. They read the Joni book years ago and remember that I was always on-the-go before the 1967 diving accident in which I became a quadriplegic. They remember that I was athletic and disciplined, so naturally they take for granted I am the same way now: The girl’s got true grit. If anybody can handle 47 years in a wheelchair, Joni sure can!
The truth is, I am not strong. I’m a coward. Really, I am. I look at my future of life-as-an-aging-quadriplegic and my chest gets tight from panic. My wheelchair has never been smooth-sailing, and now that I am 65, it’s not getting easier. I struggle when it comes to trusting God. At night when I lie in bed and wrestle against the pain of deteriorating cervical discs, I feel so weak and weary. So when I’m up and about in my wheelchair, is my smile made out of Colgate? Is my joy all a put-on? Is my peace plastic or my contentment a cover-up?
The conference was about to start again, but several women lingered—they were the ones who really wanted to know how I do it every day. I said, “I don’t do it.” That raised eyebrows. “In fact, may I tell you honestly how I woke up this morning?”
“After Ken leaves for work at 6:00 a.m., I’m alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00 a.m. It’s a friend coming to get me up. While I hear her making coffee, I often pray, ‘Oh Lord, my friend is about to give me a bed bath, get me dressed, sit me up in my chair, brush my hair and teeth, put on my make-up and send me out the door. And I’m so tired. I don’t have strength to face this routine one more time. I don’t have strength to face the day. I have no resources. I don’t have a smile to take into the day. But you do. May I borrow your smile? I urgently need you, God. I can’t do quadriplegia today, but I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’”
I could tell these women appreciated my confession about my weakness. I could tell they were carrying burdens, too. They were weary and tired of their own limitations. Maybe they were even tired of living. One girl said, “So, what happens when your friend comes through the bedroom door?”
“A miracle happens. When she opens my bedroom door, I turn my head on the pillow and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It’s not mine. It’s my Savior’s. He’s got a great smile! Whatever joy you see today —” I gestured to my paralyzed legs “— was hard won. It was hard-fought-for this morning.”
That is the only way to live. It’s the Christian way to live. Most of those women would go home that evening to broken garbage disposals, haranguing teenagers, swollen ankles and laundry to fold. God willing, they will not try to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and grin and bear it in their own strength. Lord willing, they will remember to go to God for grace. I have learned—as I hope these women learn—that the weaker we are, the harder we must lean on God; and the harder we lean on Him, the stronger we discover Him to be.
I believe the truly handicapped ones are those who, when their alarm clock goes off in the morning, throw back the covers, jump out of bed, scarf down breakfast, give God a speedy quiet time, and then rush out the door on automatic cruise control. If you live that way, God resists you. James 4:6 says, “God resists the proud” (NKJV).
Who are the proud? People who don’t think they need God. Believers who pretty much have “following Christ” figured out, and so live life on their own steam. The proud are not the “poor in spirit” of whom Jesus speaks in the Beatitudes; the proud are those who neglect to come to God in empty-handed spiritual poverty every day.
But take heart! For although pride and self-sufficiency may hinder grace, James 4:6 also says, “but [God] gives grace to the humble” (NKJV). Who are the humble? They are people who urgently need the Lord. The humble come to Him in empty-handed spiritual need, feeding on His grace in their hearts. It’s what happens to me every morning. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10-11).
When we are weak, He is strong. It’s something I’ve learned in my wheelchair—and I hope my chair reminds you to find a heaven-sent smile tomorrow morning at the foot of God’s throne. For nothing can separate us from the love of God. Neither height nor depth, sword nor famine, quadriplegia, marriage problems, nor bankruptcy. “For all things are yours… for you are of Christ and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3:21). And remember, there’s no smile quite like the Savior’s.
Joni Eareckson Tada is an international disability advocate. A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. She and her husband Ken were married in 1982 and reside in Calabasas, California. Learn more about Joni’s ministry at www.joniandfriends.org.
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