When “Cure” Doesn’t Come: Finding Deeper Healing
I know what it is like when the “cure” doesn’t come. At the age of 17, I made a careless dive into shallow water and broke my neck between the fourth and fifth cervical level. For years I prayed fervently to regain the use of my hands and legs, but that healing never came.
by, Joni Eareckson Tada
I know what it is like when the “cure” doesn’t come. At the age of 17, I made a careless dive into shallow water and broke my neck between the fourth and fifth cervical level. For years I prayed fervently to regain the use of my hands and legs, but that healing never came. Then, as I approached 40 years in my wheelchair, I began experiencing severe, chronic pain. This summer marks 52 years since I became a quadriplegic, and I still do not have answers for why pain is my constant companion.
Add to this, my diagnosis of Stage III breast cancer in 2010. After months of chemotherapy and cancer-suppressing drugs, I was declared cancer-free—only to have a more aggressive form of that same cancer reoccur in late 2018. I know both sides of the coin: what it’s like to be cured, and what it’s like when healing doesn’t come.
Physicians, nurses, therapists and other healthcare professionals are trained to cure—or at least “make things better.” So, I speak from experience: your patients are grateful for all you do. But, inevitably, you and I both know we will run up against the reality that sometimes a cure isn’t possible. What happens then? Have you failed as a healthcare professional? Have we patients run out of hope?
Healing: Physical and Spiritual
When I severed my spinal cord and lost the use of my hands and legs, I entered a world of wheelchairs, doctors, medical and therapy appointments, access challenges and countless other obstacles. In those early days, I wanted to be healed more than anything else… like, now. How wonderful it would be, how glorifying to God, I thought, if I were to jump up out of my wheelchair giving praise to Him—what a powerful testimony that would be! I was always on the lookout for “something miraculous” to happen.
Show Me How to Live!
Shortly after my release from the hospital in Maryland, I remember attending a healing crusade at the Hilton in Washington, D.C. Kathryn Kuhlman was well-known for reports of her miraculous ability to heal all sorts of ailments, and when I heard she would be holding services near our Maryland farm, I just had to attend. Ushers led my sister Jay and me to the wheelchair section of the big ballroom, where we sat among a large contingent of wheelchair users and others with physical limitations. Our excitement grew as Kuhlman emerged onto the stage, illuminated by a spotlight and accompanied by the swell of organ music. All over the large room, people were apparently being healed. Soon it would be our turn, we thought! It felt as though I were at the pool of Bethesda, calling out to the Lord, “Jesus, come over here! In the wheelchair section! Heal us, too!”
But then, even before the crusade was finished, ushers returned to escort us out. Jay and I found ourselves in a long line of wheelchair users, waiting for our turn for the elevator. Disappointment was written on everyone’s faces, and my heart churned, What now? Why didn’t God heal me? Over time, resentment and a complaining spirit took root in my heart. Christ the Healer seemed so far away. I became sullen and withdrawn.
Finally, one night in desperation, I cried out to the Lord, “Oh, God, I can’t live this way! Please, if I’m not going to die, show me how to live!” It was a simple plea, but at least my heart was turning God-ward, rather than inward. I felt a glimmer of hope. From then on, instead of spending my days sulking, I asked Jay to help me get up in the morning and push me to the living room where my Bible sat on a music stand. With a rubber-tipped dowel in my mouth, I flipped through the pages of the Bible, trying to make sense of it all.
God was answering that simple heartfelt plea. He was beginning a supernatural healing that would reach far deeper than any physical healing ever could. He was slowly uprooting resentment and bitterness by revealing Himself through His Word and drawing my heart closer to His. And it was happening in ways that never would have been possible before my accident.
The Highest Priority
With time, my perspective on healing began to change. I came to understand that God had a higher priority for my life than an instantaneous physical cure. When we look at healing in the Bible, we find that while it is true that Jesus took time to physically heal many people, He was most interested in their spiritual healing. In sending the 10 men with leprosy to the priests to be declared “clean,” He was also restoring them to fellowship with their community (Luke 17:11-14). Only after offering forgiveness of sins to the paralytic lowered through the roof did Jesus then offer physical healing (Mark 2:1-11). And most importantly, Jesus didn’t physically heal everyone. When it was time to move on, He did so, leaving behind multitudes unhealed (Mark 1:38).
His larger mission took priority—“to seek and to save the lost” and to bring spiritual healing to a broken humanity (Luke 19:10, ESV). It wasn’t that Jesus did not care about the problems among those He didn’t heal physically; it’s just He was more concerned about their spiritual welfare than their physical hardships. As Jesus famously pointed out, it would be better for a person to be maimed than to live in a state of sin and rebellion (Matthew 5:29-30).
As I’ve written elsewhere, “the core of God’s plan is to rescue us from sin and self-centeredness. Suffering—especially the chronic kind—is God’s choicest tool to accomplish this. It is a long process. But it means I can accept my paralysis as a chronic condition. When I broke my neck, it wasn’t a jigsaw puzzle I had to solve fast, or a quick jolt to get me back on track. My paralyzing accident was the beginning of a lengthy process of becoming like Christ”—and, in so doing, discovering the true purpose of my life.
The Purpose of Our Lives
When the cure doesn’t come, when fervent prayer for healing goes unanswered, the person with a chronic health condition needs to understand that his or her life still has meaning, value and purpose. How can we be so sure? Because no matter how “imperfect” an individual may find himself to be, he is still an image-bearer of his Maker, dearly loved by God and conferred with profound dignity and irrevocable purpose. We are all made in the image of God, and we all share equally in human dignity—regardless of our abilities or lack of them. To be made “in God’s image” is not a matter of what we do, it is a matter of whose we are—God’s—and what God intends us to be. His highest intention? That we be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, this truth has become obscured. When people learn that most quadriplegics cannot bathe, toilet, feed or dress themselves, they are quick to think, What a poor quality of life! But if people judge life value on one’s autonomy, abilities or inconvenient circumstances, they are missing the real purpose for living. God made us in His image, and that fact alone gives us a reason to exist: no matter what our abilities or disabilities, we are to be God-reflectors. And if God’s glory shines brightest through our weakness—which it does—then our inabilities become the best platform for God’s highest glory. That makes for great quality of life.
It’s why as a quadriplegic, I need to instruct myself in whose image I bear. Yes, my body may be broken, but I am a God-reflector. I mirror a God who was pleased to make me in His image (Genesis 1:27). That is what gives me human dignity. Not my ability to walk or use my hands, or toilet myself or cut my own food. No, my dignity is rooted in Christ in me, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
Help for the Journey: The Healthcare Professional’s Role in Healing
Clearly, life with a disability or other chronic condition is anything but meaningless, purposeless or without value. Despite the challenges often associated with disability, it can be an open door into deep times of spiritual growth, supernatural joy, Spirit-sent peace and unimaginable contentment—especially when the body of Christ comes alongside an individual with a disability, walking with them through difficulties and helping lead them to the all-sufficient grace found in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Still, life with a chronic condition can be hard. As a healthcare professional, how can you best help your patient on the journey toward discovering his or her God-given purpose in Christ? I offer three suggestions:
- First, as professionals on the front lines of the life-and-death debates over abortion, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and the entire panoply of other emerging bioethical issues, you play a crucial role in resisting the pervasive cultural lie that it is somehow beneath one’s dignity to be weak and helpless. Your compassion underscores that a person with a chronic condition is not “better off dead than disabled.” We must all counter lies by being a voice for life—for the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, the medically fragile and the vulnerable. Because all people are created in the image of God and, therefore, possess a dignity that cannot be violated even when requested.
- Second, healthcare professionals can advocate for the adoption and integration of dignity-enhancing practices in all spheres of the healthcare world. It is a well-documented fact that the healthcare profession can be daunting for persons with disabilities and other chronic conditions. In a 2009 report, the National Council on Disability (NCD) observed that although more than 54 million Americans have some form of disability, and despite the fact that “people with disabilities comprise the most important health care consumer group in the United States,” it remains the case that “people with disabilities tend to be in poorer health and to use health care at a significantly higher rate than people who do not have disabilities. They also experience a higher prevalence of secondary conditions and use preventive services at a lower rate than others.”
The NCD also noted, “people with disabilities are affected disproportionately by barriers to care. These barriers include health care provider stereotypes about disability, lack of appropriate training, and a lack of accessible medical facilities and examination equipment, sign language interpreters, and individualized accommodations.” The NCD found it particularly worrisome that “few professional health care training programs address disability issues in their curriculums,” concluding that “the absence of professional training on disability competency issues for health care practitioners is one of the most significant barriers that prevent people from receiving appropriate and effective health care.”
Finding effective long-term solutions to these problems will take time and, in some cases, financial resources. Still, given their commitment to the dignity of every human person, Christian healthcare professionals ought to be in the vanguard of efforts to address these and other challenges faced by people with disabilities in the medical setting.
- In the meantime, on a day-to-day level, you can assist your patients with chronic conditions in the quest to discover meaning and purpose in their lives, notwithstanding the suffering they may be enduring. One practical way of doing this is to direct families struggling with disability to a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. Last summer, the ministry held 37 retreats domestically for families with special needs, providing five days of fun activities, networking with other families and spiritual fellowship. Another practical action point is to make encouraging resources available to your patients. Joni and Friends has developed a variety of practical resources to help people find hope in the midst of suffering. For example, the Beyond Suffering Bible was carefully crafted by the Joni and Friends team in partnership with Tyndale House Publishers to specifically address the issues people struggling with disability commonly face. More recently, Joni and Friends published a gift book entitled Infinite Hope. Complete with stories and insights about suffering and the goodness of God (many drawn from the Beyond Suffering Bible), along with my artwork, Infinite Hope is a wellspring of words and images designed to encourage readers to experience a fuller, deeper love for Christ, the Blessed Hope. Consider placing a copy of Infinite Hope or the Beyond Suffering Bible in your medical office waiting room. It is a small gesture, but often it is in the interludes of life—waiting in line at the grocery store or at the doctor’s office—where God speaks most clearly to a hurting heart. Don’t miss out on the opportunities to plant these seeds of reassurance. Find out more at org.
In closing, I leave with you this word of encouragement. The care that you as a healthcare professional offer involves so much more than seeking a physical cure. In your various ministrations—the caring word, the gentle touch, the patient listening—you bring healing, even when a cure is not possible. After all, everything you are and do is ultimately in service to the Great Physician, the One who alone brings true healing.
CMDA and Joni and Friends
Nearly one billion people around the world live with disabilities. Many of these individuals and their families live in poverty, pain and despair. Joni and Friends want to change this, and the ministry is committed to bringing the gospel and practical assistance to those impacted by disability around the globe.
For the last 40 years, Joni and Friends’ mission has been to present the hope of the gospel to people affected by disability and their families through programs and outreaches around the world. To do this, they evangelize people affected by disabilities and their families; train, disciple and mentor people affected by disabilities; multiply disability effective churches; and promote a biblical worldview on disability through education and policy. These activities are accomplished through outreaches like family retreats, held both domestically and internationally, which offer a haven for families impacted by disability. Joni and Friends also facilitates Wheels for the World, which collects used wheelchairs, walkers, canes, etc. in the U.S., restores them to like-new condition and then distributes them internationally to children and adults with disabilities.
Joni Eareckson Tada has served on CMDA’s Board of Reference for 25 years and has spoken at CMDA’s National Convention on multiple occasions. We are working together to increase the capabilities of our missionary members and their hospitals to better serve patients with disabilities. Joni and Friends has supplied expert faculty for our Continuing Medical & Dental Education conferences and at the annual Summit for missionary executives involved in healthcare missions. CMDA and Joni and Friends’ Christian Institute on Disability cooperate on public policy matters of concern to both organizations. For more information about CMDA’s mission outreaches, visit www.cmda.org/missions. For information on Joni and Friends’ Christian Institute on Disability, visit www.joniandfriends.org/ministries/christian-institute-on-disability/.
About the Author
Joni Eareckson Tada is the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center. She is an international advocate for people with disabilities. A diving accident in 1967 left her, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, without the use of her hands. After two years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a fresh determination to help others in similar situations. Joni has served on the National Council on Disability and the
Disability Advisory Committee to the U.S. State Department. She has guided evangelism strategies among people with disabilities worldwide and has been awarded several honorary degrees including Doctor of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary; a Doctor of Humanitarian Services from California Baptist University; and a Doctor of Humane Letters by Indiana Wesleyan University. She is the author of more than 50 books
and received the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Joni and her husband Ken have been married since 1982.
 The anecdote related in the preceding four paragraphs is adapted from the devotional “Show Me How to Live!”, in Beside Bethesda: 31 Days Toward Deeper Healing (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), pp. 19-21.
 From “Hardships that Hang On,” February 17 entry in Pearls of Great Price: 366 Daily Devotional Readings (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).
 For much more on this, see John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).
 National Council on Disabilities, The Current State of Health Care for People with Disabilities (Washington, D.C.: 2009). Available: https://ncd.gov/rawmedia_repository/0d7c848f_3d97_43b3_bea5_36e1d97f973d.pdf.
 Ibid., pp. 9-10.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 In its report, the NCD recommended a number of structural, systemic and practical reforms aimed at increasing access to healthcare for persons with disabilities and improving disability competency among medical professionals.