Nancy Guthrie and Joni Eareckson Tada begin their conversation by reflecting on the first time they met, more than 20 years ago. At the time, Guthrie was reading Tada’s book Heaven: Your Real Home, as Guthrie’s daughter had recently gone home to heaven.
This memory prompts Guthrie to ask Tada what it means to set the heart on heaven. Tada does her best to take God’s advice to lay up treasures in heaven, where she will be with Jesus, who makes it a heavenly place. Tada also references Jonathan Edwards’s remark on heaven where he said, in Tada’s paraphrase, that everything we do down here on earth has a direct bearing on our capacity for worship and joy and service in heaven. For Tada, this means that every day she can invest in heaven, trust and obey God, believe his Word, and follow him more closely.
Guthrie adds that the joy of heaven is going to be many things, but the Bible says that the ultimate joy we’re going to have is being in God’s presence and seeing him face to face.
This resonates with Tada as someone who has been paralyzed for 52 years. Though she looks forward to having a new heavenly body one day, she’s most looking forward to the new heart—a heart free from all sin.
Guthrie then asks Tada if she thinks it’s true that suffering allows the Christian to relate more to the sufferings and things of Christ. Tada says that suffering can be a platform that gives someone authority to model and speak about joy in suffering. When Tada looks at her quadriplegic friends and their trust in the Lord through their heartache and hardships, she listens to what they say about their faith.
Guthrie adds that it is an incredible privilege, at the lowest places of our lives, to sense that God is at work and present in these low places of life—the work of God on the interior of our lives is being put on display for the world.
Guthrie goes on to ask Tada how she makes sense of various theological beliefs about praying for healing and believing that Jesus will heal us. In response, Tada says, we must go to Scripture to make sense of it all because, yes, on one hand, God wants us to pray for healing. Jesus wants us to be healed in the sense that he despises suffering. He doesn’t take any delight in it. He spent time on earth removing it. Yet we also must look at Jesus’s priorities—he is much more concerned about the healing of our inward soul, about getting rid of sin. God’s core plan in rescuing us is to get us free of sin, not only when we first believed and when we prayed to receive Jesus, because we are even now being saved.
Guthrie and Tada sing multiple hymns together as their hearts are stirred during this conversation about suffering, healing, and heaven.
Nancy Guthrie: Joni, I’m thinking that I met you actually 20 years ago, last month.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Yikes.
Nancy Guthrie: And I remember exactly what I said when I met you.
Joni Eareckson Tada: What was that?
Nancy Guthrie: We were out in California and I said to you, “Joni, I have been reading your book on heaven because my daughter just went there.” I love that book on heaven. In fact, you just redid it.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Yeah, I did because I’ve learned more, I’ve grown more, I’ve studied more, I’ve cried more, I’ve suffered more. And there’s so much more we can always learn about our eternal estate.
Nancy Guthrie: Yeah. So when you think about heaven, going to be in the presence of Christ, do you try to imagine what it’s like? Or what’s that like for you when you think about heaven? What does it mean to you to set your heart on heaven?
Joni Eareckson Tada: Oh, boy. Well, you know, when you look at all the references to heaven in Scripture, they can tend to sound so clunky and unimaginative. Golden thrones, streets of gold, glassy rivers, crystal rivers, it’s hard to imagine it and so I just take God’s advice and do my best to “lay up treasures” in that heaven. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like, but I know I’ll be with the Lord Jesus and that’s what will make it heavenly.
And so I kind of follow Jonathan Edward’s advice where he said that…this is to paraphrase it. He said that everything we do down here on earth has a direct bearing on our capacity for worship, and joy, and service in heaven. And that gives me a cue. That means that every day I can invest in it, I can do little bits of drastic obediences, I can trust him more, I can believe God’s word more, I can follow him more nearly, dearly, closely. And in doing so, I’m enlarging my eternal estate.
And that to me is just…I get so excited to think that I might have more joy in heaven than I can possibly even imagine if I would but trust him, if I would but obey him. And I don’t want to diminish my eternal estate. I don’t want to jeopardize it. I don’t want to diminish it or lessen it, I want to increase it because I want to…I just want to hear those words, to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” don’t you?
Nancy Guthrie: Absolutely. You know, I think so often, Christian conversations about heaven can sometimes diminish it. You know, sometimes I think heaven gets talked about only in terms of seeing those we love who have gone before and we value that. Don’t we? I do. I mean, sometimes it actually takes my breath away that that’s really true, that I will see those I’ve lost.
Joni Eareckson Tada: But it’s kind of a fringe benefit, isn’t it?
Nancy Guthrie: It’s a fringe benefit. Yes.
Joni Eareckson Tada: It is not the big thing.
Nancy Guthrie: I mean, certainly, if we look at Scripture, I mean, you know, I’m not much on people writing books or talking about their experiences when they say they’ve been to heaven, but there’s five people I will trust in the Bible, you know. I’ll trust Isaiah, and I’ll trust Paul, and I’ll trust John, and I’ll trust Ezekiel. I mean, these are testimonies of having seen into the reality of heaven. And so what they focus on is what really excites my heart about heaven because all of them, they focus on a throne, and someone seated on the throne of the universe.
Joni Eareckson Tada: I think the appearance of a man, but not quite like…
Nancy Guthrie: Yes, one, who looks as if he has been slain.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Right. As if…
Nancy Guthrie: So he bears the marks of his very human suffering. I’m with you, the joy of heaven is gonna be many of things, but what the Bible sets before us is this joy we’re going to have at being in his presence and seeing him face to face.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Yeah, I can’t wait! And what you’re saying is resonating because, I mean, you’d look at me in this wheelchair paralyzed for 52 years, and most people would think, “Oh, you’re looking forward to your new body.” And yeah, okay, that’s what you get in one of those fringe benefits. But I’m looking forward to the new heart, a heart free of manipulating others with precisely timed phrases, a heart free of fudging the truth, a heart free of hogging the spotlight, believing my own press releases and all that stuff. A heart free of not believing the best of others, a heart free of caving into fear or anxiety about the future. I mean, I just can’t wait to have a heart free of sin. I will be holy as he is holy. Heaven is this holy habitation of holy people and so let’s get ready and start being holy down here on earth so that we can enjoy him more in heaven. That to me is heavenly. To be able to, “Oh, Jesus, it’s you. It’s really… I’m here and I’m with You,” and that’s the big deal about heaven.
Nancy Guthrie: I think we should sing about it.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Yeah. How wonderful…
All: How glorious and my song shall ever be, how marvelous, how wonderful is my Savior’s love for me.
Nancy Guthrie: When we all get to…
All: …heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory.
Nancy Guthrie: You know in Isaiah 54…I was just telling some friends about this last night, Isaiah 54 the first verse, “Sing, oh barren woman, burst into song.” I love that. I mean, because we all are barren. We all have physical times of bareness, times when our prayers are lifeless, times when our love is cold, when we see no fruit in our lives, and what are we supposed to do when we feel that barrenness is sing. Burst into song just like we just did because we have so many good reasons to rejoice. Oh my goodness, we have our citizenship in heaven, our home in heaven, our names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, in the blood of Christ. We’ve got new names, we’ll have new responsibilities, pillars in God’s temple, whatever that means. And we’ll judge fallen angels, and there’s so many things that are gonna be about heaven that are just going to make heaven so heavenly, and it’ll all be about worshiping the Lord Jesus.
I like to think that I’m the bride getting ready, you know, for the wedding supper of the lamb and how can we best get ourselves ready but to trust and obey, and believe in more, and serve him with happier hearts, and just grab onto his word like anchors of Scripture that help us through the day. Just get ready for heaven, that’s what life is all about.
Nancy Guthrie: Well, we are getting ready as we love him now and knowing that the day is going to come and we will see him face to face. And you and I can be hand in hand seeing him face to face.
Joni Eareckson Tada: And we’ll see your little ones that you’ve lost. That we’ll gain…
Nancy Guthrie: Together, we’ll gaze upon him.
Joni, I remember long before I met you, I was standing in the back of a hotel ballroom and you were upfront. And I was just watching the audience as they listened to you. And I remember thinking to myself, “What is it that makes everyone lean in so closely to listen to what Joni has to say?” And I realized it’s your suffering. That suffering gives a person some credibility to talk about the things of Christ, have you found that to be true over your life? Why do you think that is?
Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, it’s a platform that gives one authority. I can’t imagine talking about welcoming our trial as a friend, without having welcomed that trial as a friend. And we’re such a visual people, we’re such sensual people, we’re so in tune to what we can see, and feel, and touch, and hear, and smell, and to see somebody. And this is why those who inspire me are most often other quadriplegic friends. And I see their smile in the midst of what is obviously to me such grief and loss and heartache and hardship. And I see their smile and I think that if they can trust the Lord Jesus living like they’re living, and if they tell me that they see it working all together for their good in God’s glory, I’m gonna believe them. I’m gonna listen to what they have to say. I want them praying for me, but it’s, oh my goodness, their prayers have authority. They speak with not only empathy and understanding but they know about that of which they’re speaking and telling me, and they help me know that I can make it as well.
I’ve got a couple of quadriplegic friends who are…they’ve been in bed, one of them has been in bed for 15 years. And when she talks to me about trusting Christ, I listen. The woman’s got authority, she’s done it, she’s been there, she’s living it and I think all of us can do that, can’t we? With our friends, our neighbors, our sisters and brothers in Christ, if we can but showcase that smile in the midst of adversity. And I’m not talking about a hypocritical smile like pasted on, I’m talking about, okay…
Nancy Guthrie: Honest about the hardship of it and yet.
Joni Eareckson Tada: I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m gonna teach my heart what it isn’t feeling by stepping ahead and giving the smile that I know God will give you mercy to feel at some point later on. It’s like Piper talks about mouthing words of thankfulness. You might not feel thankful in a situation but you begin saying, “Jesus, I thank you that today I’m sitting up in a wheelchair. I thank you that today there are no bladder infections, that I can breathe easily, that I can move forward, that I’m…” You just say it. Say with your mouth and in so doing, you stir up thanks in your heart and I think that’s… When you tell people that and then they see it, you’ve got the authority to say it.
Nancy Guthrie: You know, at our retreats that we do for couples who have lost children, at one point I ask them a question, “Do you sense that people are watching you?” And I know you’ve felt that your whole life, right? That when you suffer, people are watching you, and I think they’re watching especially… I think both Christians and non-Christians are watching, and I think there’s something they’re watching for. I think they’re watching for “Does Jesus make any difference at all when the worst thing you can imagine happens to you?” They really want to know. I think they’re watching because…especially when they watch someone who’s experienced their worst nightmare and they want to see “Does Jesus make any difference?”
Could I expect that if that does happen to me, that this faith that I’ve at least given lip service, could I expect that it would somehow equip me, that it would strengthen me, that maybe I could have genuine joy and rest and peace in the midst of the heartache and that I wouldn’t be destroyed by it? And I think that’s an incredible opportunity for us as believers because we want to show people, you know, what this Jesus, I’m not just giving lip service to him, but when the going gets rough, he is at work in the interior of my life. And this faith I’ve given lip service to is the real deal. And suffering, I think, is what gives us the opportunity to put that on display.
Joni Eareckson Tada: And you’re not just inspiring those who are watching on, you’re not just lifting their spirits and inspiring, somehow your victories, because we are intimately linked together in the Body of Christ, somehow your victories become hers, who observe you and watch you. But not just those around us, Nancy, as you were talking, I was thinking of… the audience is much wider and bigger. In Ephesians 3:10, help me, Jesus. It says, “It is now God’s purpose that through the Church, his manifold wisdom should be made known to the powers and principalities.” So when you’re persevering with your smile, and when you are making Jesus… he’s real in your life and those can see it, there are millions, and millions, and millions, and millions of unseen beings that are on tiptoe watching to see just how great you think God really is. That he might inspire such loyalty. They want to see themselves, “Is God really this big? Let’s see if he is worked out through his grace exhibited in this person’s life.” And it’s like suddenly your life becomes the blackboard upon which God is chalking all these amazing lessons about himself before the powers and principalities that think he’s dirtied himself by trifling with dog-nasty sinners. You know, they think that God has ruined his reputation, stained his good name by caring about those rotten sinners down there, but you and your obediences are showcasing, God is using you to showcase, “Uh-uh, it’s all about mercy. It’s all about mercy, and love, and grace, and tender loving kindness,” and we get to do that.
Nancy Guthrie: What an incredible privilege… at the lowest places of our lives to sense that God is at work and in these low places of life, the work of God, on the interior of our lives, is being put on display for the world to see.
Joni Eareckson Tada: For the world, and for the unseen world. Unbelievable. What a privilege. If only we could have that big picture view of life. Sometimes suffering, the first thing it’ll do, it will cause you, and you know this, Nancy, you get all claustrophobic, you get all inbred, you get so inward-looking, you become ghettoized, and isolated, and insulated against other people’s concerns. And it all becomes all about me and my pain, and how much I’m hurting. And if we could but crack that exterior and see beyond our own selves to what the big picture really is, it will brighten our hearts and give us the vision to step out beyond ourselves, don’t you think?
Nancy Guthrie: Absolutely. In my life…
All: …Lord, be glorified, be glorified. In my life, Lord, be glorified today.
Nancy Guthrie: So I was up early yesterday morning, Joni, before church, and I turned on a TV preacher. I was wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe his message was more solid than I thought it might be, but here was his message. He said, “Never pray if it be your will, then heal me. But that it is always God’s will to heal and therefore we just say, ‘Jesus, I’m receiving your healing.'” I just wonder how that hits you. I mean, over your lifetime, I know that you’ve had so many people who wanted to pray for your healing that you would leave this wheelchair behind, but I also know that in recent years as you’ve dealt with two bouts of breast cancer and gone through radiation, I get emails from you that say, “Pray! Pray that God will work in my body at this radiation point and bring healing.” So I just wonder, how do you make sense of these things? Do you?
Joni Eareckson Tada: Oh, it’s… you gotta go to Scripture to make sense of it all. Because, yes, on one hand, God wants us to pray for healing. We’re told in James, “If any of you is ill,” you know, “go to the elders, get anointed with oil, confess your sins.” But once you’ve done that, what are Jesus’ priorities? Well, yeah, Jesus wants you healed in the sense that he despises suffering. He doesn’t take any delight in it. He spent most of his time on earth trying to remove it. But Jesus’ priorities, I think, are clearly displayed when he says about those blind eyes that he has healed and those withered hands that he has touched and healed. He says, “If that eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If this hand leads you astray, cut it off. Much better to go through life maimed than to set yourself on a course where you’re going to end up self-destroying.”
And so I think right there we see the priorities of our Savior. He is much more concerned about the healing of our inward soul, about getting rid of sin. God’s core plan in rescuing us is to get us free of sin, not only when we first believed and when we prayed to receive Jesus, but as you know, we not only were saved, we are even now being saved.
Nancy Guthrie: The new creation has come. But then Paul also tells us, that’s a work. There’s a renewing work that’s going on in the interior of our lives, but at the same times, the outside is…
All: …wasting away.
Joni Eareckson Tada: It’s supposed to waste away.
Nancy Guthrie: And it’s this tent… the tent’s temporary.
Joni Eareckson Tada: It’s gonna get threadbare, you’re gonna get cancer, you’re gonna get the flu, going to break your leg, you’re going to get Alzheimer’s, ALS, your child might be born with muscular dystrophy. This is just part of what it means to live in a broken world. And we know that in Isaiah, we’re told that the eyes of the blind will be open, and the ears of deaf unstopped, and the tongues of those who can’t speak are going to shout for joy and the lame are gonna leap like deer, and that’s going to be a glorious day when that happens. And in fact, when Jesus walked on earth, he gave us sneak previews…
Nancy Guthrie: Didn’t he?
Joni Eareckson Tada: Right, of that coming attraction, you know.
Nancy Guthrie: But we can’t always be expecting in the present what he’s reserved for later. He’s reserved. He was giving us these tastes and glimpses in his healing ministry, wasn’t he? Of what this world is going to be like, what our bodies are going to be like on this day that is to come when his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven, which is what we pray for, but we’re not there yet.
Joni Eareckson Tada: We’re not there, got a long way to go. And in the meantime, we can better fit ourselves for that day, when the eyes of blind will be opened, the lame will leap like deer, we can better fit ourselves for that day. We can better fit ourselves for heaven by allowing God to use the hardships and the sufferings that he doesn’t remove.
I mean, if we prayed for healing, “Jesus, heal me of this cancer.” I pray, “Jesus, heal me of my chronic pain.” I’m in terrible pain all the time and it’s like, Jesus, and it just doesn’t seem to go away. So what am I to do about that? Am I to bemoan the fact that, “Oh, I don’t have enough faith, God’s will is that I’d be depressed.” Of course not. This could very well be God’s choicest tool to hone, shape, polish, chip off the edges, get me ready for heaven, get me holy. Jesus, there’s sin in my life. It’s rising to the surface because I’m resentful that my pain is still there. I can see it, the bitterness, the anxiety, the fear, the worry. Get rid of it, Jesus.
I don’t even know that I could be capable of such fear and bitterness and anger and worry were it not for that pesky hip. And so in a way, I can give thanks even for that because it bubbles up within me… the stuff like dross that just needs to be skimmed off the surface of my soul so that again, I might be better outfitted for, as you said, that glorious day yet to come when…
Nancy Guthrie: When he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it… But when? At the day of Christ Jesus. At that day when the healer…when his healing, it won’t be temporary, it’ll be eternal. It won’t be partial, it’ll be plentiful. It’ll be permanent. He won’t just like heal a body temporarily here and then someone’s gonna die later. It’s going to be permanent forever. Is he a healer? Yes, he is.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Yes, he is. You know, so many people quote to me that verse, “But, Joni, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, and if he’ll heal then, he’s gonna heal now.” But what a short-sighted, physical temporal view of that verse. Yes, Jesus is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. He’s always compassionate. He’s always good. He’s always kind. He is always looking out for what glorifies his father best. And that’s how he doesn’t change from yesterday, today, and forever, but the way in which he deals with us will change.
I mean, my goodness, look at the Israelites wandering in the desert, their shoes did not wear out, their clothes did not go threadbare. Does that mean our shoes and our clothes today should, you know, last us to the grave? Of course not. God’s purposes for his people change through the ages. And his plan, the way he works with his people, but he never changes. He’s going to be as gracious to me and my salvation as he was gracious to me when that pesky hip starts really hurting. And that’s where it requires trust on my behalf and faith in his word that, like you said, he will perform that good work that he began in me, he’ll complete it. All I have to do is get actively engaged with his spirit every single day. And just agreeing with him, “Yep, get me ready. Get me ready for heaven.” When we’ve been there…
All: …ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we no less days to sing our praise than when we first begun.