A Note of Thanks for R.C. Sproul
by Joni Eareckson Tada
Fifty years ago, when I snapped my neck under the weight of a dive into shallow water, quadriplegia smashed me up against the study of God. Lying in bed paralyzed, I had hard-hitting questions such as, “God, who’s behind all this suffering, You or the devil? Are You permitting this or ordaining it? I’m still a young Christian. If You’re so loving, why treat Your children so meanly?”
A well-meaning friend gave me a copy of The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Dr. Loraine Boettner. It was weighty and I had to turn its pages with a mouth stick, but reading it helped. Yet, I wondered, “Isn’t there something or someone out there who explains things more simply?” That’s when this same friend popped into my cassette player a tape by Dr. R.C. Sproul. I was hooked.
All during the summer of 1971, I’d park my wheelchair on the back porch of our Maryland farmhouse and listen to either Dr. John Gerstner or R.C. Up until then, God’s overarching decrees seemed scary. But Dr. S, as I liked to call him, presented God’s sovereignty as a truly comforting doctrine. It enlivened my spirit and elevated my faith to think that God had chosen me for the furnace of affliction (Isa. 48:10). R.C. helped me see that God had chosen me to be a quadriplegic for good reasons—not only good, but noble.
Fast-forward from the back porch to Joni and Friends, a California-based global ministry I began in order to reach for Christ people with disabilities and their families. Through thousands of wheelchairs and Bibles that we deliver, through every U.S. or overseas family retreat we hold for special-needs families, my heart’s desire is to help others find the same comfort and encouragement in the sovereignty of God. I want other disabled people to see that when God chooses them for the furnace, it’s a calling. It’s a privilege. I have R.C. to thank for that vision.
And I’ve told him so. It’s what began a truly sweet friendship between my husband, Ken, and me and R.C. and Vesta. Throughout the years, R.C. often asked me to speak at Ligonier conferences, and I was always a little breathless at the prospect. As a laywoman—and as a woman in a wheelchair—I was keenly aware of the weighty responsibility of presenting from a Ligonier platform, especially with R.C. “sitting over there with his critical ear.” But he had to know I was simply parroting the many lessons I had learned from him over the years.
When I was battling stage 3 cancer in 2010, R.C. and Vesta prayed earnestly for me and my husband. During my chemotherapy treatment, R.C. wanted to encourage Ken in the midst of his nonstop caregiving routines. Knowing Ken was an avid fly fisherman, R.C. sent my weary husband a G-Loomis Stream Dance 5 weight 10-foot rod. It was the best on the market. You should have seen Ken’s eyes get wide with delight and amazement as he opened his gift. I will always treasure R.C.’s thoughtfulness with that precious gift. It was such a “guy thing” to do; he obviously knew what would brighten my husband’s heart.
I want other disabled people to see that when God chooses them for the furnace, it’s a calling. It’s a privilege. I have R.C. to thank for that vision.
My most touching memories of R.C. have to do with his granddaughter Shannon. Born with multiple disabilities, Shannon had seizure disorders, could not talk, and required constant care. It would’ve shaken the faith of most grandparents, but R.C. held fast to the goodness of his sovereign God.
Shannon’s disability opened his eyes to a world of other special-needs families, and his rapport with them moved me deeply. His grandfather’s heart broke for Shannon, but he would often echo the words of Jesus in John 11:14: “This sickness . . . is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” And he was right. At Joni and Friends, we have told Shannon’s story to countless thousands, all to the end of helping others hold fast to the goodness of God in His sovereignty.
R.C.’s familiarity with Shannon’s severe disability prepared him to enter his own world of disability. Older age wasn’t easy on Dr. Sproul, and he often felt the bite of “outwardly wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16). But just as his insights once enlivened my spirit and elevated my faith in the furnace of affliction, those same treasured doctrines bolstered his spirit and faith. And his incredible sense of humor remained—the last time I saw him, we challenged each other to a bit of wheelchair racing.
And now as I muse on the homegoing of my friend, I can’t help but belt out all four stanzas of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Especially that last line: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!” I so want to be there when R.C. shakes the hand—no, rather, gives a bear hug and hearty slaps on the back—of Martin Luther.
Yes, Dr. Sproul will be remembered as a remarkable Christian statesman, standard-bearer for the Reformed faith, and advocate for the gospel once delivered to the saints. But I will miss my happy friend and the times we would spontaneously sing a hymn together in the hallway of some convention center or compete to see “who knows the most stanzas” to this hymn or that. I will miss the times when, in his older years, he would back away from me and shout, “Jezebel!” whenever I complimented him on how youthful he looked.
Our ministry at Joni and Friends is all about conveying the kindness of God in a horribly broken world of deep suffering. Dr. R.C. Sproul helped lay a foundation for our work, not only in my personal life, but in our outreach. For when crib deaths occur, when spina bifida or autism or Alzheimer’s encroaches, when people groan under the weight of significant disabilities and wonder if they’ve been forsaken, we can tell them that God has not taken His hands off the wheel for a nanosecond. R.C. Sproul, even to his last days, would hold forth that powerful line from Psalm 103:19: “His kingdom rules over all.” Yes, God considers these awful things tragedies and He takes no delight in misery, but He is determined to steer each affliction and to use suffering for His own good and glorious ends.
And those ends are happy. God is heaven-bent on sharing His joy, peace, and power with us. But there’s a catch. A caveat I learned early on from listening to R.C.’s tapes on my little cassette player: God shares His joy on His terms, and those terms call us, in some measure, to suffer as His beloved Son did while on earth. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
So, I say a heartfelt thanks to R.C. Never would he have imagined how God would use His teaching ministry to touch the life of this quadriplegic and countless others like me. R.C. showed me, way back in the beginning, that of all the things I might waste here on earth, I must not waste my disability. Earth provides my one and only chance to give Jesus a “sacrifice of praise,” demonstrating to the heavenly hosts that He is supremely worthy of my loyalty and love (Heb.13:15).
And once I get to heaven, R.C. and I will have all of eternity to sing praise to the God who permits what He hates in order to accomplish what He loves. Thank you for championing that blessed message, Dr. Sproul. I’ll catch up with you at the foot of the throne, where we will know—and sing—all the stanzas.
Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and chief executive officer of Joni and Friends, which reaches families affected by disability with the gospel of Christ. She is author of When God Weeps.