When I was 30, the Joni book was an international bestseller, the Joni movie was enjoying a nationwide release, and I had moved to California to start Joni and Friends. Notice anything? A little Joni-heavy, don’t you think?
In 1979, when I moved to California from our farm in Maryland, I was in for a surprise. Nothing had prepared me for big city life in Los Angeles. The novelty of books and movies quickly wore off. I put a down payment on a single-story home and rented a small office to house my dream of reaching people with disabilities for Christ. Okay, Lord, I’m in California and ready to work. I had a lot to learn about administering a non-profit, leasing commercial square footage, managing a home and a budget, and building a ministry. And don’t forget my quadriplegia. Thirty years old? Where was my head?
Running Too Hard — with Quadriplegia
I hunkered down with wiser, more godly men and women than me. I immersed myself in Christian special-needs programs, learning about new models of disability ministry. Soon, several specialists and I were touring the country, holding summits for churches that wanted to minister Christ to special-needs families. I was off and running.
“I was actively engaged in the ministry God had called me to, and nowhere near as engaged in who he called me to be.”
And maybe — here’s what I would tell my 30-year-old self — I was running too hard. I knew I should balance the demands of ministry with personal spiritual disciplines, but looking back, I was far too actively engaged in the ministry God had called me to, and nowhere near as engaged in who God called me to be.
So, I would say to 30-year-old Joni,
“God is far more interested in reaching people with disabilities than you’ll ever be, and he can manage quite well with or without Joni and Friends. So slow down and love Jesus more. And prove that love by pursuing holiness.”
The thirtysomething girl would’ve shrugged, “Look, you’re pushing seventy. I’m doing fine with the Lord. Really.” I would’ve shaken the shoulders of that headstrong young woman and told her the same. What did she know about fully grasping the sobering weight of Christian leadership? Natural leaders tend to lean naturally on their giftedness, and so they fail to see the deceitfulness of sin. That was me.
Housebreaking Pet Sins
Oh, that I had been more actively engaged in my own sanctification — that I had partnered more with the Holy Spirit to not only sniff out sin in my life, but to say “no” to “ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12).
I had become skilled in housebreaking small transgressions, taming them to look respectable. For instance, I had been a Joni Mitchell fan for years; a Beatles fan, too. Their albums were the musical score for my life when I first broke my neck and was in the hospital. The song “Blackbird” had been an anthem for my depression. More chillingly, for my submerged bitterness against God. After I got out of the hospital, the Spirit convicted me of that. Those albums were not good for my spiritual health.
But after my move to California, and often at the end of a busy week, I’d ignore my conscience and wear ruts in Ms. Mitchell’s songs, “Still, I sent up my prayer, wondering where it had to go. With heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord on death row.” Not the most edifying thought to have stuck in your head.
Sweat the Small Sins
“Natural leaders tend to lean on their giftedness, and so, fail to see the deceitfulness of sin. That was me.”
Why sweat the small stuff, you may ask? Because I was deceiving myself, thinking God was only concerned that I would trust him with a life of total paralysis. Yes, by his grace, I could trust God in my quadriplegia, and I couldn’t wait to tell other disabled people about him. With such a noble ambition, surely he’d ignore small infractions.
A slip of the tongue in gossip. Watching TV when the Spirit says, “Turn it off.” Running mental movies of past successes. Flirtatious remarks. A slight fudging of the truth. Cherishing inflated ideas of my own importance. Slacking off in prayer. Daydreams I shielded from the scrutiny of the Spirit. And a few worldly passions, now and then.
“Oh, young one, Joni,” I would say, “Don’t allow these things to sink their talons into your heart; don’t cling to the very things which impaled Jesus to the cross. The cosmic stakes are too high. The price, too great. Don’t jeopardize the sphere of influence God has given you, and don’t diminish your eternal estate!” I would insist with my younger twin, “Your flimsy attempts to whitewash minor offenses is heinous to God. Stop it!”
Live from Godliness, Not Giftedness
Thankfully, in the mid-80s, I began to feel a rumbling in my spirit. I looked inward and could tell I lacked the power of godliness in my heart. My hopes weren’t as bright, and my sensitivity to sin was dulled. Then I read a book called Holiness by J.C. Ryle.
We are too apt to forget that temptation to sin will rarely present itself in its true colors. Never when we are tempted will we hear sin say to us, “I am your deadly enemy. . . . I want to ruin your life.” That’s not how it works. Sin, instead, comes to us like Judas with a kiss. . . . Sin, in its beginnings, seems harmless enough — like David walking idly on his palace roof which happened to overlook the bedroom of a woman. You and I may give wickedness smooth-sounding names, but we cannot alter its offensive nature and character in the sight of God.
That was the year I invited the Spirit to convict me about any itchiness to get my own way — I invited my new husband to call me out on it, too. When it came to offenses of any size, I wanted to be able to say to the Lord, “Cleanse me from all unrighteousness” (see 1 John 1:9). And I never looked back.
“Slow down and love Jesus more. And prove that love by pursuing holiness.”
Recently while housecleaning, a friend found a dusty pile of old albums in the back of my living room closet. “Hey, these are really worth something,” she marveled. I almost told her to give them to the Goodwill, but then decided to dump them. Better that than they wear a rut in some unsuspecting 30-year-old soul.
There are far better anthems for our lives. Courageous, celestial anthems that carry us from strength to strength, from faith to faith, and from grace to grace. Anthems that remind us that Jesus is ecstasy beyond compare, and that it is worth anything to be his friend, whether we are thirty or seventy.