When I first met Vaneetha Risner, almost a decade ago, her divorce had just been finalized and we talked about how God had radically transformed her through suffering. Her story, which she tells in her memoir Walking Through Fire, is one of deep loss- contracting polio as an infant, being bullied as a child, suffering multiple miscarriages, burying a son, dealing with escalating weakness that will end in quadriplegia, being betrayed and abandoned by her husband- yet her story is much more than that. It’s the story of our God who meets us in our pain and is using every heartache for something bigger than we can ask or imagine. It’s a grace to welcome Vaneetha to the farm’s front porch today…
When the doctors said I should get a wheelchair, I fought it. It meant I’d be viewed as disabled and I’d spent my entire life fighting that label. But now things were different – I needed the chair to maintain my strength and keep me from falling- so I was forced to reframe how I viewed it.
I had to focus on what was good in my life and see the wheelchair as a blessing. Without it, I risked falling, wasting my energy, and being confined to the house more.
The wheelchair offered me freedom.
I had to change my perspective about using it—just as I had to change my perspective about everything. If I obsessed about what I’d lost or longed for or missed, I couldn’t enjoy what I had.
I needed to look forward and embrace the life I had, the life God had given me, even though I knew loss would be a constant.
Philosophizing didn’t make things any easier. When Dave and I went Christmas shopping, looking for a sweater for Shalini’s husband, I noticed the stares and curious looks. As we entered the store, the saleswoman looked at Dave and asked, “Is there anything I can help you find?”
I answered. “We’re looking for a quarter-zip sweater for my brother-in-law. Do you have any of those?”
Continuing to look at Dave, she asked, “Is there any particular color or material you’re looking for?”
“A wool blend would be great,” I responded in a loud voice.
This time she looked down at me and said, “We just got a new shipment in with a merino blend.” Then turning back to Dave, she said, “It’s a little crowded in the store. The sweaters are in the back, and I’m not sure if her wheelchair will fit back there. I can bring them out to her.”
Her? Her? I wanted to shout at her. “You can bring them out to us!” I answered.
Then she glanced down at me and said, “I’m so glad you’re here. And I love your shoes.”
My shoes? I laughed inside because we all knew my shoes—the kind the clinic had recommended—were truly ugly. She was simply doing what countless others would do: find one point of contact with me, like my shoes, and otherwise ignore me. Almost every time I went out in a wheelchair, people would address Dave about me, as if I couldn’t speak for myself.
I was no longer treated as an equal to people who were able-bodied, and I felt that humiliating loss of dignity.
But it was the small, seemingly insignificant losses that cut the deepest. Like the time I was trying to move a sculpture from one shelf to another and dropped it and it shattered. I can’t decorate anymore. I hadn’t even decorated much before, but I had once been able to if I wanted.
My mind flashed back to my childhood in the hospital ward, waiting for someone to bring me a bedpan. I could still feel the embarrassment and shame of being wiped, of being helpless. I shuddered knowing that one day I’d go back to that.
Was it possible to accept continual loss? To become used to the terror of constant decline? Or maybe the only possible reaction was to hate every single minute of it and rage against what was coming.
I began to read Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic at seventeen after a diving accident. As an artist and author of many books on suffering, she became my role model for living with loss and pain.
Joni wrote that her disability had deepened her passion for Jesus. I couldn’t understand how, but I knew that the same God who had transformed Joni could transform me as well.
She often mentioned that the angels and demons are watching us to see how we respond to trials. Knowing her life could display God’s worth to the unseen world inspired Joni to endure, to trust God, and even to choose joy when she was alone.
Joni’s perspective helped me reframe my daily struggles that were largely hidden from others. I took comfort knowing God would never leave me and clung to this assurance from Isaiah 43:2:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
But even with these promises and Joni’s example, despair and anger arrived in wave after wave.
God could have prevented this. Since He hadn’t, did that mean He’d chosen this suffering for me? Why would He do that to me? Hadn’t I been through enough?
The questions felt unanswerable. Raw. I knew I needed God’s help to go on. Yet I hesitated to cry out for help to the One who had seemingly lowered me into the pit, instead of lifting me out of it and setting my feet somewhere firm.
Just as in the months after Paul’s death, lament became my language. Morning after morning I woke to read and recopy the psalms of lament, claiming them for myself.
Every word I shaped with my pen was depleting my body’s energy but writing by hand in my journal was too important to abandon. It was my one indulgence.
I talked to God throughout the day, telling Him everything that was hard, everything that felt crushing, everything I hated. I repeated the words of sorrow from Scripture until they became my vocabulary.
As before, my brutal honesty pulled me toward God. And the closer I was drawn, the more my lament transformed into worship—and even trust.
Actually, it wasn’t transformed. I learned that lament didn’t need to be transformed—lament itself was an integral part of genuine trust and worship.
I’d rather be dead than be a burden.
My fingers worked a pen across the page of my journal.
Hearing others say their lives are harder because of me . . . it all seems too hard to imagine. It seems so unfair.
But in Your infinite wisdom, You chose this for me. You gave me the drive to push, to succeed, to help, and yet all along You knew this would happen. Show me what I can learn from this and help me glorify You through this. Help me to grieve honestly—but not as one without hope.
Sometimes it was hard to tell where my writing stopped, and my prayer began. Sometimes I wrote things that I prayed would save my life.
My life is for your glory. Bring something beautiful out of it.
Vaneetha Risner understands suffering. It’s hard and heartbreaking and she’s the first to admit that she doesn’t willingly embrace it. But she’s experienced the grace, provision and love of God in unforgettable ways through her pain and she wouldn’t trade those encounters for anything. In her memoir, Walking Through Fire, Vaneetha doesn’t just tell us about how to meet God in the grittiness of loss– she authentically shows us. This more than a memoir; it is a story of God’s faithfulness in suffering.
Vaneetha two daughters, Katie and Kristi, who she raised mostly as a single parent and is now married to an amazing man named Joel. They live in Raleigh NC and this video tells a bit of her story.
Vaneetha is a modern-day Job. And this is the story of a woman who feared God enough to not be afraid to cut through the smoke of things and be howlingly honest with God, to say out loud what a whole world of us are thinking…
If you preorder Walking Through Fire now or before January 19, 2021, you can stream the entire audiobook immediately, read by Vaneetha, for free as well as download an exclusive album featuring songs by Ellie Holcomb and Christa Wells among others.
With laughter and heartbreak, honesty and hope, Vaneetha reminds us that the same God who walked with her through fire is present with each of us in our pain—and offers a purpose and peace that is breathtakingly beautiful.