By Mark Ellis
He is a former high school basketball star who set records at his school and in the state of Indiana. Looking forward to his sophomore year playing for Hope College, he pushed himself to stay in peak physical condition. While engaged in the so-called “insanity workout,” he heard a loud pop in his back – and within hours he knew something was horribly wrong.
“October 28th changed my life,” Joel Haler, 20, told a packed New Covenant Worship Center, where his father, Eric, is the senior pastor. After he heard the pop, the pain and weakness in his legs gradually intensified over the next several hours. By nightfall, he checked himself into the ER because he had trouble walking.
“By the end of the next day I was paralyzed from the waist down,” he recounts.
Doctors performed MRIs; he was transferred from hospital to hospital. He had two spinal taps, which resulted in headaches worse than migraines.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” doctors informed him initially. Various theories emerged. They said he might have Guillain Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease trigged by an infection, which causes non-trauma-related paralysis. Other doctors wanted to do exploratory surgery, believing there may have been a trauma associated with the loud pop that triggered his condition.
Lacking conclusive answers, there was one thing doctors were certain about: if sensation ever returned to his legs, he would have to re-learn how to walk.
Confined to a wheelchair for the first time in his life, as the weeks rolled by with no change in his condition, Joel had plenty of time to think. Negative thoughts overwhelmed him. “I went to the lowest of the low,” he recalls. “I was letting my mind run wild.”
Seeking to numb his emotional pain, he turned to an old nemesis – pornography. “As I got more and more frustrated, I wanted to pleasure myself,” Joel confesses. “I wanted to look at pornography because I had nothing else.”
“But God wanted to bring deliverance and close that door from my past.”
Joel also realized he had been a people-pleaser his entire life, which led to compromises in his walk with God. “My people-pleasing opened up doors to the evil one,” he admits. “As a pastor’s son, I wanted people to think I had it all together, so I put up a front.”
“I felt like I was going through a mid-life crisis at the age of 20,” he says.
Then Joel visited the Ronald McDonald house in his wheelchair, and saw children struggling with life-threatening diseases such as brain tumors and leukemia. Their remaining time on earth seemed precarious at best. “When I saw the children suffering, it broke my heart.”
Joel realized he had put his faith and trust in the wrong things. “I had pride in my accomplishments, my status, my personality and popularity,” he said. “I loved working out and making my body look good. Even in a wheelchair, I was working out every day at the YMCA. I still wanted to look good.”
As the vanities of life were stripped away and he faced his new reality, God challenged him to see his true identity in Christ.
How could God use my misery, my situation, to bring glory to Himself? Joel wondered.
Setting the stage
One day, as Joel struggled with depression, God impressed these words on his heart: I am setting the stage.
Are you really? Joel laughed. Show me the stage.
Then God spoke to his heart again: Stop having a pity party for yourself and look at Me. This is small. Look at what I have created.
As Joel considered the immensity of the universe God created, he recognized he had an immature faith. He recognized God wanted to show him what real faith looked like. Then came a moment of surrender. He knew he had no control over getting his legs back. “I finally let go,” Joel recalls. “I give up. I give it all to you God.”
Shortly after his consecration and re-submission to God, people in his church and the community began to have
dreams and visions about him walking again.
In early January 2014, Joel had a vivid dream in which he was at a basketball game, and the team ran out prior to the beginning of the game. They ran through a tunnel, and Joel led his team as he smashed through a large piece of paper held up by cheerleaders that had ‘J 23’ written in large, bold letters.
He woke up pondering his unusual dream, wondering about the meaning of ‘J23.’ He decided to read through the 23rd chapter of every book in the Bible that starts with a ‘J.’ While he uncovered some great truth in the chapters, nothing seemed to resonate with his situation.
A four-year-old speaks
Then something very unusual happened at church the next Sunday, January 12th. A four-year-old boy, Braxton Farmer, came up to him and said, “Joel, you’re gonna walk on a Thursday.”
Amazed at what had come from the mouth of a child, he tried to correlate ‘J 23’ and ‘Thursday.’ He pulled out a calendar to see if June 23rd or July 23rd fell on a Thursday. They didn’t .
It couldn’t be January 23rd, he thought. That’s only a week and a half away. Then he opened his calendar to January.
“January 23rd falls on a Thursday!” he cried out loud. This amazing prophetic revelation – delivered through a dream and by the lips of a child – energized his faith for God to do something amazing.
On Wednesday, January 22nd, Joel and his parents fasted throughout the day. “I was standing on faith,” he says, “because I had nothing else but God.”
As he turned in for bed at the end of the day, his anticipation was high. “I wasn’t sleepy,” he reports. “I wanted to be awake if it happened.”
“At 3:00 a.m. I began to feel tingling in my toes,” Joel says. This is awesome, he thought to himself; Here we go. The strange prickling sensation began to move up his leg, but with it, came excruciating pain and heat. Sharp, shooting pains lasted for an hour and a half – until the tingling reached his hips.
“I have never been so satisfied with pain, because I hadn’t felt anything in three months,” he says. About 20 minutes later the pain subsided. Joel pinched himself. Is this the real deal? Then he wiggled his toes.
At 5:15, he decided to walk to his parents’ bedroom. “I swung my legs out of bed,” his feet hit the floor, and he began to walk.
He turned on the kitchen light, then appeared in their doorway. “I thought it was my wife getting up, but she was still beside me in bed,” father Eric says.
His wife looked up, saw Joel’s silhouette and thought it might be their other son, Abraham. “Abe, is that you?” she called out.
Then she realized God brought the miracle they longed for. “Joel, Joel. You’re walking! You’re walking!” she
Mom and dad jumped out of bed and embraced Joel, and they began to bawl like babies.
“For 10 or 15 minutes we held Joel, rejoicing in the Lord,” Eric says.
“I have not stopped giving thanks,” Joel reports. “God is so good. What the enemy was using to destroy me, God used for good. We serve an amazing God and he still performs miracles.”