Do You Want to be Healed?
When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, "Do you wish to get well?" (John 5:6)
Thanks to my good friend Herb Montgomery, this story of an encounter between Jesus and a sick man has suddenly taken on vast new dimensions with serious personal implications for me.
It is a familiar story to many of us who have grown up weaned on Bible stories. It begins with a sick man who had spent most of his life lying near a mysterious pool of water presumed by many to at times possess magical or supernatural properties to heal anyone who would be the first to jump in after 'the stirring.' In the course of conversation with him we learn that he assumed that his main problem was that being too weak it was impossible for him to get himself into the water before someone else beat him to it thus never being able to capture a miracle for himself. Furthermore, he claims that there are no friends kind enough to throw him into the pool quick enough to beat out all contenders, so he resigned himself to living out his life trapped in his condition until presumably someday he would die and his story would all be over.
Jesus comes along and confronts this man in a very strange way. First of all Jesus challenges the mental attitude of this sick man, something that many today would find quite offensive or even rude. Given our perspective on how victims or sick and disabled people should be treated, such an opening comment to begin a conversation would be reason enough to question the social skills of such an intruder. Why would Jesus be so insensitive? But Jesus never met people based on social norms but rather sought to help them see the true condition of their own spirit from heaven's perspective.
“Do you want to get well?”
Over the years I have pondered this question myself as I have sensed that maybe God was saying something similar to me. The natural answer that seems sensible from my perspective has been, “Of course I want to get well! What do you think, I'm crazy? I like to be sick? Why would you insinuate that I enjoy being sick and lying helpless here everyday feeling more lonely all the time and prevented from enjoying life? Are you challenging my motives? What ever would possess you to even ask such a question? I find it a bit offensive that you would insinuate that I might want to remain sick.”
Sorry, but something like that typically goes through my mind in reaction to this question by Jesus. I find it baffling that this man didn't even address the question but rather reacted by explaining his excuses for not being able to remedy his situation. Maybe by this time the man had so given up on life that he was past taking offense at someone questioning his motives. He simply trotted out his stock answer for anyone who might ask what was going on in his life whenever anyone might bother to take the time to visit with him. Apparently this was the only way he could see life and this was the song he sang identifying who he was and how he fit into his society.
“Do you really want to get well?”
I know this is not the way it is written in John's version of the story, but it could be in my version of my story. At times I sense Jesus quietly challenging my comebacks by asking me to take a another look at my own motives and to challenge them more deeply myself. Of course, it is much easier to notice how other people's attitudes keep them locked in their own dysfunction and hopelessness and self-pity. But my situation really does seem this way to me as I go year after year apparently making very little spiritual progress. When will the right friends ever come along and rescue me? Why doesn't God just change me like I keep asking Him to? What am I missing? Am I the only one asking these questions?
Why is it taking so long to see any significant changes in my own attitudes? Why do I feel so little resolution to the hidden reservoir of rage that has lurked deep inside me for so many years? Why doesn't God answer my prayers for deliverance from weaknesses inside that make me especially vulnerable to certain temptations? When I read descriptions of what a converted person is supposed to feel and act like, I find myself questioning seriously whether I am even a Christian at all. Why do I often feel more like an amalgamation between a Christian and an unbeliever even after years of spending untold time and effort to know God and to do everything I know in order to be saved?
Whenever I read this story of the man by the pool, I have often pondered why Jesus started out with this question and why the man didn't respond directly to Jesus' challenge. Maybe it seemed for him to be such an obvious answer that the man brushed it aside in order to offer his stock explanation as to why he was still stuck in this condition all his life. Or maybe he didn't want to face such an unsettling question that would force him to get serious about looking inside where a parallel kind of sickness, a sickness called hopelessness and despair had long kept his spirit paralyzed and unable to escape from the rut of self-perception and identity in which he had been trapped all his life.
“Do you want to be healed?”
Based on this man's answer it would appear that the man did want to be healed. Why else would he talk about what he presumed to be the problems preventing his healing? But is that really the truth? Or was Jesus pushing him beyond his comfort zone, challenging him to face his true condition of spirit to help him perceive that his problem was far deeper than simply a weakness of body?
I was recently reminded of this by a situation when some visitors came to fellowship with us for lunch. Our church has a fellowship meal every week for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that most of us come some distance and it is the only time we have to spend visiting and enjoying each other's company. Another reason is so that if any visitor's happen to show up we can be sure to have something to offer them in the way of hospitality and take time to visit and get better acquainted.
This particular couple has visited us on previous occasions and are known to have a certain temperament that is hard to miss. They can be quite negative and they easily take offense if they are not pampered or their expectations are not met just the way they feel they should. Oh, they are not necessarily obnoxious on the surface, but it doesn't take too long before their presence can begin to wear on you as all they want to talk about is their own problems and how everyone has mistreated them or how their opinions seem to be ignored by others.
These people have a number of serious health challenges, but whenever anyone tries to point out even simple effective remedies or lifestyle changes that would greatly benefit them, they become very defensive and refuse to even consider making the slightest change from the ways that please them. They have a very predictable litany of excuses why any helpful suggestion won't work, and it is usually not very long before most people tire of trying to maintain a conversation with them. It seems that if everything is not centered around making them happy, there is little reason to even have conversation. They seem to have little interest in listening or caring about other people; they only want attention and sympathy for themselves. And to make things worse, the last time they joined us, as they were leaving my wife followed them out to invite them to return again and fellowship with us. In response they turned and buried her with scathing rebukes for having a church that is uncaring and cold.
Needless to say my wife was deeply hurt. Our pastor understanding their background and having had a previous relationship with them, had to spend some time explaining to my wife why they are that way and that there is little anyone can do to make much of a difference with people in such entrenched self-pity. She was finally able to let go of some of her feelings, but it is still baffling to know how to relate to these kinds of people who seem so stuck in a narrow rut of self-absorption that they have no perspective beyond their narrow opinions about life. Everything has to revolve around them even while they have little appreciation for what other people try to do for them.
This may be an extreme case, but I can't help feeling convicted that I am not free of a similar condition. What triggers me the most in others I have come to realize is almost always an indicator of a similar fault within my own life, but often one I am blind to myself. The reason God designed us to experience triggers is to alert us to what we have difficulty seeing in our own lives so that we will begin to notice the warning and seek God's help to get real about our own situation and seek for healing.
What do I observe in these people that seems so offensive to me? It seems obvious they are caught in the trap of playing the 'blame game' and seem unable to realize what they are doing. The blame game is possibly the most familiar and most practiced habit since it was first introduced into the human race by our first parents when God asked them what they had been up to when He found them hiding in the garden. Ever since then it has been our natural reaction to look for scapegoats to blame for our own problems in vain attempts to avoid facing shame that is inevitable when we step outside the parameters God designed for our lives. Instead of being honest and embracing responsibility for our own pain and malfunction, it feels so much easier to look for someone else to blame for our condition, so we shift the attention away from ourselves to make someone else out to become the focus of attention.
For years now God has been teaching me about this problem and leading me to pay more attention to notice when I slip into that mindset. And while it is still too easy for me to react to shame by looking for someone to blame, when I realize I am doing that I try to check myself and reset my thinking and ask God to help change my attitude. The result has been that many times I have been able to check my natural reactions and receive the strength to face my fears and shame and deal with them more directly instead of looking for the false relief of blaming someone else in order to postpone dealing with my own faults and problems. Yet sometimes it takes watching others play this game openly to prompt me to see that I still too often do the same thing even if I choose to do it in a different way.
In this story of the sick man by the pool I see similar dynamics going on. When his condition was referenced he immediately had his excuses, directly blaming others for keeping him stuck in his condition. “No one is willing to help me, that's why I'm this way. There might be a solution for my problem, but the reason I can't be normal is because no one really cares about me enough to fix my problems. Now you know my excuses and why I just lay here in self-pity all day and commiserate with myself, for there is nothing I can do about it. And besides, if you were any kind of a friend that you are trying to pretend to be, maybe you should help me into the water first!”
Is this a harsh assessment of this man's attitude? Maybe, or maybe not so far off. I believe the reason Jesus confronted this man from the very onset with such a challenging, probing question was because he needed a reality check to see that his problem was far deeper than the physical health issues that inhibited his freedom. What was really restricting and keeping him imprisoned was his own spirit and his perspective about reality that affected both his relationships with others around him but especially with God. And even though he didn't realize it, God Himself was standing right in front of him seeking to challenge this man's perceptions about how God felt about him.
When Jesus challenged the authenticity of this man's desire for healing, He was seeking to alert him to the fact that until his attitude was healed, any potential change in his body situation might be rather temporary. And what many of us fail to appreciate is the enormous effect that our thoughts and feelings have over our physical condition. We live in a world where the mind-body relationship is largely ignored in favor of artificial quick fixes through drugs along with an emphasis on treating symptoms instead of causes. If we can only make ourselves feel good, we prefer that over looking for the root causes of our problems. We live in a world of lust, and the true definition of lust is “I want it NOW!”
What really caught my attention while I listened to Herb's explanation of this story recently was the ensuing scenario that played out that exposed something far deeper about this man's sickness than only the restrictions of being physically paralyzed as bad as that was. What was far more inhibiting was the paralyzation of his soul that was soon exposed as the total lack of appreciation and loyalty toward the very One who had so graciously healed him. This is the part that used to baffle me whenever I read this story, but now it is suddenly exposing a similar condition in my own life.
“Do you want to be healed?”
Was Jesus referring primarily to this man's physical ailments or was He offering a far more comprehensive healing of mind, spirit, body and psyche that the man failed to fully embrace? You see, there is a little appreciated factor involved where our physical ailments can parallel our internal mental disposition. We have DVDs from a Doctor in Germany who explains how the thoughts we choose to dwell on specifically function as direct orders to the cells of our body, and they can determine specifically whether we will live in health or whether specific diseases will be activated in specific locations throughout our bodies. This is not something we usually like to hear, for it exposes our penchant for quick fixes and it challenges our preference to blame others for our condition. Yet the truth remains that to a great extent our own disposition and train of thoughts to a large extent determines the condition our bodies to a far greater extent than most of us want to admit.
This is not to brush aside that fact that we live in a world filled with sin and that contaminated environment and the choices of others around us do have serious repercussions in our own bodies. We all suffer from the collective effects that sin and pollution and contaminants cause in this world. But all of that can feed into enticing us back into the blame game where we shift responsibility away from our own complicity for our own conditions instead of facing squarely the question of Jesus to each one of us, “Do you yourself want to be healed? Are you ready to finally face up to how your own personal choices and thinking and attitudes and beliefs about God directly influence your physical situation? Are you ready to embrace a completely new identity and lease on life that will be in harmony with the way I designed creation to function? Or will you continue to cling to what is familiar even if it is very uncomfortable?”
What Herb pointed out in this story that I had never noticed before was how this inner sickness, this man's false beliefs about his true identity had kept him locked in his condition both physically and emotionally. It was not only by living in the habit of blaming others as much as that was a problem. Beyond that he was also immersed in a culture where everyone who had a physical handicap was automatically assumed to be a person who must have offended God and therefore was suffering under His punishment. That meant they were viewed as a sinner, one outside the privileges of God's people.
What God has been increasingly emphasizing to me in recent months is becoming even more clear now. I have observed that any problem if examined honestly and accurately can be traced back to one single root cause – a distorted mental and emotional picture of God in the soul. And because one's picture of God (whether they profess to believe in God or not) is the determining factor in how a person perceives their own true identity, the only way to alter our perceptions of what makes up reality and in turn all of our relationships and thinking is to first effectively heal our concept of God and know the truth. This is why Jesus said that when we know the truth it will set us free.
This is where the real power of our will comes in as the most deciding factor. It is us and only us individually who make the pivotal decision as to which version of reality we will embrace and who's version of our identity we will believe. Both sides in this war have agents eager to press upon us their version of who we are and how we should behave and the context of reality around us. But God has given each person a sovereign power to think and to choose and no one else, not even God, has the ability to do that for them. Yet along with that power comes accountability for all the resulting consequences of our choice as to who we will believe.
God's version of reality is based on principles all designed on the basis of natural cause and effect. Satan's counterfeit reality is a complex system of artificial rules with a labyrinth of rewards and punishments, and he seeks to convince us that this is how God operates His government. Satan wants us to believe that God is like Baal, the ancient mythical god who demanded blood appeasement to assuage his wrath over offenses committed. That view of deity has now been transferred intact into the popular concepts of God today, but its effects are just as damaging as it was in Elijah's day.
Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him." But the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)
These truths continue to become more and more clear to me as I see the principles of truth coalescing from every direction. As I compare this story with the book of 1 John, a little book with powerful and new insights for me in recent years, I find fresh revelations in the parallels. Here is an outline of the progression of this story of the sick man and then a few thoughts from 1 John.
Setting the props – our perception of reality
After these things there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.
Exchanging versions of reality to receive a new identity
A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, "Do you wish to get well?" The sick man answered Him, "Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me." Jesus said to him, "Get up, pick up your pallet and walk." Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.
Challenging reality and identity
Now it was the Sabbath on that day. So the Jews were saying to the man who was cured, "It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet." But he answered them, "He who made me well was the one who said to me, 'Pick up your pallet and walk.'" They asked him, "Who is the man who said to you, 'Pick up your pallet and walk'?" But the man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place.
Lost identity and resulting betrayal
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, "Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you." The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. (John 5:1-16)
Straightening up, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more." Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, "I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life." (John 8:10-12)
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, "I have come to know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. (1 John 2:3-6)
Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:23)
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)
No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. (1 John 3:9)