If you’ve ever had a loved one trapped in an addiction, you know that unless there’s a desire to be released from the vise grip squeezing life from one’s bones, little will change. I have a friend whose history includes a long series of awful choices: poor nutrition, no exercise, erratic sleep, and repeated engagement in stressful activities. All this has slowly deteriorated her body and soul. She’s encountered a number of health scares and stern words from doctors. For a few weeks she’ll say she’s making radical adjustments. Inevitably, though, she returns to her usual ways. The fact is, she does not truly want anything different. She wants her unhealthy life more than she wants to be well. I cannot cast stones. At times I see this pattern in my own story.
The plain truth is that if we are to be well (whether health for our body or restoration in our family or renewed vigor in our life with God), then we have to want to be well. We have to nurture our cravings for God and goodness; these deep desires aren’t ancillary—they are essential. Augustine of Hippo said, “The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire.” Jesus had much to say about the importance of paying keen attention to the affections of our heart, stoking the flames of good hunger while squelching every false fire.
The fifth chapter of John’s Gospel recounts for us the story of Jesus at the pool of Bethesda. There, the infirm hoped to receive one of the healings that reportedly transpired whenever an angel miraculously churned the waters. The name of the pool gives a hint of the encounter that was about to take place. In Aramaic, Bethesda means “house of grace” and in Hebrew, “house of mercy.” Whenever Jesus arrives, mercy and grace are sure to arrive as well.
We often abandon our desire for wholeness because we are deeply afraid.
A man, ill for 38 years, had long been lying beside the pool, crippled and waiting for the slim possibility that his life might change. In the first century, to be crippled meant you were unable to earn a living for your family and were often ostracized from your community. To endure chronic ailments or disabilities was not only a physical hardship, but also an impenetrable barrier to a normal life.
When Jesus arrived, He found the man and asked him the most basic question: Do you want to be well? Or as older translations put it, “Will you be made whole?” The crippled man’s response surprises me. I would expect a quick and unequivocal Yes! More than anything! Now! However, the beleaguered man’s reply gives evidence of the many years of disappointment, the decades of waiting until his optimism had been bled dry. “Sir,” he replied, “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” (v. 7). We hear little hope in the man’s sad reply. No anticipation that Jesus might help him. Decades of pain and dashed possibilities brought him to the place where all he could see was a sealed fate, a grim future.
There are many reasons why we find it difficult, in our broken places, to stay connected with our desire for something more. To hope for (to live with the deep desire for) healing can itself be an excruciating act. It is painful to hold to our desire for friendship when the lack of it only accentuates our aching loneliness. It is painful to stay attuned to our hope to be free of anger or fear or self-righteousness when it means we must dismantle our sinful behaviors or reckon with the lies we’ve employed to manage our life.
We often abandon our desire for wholeness because we are deeply afraid. While the reality of our life may be far less than what we had expected, over time we make a certain kind of détente with our brokenness. It becomes what we know. It’s a fearful thing to surrender the security of the present (no matter how disappointing or painful it may be) for the uncertainty of the future.
To come to Jesus for healing, we must relinquish the idea that our life is in our hands.
In August of 2014, as the Ebola epidemic paralyzed much of West Africa, officials insisted that the solution was not merely finding the right antidote for the deadly virus; it was also necessary to overcome people’s fears about receiving treatment. Due to cultural issues, distrust of medical authorities, and other complicated factors, many families hid afflicted patients in “shadow zones” where doctors could not go, rather than take them to the hospital. When medical teams attempted to locate those infected, the communities hiding them resisted the intrusion. They were more afraid of the medicine than they were of the Ebola. Help was available, but they did not want it.
Some of us may fear what we do not understand or may have reason to distrust other peoples’ promises. And many of us simply fear losing control. To come to Jesus for healing, we must relinquish the idea that our life is in our hands. We must admit that we need to be healed and that our own efforts have made a mess of things. To allow ourselves to be embraced by God’s love, we must face the truth of how desperately we long for it. To be made whole, we must grow discontent with our misery and want something more from the Lord.
To step into the fullness God intends, we must be awake to Him as well as to our pain and everything in us (and our world) that is not well. We must allow the tears and the joy and the promises of God to resurrect the places in our hearts that have grown cold.
When Jesus speaks, however, hope is always kindled. The heart’s embers are stirred. After the crippled man’s disheartened reply, Jesus looked him in the eye, pushed aside his gloom and spoke with authority: “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk” (v. 8). The man had a choice. To be well required obedience and willingness to embrace the joy and healing Jesus offered. The man had to move and take a risk.
And he did. This man who had not stood on his own legs for nearly four decades hopped up from the dusty ground, grabbed his bedroll and strolled (I imagine him walking with a little jig) back to his home—back to his life.
When God offers us life, all we have to do is stand up. All we have to do is say yes. All we have to do is decide we want it.