Last December, I got into my husband’s car to go see Christmas lights. It was the last thing I did before pain like I’ve never known invaded my body for the next several months. Back injuries and nerve pain are definitely of the devil. When you lie in bed at night and think, “If I went and cut off my leg right now it would hurt less,” and you believe this is rational thought, you know the pain has gone to your head in a very crazy way.
Almost four months of physical therapy ensued. That is a long time to spend three precious mornings a week being pulled, pressed, and otherwise challenged in ways my body does not approve.
I graduated. Finally. Not, however, without my therapist informing me that, if I want to stay well and avoid back surgery, I have “a lifetime of stretching and strengthening ahead.”
A lifetime is a long time. We can hope.
Here’s the thing, We all know what we need to do to stay healthy. We all know that when we leave places like physical therapy, however, that resolve goes south pretty quickly. I can skip today, we think. Of course I’ll pick up tomorrow. I will. It’s only right now I just don’t feel like doing all those exercises.
“Right now” turns into today, tomorrow, and before we can say “invasive surgery,” we haven’t done any of the things we know we need to do to stay well in a long, long time. Exercise, diet, habits—it’s all the same. Our human tendency to take the path of least resistance makes health hard.
In all areas of life.
There’s a story in the Bible that I come back to when I am tempted to take that path. It’s a man Jesus forces to face a question he has avoided—for 38 years.
Do you want to get well?
Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days. Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches. Crowds of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lay on the porches. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking! (John 5.1-9 )
You can see Jesus’ love for this man. But he doesn’t heal him right away like he does others. He asks him a question first. Why? Wouldn’t anyone in this situation want to get well? Isn’t that a no brainer, Jesus?
Apparently not. When faced with the question, he evades it.
I would, dude. Really, I would get well. But, see, these other people. They always win. I never catch a break. Life is hard. If everything wasn’t against me, I’d get in that pool and be healed right now! But it is. I’ll never do anything except sit here. Poor me.
Sorry, friend, but it’s been 38 years! Surely, in all that time, someone could have helped get you further up in the queue. Someone must be feeding you, keeping you warm, giving you clothes in the last 38 years. You couldn’t have asked for a nudge closer to the edge of the pool? In all this time?
Nope. The inescapable conclusion, I believe, is the he doesn’t really want to get well. He knows what it would mean. Getting a job. Going home. Being a part of life that probably caused him some pain he’s afraid to face. Putting himself out there for rejection, hurt, failure. It’s easier to sit by the pool where he can’t do anything, but at least no one expects anything of him. It’s what he knows. Wellness is frightening.
Wellness means working on your stuff, and I don’t mean physical. It means figuring out why you’re part of your own problem, becoming vulnerable by starting to change, and learning to be with other humans in a new, challenging way.
He doesn’t want that, and I understand completely.
I don’t want to spend every day doing exercises that strengthen all those muscles around my backbone. My therapist wants abs of steel on me. I’ll settle for getting rid of the abs of flab! I will do those things, though, because there are other things I do want to do.
I want to hike the Coastal Trail in Wales. I want to walk the Camino de Santiago with my daughter as promised. I want to ride long distances in cars, trains, and planes. I want to pick up grandchildren someday.
I want to avoid steel rods in my back.
If I want those things, I need to do the things that lead to health, even if I don’t want to take the time. Even if it hurts. Even if it’s boring, and painful, and seems pointless some days. Because I want to get well.
The word here—“want”—has a few meanings in Greek, and some are interesting in this situation. They are: 1) to will, have in mind, 2) intend, to be resolved or determined, to purpose, 3) to desire, to wish.
What if we asked—do you intend to get well? Are you taking the steps, making the plans, determining what you need to do to get well? That puts the initiative back on him. It takes away the excuse that it’s all other peoples’ fault.
I’ve been a pastor long enough to have seen many, many people who want to blame everyone else for their unhealthy choices. Problem is, their lives never get better. They stay by whatever their own personal pool of Bethesda is, hanging onto their problems, telling themselves it’s everyone else and life would be great if it weren’t for what the world has done to them.
They never get well.
“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.” (Winn Collier)
Some of us know the feeling of being deeply afraid.
- Our marriages are sick, but taking the initiative to get well opens us up to things that have been buried for years. Digging them up, dealing with the stench of dead things, asking Jesus to revive and restore when you’re not sure the other person is invested? Scary. It’s easier to stay sick.
- Our family relationships are ill, but having those hard conversations? Telling parents or siblings we can’t keep forgiving because we’ve never forgotten? Being rejected because we’ve dared to dig deeper? Scary.
- Our finances are sick, but sacrifice stinks. Making tough choices is hard. Sticking to a plan has never worked before so why try again? Why not drown our fears and worries in more spending on things that make us feel better?
- Our souls are sick. Talking to God about where we are and where we’d like to be frightens us. It might mean change. It certainly will. Uncovering deep behaviors we know need to stop. Trusting our lives to a being we can’t see when those we can see have dealt cruelly with our souls. Learning to walk with hesitant steps as we can’t see the path ahead of us. Believing something enough to center our lives on it. All those things scare us to death, if were honest.
“We all can see ourselves, in a sense, helpless, weak, crippled and lame, lying at the pool of Bethesda this morning. We all need help. We all find ourselves paralyzed at times, unable to do the thing we want or ought to do. We find we are lame: we do not walk very well spiritually.” (Ray Stedman)
Do you want to get well? Such a good, penetrating question. One we cannot always answer honestly.
But I want to.
My favorite part of the story, perhaps, is Jesus’ command that he take up his mat before he walks. Why? To ensure he can’t go back there. His spot by the pool will be gone. Without his mat there, he can’t return to his old fears and failures. He has no choice but to move forward. He has to intend to get well, in all areas of his life, from that point on.
Jesus really knows what he’s doing.
Do you want to join me in steps toward being well? Are there things in your life you know need healing? How would those change if we saw Jesus’ question as “do you intend to get well”? Is there a connection between a whole life and our willingness to get up and walk when Jesus offers us healing?
Jesus asks the man by the pool—Do you want to get well?
He asks us the same question—Do you have hope, purpose, prayer, and a plan to get well? Then take up your mat.
Photo credit: Jill Richardson