‘Do you want to be healed?’

John 5:1-9a (ESV)
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Given how sin runs so deeply within every human heart, how is it ever possible to discern – with even the faintest hope of accuracy – when someone is truly ready to do whatever he or she needs to do to cast off lifelong patterns of self-destructive behavior? Plenty of people will talk about the need for change, but far fewer actually do something about it. After all, no one lies to me more than I do, and the same is true for every other person walking the planet; our inner monologue is often polluted by sinful desires, and the desire to hide who we really are commonly occupies the top slot.

John 5:1-9The story of Jesus healing the invalid man as recounted in John 5:1-9 reflects how we are very often far more content to live with our own miserable circumstances than to trust that 1) Christ is precisely Who He claimed to be, with the power to heal our afflictions, and 2) that there is any possible means of applying His truth to my own desperate circumstances. Jesus confronts us with our need to be healed, and we often answer back with gibberish designed to fool Him into thinking that we are, after all, really trying to get better.

One of the clearest-possible signs that someone is not yet truly ready to cast off sinful behavior is a tendency to rationalize away a clear lack of progress using theological arguments: “I’m waiting for Jesus to heal me” sounds really spiritual, but as Christ’s encounter with the invalid at Bethesda demonstrates, the Lord of all creation is uninterested in our clever banter. If you stop to pay attention to the witness of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, it is truly jaw-dropping to keep score of the number of times a clear question or command from God is ignored. “Do you want to be healed?” rightly should have received the response, “Yes, Lord, no matter the cost.”

Advent is upon us; already I have heard people casually discussing the changes they would like to make in the coming year. I wonder if we might all take a break from shopping, parties and event planning just long enough to examine our hearts and ask the Spirit of God to reveal to us His “top pick” for change in 2017.

Of course, asking the question assumes that we will listen for a response, and then act upon it. People who are serious about making changes will decline to debate theology – “Doesn’t God have to heal me?” – and will instead begin putting their shoulder to the plow, trusting that Christ will meet and empower them once they have begun doing battle.

The following “inventory” is by no means exhaustive, but I think it provides an excellent starting point both for defeating sin (working the list for self) and for discerning whether someone else who confesses their need for change is serious about it or merely paying lip service to God (working the list to assess the progress of others).

To put it into perspective, if one of my daughters was in a serious relationship with a young man who struggled with drugs, alcohol or what-have-you – but said he wanted to stop – this is the list I would give her to help discern when to offer grace…and when to run away from any commitment as hard and fast as possible.

1. Recovery must be more than outward behavior modification; it has to include heart transformation. God is bigger than the latest recovery seminar, counseling wisdom or mood-altering prescription drug. There is nothing wrong with those tools, but that’s all they are…tools. Casting off sin is a declaration of war against the world, the flesh and the devil. If you do not know the Changer of Hearts, you will almost certainly stumble from one recovery plan to the next, forgetting along the way that the issue is always deeper than your actions. You need a new focus. You need a Savior.

2. Are you heartbroken over your sin…or just trying to get through life with less pain? Too often, people caught up in sinful behaviors are more concerned with keeping their work and family lives pieced together than they are about offending the God Who made the entire universe. “OK, yes, I see how God was offended by these actions of mine…but how can I keep my wife from leaving me?” The idea is that God can be addressed once my life circumstances become more manageable; that order of priorities must be reversed.

3. Surrender all ideas of time. “I’ll enter into a rehab program, give it a few weeks, and come back to work three weeks from now, ready to go.” Statements such as this are a serious red flag that we think we can control sin when, in fact, it was our mistaken belief that we could control sin that got us where we are today. You absolutely cannot control how long it will take to cast off lifelong sins, and you never will. Prepare to be knocked off your horse a thousand times, or may be more, and trust Jesus to provide the grace you need to get back in the saddle again and again…and again. Be patient; He is.

4. Submit to authority. You’ve already proven that you can’t manage your life of sin, so why are you so prone to doubting the wisdom and good intentions of those who have overcome the same problems you are facing? Because (again) we want to be in control. Embracing humility will do wonders for your soul, and it’s really as simple as saying, “Lord, I need help!” Rather than act like we have it all together (which has already been proven false) allow others a “window” into your life. Be transparent about your struggles with these trusted friends and allow them to speak hard truth to you without “making them pay for it” after the fact. They might be right, they might be wrong, but they should be granted our permission to speak fearlessly.

5. Get professional help. When a car breaks down, most of us won’t think twice about taking it to a mechanic: “After all, they know far more than I do.” And yet, somehow we all (wrongly) believe that we are the Subject Matter Experts in all realms of defeating personal sinful behavior. Not true! Remember, no one lies to you more than you lie to yourself. Godly, objective, trained and experienced voices are invaluable amid all the noise. Don’t be ashamed to get help when you clearly need it.

6. Cut off the head of the snake. Put sin to death before it puts you to death. Intentionally and methodically lose all the contacts, computers, phones, and other avenues of destruction. Matt Chandler compares “negotiating with sin” to negotiating with a hungry lion in the wilderness. The only effective way to deal with a ferocious carnivore bent on destroying you is to put a bullet in its head.

7. Train for righteousness harder than you trained for sinfulness. Why do we think casting off sin should be easier than it is? The Bible is full of admonition to make every effort, to flee from sin, pursue righteousness, seek, train, practice, etc. We never heal ourselves alone…but healing does not happen apart from human effort. We must seek God’s help, absolutely, but we must also “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” There is work to do!

8. Love the light. Embrace being open about how messed up you are, it’s a strong apologetic for the love of Christ and it makes your yoke 1,000 times lighter.

  • God’s Word: Be in it…and journal.
  • Worship:
    • Come to Jesus. (The need revealed by a broken heart.)
    • Give me Jesus! (The cry of a new heart.)
  • Prayer: “Help me want You.”
  • Community: Get involved. Serve. Look beyond yourself. Trust Christ to take care of you as you take care of others.

9. Aim to “graduate” from your current malady. The emergency room is a much-needed resource for bombing victims, the nursing floor is great for stabilized recovery, and ongoing physical therapy rebuilds strength. But there’s a world outside your “hospital” and there are other people who need to know the way. Your goal is not to cast off besetting sin so that you can post a better version of yourself on Facebook. Your goal should be to free yourself and then turn around and help others do the same. If your only interest remains helping yourself, you should expect slow recovery…and frequent relapse.

10. Stay grateful. The God of the Universe chose to redeem you! Why, why, WHY did the God of all creation choose you and me as part of His Kingdom? In my experience, it does us almost no good to dwell on that question. Accepting the truth that God has indeed chosen us for Himself is the first step toward a better understanding of why. If you get to the point where you can wake up every day delighted that you still – miraculously – accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then why chose you will become less important than the truth that He has, indeed, rescued you. Praise God.

Have a great Christmas, and make expectant preparations for an amazing 2017.

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