“When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’” (John 5:6)
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
Despite our protestations to the contrary, we often don’t know our own heart. It’s “deceitful above all things,” Jeremiah wrote. “Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). That doesn’t necessarily imply something nefarious, just that it can be inscrutable, entangled as it can be with rationalizations or vain reasoning.
Of course we know who can understand it. God’s first question to the man and woman he created, now hiding from him, was for their benefit, not his, to alert them to what he already knew: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:6). Implied of course is a second question, Why are you hiding?
The moment we depart from the fear of God and its inherent wisdom by an act of the will, a fog descends on our perception, our thinking becomes “futile” and our “hearts darkened” (Rom 1:21). We need light before we even know we need it, and in the mercy of God he provides it.
But if all we perceive is that something seems wrong, there is no reason to fear approaching the Lord for more light. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (Jas 1:5).
The rich young man who came to Jesus inquiring after eternal life was a lot like us when we petition God for something. He wasn’t a novice. He must have observed and studied Jesus’ ministry. This wasn’t his first encounter. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to say.
But what of this man? He ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees, not something a wealthy, confident individual typically does. Was he doing this to make a show of his devotion? Was he trying to flatter Jesus by addressing him as “good teacher”? Did he harbor a desire to become one of Jesus’ prominent disciples? Or was he completely sincere, with just one question on his mind?
There is no way to break down and analyze or even discern these possible “thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Nor was it really necessary.
Jesus led him through the basics. Had he kept the commandments, following the clear signposts of righteousness? These were easy enough to discern and so he answered immediately, Yes, since he was a boy.
But then came the word that could judge “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” the word that cuts through every appearance, every rationalization, all “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5).
In order to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ,” Jesus identified “the one thing he lacked” (Mk 10:21) and commanded him to sell everything in order to become his disciple. That ironic description—as if it were the cherry on top of a steady life of near-perfect devotion—exposed how all-consuming this one aspect of his life was.
“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions,” Jesus taught on another occasion (Lk 12:15). But for this man, it did. And he may have never realized it until that moment.
The man Jesus found at the pool of Bethesda had been lame for 38 years. Every day he joined numerous others at the pool, apparently awaiting a “stirring of the waters” that presaged a healing for the first to descend into the pool (or at least that was the conventional wisdom).
What happens to the “soul and spirit” of a man after 38 years of apparently fruitless waiting? I don’t think the man knew himself.
So Jesus asked him: “Do you want to get well?”(Jn 5:6)
This almost offhanded question was as sharp as a scalpel, penetrating into the depths of this man’s heart. It went so deep as to divide “soul and spirit.”
But it sounds like a pointless, superfluous thing to say. Of course he does. Do you even need to ask? You might even suspect a hint of sarcasm.
But it was nothing of the kind, because the man’s answer reveals how far he has sunk in his expectations: “’Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me’”(5:7).
I have no one to help me. The man’s faith was as atrophied as his limbs.
Compare this to the woman with the flow of blood: “A woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’” She takes the initiative, in faith, which Jesus saw immediately.
“Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment” (Mt 9:20-22).
When I was thinking about the story of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, I kept casting about for the right words to describe what Jesus’ question was meant to precipitate. I found it on my daughter’s Pinterest page, in the form of a quote attributed to J.P. Morgan:
“The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.”
Faith as a response to Jesus’ command, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” is the decision that you’re not going to stay where you are. Thirty-eight years is long enough.
“Do you want to get well?” is the light that reveals where you were until that moment, like a smoldering wick he won’t snuff out or a bruised reed (Isa 42:3), which he firmly rights. Without it, you might have kept living–and eventually died–by that pool, in darkness.