Thoughts on Helping 2: Who Wants To Be Well?

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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?” “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.    John 5:1-9 NIV

During his earthly ministry Jesus healed a lot of people, usually with no preliminaries.   Sometimes he inquired if the supplicant truly thought him able to do so, but mostly it seems he just went ahead and healed them. This story is more interesting. We don’t read that the disabled man asked to be healed, but rather that Jesus approaches and asks him if he wants to be well.

Jesus knows our hearts. Perhaps he detected some ambivalence in this guy. Maybe he was making a good living off of charity from the crowd. Maybe he was thinking, Sure I’m disabled, but it has its benefits. If I get well I’ll have to work – no more alms. Something in this man must have lead Jesus to ask, “Do you want to get well?”

Given our national health crisis, I think that’s a good question for America and Americans. Do we want to be well? Who wants to be well? Do you want to be well? Really? What if it means you have to work for it? What if you must change your outlook and your self-image and let go of your pride?

It’s easy to say, “I want to be well” while not really meaning it. Many individuals convince themselves that they can’t be well, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. “Yes I’d like to be well, but __________ prevents me from getting better.” (fill in the blank for yourself)   Now, it’s true that some will never be physically well. Certain illnesses are incurable and may have no good treatments, but most healthcare is for lifestyle conditions, diseases caused by voluntary behaviors.

Why do we behave in ways that make us sick? Because we like it! Rich foods taste good. People find smoking and drinking enjoyable. Relaxing on the couch with chips, dip and the remote is preferable to a 3-mile jog. Being overworked/overcommitted gives us a sense of importance and status. It’s hard to admit, but most of us are our own worst problem when it comes to health.

Even when we do accept that we are a big part of the problem, it’s common to be ambivalent about the situation. I feel it myself. As a disciple of Jesus I’d like to be a better person, but there are also some sins that I’d really like to hang on to. Yes Jesus. I’d like to be well, but not all the way. Or at least not right now. Can you hold off a little? Can I be emotionally and spiritually better, but keep my resentments and my self-righteousness? They make me feel so good. Of course Jesus says “no.”

Real commitment to getting well is required. There is no other way. Alcoholics Anonymous’ literature explains that their 12-step program is for people who “…want what we have [sobriety] and are willing to go to any length [emphasis mine] to get it…” Only then is a person ready to work the steps. When we’re not ready to “go to any length,” it’s easier to pretend that we’re incurable.

I think there’s a lot of pretending going on in healthcare. Patients pretend that they can’t change, that lifestyle illness is either unexpected, like lightening from a clear blue sky, or a normal part of growing older. Doctors and patients both pretend that healthcare is the answer. It’s hard to help those who don’t want to be well. I don’t know that every wellness program needs 12 steps, but surely the first step in anyone’s program is an admission of his or her need to change.

Interestingly our disabled man in the story answered Jesus’ question indirectly. He didn’t call out “Yes! Yes! Heal me now!” but rather gave an excuse as to why he hadn’t entered the waters to be healed. Was that his ambivalence showing? Regardless, Jesus did heal him.

I find that comforting. I know that the Holy Spirit is changing me, even in my ambivalence. I pray both to follow Jesus better and for God to overcome my desire to rebel. I’m like that father who replied to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) It seems to be working.

Other posts in this series:
Thoughts on Helping 1: What Do People Need?
Thoughts on Helping 3:  Like Helps Like



  1. Nice post Pete. As a psychologist I witness patient’s resistance to change all the time. Jesus healed the man in spite of his ambivalence, but he also told him to pick up his mat. I interpret the mat to represent his disabled life and Jesus wanted to be sure that the man would change from victim to victor.

  2. Peter Weiss says:

    Thank you Tony. The good news is that if a client is in your office, there must some desire (even if small) to change or at least to think about changing. Our job is to work with that and hopefully their desire will grow and their ambivilance shrink. As humans, our sinful nature is not different than this man’s but we can overcome it with God’s grace.