“Afterward, Jesus found [the healed paralytic] in the temple and said ‘Behold, you have become well. Do not sin anymore so that nothing worse may befall you.’” - John 5:14
What happened to Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the dead? Or the little girl who had ‘fallen asleep’? Or the Centurion’s servant? Can’t we safely conclude that all of them died again? And yet, isn’t there also a part of us that wants “...and God healed so-and-so” to be followed by “and they lived happily ever after”, or even “The End.”
Given an opportunity to think on this topic though, I realize how foolish that is of me, how childish. This part of me that wants the healing to be the end of the story isn’t bad – quite the contrary. That same spot in my heart is the one that longs without words for this fallen world to be restored, for justice and love and peace to reign where we labor under Satan’s yoke of misery, sickness, and death. In fact, I need to guard that childlike part of my heart jealously because it points me toward my eventual future (“He has put eternity in our hearts.”) But that part of me is also naive; we’re not in that chapter of the book yet...
What do we do with Christ’s warning to the man he just healed, “You’re OK now – but don’t go back to your old sinful ways or something worse than paralysis might happen.” or the image of a demon being cast out only to return with reinforcements.
Knowledge is not healing.
Healing is not restoration.
Restoration is not permanent.
A man came to Boot camp last year who was deeply broken and suffering mightily. He was knee deep in an affair, losing his business, and habitually using prescription drugs to dull his pain, all while serving as the lay men’s minister at his church, and on their board. Just before coming to Boot camp he had been discovered and stripped of his ministry positions. There’s no question that the man was sincere in his brokenness or his contrition and don’t mind saying that he some special attention and treatment – he needed it. He also made some dramatic steps in recovery including dropping the drugs, quitting the affair and beginning the reconciliation with his wife. But today – he’s in a new affair. I frankly don’t know about the drugs but it does appear as though he’s abandoned his original business and started a new one in a new town where his reputation hasn’t followed.
This fellow was in deep pain a year ago and he reached out to Christ. Jesus, in his mercy, reached back and put this man on the road to true recovery and freedom and soul-level healing. But for some reason, and I wouldn’t presume to know what that reason is, the man returned to his sinful ways and I fear that something worse will soon befall him.
Christ’s warning to the paralytic tells us that while we can reasonably expect that a healing would be life changing, it’s not a sure thing. Ten lepers were cleansed, but only one returned to give thanks. The thing about healings is that the dramatic ones typically come when someone is desperate and their heart reaches out to Jesus as a sort of last resort. At that point in their misery, the leprous, the lame, the hemorrhaging – all they want is to have their lives back – regardless of what those lives were. When healing intersects at that point, it can easily seem like license to return to whatever one was doing prior to the sickness – immoral or otherwise.
I see a similar situation with the people who discover their own deep wounds that had been hidden before. Suddenly understanding yourself can be a powerfully liberating experience especially for a Christian who has a ‘thorn in their flesh’ that they’ve wrestled with a long time. But it’s a huge mistake to think that understanding these wounds is enough to defang them or render them impotent to continue influencing us. The other mistake is to see the wound and then embrace it – allowing it to define our lives. (“I am an alcoholic – and always will be...”) There’s no question that knowing ourselves, and understanding our story is a potent weapon, but diagnosis ultimately does nothing to heal us.
We’ve all heard about how tuberculosis is making a comeback – how TB patients have consistently failed to finish their courses of antibiotics. After half the pills were gone, the patient feels much better and decides they don’t want to take any more medicine, leaving the TB weakened, but still alive. As the saying goes – what does kill TB, has made it stronger. So in the course of 50 years, a disease that was once the poster child for the success of antibiotics has now evolved into something that borders on unkillable.
Sin in the life of a Christian can often be life that. We find ourselves in pain one day, often without really knowing why, and we go to the doctor. In our misery and discomfort we can cry out to God, I’ll do anything you ask, just stop this pain! But how often do we get just enough healing so we can tolerate the discomfort and then climb off the bus? Sometimes it’s because the diagnosis never really seemed true to us – we don’t believe that we’re infected with pride, or lust, or greed. Other times it’s that we secretly relish the sin and we’re not quite ready to be rid of that particular habit. But those are the exact situations where the problem will relapse. In time we’ll find ourselves in pain again, another broken relationship, another one-night stand, another bad loan. And that cycle can easily go on and on, year after year – and typically, each cycle is worse than the one before it.
Part of that problem comes when we wind up seeing life as an exercise in arranging the details of our life to create maximum comfort instead of a journey that is actually going somewhere. But more of the problem comes from childishly thinking that any step in this walk is the last step – from thinking (longing?) that Lazarus lived happily ever after or that the paralytic carries his mat around Jerusalem to this day.
Knowledge isn’t the answer – it’s an invitation.
Healing isn’t a conclusion, but a prologue.
Restoration isn’t an end – but a means.