08 January 2008

Jesus' "dumb question" that wasn't (and isn't)

by Dan Phillips

Did Jesus ever ask a dumb question?

Given that everyone wants on the Jesus bandwagon, it's hard to picture anyone answering "Yes, you betcha: Jesus asked all sorts of dumb questions." Folks of every worldview enthuse about how wise and how wonderful Jesus was. "Dumb" isn't on the list of customary adjectives from thoughtful observers.

Yet surely I'm not the only one who raised an eyebrow the first time this verse came into focus:
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?"
(John 5:6)
You know who we're talking about. This was a disabled man in a society not particularly accommodating to the crippled — no handicapped parking, special doors, ramps, legal employment protections.

The man had been disabled in some way, unable to walk — and not for a week, a month, or a year. Not for a decade, or two decades, or even three. He had been crippled for nearly four decades, for thirty-eight years (v. 5).

We don't know whether his condition was static or progressive. We do know that he had been this bad for a long time. And we know that, at this point, if no one moved him, he didn't move much (v. 7). Most of the time, he seemingly had no one to help him.

How did he spend his time? What was his life? What were his days like? What were his hopes or aspirations, his fears or regrets? We're left to speculate, except for this: when we find him, he's simply hanging around a bunch of people just like him: helpless, and just next-door to hopeless.

He's apparently got some notion about getting into the pool — but what a cruel hope even that seems to have been: to get the most help, you had to need it the least!

So Jesus comes up, and what does He say to the man? Well, what would you have said, or what would I have said? Would we have even noticed him, as we strolled by on our strong, healthy legs with our little group of equally-mobile friends?

Jesus does notice the man, and He walks up to him, and He speaks to him. Oh, but what He says! I mean, honestly — isn't it about the last thing you'd have thought to say, unless you lost your mind for a moment? And (be honest), if you didn't know who was talking, and what was going to happen, wouldn't you say that about the dumbest thing to say to this man would have to have been —

"Do you wish to become well?"

Yet that's exactly how the Greek has it: are you willing — do you desire, do you wish— to become healthy (θέλεις ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι;)?

Now, I don't believe Jesus ever asked a stupid question in His life. Not when He was twelve (Luke 2:44-47), and not now that He's an grown man. On the contrary, I've often thought what a searching, probing, apposite, and divinely-wise question this was. As a result, I've wondered the same thing myself betimes, wanted to ask the same of some others in different "binds."

(Note: what I am about to say can be easily misunderstood, particularly by those wishing to do so. I shall try to speak precisely and with care.)

Much as you and I might recoil from another's state in life, that person might not share our revulsion. One can grow to identify with a condition, to find meaning and individuality and significance in something that of itself offers nothing desirable whatever. Whether it be a natural handicap or a totally different weakness, failing, misery, affliction or sin, we can come to think of ourselves as Noble Sufferers, as Tragic Victims, as Tormented Souls. So (pathetically and unhealthily) rewarding is this identification, that we unknowingly have no real desire to be parted from our badge of uniqueness, our gimmick, our shtick.

This is particularly the case in our American culture, where we have come to prize, seek out, cultivate, and luxuriate in the status of victimhood.

To be clear: I speak not of a healthy, positive God-centered attitude towards a difficult turn of Providence. I speak of an unhealthy and God-dishonoring embrace of an undesirable state or behavior.

Nor am I the first to see this in the passage at hand. Reynolds, in The Pulpit Commentary, thought that Jesus'
question implies a doubt. The man may have got so accustomed to his life of indolence and mendicancy as to regard deliverance from his apparent wretchedness, with all consequent responsibilities of work and energy and self-dependence, as a doubtful blessing. ...There are many who are not anxious for salvation, with all the demands it makes upon the life, with its summons to self-sacrifice and the repression of self-indulgence. There are many religious impostors who prefer tearing open their spiritual wounds to the first passer-by, and hugging their grievance, to being made into robust men upon whom the burden of responsibility will immediately fall.
You see, it's an axiom of human nature that we do what we think works for us. The most maladaptive person, who chooses to careen from one horrid relationship or situation to another, persists in doing so because he is getting something out of it.

And so Jesus asks — not the question you or I would ask, if we spoke to the man at all, but — that question. "Do you wish to become healthy?" Then He heals the man, and He warns him to change his life (v. 14).

Isn't this question just as probing and incisive today as it was when Jesus first posed it? Again, I've thought so time and again.

I've thought it of some folks who identify themselves with a dead-end, road-out sexual passion God condemns, who go on and on about how lamentable their lot is, how grandly they suffer from it. The only object that arouses more passion than, well, their passion, is any person or organization who dares to try to help them find freedom from their vices.

I don't dispute that theirs is a miserable and unhappy lot, and that such temptations are sheer misery. I just wonder, sometimes, of some of them: do they want to become healthy? Do they want freedom? Or would it shatter their cherished identity and threaten their status?

I've also thought it of some folks who make so much of the grays and the gaps and the question-marks, who luxuriate in any uncertainty they can magnify and exaggerate, who work so hard to blunt edges and blur lines, yet strike grand and dramatic poses as great and brave Pioneers of the Void. They invest a lot of energy into convincing us how agonized they are by their doubts and uncertainties — though not with quite the energy with which they scald and upbraid anyone who dares to try to help them find truth, certainty, and assurance.

And so I find myself wondering, of some such: do they want to become healthy? Do they want to know the truth God has revealed? Or would it ruin the image they've crafted so carefully, spoil their cherished public image, lose valued associations?

Similarly, I think of a woman in a church I pastored. She complained bitterly about her husband, what a failure he was as a leader, how passive and unengaged he was. So I took her at her word, befriended her husband, and worked with him. Before long, he began to engage, and to exercise some relatively mild Christian leadership in the home.

Was she happy? It was, after all, what she said she wanted, and offered relief from what she very dramatically claimed to be the source of a lot of misery.

"Happy"? Good heavens, no. She was madder than a wet cat. You see (I came to realize, reluctantly) it messed with her shtick. What she loved was the status her "suffering" gave her, the opportunity to complain and grouse. She had no intention of giving up control. It served her too well. (I've since seen the same phenomenon for husbands with troublesome wives, by the way.)

Now, I think if any of us have as yet felt no singe from this reflection, we've not heard Jesus' question. That proneness to quick temper; to lingering too long over the wine; to clicking on the wrong links; to self-pity; to coldly rebuffing your wife; to belittling or shredding your husband; to faithless depression; to laziness; to selfish indifference; to cursory (or no) Bible reading; to hasty and shallow prayers — you and I lament these and more.

But do we want, do we wish, are we willing to be made healthy?

I'll answer the question with which I began. Jesus never asked a dumb question. This wasn't a dumb question at all.

In fact, it was (and remains) an uncomfortably, confrontively excellent question:

"Do you wish to become well?"

Dan Phillips's signature


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

What a truly wonderful way to start my morning! Thanks DJP! I never thought about that question by Jesus before in that way!

Even back then, there was the effect of manipulation by "victimhood" going on!

And then to connect that insight to trends in today's church (particularly the wailing and whining in the Emergent and Liberal churches!) was brilliant!

Also great was sharing your personal experiences such as the woman who relished complaining about her husband and didn't want an improvement. There are many people like that!

Truly, the question "Do you wish to get well?" is NOT a dumb question, but a wise one!

DJP said...

Thanks, and praise God.

I was looking for (and could not find) a post I wrote once when I realized how others' spiritual growth can painfully finger that within myself. You know, you subtly blame this or that sin or failure in yourself on others' (actual) sins or shortcomings... and then, when they deal with the sin or issue, poof! Your cover's all gone!

(Probably was one of my too-cleverly-titled posts, and now I don't even recognize the content by the title.)

Jim Kirby said...

Thanks, Dan, I never saw that question in that light. I'm going to save this post to my illustration file.


Al said...

Well written post Dan…

This is the really ugly side of loving the praise of men rather than the praise of God. Those who suffer in this sin would rather have salve of shared misery and the light touch of a sympathetic support group, rather than the strong right arm of God, which often brings repentance along with healing.

Like any sin it is overcome by the penetrating quest(ioning) of the Holy Spirit, by way of the Word. Let the questions come and may they have their perfect work.

al sends
loving me some Baptist exegesis

Nash Equilibrium said...

Not a dumb question at all, when you consider that the majority of people don't want what Jesus is offering; or at least, they don't want it on the terms he is offering it to them.

Randy said...

I didn't know there was a word for that condition...maladapted.

Good food for thought.

DJP said...

If I don't find the right word, I make the right word.


philness said...

Just what I needed Dan, thanks. I have had a real bad attitude of all kinds of things lately and it has worked for me too. I believe this post will serve as a tool in fixing me so I can get back to serving Him.

Dave said...

Once again, Dan brings hammer down to iron.

Thank you, brother. A very good word.

Stefan Ewing said...

Dangnabit, my "responsibility index" just went up again!

I would have thought Jesus meant something like, "Do you want to be healed, not only physically, but also spiritually?" since the latter is always intertwined with the former in the incarnate Christ's ministry.

But even with that interpretation, it still leads to your interpretation: do you or I really want all that healing entails? Are we prepared to repent for our sins and surrender everything to the living Christ, our healer, saviour, and redeemer?

Or are we too happy wallowing in our current state, be it something beyond our control (a physical condition such as the man at the pool had) or—more pertinent to most of us—our besetting sins? Do we really want the Lord to work in our lives, knowing what that entails?

This is a timely post as I still have a lot of dross in myself that needs to be burned away in the Refiner's fire (Malachi 3:2-3, 1 Peter 1:6-7, etc.). Thank the Lord for what He does through you.

Mike Riccardi said...

This is extremely interesting, Dan. I've been mulling it over in free moments for the last two hours. It really is quite a clever thing for Jesus to do; i.e., highlight the depth of our depravity and self-defeating hopelessness of our sinful condition. Thanks for risking being misunderstood and posting this.

In related fashion, do you think this type of thing extends to John's quote of Isaiah 6?


Whaddaya think?

ErnestoPerdonado said...

Nailed it!

Great Post Dan, I think some of us like being the victims and is a sinful attitude we don't truly realize unless shown by the bible, and thanks for this great biblical discernment in pointing this point out.

You wonder sometimes how Joel Osteen could ponder this question to his readers, before asking them to have their "Best life Now", jaja but again i guess he would not, not liking to use "much scripture" by his own admission.

God Bless

S.J. Walker said...


So, when are we going to see a new banner that shows a tent spike and hammer and all that jazz...(gory part hopefully deleted)?


S.J. Walker said...

Pardon, "censored" not "deleted"--that would defeat the purpose right?

Staci Eastin said...

Well said.

I liked Al's comment as well:

This is the really ugly side of loving the praise of men rather than the praise of God.

Daryl said...


I've been convicted, and necessarily so.

Thank you, I will be taking this under serious advisement.


Could is be that we're looking at 2 perspectives here? That is, we have a responsibility to see/hear/act etc. but at the end of the day God's will is done in every life.
Seems like that doesn't allow us an out either on our responsibility, or on the side of impugning God somehow.

FX Turk said...

I'm just glad that Dan posted this before my review of Challies' new book tomorrow and not after.

~Mark said...

Ouch. That post really hits home. Sometimes the old filthy pig pen feels more like home than the unfamiliar shiny new palace, even though the palace is, well... a PALACE! That's one of the biggest obstacles to healing 'cause as you showed in your post, once you're healed all the excuses are gone and it's time sink or swim with nothing and no one to blame.

FX Turk said...

I think, btw, that there's a great point here in which the sick fellow says to Jesus after this question, in essence, "I do, but there's no one to help me." That is, "I need a savior to save me."

Not only is the question deep and wide, the answer is also deep and wide.

And I told you so in less than 100 words.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Jesus asked no dumb questions, but you can be sure he got lots of dumb answers.

Matthew Celestine said...

Well the man hardly answered with 'Yes!' So possibly he did'nt.

ThyWordisTruth said...

I've seen this recently in a SS class. A woman with a crack addiction was loved and ministered to in a very intense way for over a year. She was taken to counseling, prayed over and for, lived with a family for a time, had her physical and financial needs met. The class was almost consumed with with her issues - it seemed like she had experienced a true conversion.....

But then when the attention on her began to wane....suddenly she decided crack was a better friend to her than God. She said she didn't need God anymore.

I think the question behind the question of "Do you wish to get well?" is "What do you want to be healed of?" Is your problem a physical or financial one that is looking for a social gospel or do you have poverty of spirit that needs to be healed of its spiritual depravity?

David A. Carlson said...

This is a fascinating passage, and does generate a lot of supposition and guessing about many things, including why did Jesus heal only him, why was their no repentance before the healing (or even afterwards), why did Jesus ask the question, etc.

The part that strikes me as the most interesting unanswered question is why did the man turn Jesus in to the authorities - was it to proclaim Jesus, or was it to inform on him? (v.15 - The man went away and informed the Jewish leaders that Jesus was the one who had made him well.)(from Dan's favorite bible translation ;)

The text gives no direct reasons - it simply says what did happen. It is up to us to decide what to (or not to) read into the details.

Drummer Chris said...

Awesome stuff!

Thanks Phil.......er.......Dan =]

Stefan Ewing said...


What strikes me is that the man does not reply doubtfully to Jesus, when Jesus asks if he wants to be healed.

We see so many stories of men and women chosen by God, who initially respond to him with doubt or incredulity—Sarah (correct me if my memory's faulty), Moses, Gideon, Zechariah (John the Baptist's father). Not to mention all the other stories of doubting God's promises or sufficiency, such as David with his census, or all the sojourners in the Wilderness except for Joshua and Caleb.

On the other hand, there are those who respond to His call unquestioningly—Abraham and Peter, for example (though both were not above the human sin condition in other episodes in their lives). Or Rahab and Ruth, both ancestors of Jesus.

This man didn't respond by saying, for example, "Hah! You can heal me? What can you do? I'll get into this pool eventually, and then I'll be healed." Implicitly, that he responded without skepticism seems to me to be evidence of a repentant heart—or perhaps I should say, a heart made ready for repentance by God.

Jordan said...

Profound insight. Thanks.



Strong finish after the Robin Trower comment. Are Pyro's required to submit to routine physicals?

Many choose their infirmities over Jesus. Once He loses pole position that's a no-no.

the postmortem said...

Thank you for these thoughtful words, Dan. We all probably have at least one corner of our lives that ought to subject itself to the healing power of Christ...but our sin has veiled us from him, crippling us in some way, great or small. I appreciate the question Jesus asks, and I will direct it at those corners of my life I've yet to submit to his Lordship.

Unknown said...

Wow, wonderful article Dan. Thank you. That is all there is to say.

David A. Carlson said...


I agree it is interesting that he did say yes, but yet again it is supposition as to intent/motivation. We get "just the facts" - what happened.

Clearly he did not who Jesus was when he healed him - it was not until Jesus came back that he knew who had healed him. When he said Yes, he did not know who was asking the question. You can make the assumption that he was at the pool as a repentant person. That would be the "charitable" way of interpreting this passage

5:12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Pick up your mat and walk’?” 5:13 But the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped out, since there was a crowd in that place. (Dan's Favorite Translation ;)

It's hard to assign a lot of motivation to the man at the pool when he did not know who he was talking to when he was asked the question.

Question asked, Question answered. No background on Jesus's motivation, no background on the man's motivation

pastorbrianculver said...

had Jesus said, "Follow Me?" it seems that it would have been the question that is posed by the EM's. Luckily, it is not a question but an offer with a promise! thanks for the post!

Nash Equilibrium said...

I don't know... I think the Emerg*** Jesus would have said something like, "Please follow me! I need you! You are a great person and you won't need to change one bit. If you don't want to follow me, I'll follow you around and do things your way, to boot!"

Solameanie said...

Believe me, Dan..(otherwise known as "Jael" Phillips)

This hits close to home and there are a few in my own family to whom I'd love to show this. I also think of some characters C.S. Lewis mentioned in "The Screwtape Letters."

pastorbrianculver said...

good one stratagem, and I might add...
Jesus will also follow you and buy your groceries for you. All you have to do is ASK!

Stefan Ewing said...


Good points. On the other hand, since as Scripture says, he didn't know who Jesus was at the time, all the more reason why he might have responded with doubt and incredulity!


That could have come out of the mouth of practically any Finneyite Arminian.

David A. Carlson said...

Stefen - I agree the assumption is reasonable....but with so little to go on, it is an assumption based on our perceptions and experiences, not based on the text of the bible. As such any number of assumptions may be reasonable, and there is no way of saying which one is correct.

Tying John 5 into a message about victimhood is thin. We are doing nothing than making unsupported assumptions about Jesus's motivation and intent.

Which is not to say Dan is wrong about victimhood and it's impacts. I agree with him. But again, that is based on my personal experience and observations.

Anonymous said...

Well said, brother Dan. This particular bent of humans to cling to that which is destroying them has always seemed so odd to me. I see it all the time working with addicts, alcoholics, etc in rescue mission ministry. It's an identity issue at root, I think. If my whole self has been tied up in being a drug addict, a porn addict, a lame beggar, whatever - then being healed by the Healer menas that I am no longer who I was, He Himself declares me to be someone new. With a new nature, new expectations and accountabilites to live out my new identity, etc. Radical change, that most people aren't prepared for.

Reminds me of the guy in Lewis' The Great Divorce who has such a hard time separating himself from the lizard that enslaves him. Also reminds me of a crusty old executive I used to work with. One of his favorite sayings was "Don't bring me good news, I can't fix that!"


stratagem said...

I don't know... I think the Emerg*** Jesus would have said something like, "Please follow me! I need you! You are a great person..."

Maybe he just put him on disability and called it good. Hath...?

Christopher Johnson said...

Wow. Just...wow. This is something I've thought a lot about in my own life but I've never seen it expressed as well as this. I've got a lot of praying and thinking to do. Thanks very much, Dan.

Stefan Ewing said...


Of course you are quite right that we should always check ourselves when reading Scripture, to make sure that we are not reading more into it than is there.

As I read Dan's post, my first reaction was, "What!?"—and I agree he's extrapolating a lot more from the text than it would appear to support

But by the end of his post, I was convicted—because he ended up teaching us not on victimhood (which is really only one particular besetting sin), but on the besetting sins that we all cling to, each according to our own particular weaknesses.

Stefan Ewing said...

..."Each according to his [or her] own particular weaknesses," that is.

(Wouldn't want Dan to point out my faulty pronoun agreement before I caught it myself....)

candy said...

Much as you and I might recoil from another's state in life, that person might not share our revulsion. One can grow to identify with a condition, to find meaning and individuality and significance in something that of itself offers nothing desirable whatever. Whether it be a natural handicap or a totally different weakness, failing, misery, affliction or sin, we can come to think of ourselves as Noble Sufferers, as Tragic Victims, as Tormented Souls. So (pathetically and unhealthily) rewarding is this identification, that we unknowingly have no real desire to be parted from our badge of uniqueness, our gimmick, our shtick.

This is particularly the case in our American culture, where we have come to prize, seek out, cultivate, and luxuriate in the status of victimhood.

Excellent point Dan.

Strong Tower said...

If we go to this one:
Matthew 19:16-30what do we have?

Presupposing the same thing, that the benefit is to himself, then dramatic change in conditions challenges the status quo. The rich young ruler is not dissatisfied with what is, that is evident, yet is self-seeking, looking to add avantage. Presuppose that in Jesus' assessment (knowing what is in the heart of man) that behind the dialogue is this question: "Really?" The RYR's response is similar to the cripple, and infact they are both "crippled" by impossibility. To paraphrase the RYR: "I'm really bubbly spiritually, when there's opportunity, but no one has ever told me the secret to eternal life." Jesus' unspoken response, "Really, do you really want to know the secret?" couched in "Go sell all you have and give to the poor." (For he knew, that even if the RYR was able to, he would not and as with the crip it was the conditions of sin that were preventing him.)

I think that Jesus' response is in the least potential willingness to bring the RYR into the kingdom, and we do not know just what happened after this, but Jesus goes on with the disciples about riches. And they perceive correctly that they too are rich and respond: "Then who..." His answer is in kind, "What is impossible with man is possible with God."

We learn more than just man's depravity, we learn of Christ's compassion, for even with the case of the rich young ruler, Christ's instruction to his disciples is that just so, even if the man is unwilling to remove himself from his complacency and full embrace of sin, God is not, according to his grace, willing that all should remain in it.

Jay said...

Great post, Dan, as always. Speaking from personal experience, the identity of a "Noble Sufferer" can be really appealing to one's ego, and it took some C.S. Lewis (and some good friends) to convict me of that a while ago.

Sometimes those destructive identities can be imposed on you by well-meaning Christians who simply find it unbelievable that you struggle with whatever sin you struggle with, especially if they consider it a "major sin."

That kind of attention can be comforting, and it's always great to have support, but lines have to be drawn before destructive identities can be made. The best counter-measure, of course, is to remind them (and yourself) that all sins are equal in God's eyes, and that Christ's healing is the ultimate leveler. The buck always stops with you, or at least that's what I've learned.

Keep up the good work! Not that you need my encouragement, of course.

Unknown said...

What a great and engaging post. I have never ventured to see it that way,and i must tell you: it hit home.

Apart from thinking of myself, i see this kind of thing in christian-agnostic-selfmadegod-truthseeker
-atheist of the postmodern. They really "seek truth" but just kind find it. And they run to christian blogs and have everybody know about it, so we feel pity and that helps stroking their egos.

Excellent point on the sexual sins. That is really food for thought. I know a many a man that struggles with this.

I guess there we reach this borderline between being defeated and living victorious in Christ. It is a line that still baffles me: you can go too much on either side and be wrong.

"There are many religious impostors who prefer tearing open their spiritual wounds to the first passer-by, and hugging their grievance, to being made into robust men upon whom the burden of responsibility will immediately fall." ... ouch!

Thanks again. Keep those coming!

Nik P said...

What an excellent article... It's something we don't actually think about or realise, though I'm sure that there is ample evidence! It's so true: People love their misery even if they don't appear to. And as Christians, Jesus question really strikes a sensitive chord with our pet sins that keep us from growing into healthy, fully-formed people of God (Gal. 4:19).

Many thanks for these words!

The Interface said...

An excellent exposition/application of these verses. Thanks.

daniel said...

Do I really want to be healed?

Some days, I do.
Most days I don't.
Most days, I just want to be forgiven.

No more resisting the devil.
No more contending for the gospel.
No more running the race.
No body buffeting or character building.

Instant new creation. Just add water and the Spirit.

This is wrong.
I know.
Yes, heal me please before I change my mind.