16 July 2009

Jesus' "dumb question" that wasn't (and isn't) [requested classic re-post]

[Reader philness on this thread requested that we reach back to January of 2008 to repost this slightly-edited essay, which keeps coming back to haunt him.]
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 "Yep, a-hyuk! 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, codified 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 first (v. 7), perhaps to snag a healing. But what a cruel hope even that seems to have been. Think it over. 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 even have 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 had 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 and misrepresented. 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.

Conversation about other people, or events, or even Biblical truths may coast along tepidly. Oh, but when the topic of their ailment or suffering or woes come up... cue the passion, the animation, the heartfelt involvement.

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 response to a difficult turn of Providence; nor of the experience of pain, as often seen in the Psalms. I speak of an unhealthy and God-dishonoring embrace of an undesirable state or behavior, an investment in an identity as a Person Suffering From ____.

Am I the first to see this in the passage at hand? No. 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 or choice 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, how sad their life is. 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. These folks work so hard to blunt edges and blur lines, yet they 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 noble 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. Or who claims to have found them.

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


Anonymous said...

wow. that was convicting. thanks for the re post i missed it the first time around. wow.

Boerseuntjie said...


I am so glad for this post as one who has had much physical and emotional suffering - I too once was Identifying Myself as a Victim of my.....(Whatever).

This is however not quite what Christ was addressing, but He was addressing our willingness to submit to Him and to REPENT (Turn away from) the love of SELF and ALL our BELOVED SINS.

That said I believe that message is conveyed in your writing; but perhaps it would be better for saying it outrightly:

Are we willing to REJECT OUR LUSTS AND DESIRES to submit ourselves to His Authority and the HEALING OF OUR SOULS througH Justificationa nd Sanctification - IN ORDER to receive the FINAL Gift of Glorifcation (Which is in itself a Beginning, just as the others).

To use some of my favourite facebook qoutes:

Pastor John MacArthur (Jnr) - Grace to You
"If we say that we LOVE God, then we will hate whatever is an offense to Him. Sin blasphemes God. Sin curses God. Sin SEEKS TO DESTROY God's work and His kingdom. Sin KILLED His Son...One CANNOT LOVE God WITHOUT HATING that which is set to destroy Him. TRUE LOVE for God will therefore manifest itself through confession and repentance. The man who loves God WILL BE grieved over his sin and will WANT TO confess it to God and FORSAKE IT."

Pastor R.C. Sproul (SNR) - Renewing Your Mind
"The irony is this: Once we have found Christ it is not the end of our seeking BUT THE BEGINNING. Usually, when we find what we are looking for, it signals the end of our searching. But when we "find" Christ, it is the beginning of our search."

May our merciful Triune LORD enable and incline OUR hearts, and those of sinners who are still in WILLING BONDAGE to the LOVE of their lusts and desires, of their sins, to seek after Him with ALL our hearts, souls, minds and strengths - to LOVE HIM above all, as our Adonai (Lord), Master, Ruler and King.

Your fellow bondslave for the glory of our God Alone,

Boerseuntjie said...

John 5:14
"...Jesus...said to him, “See, you have been made well. SIN NO MORE, LEST A WORSE THING COME UPON YOU.”

John 8:11
"...And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and SIN NO MORE.”"

Mark 2:17
"When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of A PHYSICIAN, but THOSE WHO ARE SICK. I did not come to call the righteous, BUT SINNERS, TO REPENTANCE.”"

David said...

Thanks for this post.

dwitzke said...

Thanks again, for a thought-provoking and heart-convicting post, Dan.

chopstickschan said...

Marvelous insight, Dan.

dwitzke said...

Also, in my pastoral counseling/exhortation, I have found this to be very true. People will come in "asking for help," while they do not really want help, but some sort of approval for their position. Two of the first things I deal with is to establish whether or not they believe the Bible is truly God's revelation of His truth, and then whether they are willing to be helped. (then I say "Stop it!" :))

Bob said...

Thanks Dan for this re-post. Do you think, since you pointed out the identity aspect, that people who are bound in some sin fear the responsibility that comes along with a sincere desire to be healed? It seems so.

DJP said...

DWitzke, you might get a rueful chuckle out of one of my earliest posts here, a pointed tongue-in-cheeker called 26 ways in which doing IT Support is better than being a pastor.

DJP said...

Yes, Bob. And I think it can be far from obvious to the sufferer, that (s)he has invested his/her identity in his/her suffering. He's Bob-with-the-bad-marriage, she's Unloved-Sally.

BTW, I'd be appalled if anyone used this post as a weapon to batter suffering believers simply because they (they batterers) lack compassion and patience. That isn't what I'm writing about.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Dan.

In the providence of God this repost comes right when I've been offered an opportunity which would directly lead to me addressing my areas of weakness professionally and learn how to correct them.

Like the man by the pool these are areas I've know about for a long time and have not been willing to do that hard work of correcting.

God is good.


Anonymous said...

What a great article. Thank you for writing it.

buck said...

Wonderful, Dan! Just like mama's warmed over peach cobbler, this was even better the second time. Thanks for the very timely words for my family.

DJP said...

Now, there's a phrase for a T-shirt.


stratagem said...

Ever notice that the crippled man never answered the question?

Eric Kaminsky said...


Lol, reminds me of Bob Newhart sketch. That was his whole therapy technique. "Stop it"

Jay said...

Right on post, although at first I thought because of a situation I know well involving someone else. Now, though, I am convicted because this really applies to anyone whether their "illness" is physical, mental, emotional OR just plain old unrepented sin.

Thanks Dan.

Susan said...

This re-post comes on a day when I feel like a semi-oblivious and totally indolent frog swimming in a pot of water that's getting hotter by the minute....

What a question! I can almost see Jesus asking me the very same question.

Time for prayer and reflection....

lawrence said...

Well said, my man. Definitely one of your finer efforts.

Deb_B said...

Susan closed a very astute commentary with:
"Time for prayer and reflection...."

To which I must echo a hearty AMEN!, personally speaking.


Nate and Andrea said...

This was a "stab and twist" kind of post. I dig up more and more things about myself that are relevant to what you're saying. Thank you for posting this. I think I'm going to print it out and put it in my Bible. These thoughts may help me (and my wife ;) sort through some things.

I noted early in my faith that Jesus later tells him to stop sinning or something worse may happen to him. When I think about what already happened to the man, it makes me shudder to realize what could be worse...

philness said...


Your insight to this passage is just stellar and I suspect this gets over looked in most Sunday schools and bible studies. For its only when one ponders the paralytics response that one see's the man's deliberate content with his infirmity having still been there 38 years. A person's first response would be a resounding yes, I want to get healed. But this man goes into an explanation of why he has not and it is obvious to even a first time observer of his purposeful neglect.

And yes Dan I am haunted by this insight of yours not only of the implications you've so well stated, hate you very much, but also of its many possibilities I toy with to fit bibley truths.

Do you want to be Christ like?
Do you want to be Spirit filled?
Do you want to be dependent on me?
Do you want your mind renewed?
Do you want to serve me?
Do you want to serve your church?
Do you want to love your wife?
Do you want to pray for your president?
Do you want to share the gospel?
Do you want to make disciples?

Before I was healed the answer to these questions were "no". In fact I never knew such questions exist.
After I was healed the answer to these questions are still "no", and "yes".
Thank God the same Spirit that breathed these questions in me and gave the answers "yes" is the same Spirit that will take away the answers "no".

Rashawna said...

this post is an epic win

highly convicting, I'm glad I got a chance to read it.


Gisela said...

What's with the fine-pointed perfect timing, all the time, of these posts?

At (too many) times, spiritually, I feel like the man at the pool. When it gets bad enough, I click over to this blog, and find that someone has hit the nail on the head! And always the top post or two. It's not digging through archives.

It's becoming an expected thing. I struggle with some sort of sin, get stupid and faithless and listless and jerk-y and mopey and cowerish...and I know that when I click over to Team Pyro, one of you will stick your finger right on whatever-it-is.

Seems that God consistently sends me to this blog to read the right thing at the right time.

So, thanks.


DJP said...

Well, Gisela, I think the point is not to wait until then before coming back to us.

Just make us a daily visit!


Gisela said...


The only reason I don't visit daily is because I can't handle the Internet daily!

Instead of doing Internet in regular, healthy, moderate doses, I tend to "binge" (both on the quality and the trivial), and then "starve" for a few days--trying to get it out of my system and return to equilibrium.

And yes, I wish to be made well!

No, I don't wish to whine about this for 38 years!


Charles said...

I think we all have to be careful and not be deceived. Our culture promotes this mentality.

Susan said...

OUCH indeed, Deb_B, for me personally as well.

And my OUCH is further intensified by Nate's (and Andrea's?) observation about Jesus's warning the man that something worse might happen to him if he were to keep sinning. Things can indeed get worse at any moment; it is because of the Lord's kindness that I am not consumed. He is gracious toward me so that I may repent.

(This frog isn't completely out of hot water today but is becoming more alert....)

Libbie said...

I'm grateful for your careful clarifications, both in-post and in the comments, Dan. But mostly grateful for the exhortation :-)

Troy said...

I'm reminded of a scene from Monty Python's film Life of Brian (saw it once -- won't see it again), but the scene stuck with me. They're walking through a crowd of beggars and one of the main characters cries out "Alms for an ex-leper!". What follows is a haggle over alms. Finally the "ex-leper" says he was healed by Jesus "without so much as a by your leave!" and complains mightily that he now is a "man without a trade". The point of the scene was actually the man's breathtaking ingratitude -- he apparently did not want to be healed. Anyway... something useful from an otherwise useless youthful mistake (the movie).

Obvious questions are not often dumb questions -- and are seemingly the ones we avoid asking of ourselves (a failing Jesus of course does nto share!)

Great post -- thanks for the exhortation.

C.B. Shearer said...

When I got saved, I did everything possible to get out of the way of being healed; away from that Meddling Spirit...and yet Jesus healed me anyways. When I had not sought righteousness, I found righteousness. (cf. Genesis 3:9, Romans 9:30) I'm glad about it now, but at the time I was furious.