February 11, 2013

Jesus and psychosomatic illness

In Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there was a pool. In Aramaic it was called Bethesda, which meant “house of mercy.” This area had five roofed colonnades and in this semi-protected place lay a multitude of invalids. They were blind, lame, or paralyzed. One man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. (John 5:2–6) 

This man could have been in an accident, or could have had some disease that left him unable to walk. What was unusual is that he had lived so long in this condition, perhaps longer than a normal lifespan for that time. There were no government medical programs back then either, which meant this man must beg to make a living. Being ill that long would not be an easy life, yet Jesus asked him a strange question, “Do you want to be healed?”

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” (John 5:7)

Today’s devotional writer sees loneliness in this statement. Here is a man in a crowd of people who believe that the first one into the pool when the water “moved” would be healed, but this man had no one to help him? 

I’m not sure that he was telling the whole truth. How can an invalid survive that many years without some help? He must have had family and friends that took care of his basic needs. However, he said no one would help him into the pool. Maybe those who took care of him didn’t want him to experience healing? Maybe they thought this “first into the pool” thing was superstition and refused to play along? Perhaps they didn’t understand how illness can be psychosomatic and that he might actually be healed if he thought the water would heal him. 

Or maybe they recognized that his infirmity was not the same as those who has been in accidents or had some disease, and were not impressed. He became tiresome to them and perhaps seemed to be faking it. Maybe he was drawn to this place called “house of mercy” for he longed for kindness and understanding that his ailment had deeper roots.

Those whose illness is emotionally caused could be lonely, but also deeply insecure. I knew someone who became genuinely sick when she didn’t want to tackle a challenge. She would soon be in bed with a fever, too ill to do anything. Perhaps this man was like that and found it easier to be an invalid than to live a normal life. He became comfortable being taken care of others, and was afraid of trying to make it on his own after being so long in this state. Also, even though he was likely not alone, he could have been very lonely. That is what happens to anyone whose focus is “me and my medical problems” — whether they are real or caused by fear or attention-seeking.

Adding to my thoughts about his illness is that the story says nothing to verify that the pool had specific powers. However, the power of suggestion is also noted in modern medicine. If a person has a psychosomatic illness, rather than something physically caused, then Jesus’ question makes even more sense — and it cuts right to the heart of the issue. 

It also convicts me. Haven’t I at times used some sort of personal problem to get attention? Haven’t I been fearful and made up excuses for why I could not move ahead? I also remember a few times when others suggested a simple solution and I was annoyed with them. I didn’t want solutions; I wanted a good excuse for not doing what needed to be done.

Jesus may have had a longer conversation with this invalid man than was recorded by John. The Lord may have talked to him about his fears and encouraged him to think differently about life. He may have challenged him to consider the life he was missing, or even why the people who brought him food were not sticking around long enough to put him into the pool. Whatever else was said, the Lord had mercy on the man.

Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked….(John 5:8–9)

But afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said something that again seems to cut to the heart of the problem again, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14) 

How does this apply to my life? First, don’t let self-pity and fear keep me from living as fully as God intends. To do so would be sin. He wants me to trust Him, then get up and walk. I must obey Him.

Second, consider others who are like this man and whose infirmities are held on to because they do not want to be well. Jesus was merciful with them, yet direct. He understood their need but also their problems and gave His kind attention to both. Jesus can hug and rebuke at the same time. Does He want me to be like that with the infirm and those who make excuses? I think so and I must obey Him.

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