Similar to the stories that we observed some time ago in the gospel of Mark, the next passage in John 5 is a healing passage in which Jesus oversees the healing of a paralytic man on the Sabbath and catches some heat for it from Jewish religious leaders. As has become our habit, we will not get bogged down in fruitless discussion about historical accuracy. There is simply nothing in that debate to empower us in our lives. There are a couple of interesting details worth noting in this passage, each of which we will unpack a little bit. First, Jesus does nothing apart from talk to the man. Second, the man then carries his mat around of his own volition. Finally, there is an implication that there will be further consequences based on the man's actions.
Unlike many biblical healing stories, there is no ritual action that takes place here. Jesus simply talks to the man and tells him to get up. Actually, first he asks, "Do you want to be well?" And then he says, "Get up and go on about your life." Perhaps something miraculous took place, or perhaps this man had convinced himself that he was incapable of living his life fully. Once the identity of "cripple" is taken on, it might be easier just to give in to that label and reinforce it through daily actions.
What are the labels in our lives that we accept and carry around for years? Lazy? Incompetent? Worthless? Ugly? Selfish? Stupid? No-talent? Damaged goods? Even though none of these are physical labels, they can be crippling nonetheless. It's likely that someone else put this label on us first, but we had to determine whether to accept that identity and live it out. When these kinds of words come from someone important or influential to us, it's really tough not to accept it as truth.
For many of us, it is not as simple as discarding the label and living into a different identity. The first step we have to take, though, is declaring that we want to be well. We have to know that we want to have a different vision for our lives. As long as we are willing to look for evidence to support the crippling labels we have taken on, we will find plenty of evidence. When we are willing to live into a different identity, we can begin to find supporting evidence of a more empowering set of declarations. This takes time, because we've probably developed a habit of reinforcing a crippling identity. So the story shows us a moment that is symbolic of a long trajectory of personal work. Taking on a more authentic and empowering identity is certainly worth the effort. I point out that it's going to take some time so that we don't get discouraged when our habits don't change in a moment.
The story doesn't end there, though. When the man with the mat recognizes that his identity as a cripple is a false identity, he gets up and carries his mat. He probably knows that it is unlawful to do certain things on the Sabbath in his culture (although the authors of John may be engaging in a bit of exaggeration here, since it was still permitted to carry personal items short distances on the Sabbath). Maybe this fellow was just on his way home when he was accosted. Maybe he was running around town telling everyone that he had recovered from his false identity. There's no telling. It doesn't really matter for the story to make its point.
Whatever he was doing, the man with the mat was not taking responsibility for his own behavior. He was the one carrying a mat. He was the one who had stood up and started walking. Yet, when he is confronted about his behavior, he shifts the blame to someone else. "That other person told me to do this, and so I did it." Really? We recognize immediately how weaselly this response is, and yet, we often say very similar things in our lives.
When anxiety builds, especially when we are personally confronted about our behavior, we often try to make that anxiety go away by finding someone else to blame. "I was only following orders." "This is how I was told to do it." It seems like such a good excuse, but the bottom line is that we are claiming not to be able to think for ourselves. In blaming others for our behavior, we are claiming that we should not be held responsible for what we do. We even go so far as to blame other people for our anger -- and the things we do and say when we're angry.
The bottom line is that blaming others is a dishonest reaction to anxiety. We are responsible for our actions, even if we do something based on another person's advice. It's unfortunate that we are often rewarded for effectively laying blame at someone else's feet. That we get away with it sometimes still does not make it laudable. If we want to become more emotionally mature -- if we want to have a more satisfying and fulfilling experience in our lives -- we must reject the temptation to shift blame to someone else. Certainly, we should be honest about our actions and the influences that we are able to identify. We can do this and still be responsible for our own decisions.
At the end of the passage, the Jesus character tells the man that his new identity still needs care. "What you do next will have consequences." Now, Jesus says something here that suggests that being crippled was a result of some sin that the man committed. This is contrary to what the gospel says elsewhere, and it doesn't help that it has some language that has become rather loaded. Another way to think about it is: If your actions do not line up with your guiding principles, you will know it by the consequences you experience. Even when your actions do line up with your guiding principles, there may be short-term consequences you don't like. All of our actions have consequences. When we live into a best possible version of ourselves, we will have greater peace about how we handle the consequences of our behavior. When our actions are more principled, we stand a better chance of having the experience of life that we want.
The man was either a bit dull or he didn't like the threatening tone of Jesus' warning, because he went back and reported to the Jewish leaders. Even when we claim a new identity, we will be faced with difficult decisions. It takes practice to keep showing up as the people we most want to be in the world -- as people with clear guiding principles, growing in emotional maturity. If we choose not to take responsibility for our identities, we will have plenty of opportunities to slip back into old lies about who we really are, and we will have plenty of opportunities to start believing new lies about who we really are. It's helpful sometimes to consider what others see, but if we choose to take on what others see in us, that's still our choice. We are responsible for our own well-being. We are responsible for our own identities.
Do you want to be well? Stop living into the false identity you've taken on and live into a better vision of yourself. Start now. Take responsibility for your own actions and your own identity. As you clarify your values and guiding principles, commit to aligning your actions and decisions with those values. This is the way of healing.
A Little Experiment: Taking responsibility. The next time you find yourself starting to blame someone else for your own behavior, stop and take responsibility. See what happens when you are authentic and honest.
A Big Experiment: Rebranding. What inauthentic label do you need to be done with? What would it take for you to adopt a new label that more accurately reflects your values and principles? If you can identify one lie about yourself that you've taken on, you can probably extrapolate something true about yourself to live into. For instance, if you have been carrying around that you are incompetent, you might start looking for honest evidence of your competence. It will take time to get rid of an old habitual lie, but this is the path toward a best possible version of yourself.