Do you want to be well?
It's that time of year again where people think about resolutions: things that need to change, positive steps to improve life - physical wellness, fitness, diet - and of course emotional health. Many of these are personal goals for people, lifestyle adaptations or challenges. But increasingly there are moves to do this corporately, and to feel the pressure to join in with something bigger. These campaigns help improve our chances of success as we feel part of something and often can be carried by the motivation of shared experience and accountability.
But what if you find yourself on the outside of one of these trends? What if your circumstances mean you can’t join in - or you feel excluded to this or other steps you want to take to improve your situation or health? The start to the year has also brought reports which anyone passionate about mental health will sadly recognise - reporting the challenges many will have to access good mental health care and treatment. With thresholds for treatment often being raised - particularly for children and young people, and long waiting lists or shortages of appointment slots in some areas, the delay many people experience getting the treatment means they face getting worse before they can be offered any chance to get better. Others may feel that diagnoses or labels they have been given along the way have closed certain opportunities for them, or mean that many people just assume they will remain unwell. The fight for hope, health and happiness can be a tough one when it feels like people are making assumptions about your future which are less than positive.
And of course one of the unique challenges of many mental health conditions is the way that our wellness is intertwined with our decisions: the apparent way choices may influence our wellbeing - for the worse or better. This makes many mental health conditions very hard to understand for those who have never suffered, and can lead to difficult questions about why people are unwell - even a sense of blame directed towards those struggling - maybe if they really wanted to change things would be different. Is the right help out there really - but they are just not looking for it hard enough, or in the right places?
The question in all of this therefore is - do our assumptions, our systems and our processes sometimes leave some people excluded from the very help they need: fighting even for the chance to experience something that should be available to everyone: the chance to be happy?
There’s a story in the gospels which is often told from what I find to be a rather challenging perspective for anyone who has ever experienced long term ill-health - and particularly emotional or mental ill-health. It is the story of the man Jesus heals at the pool of Bethesda, and it is in John 5. In the story Jesus comes to this pool, where tradition held that at times an angel would stir the water and the first person to touch it would be healed. Jesus sees a man lying there who has been ill for a long time - nearly 40 years - and asks him ‘Do you want to get well?’
So many sermons, talks, articles I have heard or read on this story open up the difficult question then of whether or not some people struggle with a desire to be well. Do some people gain enough pay off from their illness that they don’t truly want to recover? Are there some people who have been ill so long that it is part of their identity, so to leave it behind would be too hard? Are some people unwell because of decisions they have made, choices they persist in? The suspicion and questioning of intent that underlies some illnesses can be particularly painful to those suffering. And it offers a good ‘get out’ for those with the possible opportunity to help, support or treat those who are unwell. The failing in treatment is not a weakness of understanding or approach, or accessibility, or method - it is somewhere in the minds of those suffering - something about those people which means they don’t truly want to be well. And this story is often quotes in this context - Jesus questioning this man who surely if he really wanted to be well would have been quicker to get to the pool in 38 years - a man who surely must still be ill because in some way he wasn’t doing what he needed to do to get well.
I question this interpretation of the story, and it makes me rage when I hear it used to condemn those who are unwell. Jesus often used the vignette of one person to make or illustrate a bigger point - a theological perspective of what he was here to do. It happens throughout the gospels - a story is told, or Jesus picks out one person in the midst of hundreds who were healed, or spoken to or interacted with. One person’s story is given undue prominence - we always need to ask why? What is the bigger picture that this story tells us?
So we hear Jesus say ‘Do you want to be well?’ and the man replying ‘Yes!’ and we try to be clever and apply a deep meaning here questioning the intent of someone who has been suffering in the most horrible way for nearly four decades. But what if the meaning is much more simple and we can take these comments at face value. Jesus asks him if he wants to be well - and he answers yes - because the truth is he DOES want to be well, and Jesus wants people to realise this - and therefore to ask the vital question of why he is notable to access wellness - why he has been trapped, why better health has been held back from him.
John’s account tells us that the man explains the reason he has not been able to be healed is largely practical and support based: he has no one, no family or friend to help him when the pool is stirred, so others get there before him. His circumstances mean he is unable to access help open to others, so he has become trapped. In fact, it isn’t just his lack of practical support that have trapped him or limited him: Jewish law at the time stated that those who were lame or disabled were unclean, so they were not allowed into the city walls. This pool lies therefore just outside the walls - so close, but so excluded. From people and help, but also from God - in that time even worshipping and connecting with God was out of the reach of people like this man.
The pool would have been surrounded by people that day. Loads of people - but God sees the individual story - and the poignancy of one man for whom health and happiness seems to be out of reach. And the account tells us Jesus ‘saw’ this man - using a greek word which has a much deeper meaning, that he sees the deeper story beneath the superficial picture - a man who desperately wants to be well but cannot find a way through the maze of getting there. And Jesus sees something important in this man’s situation that he has come to change. Jesus’ purpose and presence is about God coming to earth to make such things accessible to everyone - changing the story so that all people, not just the lucky few, can find the things they yearn for and truly live - life to the full, thriving and flourishing.
So how does this influence our responsibility as people of God, particularly in our tough times of austerity and limitation? Do we accept the constraints around access to good treatment or do we need to fight for it? I suggest we have more than an opportunity to try to improve the situation for people: we have a responsibility to do what we can. To be a voice for those who have no voice, to try to bring about change where it is needed, and to resource, enable, support and care wherever we can. Our role is to challenge lazy assumptions which might suggest people are unhappy because they don’t truly want to be happy and instead to fight for people who desperately do want to live more and better life, but find the routes towards that blocked or obstructed at every turn.
A final word on John 5: when Jesus asks the man if he ‘wants’ to be well - that word, sometimes translated as ‘desire’ (as in ‘do you desire to be well?’) - the Greek word used here has a deeper meaning - about our desire to see the fullness and potential of god expressed - it’s often used of God desiring to see his will - his best - manifested in people through faith. So, in this case, Jesus asks the man if he desires not just to be healed but to be whole, restored - back to gods normal for him, to see God’s fullness and potential released in him. What we’re talking about here is whether people have a desire to see their true potential released and reached - to see the life God would have desired for themselves, but also the wider impact on the people around them - on the community, on the people they live and interact with. We can think of these little stories as individual tales, set apart from other people but the truth is we are all affected by the way things like mental and emotional health impact our society. The way the kingdom of God is expressed and realised on this earth is through us as people - ordinary everyday people with challenges and struggles. And the more we can release and enable all people to reach the potential of who God created them to be, and what they can carry for God when they are freed like that - the more of the kingdom of God we see on this earth - people and places the way God intended them to be.
And that can only be a good thing - for everyone.
Kate Middleton, 11/01/2020