Most of us have heard the saying, “We learn from our mistakes”. Making mistakes is a valuable but painful way of learning and growing. As a result of my experiences, I have added a modification to the saying: “We learn from our mistakes–but we can learn from the mistakes of others with a lot less personal pain.” This addition to the saying has been very helpful to me over the years, especially in terms of my professional life.
At one point, I was talking with a neighbouring pastor, who was telling me about the great grief ministry he was providing to a family I knew. He showed up at the house right after the death and basically cleared his schedule of everything so he could be with the family and minister to the all day long for several days. He was quite proud of his ministry to the family, feeling that he had enabled them to do really well during their time of grief. The unspoken message was that I should copy his example and my ministry would be a lot more effective.
A while after that, I ended up in a conversation with a member of the family–I can’t remember how it happened but we ended up together. I told him I was sorry to hear about the death in the family. That comment seemed to open a door he need to open because he began to talk about his personal experience during the process. Among the things he needed to talk about was the pastor’s ministry during that time. Essentially, he told me that while he did appreciate the pastor and what he was trying to do, he got tired of having the pastor around and wished that he would have left them alone more–they had no time to do their own grieving in their own way because he was always there.
I think the mistake the pastor made was a common one. As caring people, we are sometimes so focused on our task of helping people that we forget something important, something that Jesus shows us quite clearly in the story of the man at the Bethesda. The story is found in John 5.1-9.
According to the story, the pool was a site where people could be healed if they could be the first in the pool when the water was disturbed. The man in the story had been disabled for 38 years but was unable to get into the water first. Now, on the surface, this man seems like an obvious candidate for help. He had a long-term disability that prevented him from living life to the fullest. Surely, Jesus would see the need to heal the man.
But instead of simply reaching out and healing the man, Jesus asks him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5.6, NIV) Why ask the question? Well, the reality is that this man may not have been really serious about being healed. As I used to say to my students when I taught on this passage, the fact that the man was there for so many years and hadn’t figured out a way to be first in the water suggests that he might not have been as serious about being healed as it might appear. If nothing else, he could have chosen to lie right beside the pool, ready to roll in as soon as the water started moving.
Jesus was showing respect for the man’s freedom here. Jesus could have healed the man whether he wanted it or not but he chose to give the man a free choice. Rather than give them man what he may or may not have wanted, Jesus asks the question. His respect for the man’s right to choose to accept the help or now is important. It is an expression of his love for the man, to give his a choice.
Jesus had the ability to help everyone and he had the desire to help everyone. We definitely don’t have the ability to help everyone and probably don’t have the desire to help everyone. But like Jesus, we need to have the willingness to give people the freedom to accept or reject our help. Being like Jesus brings with it the need to give people their freedom to choose, whether we like their choice or not.
May the peace of God be with you.