Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool called Bethzatha in Aramaic, which has five covered walkways. A great number of sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed people were lying in these walkways. Now a man was there who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and when he realized that the man had been disabled a long time already, he said to him, “Do you want to become well?” (John 5:2-6)
Do you want to become well?
It’s such a simple question. Who doesn’t want to become well? Who endures 38 years of misery, going so far as to show up every day at a mystical pool of healing water, without a deep desire for their suffering to come to an end? Throughout the Gospels, we witness Jesus repeatedly posing these sorts of eyebrow-raising queries.
Do you want to become well?
Maybe something more is going on in this passage. Maybe Jesus isn’t just stating the obvious. Maybe he’s engaging in some kind of performance art, playing the part of instigator and provocateur. Or maybe he’s asking a rhetorical question—a stylistic flourish designed to focus the crowd’s attention on the miracle he is about to perform. Or maybe he is simply offering this disabled man a chance to actualize his faith—prodding him to give voice to what would otherwise remain inarticulate and thus unrealized. Or maybe Jesus’ question is touching on a far more troubling reality. Maybe we don’t always want to become well.
On a personal level, it’s fairly easy for me to identify with the man lying beside the pool of Bethzatha. We are about the same age. We both suffer from a chronic ailment that, at least in my case, disables me to varying degrees. And just like this man, I too have been willing to try almost anything in my quest to find healing and relief.
I suffer from a degenerative disc disorder that causes varying degrees of pain in my back, arm, and neck depending upon the day. It is a constant reality that forces me to live a fundamentally different life than the one I once imagined. I have written about chronic pain elsewhere, but there is one aspect of my own experience that I have left untouched, in part because I only became aware of it recently, but also because it is far more difficult to speak about openly. Structurally, my condition results from the degenerating discs in my spine. But the actual source of my pain is neurological. It is related to the collapsing spaces that surround the many nerves that connect my spinal cord to the rest of my body. And any time nerves are involved, the pain associated with them is never purely physical. It is psychological too.
I realized this recently when my neurologist suggested a newer medication that had proven itself effective in treating not only neurological pain, but also its twin sibling: depression. He referred me to a psychiatrist to determine if I was a candidate for the drug. At the time, I was enduring a particularly bad flare-up of my symptoms, so I was ready to try anything. But like most things in life, I wasn’t fully prepared for what this decision would demand of me.
Do you want to become well?
I remember the moment with a kind of visceral clarity. I was driving home from my most recent psychiatric appointment. In the seat next to me was the prescription for a drug that promised to bring my physical pain down to a manageable level. It was also supposed to treat what my psychiatrist had now diagnosed as clinical depression. And that’s when I lost it. I had to pull my car over to the side of the freeway because I couldn’t see through my tears. I had stumbled upon a revelation, and I was terrified. I was afraid of the person I would become if I actually experienced restoration and healing.
My pain had been at an all-time high, but so too was my creative output. I had just written what I believed to be some of my better theological essays. I had also conceived and developed a novel that could only have emerged from the state of conflict, darkness, and angst I was enduring. Even the music I was writing had made a decided shift into more complex terrain than ever before. I was a tortured soul to be sure, but I was something more. I was an artist.
The irony was rich. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I had a glimmer of hope that my physical pain might come to an end. But pain is in the business of violent distortion, and hope is often one of its first victims. I had become so fully bound up with my pain and brokenness that the mere suggestion of healing and restoration meant that the core of my identity was now under threat. Without my beloved pain—my ever-present companion and friend—I would no longer know who I was.
Do you want to become well?
Here then is my personal confession. My brokenness is so profound that my response to Jesus’ question is often “no.”
No, I don’t want to get well.
My own struggle with chronic pain might seem like an odd place to begin a theological conversation about restoration and Christian hope, especially when I am willing to admit that I might not even want restoration. But that’s exactly the point. Restoration, whatever it may be, is never abstract. It is always concrete, always particular. Hope, whatever it may be, is always a hope in the face of hopelessness. It is always in spite of something. This “in spite of” nature of our lived experience shapes our understanding not only of what restoration or “becoming well” means, but also how it is that Christians dare to hope for any kind of restoration in the midst of a reality defined by unyielding pain.
Christian hope has unique dimensions that can only emerge when seen through the lens of our pain and suffering. This is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of the concept of “hope” in the historic theological tradition. Rather, my aim is simply to offer a few theological signposts that, drawn as they are from my experience as a chronic sufferer, might point us toward a more robust understanding of Christian hope.
SIGNPOST #1: CHRISTIAN HOPE IS WEAK
To engage in a meaningful conversation about Christian hope, we need to admit that our picture of what restoration entails is as frail and broken as we are. We must confess that we don’t know what to hope for, much less how to hope for it.
This way of thinking about what it means to hope runs counter to almost every narrative in the modern world—Christian or otherwise. Contrary to what modern science and technology would have us believe, we are not in control. Likewise, in contrast to many of the internal narratives within evangelical Christianity, we are not the authors of our story. Regardless of how much “faith” we muster, we cannot produce a meaningful existence through our own efforts. The source of our hope lies, literally, beyond us.
Admitting our weakness in a world defined by power and orchestrated by the powerful might seem like an admission of failure, worthlessness, or insignificance. But it is actually the opposite. In a scandalous turn befitting only of the biblical narrative, to acknowledge our powerlessness is to create the very conditions for hope. As the Apostle Paul reminds us:
I asked the Lord three times about this [thorn in my flesh], that it would depart from me. But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:8–10 NET)
Strangely, there are moments when I am thankful for the weakness brought about by my chronic pain, primarily because it serves as a daily reminder that I am not in control as I, physically, cannot do certain things. But beyond these physical restrictions, my pain has also forced me to accept that, even if I wanted to, I could never bring about the kind of restoration I desire for myself or for others—physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. In other words, I have been spared a terrible burden: that of living in a pain-free state. I can only imagine that, without a tangible and constant reminder of my weakness—a thorn in the flesh—it would be incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to recognize my desperate need for restoration, much less to hope for it.
Others have not been so fortunate. Most people are able to go about their daily lives entirely unaware of the fact that, as Nancy Eiesland has said, we are all only temporarily able-bodied.1 And this notion echoes the deeper truth that the Apostle Paul is addressing in 1 and 2 Corinthians. That is, whatever power or strength we may think we possess is in fact an illusion.
Put differently, our hope for restoration is not ultimately Christian hope if it depends upon our own capacities. Our hope is not hope at all if its source is something other than the God whose power is made perfect in weakness rather than in displays of strength.
SIGNPOST #2: CHRISTIAN HOPE IS OUR IDENTITY
Like pain of almost any kind, chronic pain diminishes our ability to hope—not simply by making healing or restoration seem like impossibilities, but by becoming an essential part of our identity. We don’t just experience pain and brokenness; we are pained and broken people. As such, it is possible to experience restoration not as a return to wholeness, but as a loss of self.
As Terry and Sharon Hargrave point out in their contribution to this issue of the magazine, the sense of losing one’s identity is actually quite normal, which is why they have developed the Restoration Therapy model of psychotherapy. If we consider this therapeutic model in an explicitly theological mode, we might say that, at its core, to hope as a Christian is to engage in a process of remapping our basic identities—to construct practices by which we navigate pain and suffering in faithful, integrative, and healthy ways.
Of course, because identity-shaping practices involve our bruised and broken bodies, the hope they cultivate is never easy but always hard won. Take, for example, the Christian practice of Communion. This devotional practice is hope-filled not because it does away with our pain, but because it requires us to bring our hurting bodies to the table in order to become one with the hurting body of Christ. To hope in a Christian mode is to enact and perform our collective suffering as it participates with the One who suffers with the world.
Indeed, as Paul says in Romans:
Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:3–5 NET)
Communion is the means by which hope becomes inscribed not only into my body, but also the body of Christ. As we gather around the table, the integration of my fractured self becomes the avenue through which I am able to connect with and commune with others.
I continue to be amazed at how my particular, infinitesimally small story has found its way into the hearts and minds of those whose pain is both alike and yet different than my own. It is a constant reminder that my pain is no longer my own, and neither is my hope. I am no longer my own. My identity can no longer be reduced to my hurting body because I cannot get away from the fact that I am fundamentally a person-in-relation. Borrowing from Henri Nouwen, my pain has become the pain:
The deeper truth is that . . . Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity. . . . Jesus’ suffering, concrete as it was, was the suffering of all humanity. His pain was the pain. . . . Once you discover that you are called to live in solidarity with the hungry, the homeless, the prisoners, the refugees, the sick, and the dying, your very personal pain begins to be converted into the pain and you find new strength to live it. Herein lies the hope of all Christians.2
SIGNPOST #3: CHRISTIAN HOPE IS AN (ESCHATOLOGICAL) EVENT
During the more intense moments of pain that my chronic ailment produces, I often find myself praying some version of Revelation 21:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.” (Rev 21:3–4)
Here is the vision of Christian hope writ large. No more tears. No more pain. The whole of the created order restored. God fully present—taking up residence—with human beings. This is not a return to a world that once was or to some imagined version of our former glorious selves. No, this is something altogether new. It is a recapitulation—a return to God’s original intention for creation.
I long for this day with every fiber of my being. In some very tangible ways, it is a reality that is already present among us, while at the same time, it is a reality that has yet to come. It is a vision that remains elusive, obscured by my pain, so much so that I, like so many others, often succumb to hopelessness.
Keeping Hope Alive for a Tomorrow We Cannot Control
Bred in the bone . . . Hope is the Creator’s implant into us, His traveling children, on the move into a future we can imagine but cannot control. Hope is our fuel for the journey. As long as we keep hope alive, we keep moving. To stop moving is to die of hope deficiency
So why even bring it up? Because this is exactly where the rubber meets the road theologically. It forces us to ask how, if at all, Christian hope speaks to the deepest pains of the world.
As I have grappled with this question throughout the course of my own journey, I have been helped greatly by Jürgen Moltmann, a German Reformed theologian who recast the Christian notion of hope not as some kind of vague desire for future happiness located in the abstract “beyond” of eternity, but as an urgent call for Christians to bear the cross of Jesus here and now for a world wrought by pain. And for Moltmann, Christian hope is grounded in the revelation of God in Jesus, who is both the Crucified One and the Risen One.
So the Christian hope for restoration—the hope for a created order in which there will be no more “crying, or mourning, or pain”—is rooted in the faithfulness of a crucified God who promises to be present in and through our pain. As Moltmann says, “[God’s] promise announces the coming of a not yet existing reality from the future of the truth.”3 In fact, the divine name itself suggests that this faithful promise is what constitutes who God is in the world. According to some translators of the First Testament, the name that God first reveals to Moses in Exodus 3:14 is something like “I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.”4
In other words, hope has a name. It isn’t an idea or a state of mind. It isn’t simply about changing our perspective and it isn’t some kind of wish fulfillment. As philosopher John Caputo would say, hope emerges from the event that the name of God discloses. It is an event in which God invites us to respond to God’s promised future by bringing it to bear upon the pain-filled world around us. It is a dynamic and Spirit-filled promissory event that undoes all of our attempts at controlling or dictating the way in which our future might unfurl. It thus lays a claim upon our lives, summoning us to suffer with and for those who are suffering.5
Do you want to become well?
It is a simple question. But the truth it exposes is far from simple. We often don’t want to get well. Our sense of self is so bound up with our past trauma that to become well is to become unrecognizable. As a result, we often fail to see just how desperate for restoration we really are.
And this, in the end, is the unsettling truth. Our calling is itself “chronic,” and not only because it is a vocation that lasts a lifetime. It is also chronic in that it urges the body of Christ to commit itself to sustaining practices: embodied forms of life that express and communicate our pain in ways that can be shared with our fellow sufferers during times of both turmoil and peace. To be hopeful people we must practice hope in season and out of season. We do so in order to develop our capacity not to avoid pain, but to bear one another’s hopelessness and despair—so that, when asked, we might be able to speak on behalf of those whose pain has robbed them of their voice: “Yes. We want to become well.”
1. I have been helped tremendously in my thinking about a theology of chronic pain by Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom (New York: Image Books, 1998), 103–4 [emphasis in original].
3. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, trans. James W. Leitch (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 85.
4. Cf. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Random House, 1995).
5. See John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006).