‘Wait, Jesus, Did You Notice That Wasn’t What I Was Praying For?’
Did you ever wonder if God knows what He’s doing when He answers prayers — and when He doesn’t? You and I know the answer we’re supposed to give, but still, haven’t you wondered? You wouldn’t be the first one. God gets accused of all kinds of things, even in the Bible. More than one psalm comes off sounding like an accusation against God for messing up. Psalm 10 starts that way, and Psalm 89 takes a head-twisting turn that direction in verse 36.
And there’s one story in the New Testament where I can almost hear someone telling Jesus, “Hey, wait a minute! You totally missed what I was asking you for!” That’s what I’d have said if I’d been there, anyway. Worse yet, Jesus didn’t just miss this poor helpless guy’s request, He went so far as using him as a prop in a debate. Or so it might have seemed.
There are lots of ways to read a story like this. In the end we know Jesus is doing the right thing, as He always does. What was it like for the people in the middle of it, though? Well, here’s one time I think have some unique personal experience to help answer that question. Let’s make sure we really get the question first, though.
They Came to Jesus for a Reason
You’ll find the story in Mark 2, among other places. Four friends bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing. Whether the paralyzed man had anything to do with how they got it done, the story doesn’t say. But his friends know what they want, and they won’t let anything stand in their way: not a crowd, not walls, not even the roof over Jesus’ head. When the crowd won’t let them through, they dig through from up above and lower their friend on a pallet right in front of Jesus.
I think I know that feeling: I want God to do something for me so bad, I’ll do about anything. I’ll bet they were confident, too. A parallel passage (Luke 5:17-26) it specifically says, “The power of the Lord was with Him [Jesus] to heal.” He was teaching there that day, too, but no one thinks these four men lowered their friend to a front-row seat just so he could hear better. They brought him there to for physical healing.
Jesus saw their faith, it says in Mark 2:5. And I’ll bet they saw it in His eyes. He looks at them, they look back at Him, and they’re all set to hear Him say, “Rise up and walk.”
Instead He says, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
And Jesus Blows Right On Past It
That’s when I ‘m thinking, “Hold on, Jesus! Did you miss something here?” Or, “How obvious did we have to be??” Or, “What’s wrong this scene? We came for a healing!”
And it’s about to get worse. Here’s this poor man lying on the floor, paralyzed, and Jesus totally ignores what he came there for. Instead — it boggles the mind! — then he gets caught up in a debate with some religious guy there! There’s a scribe there, thinking Jesus has just committed the ultimate religious error. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
And Jesus turns and deals with that, as if that theological point were the question of the hour. Maybe it was for some people, but not for the paralytic and his four friends.
Disappointed? Or Not?
We can read the story in a minute, but I’ll bet it seemed like it was happening a lot slower for these men there at the time. Yes, Jesus finally does speak the word of healing they’d come for, so it all works out alright. Be honest, though. There would have been a point in there when you’d have been wondering, wouldn’t you? “Well, that sure was a bust. We came for a healing, and what we got were some nice religious words and a front-row seat for an argument we don’t even care about. How do we even get out of this place now?”
That’s how I might have felt about it while it was happening . . . maybe. Or maybe if I’d been that paralyzed man, I’d have looked at Jesus’ words of forgiveness a whole different way. You see, I have a little bit in common with him. Not much, but at least this much: I know what it means being unable to walk, and then to get better. I also know what it means to need forgiveness, and to receive it. I know from experience which one matters more. Jesus didn’t cheat the man one bit. He actually gave him the better gift first.
I Know Something of What It Means to Be Disabled
Twenty-five years ago I was playing whiffle-ball in the back yard with my four-year-old son when something snapped on the outside of my left foot. I went down in pain. I had to crawl to get back into the house. The doctor didn’t think it was all that serious at the time. I had to go on crutches and wear a fracture boot for six weeks, and that was supposed to be it. Before that was up, I managed to add a stress fracture to that original injury. That meant another six weeks or so. Then something else went wrong: More time on crutches and in a boot.
Then something else just like it, but in the other foot. And again. And again. Once as I was walking into a restaurant wearing a boot, a man coming out the door looked at me and said, “Been there, done that.” I smiled, I was gracious, but on the inside I was asking, “Really? How many years?” By that time I’d logged something like 20,000 hours (conservative estimate) in boots, casts, and splints. Not to mention the surgeries. That weren’t over yet.
Slow Damage, Long Damage
The problem behind it all was that I had congenital bone deformities in both feet, doing slow damage to tendons in each of them. Over the years it ground out those tendons bad enough to knock me down, and knock me down it did. I had six foot surgeries in total, all with long recovery times, including days and days confined to bed with my foot elevated, weeks on crutches, and more weeks or months walking in fracture boots.
I literally wore out at least seven of those boots. My knee walkers accumulated so much mileage it was almost funny. I took one to an auto shop for a wheel alignment. Finally it wore out beyond repair. Another one I took to a bike shop for advanced brake work. Then that one wore out, too. So I got another one. Then another.
Not many people keep an extra knee walker in the garage or a spare fracture boot in the closet, “just in case.” Not many have my history. At least I’ve finally reached the point where I feel safe not having some crutches in the back of the car.
I’ve never been paralyzed, thank God, but I think I know something of what means being unable to walk.
I Know What It Means to Recover
Walking is a big deal for everyone, right? Sure. But some more than others, maybe. My wife and I met on a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. We did most of our dating on mountain trails in southern California. We look back at it and laugh: Somehow even in “sunny southern California” we got rained on, snowed on, sleeted on, hailed on, and (this one was genuinely frightening) very nearly struck by lightning. So you see I didn’t like to walk, I liked walking miles up and down mountainsides. With Sara.
And now, at the far end of a couple decades of difficulty, I’m finally at the “happy ending” stage. (By that I mean, “ending,” with a knee walker stored in the garage. Just in case.) There are no words to tell you the joy, the first time Sara and I took a half-mile walk in the woods one Christmas day in the middle of all that. Such an amazing, glorious feeling! It didn’t last long that time, but now I think it really might. Last week I took a three-and-a-half mile walk. That’s a very short walk compared to earlier years, but it was a half-mile further than I’d covered in one “hike” since at least the mid-2000s. Words cannot express how great it felt.
And I Would Choose Forgiveness Over Recovery Any Day
And yet … and yet … For all that I love being able to walk, it’s nothing compared to the feeling and the reality of being forgiven. Nothing.
And this I know for sure. If I were back in that condition one more time, and Jesus asked me, “Which would you rather have? Healing or forgiveness from sin?” I’d shout, “Forgiveness!”
I’d jump at the chance! Or more accurately, I’d give up jumping forever, and running, and walking, and anything else. I’d gladly let my body lie heavy and stuck on that bed, in exchange for the lightness and freedom of forgiveness in Christ.
I’ve already told you how words can’t express the joy of walking again. I’ll bet you can almost imagine it, though. And if you’ve experienced the joy of forgiveness, you know what I’m talking about there, too. If not, I’m not sure how I’m going to succeed in communicating it to you.
Try this and see if it works, though. Imagine years of continual pain and almost constant immobility. Then imagine finally getting better, so you can finally enjoy one of your favorite things in all the world, a long walk up and down hills in a green forest. Try to feel how great that would be. Now multiply that by ten or twenty or a hundred.
That will give you some clue of how great this experience of forgiveness is.
Jesus Gave Him the Better Gift First
Many who read this will know exactly what I’m talking about. For those who don’t, I’m afraid it’s like trying to tell you what chocolate ice cream tastes like, when you’ve only eaten pine cones your whole life long. You won’t taste the reality by hearing words about it. Maybe, though, you can imagine what it would be like being laid up over and over again for years on end. You might imagine how great it would feel to be healed, to recover from that at last.
It isn’t just feelings, mind you. Remember that theological debate, the one that seemed like a disruption in the story? It was no mere disruption. It was real, and it mattered. Jesus’ forgiveness wasn’t just words. He had authority not just to say it but to make it so, forever. Disabilities are temporary, whereas forgiveness is eternally real and eternally good.
Still the feeling is real, too. I’d bet you that paralyzed man knew it and felt it just as I have known it and felt it. I’ll bet he knew Jesus was doing right by him, every moment of that day.
Someday when I think He’s withholding His better gifts from me again — it’s bound to happen, you know — I’ll remember He still knows best. And loves best. And does what’s best. Jesus didn’t miss a thing for him. He gave him not just one but two gifts that day: first forgiveness, then healing. And I’m here to tell you, He gave him the better gift first.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality