French playwright Moliere once uttered this curious line: “Nearly all men die of their medicines, and not of their maladies.”(1) Modern musician Tori Amos asserts something similar in the chorus of one of her songs: “She’s addicted to nicotine patches/ she’s afraid of a light in the dark.” Both of these artists are perhaps known for exposing the hypocrisies of society in biting verse. Through satire, Moliere sought to amuse, but also to instruct his audience with the peculiarities of human behavior, while Amos croons of life as she sees it, through blunt, often angry, lyrics.
Certainly, artistic observation of humanity can rouse insight and inspire an inward look at our own lives. But do these artists communicate a common truth about the human condition? I think they might. We have all known people who seem blind to their own malady, and people who would prefer their pain to change. But I also believe there is something that communicates the complexities of human behavior even more accurately.
Abraham Heschel referred to Scripture not as humanity’s theology, as it is often received, but as God’s anthropology. Surely there is much that can be said about the convincing proofs for the reliability of Scripture, but as Malcolm Muggeridge often stated, one of the most convincing proofs is the irrefutability of human depravity. In these ancient Scriptures, human behavior, human emotion, human duplicity is all depicted with curious accuracy. And often, in these pages, that God knows us far better than we know ourselves is displayed in the form of a question. To study the great questions posed in Scripture is a remarkably convicting study in human nature and behavior.
Chronicled in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John is one such example. The chapter is an account of Jesus’s interaction with a paralytic man sitting beside the pool of Bethesda. It was commonly believed that when the waters of the pool stirred an angel was present, and anyone who entered the water would be healed. Thus, many would gather by pools such as this waiting for their opportunity to be healed. We are told that this man at the pool of Bethesda had been ill for 38 years. The scene is one of desperation; one can only imagine how many years had past as this man watched and waited, leaving each day exactly as he came. Yet Jesus approached this dismal scene and posed the oddest of questions. To the man on the mat, he asked, “Do you want to get well?”
The question seems redundant at best, maybe even offensive, given his situation. And yet, this man bound by illness for 38 years does not reply with the resounding “yes!” or “of course!” or “why on earth would you ask me this?” we might expect. In fact, he does not even answer the question. Holding fast to his identity as a paralytic, he explains his condition by pointing to those around him—who no doubt have let him down. “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5:7).
Yet Jesus’ question points to something in this man’s life that went much deeper than paralysis of the body. Do you want to get well? Has your medicine become your malady? Do you now prefer your pain? Your true illness, Jesus seems to say, reaches far beyond your physical malady. We are in need of a cure that is much more holistic. By this pool, we are shown a truth common to the human condition: seldom do we know the depths of our own illness.
But there is one who does. Christ calls our maladies into question as symptoms of something other than creation as he intended and he points to the way of wellness.
(1) Moliere in La Malade Imaginaire.
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