In 1967, two psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania did an experiment to help them understand depression more clearly. They took some dogs and divided them into three groups. The first group, they put into harnesses for a period of time and then let them go. The second and third groups were placed into cages that had electrified grids at the bottom. There were levers in all of the cages and the dogs in group two could stop the shocks by pressing down on the lever in their cage. The dogs in group three had levers that did nothing, but the shocks would be stopped by their paired dog in group two when they pushed the lever. The dogs in group three came to feel that pressing the lever had no meaning and so they just laid on the floor getting shocked and not trying to do anything to stop it.
Almost a year later, another experiment was done with the dogs in which they were again placed into a cage with an electrified bottom, but this time there was a short wall that they could jump over to get away from the grid. The dogs in group two immediately escaped the shocking, but the dogs from group three remained and did not even attempt to jump over the partition. It was later found that humans, in this same way, once feeling that they have no control over a situation become hopeless, despaired, depressed. This is a condition that has come to be known as learned helplessness.
In John 5 we see another person who is experiencing learned helplessness. For the past 38 years this paralyzed man has laid on the same mat, or as some translations say – pallet, but either way on this bed looking up at the same sky day after day. The view is always the same. Sometimes the sky is blue, sometimes, cloudy, stormy, rainy, snowy, starry, but always the same sky. I imagine that on that fateful day he was looking up at that sky perhaps watching a cloud as it drifted by considering that it looked like a rabbit or maybe a boat when all of the sudden a man’s bearded face obstructed his view. The two just looked at each other for a moment and then this stranger said what must have seemed like the dumbest words in all of human history – “Do you want to be well?” Did he!? But instead of an emphatic YES!, he says “I can’t sir, for no one will take me to the water.” I can’t. It’s hopeless. I’m helpless. You may notice that in most translations, verse four is missing. This verse said that an angel came down and stirred up or troubled the water and the first person in the water after this would be healed. Jesus undoubtedly knew what this man was thinking and knowing that he couldn’t get past thinking that it was the water that did the healing said “Get up. Take up your mat and walk.”
Oh the thoughts that must have rushed through this paralyzed man’s head! “Who is this dusty wanderer? How dare he tell me to get up? Doesn’t he know that I’m paralyzed? He must be some kind of prankster coming through just like everyone else for a good laugh.” But there must have been something in the face of this stranger with the dusty feet and gentle eyes that made the man say “Maybe. Just maybe this time will be different. What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll try to get up and nothing will happen. He’ll have a good laugh and be on his way. It’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last.” So the man reached out his hand and placed it on the ground to push himself up. He felt the warm earth and the dust running between his fingers. Wait, he FELT it! He hadn’t felt anything for 38 years. He pushed himself up and stood. This wasn’t just a lying man getting up. For 38 years he had been laying in the same position relying on people to move him, to feed him, to bathe him, to clothe him. Imagine the bed sores this man must have had. How his skin must have been scabbed and stuck to his clothing. How his muscles would have been atrophied and expecting them to support his weight would have been like placing a dumbbell on jello and expecting it not to sink. This time WAS different and for the first time in almost four decades the man was standing and without a word he grabbed his bed and walked away.
It didn’t take him long to run into the religious folks who wasted no time in telling him that he was breaking the law by carrying his mat on the sabbath. Forget the fact that this is the paralytic that they no doubt passed hundreds or thousands of times on their way to the temple who is now STANDING before them. Why did he even go to the temple? Was he going to give thanks? Was it just the natural thing to do because that’s where everyone hung out? Did he go their to show off his new legs? Probably. I tend to think that he went there to rub it in the face of the religious leaders as if to say “You stepped over me every day as if I was a rock never offering to help me. Never offering to take me to the water. And now I stand before you healed and you couldn’t even do it.” He told the pharisees that the man who healed him told him to carry his mat. “Who was this man?”, they asked. NOT who was this man who did this amazing miracle that we should get to know because he could be important. No, who is this man who commands you to break the law, who dare defy us. Aren’t these people everywhere? The people who tell us that we can’t do something. The people who tell us that what we are dreaming is impossible and that we can never achieve it? Sometimes it’s just the naysaying voice in our heads that tells us that we are helpless.
Instead of being able to answer the pharisee’s question, the man said he didn’t know for the healer disappeared into the crowd. He didn’t know the healer. It was only after Jesus found the man again and said “What are you doing here? Don’t you know you’re healed? Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” that somehow the man realized that he was Jesus. Why? Because the stranger mentioned sinning? Sinning was linked with physical illness as we see in John 9:2 when the disciples asked about the blind man who sinned – him or his father? Somehow the man came to understand that this man was Jesus who had healed him although we don’t know how deeply the man understood it – he most likely didn’t develop a strong soteriological grasp. But what was his sin? Why did Jesus tell him to stop sinning? Was it because he was gloating? Was it because he was talking to the pharisees? Most likely it was because he didn’t know the healer and because he was going back to the same old patterns. Don’t we do that? Keep going back to the same old things even though we have been healed?
What about the mat? What is it? What does it represent? Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s just that – just a bed. But I think it represents helplessness. I think it represents one of the most dangerous things that any of us can have and it’s something that we all have at one point or another – complacency. Plato once said that “complacency is the refuge of those who have lost the dream.” Do we still have the dream? Or have we lost it? Do we have it individually? Do we have it corporately? As a church? Have the naysayers convinced us that it just can’t be done? That we can’t write that novel that we always dreamed of writing. That we can’t start that business that we have always dreamed of starting. That we can’t quit that habit that we have always dreamed of quitting. That we can’t become the church that we have always dreamed of becoming. THAT dream. Do we still have it? Or in our complacency have we lost it? If we are waiting for Jesus to come along besides our mats of complacency and tell us to get up and walk we can just stop now. Because that’s now where we’re at. We’re in the temple ground and Jesus is telling us don’t you know that you’re ALREADY healed? Let’s rise up, pick up our mats, and start walking toward our dreams. If we’re afraid of failing, of falling flat on our faces, think about how much worse it would be to look back on life and see that we never tried and consider the words of Teddy Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.