In ancient Jerusalem there was a pool of water called Bethesda. The location served as an impromptu hospital ward, a collection point for the sick, blind, and paralyzed. These infirmed went to Bethesda to receive a hoped for healing – not from a physician – but from the therapeutic waters themselves.
Back then it was a common belief that an angel came from heaven at certain times and “stirred up the water” of Bethesda’s pool, resulting in miraculous healing for anyone who could get in the water. They didn’t take this stirring as natural warm springs, percolating mineral water, or air escaping the limestone aquifer. They believed it was a divine intervention.
In the New Testament gospels, Jesus makes a visit to Bethesda and finds a lame man lying alongside Bethesda’s waters. Jesus doesn’t drag him over to the pool and dunk him. He simply heals him. Then, he gives the now-made-well man excruciatingly practical instructions: “Pick up your mat and walk.” This wasn’t to get the man’s bed out of the way. Jesus was saying, “Get it out of here so that you won’t come back to it!”
This former invalid, the best we can tell from the gospels, had been coming to Bethesda for the better part of four decades. That is a long time to waste lying alongside a bubbling brook. And now that he was empowered to live a better, healthier life, it would be easy for him to fall back into old habits. Jesus wanted this stretcher removed so that the man would not have the temptation to return to it.
This olden story of faith predates today’s advances in neuroscience by centuries, but Jesus already knew what researches have confirmed in recent decades: When habits are formed, the brain actually changes. Routines – good or bad – cause neurons in the brain to alter their patterns. So in the process of breaking a habit, the brain must also be “rewired” to not only change a person’s behavior, but to change the firing of synopses inside his head.
Recent studies also show, that if a person returns to their former habits, the brain returns to its former patterns as well. But every addict and Al-Anon participant already knows this. We will return to the things that hurt us, again and again, and again and again. Body and spirit will slide right back to where we once were.
If we want sustained change for our lives, if we want to be whole, redeemed, complete, reinvigorated people, then yes, we must admit our powerlessness to be well on our own, and at the end of ourselves collapse into grace. But as important as this first step is, here is another: If we are going to live out this transformation, there must be a grace-infused commitment, not to return to those ways, habits, persons, lifestyles, and behaviors that will only take us back to the unhealthy way of life we knew before.
The door to the past has to be slammed shut. Obstacles have to be put in the way to keep us from returning to old ways of thinking and old ways of acting. Spiritual reprogramming and rewiring has to take place. That is why Jesus told this man to get his mat and get out, because that was the only way he could remove himself from this dead-end, superstitious pool-sitting that would only enslave him, not heal him.
If we are going to remain well, we can’t go back. Life, redemption, wholeness, and healing: These are waiting for us only as we move forward. After the hard work of being brought back to life has been done, let us not lose our future by returning to the past.
So while we all will have to carry the burden of our yesterdays, our wasted days, and our years of regret – the mats and stretchers we used to rely upon – God’s grace and healing will lighten that burden. And that same grace will help us to walk on, never returning to who and what we once were.