“Do you want to be well?” These are the words of Jesus to a man lying at the edge of a pool acclaimed for its special powers of healing. The man is said to have waited at the edge of this pool for 38 years (38 years!) without ever once making it in at the appointed time. “Do you want to be well?” The words ring in my ears. When the man says, “Yes,” Jesus orders him to “get up and walk.” Immediately the man is healed. But I wonder… what if the man had said, “No, I would rather not be well.” Would Jesus have healed the man anyway? I doubt it. Because if he had, Jesus would have taken from this man the last shred of his dignity – the dignity that comes from the choice Jesus puts before him.
Healing is a complex matter and for reasons of trauma and mental illness not everyone can say yes to Jesus’ question. Or, some say yes yet still find themselves suffering, despite best efforts to heal them. There are still others, however, whose answer to Jesus’ question, if not in word than in deed is simply, “No. I do not wish to be healed.” I am not simply referring here to personal healing, though that is certainly on the table. What I am also thinking of is congregational transformation, organizational renewal, healing from conflict, etc.
Now, imagine you are the one posing the question. You might be a pastor, a mediator, a lay leader, a therapist or a CEO. You say to the people you are leading, “Do you want to be healed?” In response, the people – in one form or another – say, “No.” What do you do? Imagine you really love these people (or maybe sometimes you don’t), that you feel called to the ministry of transformation and healing, and that you see the potential for healing just around the corner if only the people would______. (You can fill in the blank.)
Here we risk falling into a difficult trap: For transformation or healing to be true and genuine, it must be freely chosen. This is why Jesus first asks the question, “Do you want to be well?” Leaders of transformation and healing must have the capacity to be grounded enough to refuse to take on that which is not theirs to take. In other words, they refuse to take the dignity of choice away from the people to whom healing is offered. Practically speaking, this means that they will not save the people from themselves if those same people do not wish to be saved (assuming no lives are in danger). This is among the hardest of leadership tasks.
The value of the dignity of choice rests on three key principles:
1. Coerced healing has limited staying power. When we coerce healing – when we impose our healing agenda – the healing we offer is finally for our own ego and reputation and not for the person in need of healing. As such, the lasting quality of the healing we have fostered is always at risk of falling apart.
2. Coerced healing is more often than not met with some form if resistance. When people feel pushed into healing – even if they verbalize that this is what they want – they will resist the healing that is offered, often to the surprise of the healer.
3. To impose a healing agenda entrenches rather than transforms the original problem. The more we impose our healing agenda, the greater the likelihood that the conflict or brokenness we seek to heal will be entrenched, not transformed. Why? As we impose our healing agenda, energy shifts toward us and away from the issue in need of healing. As this happens, the original problem becomes less clear, more obfuscated and as a result more entrenched.
So What Is A Leader To Do?
We must first of all recognize that to lead is to suffer. Standing at the pool of healing, faced with a mass of people who say they wish to be healed yet with every action taken declare otherwise, who look nonetheless to you for guidance, who react against you when options for healing are proposed… all of this together is a recipe for suffering. We suffer because within us, our egos will fight to have their way with us – the recipe for healing after all is so clear! We suffer because of our love for the people. We suffer because to not save those who do not wish to be saved awakens our vulnerability to accusations of inaction or worse, ineptitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry out: “Why did you lay the burden of these people on me?”
Herein is the rub. God did lay the burden of these people on us but not that we should save them. God placed the burden of these people on us that we might open up for them the door of transformation. We are called to do this and to the best of our ability. Whether or not the people walk through this door… This choice is not ours to make. It is theirs.
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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.
Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.