What to Do When You Are Stuck: Lessons from Jesus and the Lame Man

wanderer hiking on a narrow trail

photo by Hermann via pixabay

If you seem to be stuck in a cycle of failure, Jesus’s encounter with a lame man provides lessons on how to reverse your course and begin to experience success. Those who are familiar with the story might label the man as lazy, full of self-pity, and unwilling to change, someone who must be confronted in order to turn his life around. But imagine how he became helpless and how he emerged from this dark season of his life.

Jesus confronts a “stuck” man about his willingness to be changed

You’ll find the story in John 5:1-17. After arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus approaches an ill man (who is presumably unable to walk) and asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” Rather than immediately responding “yes” to Jesus’s question, the man explains why he is unhealed.

The man has been sick for 38 years and spends his days hanging around a pool that purportedly has healing properties activated when an angel stirs the water. The first person who enters the water after the stirring is healed of his condition, whether blindness, paralysis, or another debilitating illness.

This guy is stuck. His physical condition makes it impossible to reach the healing waters; yet only the waters can heal him of his illness.

Failure of traditional methods and zero-sum mindsets may contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness

Jesus disregards the accepted method of healing and point-blank tells the man to “stand up, take your mat and walk.” Later, Jesus finds the man at the temple, where he observes, “See, you have been made well” and counsels “Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” More concerned with rules than compassion, the people in the community are upset because the man has been healed on the Sabbath.

Today, we might describe the man’s quest for healing at the pool as a random, zero-sum game. There is no discernible pattern to the angel’s appearance and the stirring action; therefore, planning or reasoning does not help accomplish the goal of being healed or becoming unstuck. Further, at each stirring, only one person wins; everyone else loses.

Many commentaries focus on the man’s excuse-giving. The fact that he offers an explanation instead of an immediate “yes” to healing is telling. (Sometimes, though, we are so stuck in our thinking, all we can imagine is either a magical or modest change in our circumstances, not a completely different approach and life after being changed.)

I found reasonable explanations for this exchange and Jesus’s questions in “Do You Want to Be Healed?” by Jordan Davis in Relevant magazine. Jordan wonders if Jesus meant to stir an internal debate, prompting the man to ponder questions such as “Do you really want things to change? Are you ready to leave behind all of the excuses? Can you handle the responsibilities that will become a regular part of your life now?”

Jordan further explores this idea:

Being healed changes everything. Sometimes our healing comes with a price tag. The question then becomes, Are we willing to pay the cost? Are we willing to do what it takes? Often, I wonder if we want to be healed but aren’t ready for the change that it brings.

These are valid points. There are people (including me) who often don’t embrace change without resistance. We want life to be different but the idea of thinking, acting, and living differently isn’t part of the plan. We envision altered circumstances and new life, either a hoped-for one that fulfills our self-centered dreams or the abundant one we have been promised. Sadly, though, the precise path to change is neither obvious nor attainable alone.

Self-pity isn’t productive but is not the only thing that keeps us from moving forward

But the problem is not just that the man is wallowing in self-pity. The problem is that he is emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically paralyzed from taking actions that will lead to restoration and growth.

If we are stuck like the lame man, our sincere efforts (seem to) have gained us nothing. In certain endeavors, we discover sad truths like the following:

  • What works for our friends, our neighbors, our siblings, etc. doesn’t work for us
  • The products, programs, and services we buy to deal with our troubles don’t perform as advertised
  • The experts we consult provide advice that is too advanced for us to comprehend and apply to our situation
  • Our brains are not wired and our bodies are not equipped to solve certain problems intuitively and naturally

We are not simply weak-minded, irresponsible, and fearful of change. We begin new endeavors with action plans and hopefulness. But we repeatedly experience failure and never have a breakthrough moment. When others inquire about our progress, we become self-defensive, explaining why the typical methods don’t work for us. We are persistent and we remain resilient yet we are unchanged. We’re stuck. And we can’t get ourselves unstuck.

Success can occur after years of failure, in unexpected ways

An example from my life is my quest to learn to garden. Until recently, I have tried and failed many times at cultivating plants. My inaugural failure was trying to grow wildflowers in a natural area at my first home. Over the years and throughout various growing seasons, the plants and seedlings I tried to nurture consistently died without yield.

I experimented with different methods, read about gardening, and asked friends for advice. What I gleaned from these efforts, self-study, and conversations was that gardening involved a magical touch that I did not possess, was too complicated for me to understand, or both.

My biggest problem stemmed from my inability to learn from my mistakes. Gardening provides little feedback other than failure. And, worse, getting that feedback often takes weeks, months, or even years. The gardening learning curve is not only steep but also long.

Nevertheless, I decided to make growing a garden one of my goals a few years ago. I heard about a private class led by a local gardener and, after following her instructions, grew vegetables from seed. Finally, my efforts yielded rewards. {By the way, the three essential ingredients for a great garden are 1) soil (if you don’t have good soil, nothing else matters); 2) sunshine (many plants require “full sun,” meaning 8 hours of sun shining on them); and 3) water.}

Often when I share the story about taking a gardening class, people laugh scornfully. “What kind of person doesn’t grow up with a garden in their backyard?” and “Who can’t apply common sense to growing fruits and vegetables?” they ask or silently wonder. Some folks are fascinated, though, because they know the feeling of helplessness.

Isn’t it awful, discouraging, and frustrating to be stuck (and to be shunned or ridiculed for being stuck)?

An unexpected stirring and the courage to take specific actions can bring healing and move us toward more productive work

God loves us the way we are, whether we are stuck or unstuck. He may allow us to come to the point where we doubt, complain, blame ourselves, blame others, and rationalize our predicament; and then He heals us anyway.

Drawing on Jesus’s interaction with the lame man, here are lessons on successfully moving in a new direction:

  • Healing starts with a stirring in our hearts and minds that life, or some aspect of our life, could be and should be much different and more aligned with God’s plan
  • A first step toward living differently involves admitting that what we’ve done in the past isn’t working and will never work
  • Change means abandoning methods that don’t work for you
  • Transformation is triggered by action, which may involve small steps or dramatic turnarounds
  • Becoming unstuck often involves taking actions that seem unusual or unorthodox to other people
  • Sustained change requires new habits

Jesus tells the lame man to get up and walk. He doesn’t tell him to do what comes naturally or pray harder, believe more fervently, think more spiritually. He tells the man what to do and, in taking action and moving in a very different-than-imagined direction, the man becomes unstuck.