Some Things Are More Painful Than Paralysis
In the previous article The Power of Persistent Faith we began our investigation of the famous story in Mark 2 where Jesus healed a man of paralysis. Here is the text:
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, "Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"-he said to the paralytic-"I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home." And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!" (Mark 2:1-12).
What I find most surprising is that Jesus himself doesn't believe that paralysis is this man's greatest need! Everyone present, especially the paralyzed man, had to have been shocked at what Jesus said. Everyone knew that he was there because he wanted to be healed. That's why his four friends risked everything and destroyed the roof! And yet the first words out of Jesus' mouth aren't, "Be healed." Rather, he says, "Your sins are forgiven!"
The paralytic didn't come to Jesus, with the help of his friends, because he wanted or even felt the need for his sins to be forgiven. He came to be healed.
Quite simply, Jesus is telling the paralytic, he's telling his friends, he's telling everyone present, and he's telling you and me: our greatest need goes deeper than physical paralysis; it goes deeper than leprosy; it goes deeper than any other problem we're facing in life, whether that be financial stress, shattered dreams, a romance gone sour, a boring job, no friends, loneliness, or any other physical affliction.
As bad and disappointing and frustrating as these things are, they aren't our most pressing problem. That goes even for the man in our story. As depressing and horrible and disillusioning as paralysis undoubtedly was, Jesus is telling him: "Your first and greatest and most important problem is your sin!" Infinitely worse than paralysis or cancer or heart disease is willful rebellion against God, defiance of God, disregard of God, disobedience to God, self-reliance, your failure to honor God, and your failure to treasure him and love him and enjoy him.
"For heaven's sake, Jesus; the man is paralyzed and he needs to be healed."
"Yes, I know. But more than needing to be healed, he needs to be forgiven."
This isn't because Jesus is insensitive to this man's needs. He is very much in touch with his needs. It isn't because Jesus is a Gnostic and cares little if at all for the physical dimension to life, only the spiritual. It isn't because physical health is unimportant. It's just that it is not as important as spiritual health.
Jesus could easily have said: "I could create quite a stir by healing the man (in fact, I'm about to do just that; but first things first); I could amaze and astound you with my power to restore a broken body; and as great as that would be, if that is all that I did, this man could stand up and walk straight into hell."
Most of us would probably say: "If only Jesus would ________, I'd be happy forever. If only Jesus would give me ________, my life would have meaning and value."
We think we need so much. We think we know what we need most. Jesus says, "You're wrong. What you most need is the forgiveness of sins, the cleansing of your souls from the guilt and stain of your transgressions."
This immediately forces upon us, as it did upon the people in that room 20 centuries ago, the question of the relationship between sin and sickness.
By first forgiving his sins and only then healing him, is Jesus suggesting that this man's paralysis was somehow the punishment for his sin? In some cases, yes. See John 5:14; 1 Cor. 11: 27-30. In other cases, no. See John 9:1-2; 2 Cor. 12:1-10.
Perhaps the best text to help us here is James 5:15. James says that "if he [the sick man] has committed sins, they will be forgiven him" (v. 15). The "if" in v. 15 is not designed to say this man may never have sinned. The meaning is that if God should heal him in answer to prayer, that's an indication that any sins of the sufferer, which might have been responsible for this particular illness, were forgiven. In other words, if sin was responsible for his sickness, the fact that God heals him physically is evidence that God has forgiven him spiritually.
So, what are we to conclude from this story? Does the fact that Jesus first forgives his sin and then heals him indicate that his paralysis was somehow related to personal sin? We don't know.
What we do know is that the scribes went ballistic! They weren't concerned in the least with this man. They couldn't have cared less about the relation of sin to sickness. All they cared about was this man, this carpenter from Nazareth, who claimed to have authority to forgive someone's sins (see Psalm 103:3; Isaiah 43:25; 44:22; Micah 7:19).
So what is Jesus actually saying? Is he claiming to speak for God or as God? Is he simply saying, "Your sins are forgiven by God . . ." or he is saying, "I am God and I forgive your sins"? Surely it is the latter, or the scribes would not have gotten so bent out of shape in the first place.
So Jesus, knowing what they are thinking, poses a question:
"Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'" (v. 9)?
So, which is easier? Strictly speaking, neither act is easier than the other since they both require divine power. For human beings, both acts are equally impossible. For God, they are equally easy.
If I really wanted to press the point, I'd have to conclude that "saying" to someone "your sins are forgiven" is easier than "saying" to him "rise and walk." Why? Because no one is able to know whether or not his sins are forgiven. There is no way to falsify such a statement. No way to prove it one way or the other. No one can peer into the heart of another or into the heart of God and know whether or not sins have been forgiven. It is always easier to make a claim that cannot be verified or disproved. How could anyone possibly know if the man's sins were forgiven?
On the other hand, everyone could see whether or not he was healed physically. To say to a paralyzed man, "Rise and walk" exposes you to ridicule and rejection if it doesn't happen. It's right there for everyone to see. So clearly, then, "saying" to a man, "Be healed! Rise up! Walk!" is much more difficult.
But Jesus wants them to know who he is. So, he performs a miracle in the visible, physical realm in order to demonstrate his authority to forgive sins in the invisible, spiritual realm.
By the way, it really isn't "easy" to forgive sins. It took the sufferings of the cross! This word of Jesus was not an act comparable to the creation of the world when God said: "Let there be light!" This was not like his calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee when he said: "Be calm!" His declaration of forgiveness to this man was based on his impending death. He could forgive this man's sins only because he was preparing to die for them! He could tell him that God's wrath was gone only because he knew that soon he himself would experience and satisfy and consume that wrath in himself. Remember Hebrews 9 - "Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins!"