In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a man who carried the lizard of lust on his shoulder. The lizard tormented the man night and day, and the man could never seem to escape its tyranny.
One day, God sent the Holy Spirit to rescue the man from his serpentine tormentor. In order to free the man, the Spirit would have to kill the lizard. The man—having become quite attached to the lizard—was hesitant at the thought of this operation, intuiting that the lizard’s death would require a kind of death to himself.
Below is an excerpt from the interaction (the Holy Spirit is poetically described as an angel and the man as a ghost):
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?’ said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.
‘Of course I would,’ said the Ghost.
Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward.
Oh—ah—look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.
‘Don’t you want him killed?’
‘You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.’
‘It’s the only way,’ said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the Lizard. ‘Shall I kill it?’
‘Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so damned embarrassing.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Well, there’s time to discuss that later.’
‘There is no time. May I kill it?’
‘Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.’
Don’t you want your sin killed?
The Apostle John records a similar interaction between Jesus and a sick man (see John 5:1-9). The man had been lame for 38 years before he met Jesus. Curiously, instead of immediately healing the man upon meeting him, Jesus first asks him an odd question:
“Do you want to be healed?” (v. 6)
On the surface, this question may seem offensive to us. We picture the man having the same thought as the lizard-tormented ghost in Lewis’s story—Of course I want to be healed! What kind of question is that?
Yet Jesus’s question isn’t quite as strange when we remember that his healings reflect spiritual realities—and that Jesus often asks us the same question as we lie paralyzed with indwelling sin:
Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be freed from this sin you are clinging to?
If we are honest with ourselves, our answer is often no. (Or, at best, a mix of yes and no.) That is, after all, why we continue to sin. Like the ghost in Lewis’s story, we are hesitant to let the Holy Spirit kill the slimy creature which oppresses us—afraid that such an operation would require a kind of death to ourselves.
Wanting to want what God wants
By asking us what we truly want, Jesus exposes the sickness that exists in our hearts. Fortunately, Jesus never exposes us to harm us. He exposes us to heal us. While Jesus isn’t surprised that sinners want to sin, he does grieve when he sees sin’s stranglehold—and he wants to free us from its crippling tyranny (see Romans 7:18-8:11; Revelation 1:5).
So, what can we do if our answer to Jesus’s question is no? What can we do if we—like the ghost in The Great Divorce—don’t fully want to be freed from the sin which oppresses us?
Here’s the good news: While you may not presently want what God wants, if you only want to want what God wants, the Holy Spirit can work with that. God has long been in the business of righting the desires of willing hearts.
Start by making this confession to God: “Lord, right now, it’s clear that my heart doesn’t fully want what you want. Forgive me for this. But I want to want what you want. Will you help me get there?”
That prayer—Lord, help me to want what you want—is one God loves to answer. Commit to praying this daily for a month. Ask him to show you steps you can take toward healing and commit to taking these steps. Then watch how God provides.
Trying to heal ourselves
The lame man’s response to Jesus’s question is noteworthy: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up—and while I am going, another steps down before me” (v. 7).
In other words, the man says, “Of course I want to be healed—I have been trying to heal myself for 38 years. I’ve even looked to other people to save me. And it hasn’t worked.”
How often is this our response to Jesus? “I have been trying to heal myself for years. And it hasn’t worked.”
And guess what? That’s the point. We can’t heal ourselves. Sure, we may be able to crowbar our way to better behavior. But we can’t crowbar our way to true healing. True, lasting, heart-transforming healing comes through Jesus alone.
Our ultimate hope
This, of course, is not to say that our efforts don’t matter. God commands us to put to death what is earthly in us (Colossians 3:5-17). Beyond that, Jesus almost always uses ordinary means to meet us and heal us—consistent time in God’s word and prayer, regular fellowship and accountability from the body of Christ, an ongoing practice of communion, worship, and service, setting up roadblocks to sin, and yes, good ol’ self-discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
The question is not whether or not we should work hard at sanctification. We should. The question is where our ultimate hope rests.
If we think the gospel is that when we sin, we just need to try harder, we are missing the whole point. Our highest goal in this life—and in sanctification itself—should not be sinning less, but knowing Jesus more (which will, invariably, lead to new obedience).
Which race are you running?
As you run the race of faith, what words are on the banner above the finish line? What are you sprinting toward? Is it “Be better”? “Try harder”? “Sin less”? None of these are the path to true freedom and healing.
The path to true freedom and healing is found beneath the banner which reads “Know Jesus” (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2, also see Philippians 3:7-11). Don’t put your ultimate hope in your own ability to do better. Put your ultimate hope in Jesus—run to him, and let him heal you.
Read “Five Habits That Kill Contentment” here.
Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.
Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.