If you think about it, we have the same problem as the paralytic. He wanted to be healed; but, when the time came, and the angel had troubled the waters of the pool at Bethesda, he could not get into the water by himself; he needed help, and he had no one to help him. We are paralyzed by our sins – especially by the ones that we have to repeat each and every time we go to confession, because we continue to repeat the sins through the course of our lives. Oh, sometimes we do resist the temptations that beset us; but even when we’ve had a victorious day, we know that, sooner or later, we’re going to fall again, and sin again.
We have to recognize that we are trying to overcome these sins by our own efforts alone, with only our own strength – and that we cannot, and will not, succeed by this approach. We have to recognize our inability to be holy and pure on our own; and that we have to ask for help.
So: how do we not try to do this by our own strength? I don’t know; I’m struggling with that myself. But there are hints from the fathers for us to take into consideration.
The first is that we must pray, asking for God’s help. OK, so this is obvious. It is the foundation for our having a rule of prayer, which begins with attending as many of the services of the Church that we can fit into our schedule – and giving these services the highest priority, rather than just “making do” with the ones that are convenient. The rule of prayer continues with developing the habit of daily morning and evening prayers. We start with the ones found in the prayer book; and add our own hopes and needs and intercessions for others as well. We make a part of this rule the blessing of food before we eat; and giving thanks when we have finished; and we also ask for God’s guidance before we start an activity, and give thanks when the task is completed. Bless yourself and the vehicle you’re driving when you’re about to depart. Parents, bless your children when they go to school, or are going out with friends; and children, pray for your parents. When you learn of someone in need, stop and pray for God to bless and help them. When you hear that someone has died, stop and ask God to be merciful to them, and to grant that person a blessed repose; and do the same when you pass by a cemetery. When you hear a siren, or see a police car, fire truck, or ambulance go by, ask God to protect and deliver those in need, and to keep safe those who go to render them aid.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, father, that’s a lot of time in prayer!” Well, keep in mind that St. Paul instructs us to pray continually. These are steps we can take in that direction; and when our minds are fixed in prayer, and we remember that prayer brings us into the intimate presence of God, it is easier to resist the temptations to sin! More prayer is good, and most all of us would benefit by it.
The next thing we need to do is to fast. Prayer and fasting are the sword and shield of our spiritual warfare. Fasting teaches our flesh that it cannot have what it wants simply because it wants it. Fasting weakens the flesh and its desires, and purifies us in body, mind and spirit. Fasting shows us that we can deny ourselves; and so we can learn to fast from our sins, as well as from food; and so gain an advantage against our sinful desires and habits. If you deny a weed the food or water it needs, it weakens, and can be uprooted and removed far more easily than when it is at full strength. So, too, it is with our sins.
It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to hear that we must also give alms, and struggle against our passions. In fact, this is one of the points the fathers make about how we can achieve the victory over sins, the healing of our beings that we desire, but cannot achieve in our own strength. We see two mechanisms at work in the Gospel account today. The first, when the angel comes and troubles the waters, is akin to the Church, and the way of life we are taught to follow. If we will do these things, we will be healed; and it isn’t just the first person in who is helped. Each one of us can and will be transformed to the extent that we embrace the way of life that has been the way of the saints.
Of course, the paralytic was not healed in that way: he was healed by our Lord Jesus Christ. But note that he was present at the pool at Bethesda; it is there that the Lord found him, and delivered him; and afterward, he was found in the Temple, giving thanks to God. It was there, by the way, that he was also warned not to return to his sinful ways, lest something worse should come upon him than the paralysis from which he had been delivered. He did not come seeking out our Lord; he was following the way that had been given, and was found there and helped by the Lord. In the same way, we may also be found and delivered by the Lord; and we make ourselves available to Him by following the Orthodox way of life.
Finally, we must not be discouraged, we must not give up, just because we don’t see anything changing. Remember that the paralytic had waited, without becoming bitter, and without losing hope, for thirty-eight years! St. John Chrysostom notes that we, having persisted in prayer for all of ten days, and not having received what we had asked for, are too slothful afterwards to have enough zeal to continue in prayer. So, even as we continue to struggle to do all that we can with the strength that we have, we should also pray without ceasing for the strength and help we cannot do by ourselves; that our Lord Jesus Christ will strengthen us with His strength, and win in and through us the victory that we cannot attain by ourselves. Let us offer this prayer as we offer ourselves, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.
Christ is risen!