The Imitation of Christ, Book One, Chapter 24, is entitled “Of Judgment and the Punishment of Sinners.” Kempis, in one of his lengthier chapters, bluntly reminds the reader of his call to holiness in this life and the consequences in the next life of not heeding that call. The admonition in the headline is one of the less pointed, but still strong, admonitions he presents.
The Gospel reading has the story of a man sick for thirty eight years who desperately wants to be healed in the miraculous waters of the Bethesda pool (Jn 5:1-16). (A side note: it is not known how often the waters were stirred up, but it says little for the compassion of others that no one in that entire span helped the poor invalid take advantage of the blessed bath.) Jesus, walking by on the Sabbath, asks the man if he wants to be healed, he indirectly answers in the affirmative that he wishes to be physically restored, and Jesus instantly restores him to health and tells him to pick up his mat and go on his way. Interestingly enough, Jesus makes a point to find the man later, makes Himself known to him, and gives him the warning in the headline.
Thirty-eight hours in desperate straits seems to us too much to bear. Imagine thirty-eight years of incapacity and frustration. Do we want to be healed in body? What kind of question is that? Of course — without counting the cost. Do we want to be healed in soul? Hmmm — maybe if the cost isn’t too great. Per Kempis, enduring the sufferings of this short life can help us avoid much more severe anguish in the next. I’m reminded of the Lord’s words elsewhere:
[D]o not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Mt 10:28)
Maybe suffering comes from physical ailments. Or maybe it comes from suppressing our own weakened will in favor of God’s will. Better this now than something worse happening after death when we can no longer help ourselves.
Jesus’ words to the old man should be taken to heart. It is far too easy to push God to the background when things are going well — this is an ever-present danger. For the man in the Gospel, who was likely praying constantly for healing, and maybe staying out of trouble due to his infirmity, how will he use his newfound health and freedom? His reprieve in this life does not guarantee the same in the next. Neither does ours. The remedy: thank God daily for whatever life brings and dedicate each morning and evening anew to praising, honoring, and following His Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.