Steven W. Smith is the author of the book, The Lazarus Life: Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People and companion study guide Living the Lazarus Life: A Guidebook to Spiritual Transformation. He also is co-founder (with his wife, Gwen) of The Potter’s Inn in Colorado, which is promoted as “a Christian ministry devoted to spiritual formation and soul care.” http://www.pottersinn.com/soulcare/retreat-seven-commitments.htm
Steve also has authored several other books including Embracing Soul Care, Soul Shaping, The Transformation of a Man’s Heart and Soul Care: The Seven Commitments for a Healthy Soul.
I came across Smith on an ordinary Sunday morning in service at my former church about a year and a half ago. Because his message was a bit jarring, I remember a few details. He spent some time talking about a theme of his book, The Lazarus Life. As he began to speak, I became more and more alarmed. I have since listened to him speak, and to other pastors speak about the themes of The Lazarus Life, and there is a consistency in the general message.
I have come across a sample copy of parts of The Lazarus Life, online which reveals the thinking and direction of the book. The companion study notes are often found on church websites as some churches are choosing to run through the book and guide as a series. The messages I have heard in person or through online media parallel the book and companion study.
The copyright page alone is very revealing, acknowledging the use of several versions of the bible including The Message by Eugene Peterson. I have found this to be the main version Steven W. Smith uses when he is speaking, and it appears frequently in the book. The differences are striking between this version and the ESV, KJV, NIV, or NASB versions I am familiar with in church settings. One example I recently heard while listening to a presentation by Smith, and he used one of the Beatitudes to make a point. This is also quoted in his book. Comparing these interpretations can give insight to how different the MSG than other versions typically used.
(MSG) “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
(KJV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(NIV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(NASB) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(ESV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Interesting how consistent the other versions are on this one. The Message presents it’s own meaning of Matthew 5:3. The Message version also takes the focus inward and on the person reading. Note the references to “you” in the verse.
Steven W. Smith promotes and makes his living off of the concept of Spiritual Transformation. His message is based on the account of Lazarus rising from the dead. Sadly, when presenting the account, Smith changes things, he makes it something it’s not at all. The account is recorded in John Chapter 11.
In reading and then commenting on the account of Lazarus, which I heard live, Steven Smith focuses on what happens both before and after the raising of Lazarus. He speaks of the amount of time Jesus lingered and did not visit the ill Lazarus. Much is made of how Jesus could have come earlier. This is turned into a call to solitude and silence, we must wait on Jesus. It’s also used to express the concept that Jesus will not always show up in our difficult times. When we ask, “where is God,” we can note that He sometimes lingers as He did with Lazarus. Though it is true Jesus doesn’t always stop the cancer, the job loss, the death of a loved one…it is not true that He lingers and is not with us. However, Smith spends much time focusing on this tarrying and also on our response, which is to wait and to listen. He parallels this with times people spent “in the wilderness.”
In my notes on a sermon of Smith’s, this is what he says about the time in the wilderness. Note the verses used come from The Message: “…”when life is heavy and hard to take go off by yourself, enter the silence, bow in prayer, don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear. Don’t run from trouble. Take it full face. The worst is never the worst. Lamentations, do you know what that word means? Lamentations means lamenting. Lamentations…it’s almost as if you want to grab some of those words. When life is heavy and hard to take, enter the silence. Paul’s right there, don’t reach for your own demand button. Silence has a way of reducing us, we can enter the silence and say, “what are you up to God.” When we enter the silence our prayer just becomes “God what are you up to.” Bow in prayer, that’s right, bow. Bow because we must. We don’t know the future, we don’t know what’s going to happen in our economy, I dont’ know what’s going to happen to my son in Iraq. “You are God, I am not, I release my entitlement…and this is a hard one…don’t ask questions.” Wait for hope to appear, don’t run from the trouble. Dont’ run from the trouble and seek out another church. Let’s deal with something. May we in our own grave clothes ask to be free. Don’t run from the trouble.”
Smith takes this Lamentations chapter, and uses it to begin teaching about contemplative prayer, introducing a congregation to “the silence.” He uses it for individual problems, which are a big deal to each of us. His son is in Iraq, this is very difficult for him. He suggests we use Lamentations to encourage us in these difficulties. If we have a problem, enter the silence, bow down in prayer, wait on the Lord. See what God is up to.
Let’s look at the verses he quotes in Lamentations again, through context and in different versions.
The MSG Lamentations 3:28-30
”when life is heavy and hard to take go off by yourself, enter the silence, bow in prayer, don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear. Don’t run from trouble. Take it full face. The worst is never the worst.”
Let him sit alone in silence,
for the LORD has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope.
Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.
ESV Lamentations 3:28-30
Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults.
As you can see, the versions have differences. The NIV and ESV are not a huge contrast, but The Message really sounds like a completely different text. It is important to use a good translation when teaching concepts to a congregation. What is interesting is Smith neglects to give the entire context. What is going on in this passage that the writer is so downcast?
This book, some think is written by Jeremiah, records great suffering in Jerusalem. The city has sinned, turned away from God. God lets loose His wrath, and also allows the city to be taken by it’s enemies. This is not about only one man’s problems. It’s not about cancer, it’s not about job loss. It’s about the deep sorrow for a people who have sinned, and now are experiencing great suffering. The people are showing who they are in this suffering, the mothers withholding food from their children, even to the point of “boiling” their young for food. This is like the Holocaust, there is desolation and death everywhere. No one is there to help.
Now, think, if a person witnesses his people suffering and knows it is because of sin and wrath, and if he himself is part of this suffering, wouldn’t the lament begin? Wouldn’t the tears flow? The writer talks of his teeth grinding in the dirt, he speaks of bowing way down into the dust. He is shamed, he is insulted, he is nothing. It is time to be silent, time to listen to God. It is the only hope. Only God will give any chance of salvation. This is not about coping with problems, it is about repentance and begging for mercy. It is about seeking God and showing true anguish, true mourning over sins.
It is true that God is there and we can wait on him in our troubles, but to suggest this passage is about waiting on God in silence when we have life’s troubles whether big or small is to misuse the passage. To use it to place people into the dessert and go off on some contemplative prayer exercise to make life better is wrong.
Smith misuses the entire account of Lazarus to make the story about the individual. He even has titles in his book such as “I Am Lazarus: Finding Ourselves in the Story” and “The Voice of Love: Hearing the Savior Call You by Name.”
On page 71 of The Lazarus Life: Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People Smith writes:
“In Jesus’ words to Lazarus, we hear the same Voice of Love that we can hear for ourselves today. We learn through Lazarus that only love transforms a person—not power, not information, not effort. We learn through Lazarus the beauty of listening to that love. This is one of the greatest spiritual callings of our journey.”
“Hearing Jesus speak your name is the first step in emerging from the tomb and moving toward transformation. Jesus speaks your name—not your friend’s, not your pastor’s not your teacher’s—when he invites you to “come forth” it is a personal invitation of love.”
On page 72 Smith goes even further,
“The crucial step of being transformed is learning to let yourself be loved. Skip this step and transformation will not happen. ”
This all becomes about the individual person, their self esteem, recognizing a person is worthy of God’s love. All of this from the account of Lazarus, from looking at our circumstances and comparing them to what was happening in Lamentations. We are to be silent so we can “hear the voice of Jesus” call us out of the tomb.
Basically, Steven Smith is saying in order to be transformed we have to accept that God loves us. He says it like this on page 77:
“Until we realize that Jesus is willing and able to come to our own tombs and speak words of love, we will live a lie. In our churches we will stand and sing of God’s love and the life that Jesus offers, but inside we will stand alone in fear that He may not call our name out as He called the name of Lazarus. This kind of lie robs us of the life Jesus wants for us—a life in which we enjoy the love of a God who would do anything to free us.”
On pg 80 Smith quotes Henry Nouwen:
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence. (From Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved)”
What is the actual point of the account of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead? One need only look in the book of John to find why it was written.
John 20:31 (ESV) “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Why does Steven W. Smith believe this account was written. In his study guidebook called Living the Lazarus Life he takes the reader through visualizations and encourages Lectio Divina and other forms of contemplative prayer.
Exercise on pg 45 “Read the passage slowly and reflect on these questions. You may find it helpful to read this passage three or four times, pausing after each reading, to listen for a different aspect or emphasis or insight.” The quote then has a footnote referencing Lectio Divina as a sacred reading and encouraging a slower, contemplative reading of the passage. Two books are suggested….Smith’s own Embracing Soul Care and Too Deep for Words by Thelma Hall. Smith even suggests to use Google to find web sites on the subject of Lectio Divina.
The first question encourages the reader to “ Imagine this scene. What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell? Where do you see yourself in this story? (footnote) With whom do you most identify? What do you imagine this man might have felt after such a long time of waiting?” In the footnote it Smith explains further: “Engaging the senses is an ancient and important way of reading the scriptures.” He then explains that Ignatius was one who helps “believers use all of their God-given senses to understand the truth of scriptures.”
Steven W. Smith uses biblical passages to assert that spiritual transformation requires our realization that God loves us, as an individual. We must go through a time of silence, solitude, and prayer exercises in order to understand the scriptures, to hear God speaking to us, to heal our souls. We are to place ourselves in the biblical accounts, use our imagination to put words in Christ’s mouth, and learn to cope with life’s problems.
This approach is disturbing. The bible is used to put forth an agenda. All the while, the focus is off God and what He has done, off Christ and his sacrifice, off our need for salvation due to our wretched sin. It’s about learning to cope with problems, to learn methods for feeling closer to God, for learning to feel better about ourselves and that we are loved. Much of the gospel is twisted or missing. Much of the Christian life becomes a self examination.
Self examination should lead to a realization of our sin, our need to repent, and the greatness of God. Instead, it seems to me, Smith wants us to examine ourselves to learn we are something in God’s sight. Yes, Jesus does love us, but are we to use this knowledge of his love to focus on ourselves? Are we to visualize Him saying He loves us? Are we to put words in His mouth and imagine His actions toward us in a biblical account?
More quotes to ponder from Smith….The Lazarus Life:
Pg. 76 “It was not until I knew myself to be the Beloved (capitalized in the book) of God—singled out as a soul-sick man in his forties—that I began to be transformed.” and “The seed of transformation that took root in my life was this: I had to learn to accept being accepted. I had to be loved.” and on page 83: “Silence and solitude became the tools of transformation for me to hear what my soul-sick soul needed to hear: I am loved. I am wanted. I am the object of Jesus’ love.” Further on page 90: “The ancient spiritual exercises also help us learn how to enter silence and be alone with ourselves. There our aloneness is transformed to true solitude. We find that we are at last at home with ourselves and experience peace with God.”