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THE LAZARUS LIFE
spiritual transformation for ordinary people
By STEPHEN W. SMITH
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Stephen W. Smith
All rights reserved.
I AM LAZARUS: FINDING OURSELVES IN THE STORY
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany ...
—as told by John, the beloved disciple in John 11:1
We are all soul-sick and in need of transformation.
Transformation does not come from earning love. It comes from being loved.
Only Jesus offers us the life we long for.
The story of Lazarus is the story of the Christian life.
I am Lazarus. And I believe you are too. His story is our story. I'd like to invite you to come with me into this story, a story that I trust you'll come to see as your own, as I've come to see it as mine. It is the ongoing story of someone who is experiencing transformation. Someone who needs a miracle to be whole.
The Lazarus Life is the story of our longing for deep and lasting change. But it is more than that—much more than that. The story is an invitation to live, but this invitation will prove to be like none you've ever received before.
As we accept this invitation, we'll see Lazarus getting weaker and more desperate for healing, asking us to evaluate our own spiritual condition. When all the efforts of friends and relatives fail to persuade Jesus to show up and fix the situation, we'll be invited to explore the hidden resentments held in our own hearts about a Jesus who doesn't always show up on time—and about our own community of well-intentioned family and friends who often fail us. When Lazarus dies and is placed in a tomb, an invitation will surface to peer into the dark places in our own lives, the dark places that keep us buried when we long for new life. When Lazarus hears a voice—not just any voice, but the voice of Jesus—we, too, can learn how to listen for that same voice today when it calls us to move forward. As Lazarus gets "unraveled" from his situation, we can become unstuck from our own, even if it's a messy process. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb trapped in graveclothes, we'll examine the "graveclothes" of our lives—such as self-rejection, fear, sin, guilt, blame and shame, and disappointment—that hold us back from renewed spiritual vigor. And when Lazarus steps into his new, resurrected life, we will see a hint of the life that Jesus invites us to today—the dangerous, rewarding, radical, powerful life of transformation.
The story of Lazarus is about longings and breakthroughs. It is about unmet expectations and disillusionment with God. It is about overcoming obstacles. It is about facing our disappointments so that we can move forward. It is about freedom and life. Yes—life! The life that Jesus described when He said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Maybe we're burned out in ministry, work, family, or all of the above. Maybe we're tired of waiting for the circumstances of our lives to change. Maybe we find ourselves buried in a tomb, overwhelmed with both past and future, yet God is calling us forth to something that "may be"—to a better life than we ever dreamed.
LOOKING FOR SOMETHING MORE
We're not the first people to be moved toward abundant life through Lazarus's story. Buried under the sprawling city of Rome are darkened catacombs, the place of burial for early believers. Many of these early Christians were persecuted, terrorized, and ill-treated. Yet the story of Lazarus so inspired these Christians that ordinary people—not theologians, priests, or popes—painted artistic renditions on frescoes that we can still see today. In fact more than sixty renditions of the raising of Lazarus can be found etched and painted on the dark walls of the tunnels that lead to the burial sites. Those ancient limestone walls reveal images of Jesus Christ at an opened tomb from which a bound, mummy-like man is emerging.
As grieving families of days long gone came to these burial places, these paintings reminded them that what happened to Lazarus could happen to them. After all, the best stories in life—the ones that inspire us most—are about men and women who long for the same things we do. They are stories of people who encounter something or someone who changes the trajectory of their lives.
The story of Lazarus, an ordinary man living in the first century, is this kind of story. It inspired Italian Renaissance painters such as Giotto and Caravaggio to take brightly colored oils to plain white canvas and show us what mere words fail to convey. The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh so identified with the story of Lazarus in his final years that he painted his own face as the transformed face of Lazarus emerging from the tomb. I'm currently in a season of feeling much the same way as van Gogh might have felt: Life is finally beginning to happen. I don't want to go back to the way it was. I want to live the life Jesus wants me to live. Do you?
If we hear of Lazarus today, it's usually standing at a freshly dug graveside. The pastor reads the famous words of Jesus: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies" (John 11:25). These words are supposed to bring comfort. But Jesus' words were never meant for the dead. They were meant for those who are alive—we are the people who need the message of Lazarus to bring hope to our weary lives. We are the ones who need transformation. The Lazarus Life offers us an opportunity to experience what we long for most.
Early in the book of John, we read about Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding celebration. He transforms water. Later, John shows Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish to feed the thousands. He transforms loaves and fish. These miracles drew people to God. But when we come to John 11, we leave water and fish and loaves behind, and transformation takes place in flesh and blood—the life of an ordinary person named Lazarus. This one life so stirs us now that we wish it could be us.
More to Life
Like Lazarus, you and I know what it is like to not be transformed.
Unaffected by the power of God.
Unaltered by the promises of Jesus.
Impervious as a granite slab to the penetrating work of the Spirit.
It is possible to lead a wholesome life—one in which we maintain a job, marry a person we love, have children, bury our parents, and attend the church of our choice—and still miss out on what Jesus promised we could have. We might call it living a wholesome life of quiet desperation.
The spiritual life is first of all a life or it is no life at all. It is more than the emotions of love, hatred, passion, and desire, more than rationally deciding what to eat and where to sleep and what to believe. Yes, we are created by God to live a physical life with eyes that see, hearts that beat, and hands that touch. And yes, we are created to live an emotional life with passions and desires, and an intellectual life with our own will.
But many of the men and women I know and work with say they feel more dead than alive, more asleep than awake, more numb than passionate. Why is this so? Why do so many of us follow the teachings of Jesus and quietly ask, "Is this it? Is this the life Jesus told us about? Isn't there something more?" Lazarus shows us the "more" of life that you and I are thirsty for. More than what we know now—so that we can live before we die.
John the Baptist said it this way: "It's your life that must change, not your skin.... What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming?" (Luke 3:8–9MSG). The life Jesus describes in the story of Lazarus is not an improvement to our standard of living. It is not a secret to be learned or a formula to follow. The spiritual life offered by Jesus, taught to us by Paul, and experienced by the early church, is a life of transformation. It is deep-down change at the DNA level of our souls. It is a life that comes only from Jesus, who identifies Himself as the only life we need.
It doesn't take us long in life to realize that what the Bible says is true: No one is sinless. No one escapes being soul-sick. Our sickness seems to repeat itself across the pages and chapters of our lives. It even follows a predictable pattern: We make resolutions and promises to God, and we try to change, but we relapse. We take two steps forward but the one step back nearly always does us in. We muster up the energy to try to break an addiction, to rid ourselves of a self-destructive habit, to not be "so angry, so overweight, so anxious, so doubting, so obsessive, so selfish" or whatever it is (is there ever only one thing?) that brings dis-ease to our souls and makes us desperate.
This is what Dallas Willard calls "sin management"—when we use our own effort to try to control sin rather than dealing with it once and for all. A little bit of cyber-sex isn't as bad as being an addict, is it? A little bit of guilt, a little bit of anger, a little bit of envy is better than a life consumed with it, right? We try to manage our heart, mind, soul, and strength the best we can. All the while, however, the life that Jesus promised seems just beyond our grasp. The joy and passion that God intended for our lives feels like the cookie jar we'll never be tall enough to reach.
Aren't we tired of changing just enough to get by? Change from the outside might look good at church on Sunday, but it leaves us empty and restless the other six days of the week. Pseudo-transformation doesn't touch our deepest soul-sickness. It doesn't move us beyond the issues, problems, and sins that keep us from experiencing the life Jesus promised. Pseudo-transformation leaves us sick because when we don't really change, we have to live with the residue of guilt and shame over our repeated attempts to get life right.
A life outside the tomb is what we want. Real life. Authentic life. The abundant life that Jesus promises. The story of Lazarus offers us an opportunity to explore how transformation really happens—sometimes in the places we least expect it.
The Cereal Stare
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who joined his father every morning for breakfast. He sat down at the table hoping and longing for a time of substance with this man called Dad. But instead of engaging conversation or rib-tickling jokes or even, "What's on tap for today?" he was always served the same dish: the "Cereal Stare."
The Cereal Stare. The look that would overtake the father's eyes as his mind wandered to another country—a place of work deadlines, problems with a colleague, a crisis that had claimed his mind and heart, possibly even unfulfilled hopes and dreams. The father sat in this stare while the young boy looked on, always an arm's length away but never invited to this distant land.
The father chewed his Corn Flakes and the boy chewed his. The closest they came to one another was carrying their empty bowls to the kitchen sink. The father then went to work to engage in ways he could not or did not at home. The white Pontiac drove away, leaving the boy in the dust, unable to see his true way.
I began this chapter by saying, "I am Lazarus." And I am. However, once upon a time, Lazarus was a little boy. And I was too. The Corn Flakes were real. As was the little boy. And the father. It's difficult to write these words, for my intent is not to place blame, but to witness. Many of the men of my father's generation were emotionally distant. They found it difficult to give what they had never received themselves. It was for my dad. I understand that.
My father was a good provider. We always had breakfast on the table. But man doesn't live by breakfast alone. Neither do little boys. And the boy with a hungry heart grew into a man who was soul-sick—me. I cannot recall ever hearing the words from my father that I most needed and longed for: "I love you, Steve." I had to assume it. I had to imagine, guess, or suppose that I was loved and worthy to be loved. Through the chapters of my life, this same theme—the need to hear I was loved, accepted, and validated—emerged and reared its head like a dragon. I would fight and wound the dragon momentarily, but the beast refused to die. My soul- sickness crept into every job I had, every friendship I developed, and every person I touched, even my wife and sons. I routinely found myself distant, captured in a stare of my own. Harry Chapin's 1974 hit "Cat's in the Cradle" became all too true for me: I had grown up to be just like Dad.
When Love Is Withheld
Psychologists tell us that self-love is either acquired in life or it is non-existent. No one is born with it. As children we look to our mothers and fathers to give our hearts what they so desperately need. In these early years things can go wonderfully right, and this is also the season of our lives when things can go woundingly wrong.
When love is withheld, the heart cannot thrive. Life without love has no meaning apart from doing things, performing, producing, and achieving. When affirmation, acceptance, and self-worth are withheld from us, or not nurtured to grow within us, we're left with holes. And we've got to fill the holes with something. Far too early we learn grown-up words like:
This is exactly what I did. I learned how to be loved by doing, performing, and achieving. I became a go-getter so that I would be going somewhere—anywhere that I could feel loved. I sold the most tickets to the school barbecue and was rewarded for doing so. I became funny so I would be liked. I was responsible so that I would be respected. I earned love from others, and I tried to earn love from God. I lived in the land of the if-thens:
If I was good, then ...
If I was committed, then ...
If I went to church multiple times a week, then ...
The more I did these things, the more celebrated and valued I felt. People applauded when I quoted Scripture. Men shook my hand and women produced teary-eyed smiles when I told them at five years of age, "I'm going to be a missionary to China." In those tender years I, like so many people, learned to live out of two stories: One was public and the other was very private—reserved only for those I felt would understand me. Those private stories are where the work of transformation is so desperately needed.
In public I learned the system, and I worked it. To be loved, I needed to do the right things, act the right way, and accomplish great tasks. A young man or woman can do this quite well for several decades, which is exactly what I did. I did extraordinary things for approval and acceptance.
I put all my trophies, jobs, and accomplishments in those holes in my soul. But the ache would not quit. My heart knew that something was wrong. All of my achieving was not filling a heart that was needy for love—simple love. In close relationships, demanding work, and inner longings, my soul-sickness showed up again and again. I've been on a long road to discover that no man as a friend, woman as a lover, or vocation as significance can offer me what Jesus offered Lazarus—life.
The story of Lazarus invites us into the truth that transformation does not begin with earning love. Transformation does not depend on our efforts to "make" it happen. Transformation begins when youareloved. This is what happened to Lazarus. Earthly flesh and blood can never speak this kind of deep love to our hearts. Only the Voice of Love will do. Only love transforms. Not power. Not coercion. Not programs. Not tips and techniques. Only love—and only the love of God.
Every Soul Needs Healing
Your concerns and soul-sickness may not be the same as mine, but something is bringing your soul a dis-ease—a longing for something different from the life you've been living so far. What is your soul-sickness? The holes in your soul? What are you living with that you wish you could change about yourself?
The name Lazarus means "whom God helps." We need Jesus' help just as Lazarus did. When we find ourselves sick and tired of being sick and tired, only God's help will do. The same breath that filled the deflated lungs of Lazarus and brought him back to life can be breathed into you and me. The same sickness—the sickness of thinking we can earn God's love—that brings death has an answer in Jesus.
This tightly bound and mummified Lazarus emerges with the only thing that matters—the only thing that really counts. Life—sheer, unbridled, and resurrected life—is finally his. And because I believe we're all Lazarus, it can be ours, too.
Excerpted from THE LAZARUS LIFE by STEPHEN W. SMITH. Copyright © 2008 Stephen W. Smith. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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