My favorite way to do life involves a schedule. Always a planner, I map out the days in advance and often find myself studying my calendar as if I might be tested on it at some point. Oddly, the pop quiz usually comes in the form of a delay or some unforeseen curve that cancels my list and throws everything off balance. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve noticed the pattern: Life comes to us in the shape of a J-Curve.
Starting with the J-Curve, a concept from investment and economics in which trend lines show an initial loss immediately followed by a sharp gain, Paul Miller traces the life of Jesus, the experience of the apostle Paul, and ultimately the normal Christian life: a journey that ends higher than its beginning. In defiance of the claims of prosperity Gospel adherents and other false teachers, Miller argues that in our following life, we will experience multiple J-Curves in the form of suffering, weakness, humiliation, and inconvenience.
Miller’s stated purpose in J-Curve: Dying and Rising With Jesus in Everyday Life is to “reset [our] sense of the normal Christian life, freeing [us] from ignorance and despair.” (Loc 283) This cuts across our default—our bent toward self-promotion and self-protection. When our intended “audience” fails to appreciate us adequately, our negative response (disappointment, loneliness, feeling invisible) can actually be the beginning of a good thing as we shift faith in our family, our friends, or our self-image to faith in God.
Justification by Faith and the J-Curve
Sinking my roots deep into justification by faith, I realize the inadequacy of justification by friends or by a big platform or by an approving circle of “followers” who are able to do nothing to declare me righteous. Understanding that my own story can be superimposed upon Jesus’s story brings clarity to my thinking about justice, suffering, and even my parenting. Will I cheat my son out of a potentially liberating opportunity to experience the effects of a poor decision in order to make his life “easier” and help him to avoid pain at any cost?
Repentance and the J-Curve
The hard truth is that turning from sin is a painful exercise and requires a chain reaction of obedience: a change in what I love, which leads to a change in what I want, and results (finally) in a change in what I do.
You can’t improve the flesh; you must kill it. The cross is a place for dying, not improving. (Loc 1541)
And, of course, the strongest upside of this wisdom may well be the ability to comfort or exhort others who are traveling the same path.
Gospel Living and the J-Curve
Miller asserts that living faith is all about who you know. Because we know Jesus, we trust him and take him at this word. A living faith shows up as participation in the life of Christ. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of J Curve is its bright ribbon of story about the Miller family’s life with Kim, their special needs daughter who has shaped their values as a family and has yielded valuable insights about how to “do church” and “do life” in redemptive ways.
As we believe the gospel, we become like the gospel, as our baptism and the life that follows become a reenactment of the J-Curve. And, on the practical level, awareness of the dramatic curve that traces resurrection life out of death connects the believer to her bearings and her identity as a servant, putting into perspective all the little deaths we experience on this planet. Big picture thinking gives meaning and purpose to suffering and offers hope for a greater beauty on the other side of the curve.
Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Believing and becoming,
Last year, I reviewed A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, also by Paul Miller, and spent many hours on the seat of a lawn mower mulling over its truth. I invite you into the process with me here.
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