Paul Miller: Following the J-Curve
About the Guest
Life’s losses can leave us confused, cynical, bitter. But are we looking at the right map? Author Paul Miller’s “J-Curve”—dying and rising with Jesus—maps a different story.
Paul Miller: Following the J-Curve
Paul Miller: Following the J-Curve
Paul: What was Jesus’ most glorious moment?—it’s when He was on the cross, dying for us. That’s His glory! Three times John says that in the book of John—that’s Jesus’ moment of glory—Jesus says, “When I am lifted up.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
When we started dating, you had tons of stories about football, because you were playing football at the time.
Dave: What do you mean stories of football?
Ann: Yes, you would share with me these crazy football stories; but one of them was a guy, who used to yell during practice.
Dave: Oh, yes. One of my receivers—you know, I was a quarterback—when we’d be stretching before practice, every single day, in college football—two-a-days during the season—he would yell from wherever he was stretching: “I love pain! Pain is awesome!” [Laughter] And we would all just yell, “Shut up!” But he would do it every day; I’m not kidding. [Laughter]
One day, on a wet, rainy practice, I threw a pass to him. Balls were heavier, because it was wet. He went up to catch it—this was before receivers wore gloves—his ring finger and middle finger split down the middle.
Dave: You know, right through his hand.
Dave: We saw it, and it was just horrific. He had to run off the field. As he was running off the field to the trainer, he was yelling, “Pain! I love pain!”
Dave: We were all like, “Dude, the guy’s crazy.” [Laughter]
The only reason I bring it up is because we hate pain; all of us hate pain.
Paul: Right, right.
Dave: Nobody loves pain.
Ann: We try to avoid it at all costs.
Dave: Yes; so when he was saying that, it was like, “No, you don’t. You actually don’t like pain; none of us do.” And yet, you discover that pain is a central part of the Christian life.
Dave: It really is.
We have Paul E. Miller back with us today to talk about the J-curve. A big part of what you’ve already discussed in the J-curve is this death/suffering part of the Christian life that leads to resurrection.
Anyway, Paul, welcome back. We’re going to talk about pain today with you. [Laughter]
Paul: That’s right. And as just kind of a qualifier, stoicism/Greek stoicism, which is kind of making a comeback in our culture; because our culture is very—I’ll use the Greek word, epicurean—which is living for pleasure. Stoicism basically says: “There is actually a greater good that you need to live for,”—like that best-seller, Make Your Bed, which is a great little book; I gave it to some of my grandkids—that’s stoicism. Stoicism says: “Pain is good for you,”—you know?—and it is; Paul would affirm that.
But we’re not talking about pain is good for you; but pain is the place, as a Christian, where you can experience Christ. Paul calls it a fellowship of His suffering. So when Paul is beat up in a city, he doesn’t go back into the city and say, “Give me some more.”
Paul: You know what I mean?
Ann: He’s not saying, “I love pain!”
Paul: Yes, yes; he’s not saying, “I love pain!” But in his love for Jesus, and in his love for others, he enters into pain. That’s kind of what the J-curve is—it’s not just passively receiving, but it’s actually active—entering into the world of love, which just means to enter into the world of pain.
Ann: Well, let’s review a little bit for our listeners, who maybe didn’t hear yesterday. Paul, just explain briefly what the J-curve is again.
Paul: The J-curve is like the letter, “J”; it goes down into death and up into resurrection. The idea of it is the Christian life is shaped like the letter, “J,” which is Jesus’ life. He goes down into His death and up into His resurrection and enthronement. That’s why the upper part of the “J” is perfect for that. I borrowed the term out of the world of economics.
Paul talks more about the J-curve than he does justification by faith—it is one of the dominant things in the New Testament—but it’s really been lost to the church. That’s why this idea—that somehow the Christian life should be pain-free or pain-light—but having the J-curve as sort of the normal Christian life is really transformative.
Dave: I know that/you know, one of my life verses, you teach a lot on, is
Dave: One of the reasons I love it is Paul’s saying, what I hope is my goal is: “I want to know Christ,”—
Paul: Yes, yes.
Dave: —not know about Him; I want to literally know Christ!
Dave: And then he says, “…and the power of His resurrection.” I’m like, “Yes! Who doesn’t want the power of knowing Christ through His resurrection?” And that’s where I want the verse to end.
Dave: It’s like: “There it is: that’s the Christian life I signed up for”; I think a lot of people signed up for. And then, he adds—
Paul: —“…the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings.”
Dave: Yes, so what in the world is that all about? Because that’s the part, where I’m like, “Can we just keep that part over here?
Dave: “I can know Christ.”
Ann: And people are like, “Can we just go to the ‘J’ part that’s going up and not the death?”
Paul: Right; that’s right, yes; which is sort of the American Dream; you know?
Paul: We’d just like to be able to have that.
The verses, right prior to that: why don’t you just read them briefly?
Dave: Yes; verse 7 is really the context, where Paul says, “But whatever gain I had, I count it as loss for the sake of Christ.” Verse 8: “Indeed, I count everything as lost because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His suffering, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul: Yes; and that passage that Dave just read really describes the two parts to the Christian life. The first part—justification by faith—that we’re found in Christ, not having a righteousness of our own, is the ground of the Christian life. Then, the next layer—that’s the foundation [justification by faith], so we never run away from that—the next layer is that Jesus’ sufferings are separate from mine; okay? I don’t die for my sins; but the next layer is that the whole Christian life is this reenacting—the Greek word is koinonia—which is that intimate partnership with Christ; I’m in a fellowship of His sufferings.
You know, I call them Part A and Part B. You need the foundation of free grace, but a lot of Christians get stuck on the bottom—all of a sudden, they discover a hard marriage or a difficult teenager—they think everything has gone wrong. But if you’ve got that upper layer, like the top part of the triangle, now, as I do the Christian life, I reenact the sufferings and resurrection of Christ.
Let me just give you a quick example of that: we were at camp. We go every year to a Joni camp north of us in Philly.
Ann: —Joni Eareckson Tada?
Paul: Yes; there are camps for families that have a child or family member with disabilities. On the first day of the camp, Jill had gotten to know this woman, Kayla, who was a camp helper. Kayla, like all these other helpers, had paid money, like a short-term missions trip, to come to the camp and serve. That was Monday.
On Tuesday, Kayla was in the food line—you know, like a cafeteria—and another mother heard Kayla belittle her parenting, say something negative about the way she was parenting her kids. This mother went to the camp directors about it and complained about Kayla.
Kayla—this is one of these typical messes; you know?—just all this drama. They brought Kayla in and talked to her. Kayla had no idea what this mother was talking about. To this day, we don’t know what happened; but I know Kayla pretty well. I’m sure the mother just misheard her, and she probably should have gone to Kayla; but she went to the camp. There were 300 people at the camp. Within 24 hours, half the camp knew about this. There was way too much conversation going on about this; you know?—but whatever, things like that happen.
So Wednesday, Kayla comes to us—she was all upset—there was no resolution. On a 1-10 scale, this was like a 2; you know?
Paul: It feels like a 9 at the moment, but she’s going to leave by Friday—whatever—you know? Kayla came to us, and I pointed Kayla to Philippians 3. I said, “Kayla, on Monday, you were in a wonderful exchange, where you were giving your time and talents to this camp—and your money—and you were getting back the reward of caring for people, being on a missions team—
Ann: She was at the top of the “J.”
Paul: Yes; she was giving, but it was a good kind of giving.
I said, “Now, Kayla, you’re still giving”—here it is: Wednesday, two days later—“you’re still giving all that; but now, you’re getting shame back. So now, you’ve entered into a fellowship of His sufferings.” I said, “Kayla, this is your glory.”
Paul: Anybody can serve when they’re getting—I mean, Jesus says that in the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5] —anybody can love somebody, who’s loving them. She’s reenacting justification by faith, just like Jesus took our sins and gave us His righteousness, in one of the worst exchanges for any human being in history; you know, salvation for the church!
For Kayla to serve Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, cheerfully would strip you of pride and ego. What I was inviting Kayla to was: I sort of, mentally, drew a picture of a room, where there are all these other doors:
- There’s the door of “gossip”: talking to a lot of people about how they’ve wronged you or how this woman has wronged you.
- There’s the door of “slander.”
- You know, there’s the door of “bitterness,” which is probably the worst door.
- And the door of “cynicism,” where you nurse that hurt against you.
- And then, I said, “There’s the door at Gethsemane, where you can enter into His sufferings. Our fellowship of His sufferings is not paying for our sin; that’s already taken care of.”
I was giving Kayla a vision of something I think is really beautiful. I mean, I think one of the most beautiful things you see is someone, who’s loving, when there’s very little love in return.
Dave: Yes; and I think, often, when we’re in a situation like Kayla—where it’s a 2 or maybe it’s an 8—you know, where we’re experiencing suffering or injustice, I think we see that room with the doors, and we don’t think they’re doors. [Laughter]
Paul: Right; they’re invitations: an open wall.
Dave: Right; we think slander is—there’s no choice here—
Paul: Right; yes.
Dave: —“I have to experience this.”
Dave: And you’re making clear: “No, no, no’ there is a choice.
Dave: “You can choose bitterness, or you can choose to fellowship in the sufferings of Christ,” and “The result’s going to be whatever you choose.”
Paul: Yes, that’s right. And that doesn’t mean that she’s not going to feel sadness and shame.
Dave: Right; right.
Paul: It’s just that she’s not going to nurse them. The J-curve stabilizes my emotions—I can feel that sadness; I can feel the shame—but I don’t have to let it control me.
Ann: I can’t get out of my head your sentence to her: “Kayla, this is your glory.”
Ann: [Emotion in voice] I’m thinking of all our listeners, who are going through really hard things right now—
Paul: Yes, yes.
Ann: —like maybe the death of someone you love; it could be that your job is just terrible; it could be your kids have walked away from Jesus, and you feel like you’re suffering—I would say, just what you have said, Paul: “Jesus is saying, ‘This is your glory; this is your time. Just come to Me; surrender to Me. Give in to Me, and I am with you.”
Dave: “Receive the cup.”
Paul: Yes, yes.
Ann: —because He is with us in that.
Ann: And He’s experienced it Himself.
Paul: I mean, just think: “What was Jesus’ most glorious moment?”—it’s when He was on the cross, dying for us; that’s His glory! Three times, John says that in the book of John—that’s Jesus’s moment of glory—Jesus says, “When I am lifted up.”
And look at the scene!—His blood is over there; the religious rulers are mocking Him; the disciples have fled; His mother is literally dying there with Him—I mean, it’s an absolute tragedy within tragedies and tragedies—and it’s Jesus’ glory—and it's all trumped by the resurrection.
Dave: How do we get to the place where we can see it as glory? I mean, we joked sort of at the beginning—my teammate, who was saying, “I love pain!”—but how do we get to the place, where we can actually embrace,—
Ann: —or even endure it for so long?
Dave: —you know, the death and suffering part of the Christian life? Again, we love the resurrection part!
Dave: But to be able to be in that room and choose the fellowship of the sufferings—
Dave: —rather than bitterness—that’s where we need to live. How do we get there?
Paul: Golly! I mean, I think that’s where the New Testament spends so much time on the J-curve. I mean, the book of Philippians is all on the J-curve; First and Second Corinthians are all on the J-curve; it’s in Romans 6 and 8; it’s in Colossians 3.
I think the most important thing to do, in the J-curve, is to endure; I mean, it’s to stay in the story.
Ann: How have you endured? What’s that look like?
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Paul Miller on FamilyLife Today.
We’ll hear Paul’s response in just a second; but first, will you help reach more families with God’s truth by giving to FamilyLife? All this week, we want to send you a copy of Kay Wyma’s book, The Peace Project: A 30-Day Experiment Practicing Thankfulness, Kindness, and Mercy. You can get your copy when you give this week at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call, with your donation, at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Paul Miller and what enduring a not-so-great situation with his boss actually looked like.
Paul: One example is: I had a boss, who I had been very close to; and I really worked to honor this boss, going back 30 years ago. He was getting older, and he’d always had a problem with boasting. He just began to take over the organization—he was our director—he would dominate in meetings and talk a lot. It was beginning to turn some of our staff off; they were talking. I went to him twice in this one year, in the early ‘90s, about it. The first time, he listened well; and then, within a week, I realized he was just “yessing” me.
Problems began to accumulate, and I went to him again. I just kind of laid out to him what was going on/how staff were reacting. He responded then, for the next five years—he ended up dying at the end of that five years—4he responded by shunning me within the organization. That was one of my first most poignant J-curves: to stay/to endure.
There would not have been anything wrong with me leaving; but just as I prayed and reflected, God had prepared me for dying to come. He’d just kind of whispered in my ear that it was coming. One of the many Scriptures that God laid on my heart was from Isaiah 30. The verse is about hanging in there: “Just serve.”
You know, the little story with Kim—that we told last time [broadcast]—about going on the plane trip together, was a mini/mini J-curve; and this was a massive one.
Ann: —a long J-curve.
Paul: In that massive J-curve—just repeatedly dying—he would take credit for my ideas; it was just extraordinarily painful. And that hanging in there just killed/just going down.
On the cover of The J-Curve book, there’s a little gap—there’s one arrow going down and one arrow going—and there’s a little gap there. You’re going down—you’re expecting resurrection—you drop down, and you hit another J-curve! [Laughter] I spent five years, dropping down.
Ann: And in that time, I’m guessing, instead of pulling away from God, you pulled closer to Jesus.
Paul: Yes, because I was constantly being stripped/being shamed. It was just these repeated baths of dying.
Dave: And where was the power of the resurrection?
Paul: You know, resurrections can appear in different places. A lot of them, you don’t know until retrospect. But one of them was internal in me. God was chiseling the image of His Son on my heart and on my habits. You know, it’s one thing to know something; it’s another thing to enter it, by repeatedly going through it, again, and again, and again.
Paul: And that’s when the beauty of Jesus emerges in you.
And then, one other—I learned to pray like I never had before, because I was talking to—I love that popular song, Talking to Jesus; I forget who—
Dave: Yes, Maverick City.
Paul: —yes, it’s just great.
I was in a fellowship of His suffering; and in that, I learned to pray like never before. I turned around and wrote about what I learned in the book, A Praying Life. I don’t really mention this master story in it, because it’s kind of a private story.
Dave: I was just going to say I remember reading the story in The J-Curve, in your book. You ended up being sort of the head/or you had to raise funds?
Paul: [Laughing] I was demoted to Development Director.
Dave: Yes; but then, later, you had the perspective to go, “That prepared me for something in the future.”
Paul: Yes; it was just/there were so many things that happened out of that/so many resurrections. When this leader passed away, I discovered—eighteen years after his death—that a couple of people had been with him, and that he repented for how he treated me. I was in an Olive Garden® in Philly when someone told me this. I just burst into tears, as a 50-year-old man; it just touched me so deeply.
Ann: But that’s pretty remarkable, when you say, “God was chiseling the Son on my heart and on my habits as I was enduring.”
Paul: Yes, yes. Becoming like Jesus—one of the words theologians use is cruciformity—you know, it forms/the cross forms you. There are just no shortcuts to the beauty of Jesus.
Dave: I know that, as you were talking, Paul, I thought: “So often in marriage—its true in raising kids, too; but so often in marriage—we’ve heard couples say to us, because they’re struggling—whether it’s in the first year or the 50th year; they’re struggling—here’s what they think: ‘I married the wrong person.
Dave: “’If I hadn’t married you, I wouldn’t be this unhappy; you’re the source of my unhappiness.’ And do you know what we always say? We never use the phrase, ‘the J-Curve,’ but here’s what we say: ‘Um, you didn’t marry the wrong person; you’re looking in the wrong place.’”
Paul: Yes, right!
Dave: You know, you think you’re going to find your life in your person.
Dave: That’s never going to happen! You have to look to Christ,—
Dave: —which is sort of the J-Curve, going toward: “I’ve got to look to the image of Christ to find my life; I’m never going to find it in my spouse,—
Dave: —“even a perfect spouse.” It’s sort of a way to say: “This suffering/this struggle is part of marriage”; and it’s part of your formation in Christ.
Paul: Yes; here’s another way to put it: when we think of the idea of knowing something—and we actually know this in life; but when we come to Christianity, we tend to forget it a little bit, especially with the Christian life—there’s the knowing abstractly, and then there’s the knowing where you enter it.
Like you don’t really know football until you’ve played football; you know what I mean?
Dave: Yes, you experience it.
Paul: You don’t really know marriage until—you know, it’s the difference between. You don’t know parenting—babysitting is not parenting; [Laughter] you know?—until you’ve entered into it.
Dave: You don’t know teenagers until you’ve had one.
Paul: It’s like the difference between boot camp and combat; you know what I mean?
Paul: So there’s this whole sense that enduring in love is the door to entering Christ. And then, the beauty of that is: your capacity for suffering and love grows. You don’t feel it as much—I mean, you don’t feel the suffering as much—you barely notice it.
Dave: If I’ve heard anything today, I would say to the marriage that’s struggling right now: “Endure;—
Dave: —“endure. Don’t quit; don’t run away.
Dave: “Fight for your marriage; fight for your relationship with Christ. This is part of the process. There’s a resurrection coming. You’ve just got to hang on until you get there. And obey.”
Ann: I’m reminded, Dave, of 1 Peter 4:12: “Beloved, don’t be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.”
Paul: Yes; that’s a beautiful summary of the J-Curve.
Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Paul Miller on FamilyLife Today.
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Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will continue their conversation with Paul Miller to talk about the power of prayer.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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