J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday LifeWritten by Paul E. Miller Reviewed By Jeremy M. Kimble
Life is fraught with trials, difficulties, challenges, and unexpected twists and turns. For Christians, it is essential that we understand all that God is doing in the world and in our lives in light of his sovereign plan. However, it can often be difficult to understand circumstances in a biblically appropriate fashion when we are focused on the pain we’re experiencing, or when a desire to rise in the esteem of others is overshadowing our ability to see God’s plan in a given scenario. Paul Miller’s J-Curve serves as a steady guide as believers traverse the terrain of Christian living.
Much of Miller’s work is dedicated to contrasting the J-Curve—the idea that “the normal Christian life repeatedly reenacts the dying and rising of Jesus” (p. 19)—with what he calls the “failure-boasting chart” (p. 33). This latter category describes the person who views circumstances through the lens of how it causes them to rise or fall in the esteem of others and according to overall societal standards. This is the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:4–6, boasting in his past achievements as a Jew, knowing that that is what most of his contemporaries regarded as the standard for success. The J-Curve, by contrast, speaks of entering some kind of suffering in which the flesh is weakened and sin is killed, Christ-like formation occurs, and there is a real-time “resurrection” on the other side (p. 20). In other words, the normal Christian life involves dying continually to comfort, ease, worldly success, cynicism, and despair, and finding true life in repentance, love, humility, and hope.
The author is keen for readers to see the distinct differences between these two paradigms, adopting a viewpoint that takes the J-Curve into account in Christian living. Miller further categorizes the J-Curve into three distinct kinds: the love J-Curve (we seek to serve others in sacrificial ways; Phil 2:5–11), the suffering J-Curve (evil in the world assaults us; 2 Cor 12:7–10), and the repentance J-Curve (seeking to turn from our sins; Col 3:5–11). While these J-Curves are all based on Jesus’s death and resurrection, our own dying to sin and being raised to newness of life is a J-Curve in its own right. Miller summarizes by saying, “Jesus substitutes himself for us, we substitute the pieces of our lives for others” (p. 30).
The book is divided into five sections. The first is spent describing the concept of the J-Curve, beginning with Jesus’s work for us and then working through how Jesus works in us (specifically, justification by faith and union with Christ). Second, Miller, delves into the specifics of the J-Curve, beginning with the concept of dying with Jesus. The third section describes this descent as a means of love, getting outside of ourselves to care for one another. Then in the fourth section the author describes rising with Jesus. Here, Miller tells the reader not to rush God’s work or force the moment of being brought out of the suffering; God will do that in his own time. The big picture is that dying and rising with Jesus will happen constantly throughout the Christian life, even multiple times in one day, and we need to embrace that rhythm. The final section speaks of forming a J-Curve community, a church wherein we are not seeking to boast in ourselves, but in Christ. The J-Curve mentality frees us from tribalism and the craving for self-centered power, looking instead to Jesus who sought to serve others in love and joy. A number of helpful diagrams and charts are also scattered throughout the book.
Miller grounds much of the teaching in this work in 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians and Philippians, and he also finds support in Acts, Romans 6–8, Ephesians 1, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The depiction of the various concepts he is seeking to convey come through paraphrased and carefully exegeted biblical narrative and teaching, as well as personal accounts of how the concepts have impacted his own life. There are moments when I wish the author had been a bit clearer in differentiating Jesus’s J-Curve and our own. Yes, we are filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for example, but at times the merging of these ideas seems to correspond in too similar of a fashion (e.g., pp. 30–31). This could also be clarified when speaking of “re-enacting” the path Jesus took. Certain sentences and ideas could also be better explained. For example, Miller states, “Our suffering doesn’t pay for our sin, but it does imprint us with the image of Jesus” (p. 90). While the reader can certainly infer much from that statement, a definition of “imprint” would also be useful. Also, while he speaks of progressive sanctification in very helpful terms, I do wish Miller had addressed the issue of positional sanctification, especially as this is a discussion that is gaining further attention these days (e.g., Don J. Payne, Already Sanctified: A Theology of the Christian Life in Light of God’s Completed Work [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020]).
And yet, while the book could have been clearer at points, J-Curve stands as a pivotal work on how to view the Christian life with proper perspective. Far too often we live on the boasting-failure spectrum instead of seeing our lives from the perspective of Christ’s finished and continual work. Suffering, pain, trials, difficulty, death, disappointment—all of these are normal for humanity, and they are despised. But as Christians we are called to see God’s work in us through these means, and to understand his purpose to humble and unite us, and to draw us closer to our great and glorious Savior. We live out our Christian faith in the context of difficult jobs, strained relationships, embarrassing circumstances, tough church meetings, and shortcomings in our personal and family lives. But all of that dying is purposeful and will be used to overcome self-gratification and self-centeredness, and to produce true life in Christ. This is a perspective we all need. I thus commend this book to you as worthy of mediation, alongside of an open Bible, engaging the texts Miller highlights throughout.
Jeremy M. Kimble
Jeremy Kimble is assistant professor of theology at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He is the author of That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Stock, 2013).
Other Articles in this Issue
Trinity, Creation, and Re-creation: A Comparison of Karl Barth and Herman Bavinck’s Trinitarian Doctrines of Creationby Jarred Jung
Karl Barth’s doctrine of creation, while rooted in his doctrine of the Trinity, errs in the way that creation is conflated into re-creation, resulting in a diminished doctrine of creation at the expense of his christological Trinitarianism...