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Book Review by Cassie Watson
How can we live out the Bible’s command to put other people above ourselves? What should our response be to the frustrations, disappointments and suffering we face each day? How can we live humbly in a culture obsessed with self-exaltation?
Those are the kinds of questions Paul Miller addresses in his new book J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life.
In the first part of the book, Miller lays the foundation by explaining the J-Curve and how it gives shape to our own lives. He defines it as “the idea, frequently articulated by the apostle Paul, that the normal Christian life repeatedly re-enacts the dying and rising of Jesus. I call it the J-Curve because, like the letter J, Jesus’s life first went down into death, then up into resurrection” (p. 19). Subsequent chapters flesh out the basis of the J-Curve and how it’s different to our modern mindset.
In Part 2, Miller delves deeper into the ‘dying’ half of the J-Curve. He explains the various J-Curves at play in our lives. There are two past J-Curves: the historic death and resurrection of Jesus, and our death and resurrection by virtue of our union with him. This is justification by faith. But that’s not the end of our transformation—we then live out our present J-Curve every day through dying and rising in suffering, repentance, and love.
It's that ‘love J-Curve’ which is the focus of Part 3. Miller presents to us a vision of the good—the beauty of Christians who willingly embrace suffering to love others. When we enter the love J-Curve, we voluntarily die (even just to our preferences or comfort) to bring life to someone else.
The next section of the book brings us back up, exploring the rising of Jesus and how that maps onto our daily J-Curve. The historic J-Curve gives us assurance that we will rise to eternal life, but God is also generous to bring us all sorts of mini-resurrections too.
To finish off, Miller looks at how living the J-Curve transforms our church communities: “Jesus died to make us one. We die to make that a present reality” (p. 273). He focuses particularly on how this begins with leaders of the church, and the crucial role of the Spirit in bringing change.
J-Curve an important book because it points out some of the blind spots in traditional Reformed thinking. Miller explains how we focus almost exclusively on the cross of Jesus, at the expense of the resurrection. This tells us only half the story, and it undermines Paul’s letters where he continually reminds us that as we have died with Christ, so we also live with Christ.
Miller also helpfully highlights the importance of our union with Christ. When we only talk about justification by faith, divorced from its foundation of union with Jesus, we often fail to live out that faith by loving others well. He writes: “Union with Christ isn't just an idea for Paul, it's something he participates in every day.” (p. 130)
There’s so much practical wisdom in this book. It’s not about lofty and abstract concepts. Rather, Miller uses stories from his own life (and the lives of people he knows) to show us how the J-Curve works in practice. These stories often reveal his own sinfulness—and in this way, he embodies the message of his book. By laying bare his sin he infuses his readers with life, as we learn how to live out the J-Curve through difficult circumstances.
The opening story of the book immediately hooked me in, where Miller recounts his frustrations when he took his disabled daughter, Kim, along with him on a trip. I recognised the same selfishness and frustration in my own heart. Any secular self-help book could begin with the same anecdote and urge Miller to merely recognise his blessings and think positively. But he anchors us to a higher, better, and truer story—recognising that this death to comfort brought resurrection life to his wife, giving her a break at home. And as he descends into the death of repentance, he is better able to love and serve his daughter.
All Christians would benefit from reading this book, for the reality of Jesus’s death and resurrection is mean to change the way we live every day. They way Paul talks about sanctification in his biblical letters isn’t just for the super-Christian—as Miller writes, he “is describing the normal Christian life.” (p. 99)