On the bench but in Christ
How God uses setbacks in our lives to shape and mature us
Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of Crossway, from Paul Miller’s J-Curve: Dying and Rising With Christ in Everyday Life, our 2019 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category. The shape of the letter J illustrates a simple yet elegant concept: Christians need to go down to come up. Not just once, but again and again. The everyday Christian life is dying to convenience, worldly success, and approval, only to be resurrected into repentance, humility, and hope. Good Friday leads to Easter Sunday.
If we understand the J curve, we won’t be flummoxed when we miss a flight connection, fail to soothe a crying baby, or strike out when trying to help a homeless person. During these hard coronavirus days, an understanding of the J curve might even help an exhausted doctor, a worried old person, or a bored young person. How do all things, including hard things, work to the good of believers? Read on, please. —Marvin Olasky
In Sports or In Christ? How Location Changes Everything
I enjoyed watching my sisters and then my daughters play field hockey. Prior to some growth in sanctification, I used to combine cheering from the sidelines with free coaching tips, which led one coach to remind me she was the coach, not me.
When my youngest daughter, Emily, was in the eleventh grade, she and her friend were benched. The word on the team was that the coach was playing favorites. Neither Emily nor I enjoyed this. Her J-Curve was my J-Curve. I asked her if she wanted me to talk to the coach, but she said, “No, I’ll do it, Dad.” I was thankful for her maturity.
I ran into another parent at the gym during all this, and she said, “I can’t believe what the coach is doing with Emily and her friend.” I said, “I’m actually thankful Emily has this low-level suffering on my watch. Life is much more like sitting on the bench than starring in a game.” I can still see the shock on this mom’s face. It was like she had met a Martian.
In Sports or In Jesus?
Notice the role justification played in both our worlds. The mom saw Emily slipping down the Failure-Boasting Chart, losing “sports-righteousness.”
On the other hand, Jill and I were concerned Emily was going up. She and her best friend were cute, athletic, and had boyfriends. Our daughter was developing a righteousness of her own that came from being in the “in group.” It was enough of a concern for Jill and me that when faced with a choice between buying a new car or an old car, we bought the old one. We didn’t want Emily using a new car to elevate herself with her friends.
Sports, of course, is not the problem. The problem is sports as an idol.
While our children played hockey at the same Christian school, in that moment, this mom and I were living in separate worlds. I’d spent the last fifteen years in a multilayered fellowship of his sufferings, so in Jesus had become a way of life for me. For that reason, when Emily encountered suffering, I was disappointed but not devastated, even thankful for an opportunity for her to be drawn into Jesus. My thankfulness startled this mom. It seemed strange to her.
We were both looking at the same scene: two girls sitting on a bench. But our locations, what we were in, shaped what we saw. The mom saw disaster; I saw an opportunity for Emily to be drawn into a fellowship of his sufferings.
Notice how similar Paul’s in Judaism is to the mom’s in sports. Both forms of life outside of Christ became centers of worship for them and distorted their views of the world. Sports, of course, is not the problem. The problem is sports as an idol. In fact, in ministry can be every bit as destructive as in sports. Remember, I was tempted to boast with my two coworkers because I’d made ministry into an idol.
The mom assumed we were both in sports. She was being kind, empathizing with me that my source of life (sports) was cut off. She was attempting to strengthen a community bond between the two of us. But I didn’t live in her community; my community was Jesus, so my mind-set was shaped by the narrative of his dying and rising. Of course, this mom was a believer and thus in Christ by faith, but in this incident, when it came to her sanctification, how she did life, she was in sports.
I saw Emily slipping into a community shaped by this story: “Sports is everything. If your child is treated unfairly by a coach, go to war, demand justice—don’t let people push you around.” That false narrative was embedded in a larger narrative seducing her that looks, success, and money were all she needed. That toxic narrative would not deliver life to her. I had a larger vision for her, that the normal Christian life reenacts the dying and rising of Jesus. I’d been praying that she would “not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15), so I saw her bench-warming as God’s gift. What we are in shapes how we react to life. Notice that idolatry (in sports) and union with Christ have the same structure. Both are sources of life—one false and the other true.
Likewise, what we were in shaped how this mom and I viewed the coach. Because this mom was in sports, she saw the coach as “the enemy.” He had sinned against her sports idol, and thus against the community. I wasn’t happy with the coach, but because I was in Christ, I saw the coach as God’s instrument to potentially draw Emily into Jesus. The mom was mildly upset. I was concerned, waiting, and praying. My location in Jesus shaped my response to Emily’s bench-warming. It took the steam out of me. Union with Christ thrives under stress, because stress drives us more deeply into Christ. On the other hand, union with sports wilts when your daughter is sitting out the game on the bench.
Union with Christ thrives under stress, because stress drives us more deeply into Christ.
Faith and the J-Curve
Most parents embrace our culture’s mind-set: “If you don’t stick up for yourself, no one will” or “Don’t let people push you around.” There’s truth in these statements, but at heart they preserve the self. That’s toxic. On the other hand, submitting to an unjust authority, in this instance, would draw Emily and me into the humility of Christ.
Faith isn’t just critical to justification; it’s also critical to accepting a fellowship of his sufferings. Faith allowed me to see the bench-warming through the narrative of Jesus’s dying and rising. I wanted Emily in Jesus, off the Failure-Boasting Chart and in the J-Curve. She knew she was justified by faith, but that knowledge sat on the surface of her life. I knew Christ’s dying and rising offered Emily the hope of making in Christ a present reality. She wouldn’t just believe in Jesus; she would become like him. She would participate in his life.
Justice and the J-Curve
What about justice for Emily? Was I neglecting my duty as a parent? To clarify, if my daughter had been nine years old, I would have talked to the coach, but as a seventeen-year-old, Emily was mature enough to talk to the coach herself. I even asked her a second time if she wanted me to talk with the coach, but she assured me she preferred doing it herself. Frequently, when parents pursue justice, especially in sports, it is just a mask for demanding their rights.
Field Hockey and Resurrection
Greek Stoicism, which dominated the elite culture of Paul’s day, taught that suffering is good for us. It toughens you up. Paul knew that suffering matures you, but he wasn’t interested in any old suffering, only in the fellowship of Jesus’s suffering.1 Likewise, I didn’t want Emily on the bench because “it was good for her.” I wanted resurrection.
I didn’t know the shape or timing of resurrection, but I knew God would hear my prayers for my daughter. God had helped me so many times that hope had become a habit. So in the midst of a confusing situation, I had clarity: I knew the story Emily and I were in (Jesus’s story); I knew where she was in that story (dying); and I knew the outcome (some kind of resurrection). Clarity calms the soul.
The resurrection quietly emerged over the next few years. After Emily finished high school, Jill encouraged her to take a year off and work in an orphanage in Guatemala. We knew that loving a community of orphans, many struggling with their own self-absorption, might open a door in Emily’s spirit to a fellowship of his sufferings. Sure enough, the work of love in a hidden place led to a new and deep work in Emily. She returned a different person.
Clarity calms the soul.
The Emotional Life of the J-Curve
As we’ve seen, doing life through the lens of the dying and rising of Jesus reshapes our emotions. Emotions can go wrong in many ways—we can underfeel and suppress our emotions or overfeel and give full vent to them. Especially in situations like the one with Emily and her coach, it’s easy to overfeel and become intense. Intensity then operates like a multiplier, escalating conflict.
Knowing that Emily was potentially embedded in the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection enabled me to relax. A key component of relaxing, especially in relational conflict, is not talking about the pain repeatedly with the people involved. That’s why I redirected the mom’s comments into the larger story of how God uses suffering to shape and mature us. Good theology made for good emotions.
When we view life through the J-Curve, it gives our emotions a peculiar cadence. I was bummed when Emily was on the bench, but I wasn’t consumed by my sadness. Knowing Emily was in a J-Curve let me feel the weight of the path, but not be overwrought by it. It gave my feelings a frame. In our feelism culture, “how I’m feeling” operates like a new kind of legalism, constantly shifting with the winds of emotion. The path of Jesus’s dying and rising offers sanity and stability to our emotions.
We can see the same emotional pattern in the apostle Paul when he explains to the Corinthians the feel of the J-Curve:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor. 4:8–10)
The apostle Paul was “afflicted . . . but not crushed.” He was down, but not out. Watching Emily from the bleachers, I was disappointed, but not devastated. That is, I didn’t underfeel. I’m no Stoic trying to suppress or manage my emotions; I’m free to experience negative feelings. But neither did I overfeel. I could feel the effect of minor evil without it dislocating me. Why? Because the more familiar we are with the dying and rising of Jesus as a way of inhabiting life, the more capacity we have to absorb slights, discouragements, and weakness. We do life with a lighter touch.
The path of Jesus’s dying and rising offers sanity and stability to our emotions.
This story of Emily on the bench gives us a feel for how potentially liberating the J-Curve is in the rough and tumble of life. Internally, it balanced Jill’s and my emotions and reduced our anxiety. Externally, it calmed a quarrel and gave us clear directions for the future. It shaped both our goals for Emily and how we pursued those goals, not by pulling us out of the world of sports, but by helping us relax in that world. Location is everything.
Content taken from J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life by Paul E. Miller, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
1. Reflecting on 2 Cor. 1:7; 3:9–10; and Rom. 8:17–23, Richard Gaffin writes, “Until Christ returns, then all Christian existence continues to be suffering with Christ. … With Calvin, we must recognize that as Christ’s whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross, so the Christian life in its entirety, not just certain parts, is to be a continual cross (Institutes, 3:8:1, 2).” Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “The Usefulness of the Cross,” Westminster Theological Journal 41, no. 2 (Spring 1979): 237, 239.
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