I have been working through Paul Miller’s excellent book J-Curve. It’s life-changing if you understand and then apply what he’s saying (which is really what the Apostle Paul is saying, which is really what Jesus is saying). As I read, I’ve been reminded of how anxiety, which I’ve long dealt with, can actually be a path to finding new life. Here, my aim is to explain how and offer an example. As strange as it sounds, your struggle with anxiety can actually be good news, if you approach it as a path that leads through the shadow of death and up to resurrection.
What Is the J-Curve?
Let’s start with the basics. What is this J-curve that Paul Miller talks about? Simply put, the J-Curve is a way of summarizing a biblical teaching that comes first from Jesus and is then reintroduced by the Apostle Paul. It’s a critical truth for Christians to embrace. So, let’s move slowly and carefully.
Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus walked a path, and that path was a path of suffering unto glory. He went down because of his love for us. He was despised, rejected, mocked, scolded, scorned, and eventually crucified (Isa. 53:1-5; Matt. 16:21; 17:22; Mark 8:31). Because of God’s great and giving love for us, he came down. He came down so that we could go up. He was misunderstood, abused, and ridiculed for love. That’s the descent of the J-curve.
Jesus called his followers to tread in his footsteps on the same path. He told his disciples to take up their cross (their death) and follow him (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). He said that anyone who loves his life will lose it, and anyone who hates his life will gain it (Matt. 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33). He said that his followers would be despised and rejected just as he was (Matt. 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17). They would suffer for love. And yet that suffering love would lead to resurrection life, to exaltation, just as Jesus’s love would.
Paul picks up on this in many places in the epistles, but a good place to start is Phillipians 2:5-9.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . .
Phillipians 2:5-9 ESV
Do you see the J-curve? Remember that this is the second person of the Trinity we’re talking about here. The eternal Son of God came down, took the form of a servant, was wrapped in muscle and bone. He took on a beating heart and lungs that would fill and empty. He would have humbled himself just to be in our presence, but he went further. He took on our nature. And that’s not the end of it. The humiliation went lower, down to misunderstanding, through false accusations, meandering through mockery, and finally falling to death on a cross, a criminal’s death. That’s the biggest downward J-curve the world has seen and will ever see. It goes even to the pits of hell (Eph. 4:9). Jesus didn’t just exemplify the J-curve; he is the J-curve.
But the descent stops. The falling slows and turns to rising, the way a flock of starlings begins a subtle ascent. And up from the depths comes the Son of God. Brilliant. Glorious. Exalted. Blinding. That was God’s finest pen stroke, that stem of Jesus’s J-curve. The resurrection of Christ is where all of history is hinged.
The Anxiety J-Curve
So, how does all this relate to us? If Christ’s path is our path, then we follow in his J-curve steps. As Miller writes, “The normal Christian life repeatedly re-enacts the dying and rising of Jesus” (J-Curve, p. 20). You can apply the J-curve to nearly any area of suffering in your Christian life. In this article, I’m applying it to my anxiety.
If Jesus is right, and if Paul is right, then every encounter I have with anxiety is an opportunity to share in Christ’s death and then in his resurrection. This is very mysterious, but it’s such a precious truth that gets lost on many Christians whose main goal is to avoid suffering. And don’t get me wrong; I totally understand the impulse to flee. I don’t enjoy the heat flashes, the heavy heart beat, the hyper-vigilance, the pinhole throat, the racing thoughts, the detachment from reality. That’s not “my jam.” But I’ve learned over the years that something very special is happening in those moments: I’m sharing in the sufferings of Christ. I’m growing closer to him in his humility and pain. I’m growing closer. The downward curve of the J, for anxiety sufferers, brings fellowship with Christ in his suffering. That makes perfect sense when you think about it. “Union with Christ thrives under stress, because stress drives us more deeply into Christ” (J-Curve, p. 62). The more we suffer with anxiety, the more deeply we’re driven into Jesus.
That’s no small thing. Jesus Christ is the one whom I profess to love and serve above all else. I want to do whatever I can to know him more deeply, so that I can love him more faithfully. If sharing in his sufferings is what it takes, then I may not like it, but I’m going to walk through it with hope. And how many people can say that? How many people can say they plan to find hope in their hard things? If you’re going to suffer in life (and we all know that’s a given), isn’t it freeing to know that even our suffering is going to serve a good purpose (Rom. 8:28)? Isn’t it an encouragement to know that we’re going to become more like Christ as we believe in him through our suffering (J-Curve, p. 50)? We don’t have to run from our anxiety, not because of some general principle, but because of a person, because of someone we know. “When we embrace the fellowship of his sufferings, it changes everything. Instead of nourishing slights and running from the suffering inherent in life and love, we embrace Christ in the suffering. It’s all about who you know” (J-Curve, p. 71).
Then, my anxious friends, the curve starts to turn. As we commune with Christ in his sufferings, drawing closer to him in his death (and in that sense, we die with him), we recognize our complete dependence on God. And the Spirit then gives us the faith we need to begin ascending. He gives us new life, and that life emerges from the seed of love, a seed that we plant by sharing in the sufferings of Christ. “Love creates faith. But only as we enter into the dying of Christ does our faith grow” (J-Curve, p. 74). The dying we experience in love for Christ leads to the living we long for.
In my experiences with anxiety, the upward part of the J-curve feels a bit like the Spirit blowing air beneath my soul’s brittle wings. I have full dependence on Spirit-given faith that helps me see something very important. VERY important. Are you ready? You and I are called to serve and give ourselves to others. That’s how you know the J-curve is completing. When you can’t stop yourself from helping someone else because it’s become crystal clear that this is why you are breathing, then you know the pen stroke of the J is finishing. When I feel compelled to ask my wife how I can better serve her, for instance, then I know the J-curve is working. It’s calling me to give myself to others, just as Christ did. It’s a giving that’s been purified by suffering, a giving of love.
I harp on this because we’re constantly confusing “peace” with “purpose.” Our purpose as Christians is not to have peace. We’ve already been given that in Christ. Our purpose is to give ourselves. To keep giving. To take the focus off of our own feelings. And anxiety is king of self-focus. It’s constantly prodding us to stare at ourselves. That gives me plenty of opportunities to walk out little J-curves each week.
What’s next for you? If you struggle with anxiety or know someone who does, where do you go from here? The short answer: you start looking for your J-curves. God has a whole lot of them planned for you, I promise. But if you can’t see them, then how will you walk on them? If you aren’t intentional about scanning the horizon for your next J-curve, how can you expect to grow closer to Christ and experience his resurrection life? We need to be thoughtful in looking for our J-curves. Those little J-curves are going to make a world of difference in our spiritual formation. If we don’t notice them, we’re missing out on the greatest path any of us could ever walk on, the path tread out for us by Christ. There’s no better place to put our feet.
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