Look for Life in Today’s Death

Every year, my wife, Jill, and I accompany our daughter Kim, who has autism, to a camp for families affected by disability. About a hundred volunteers pay their own way and give up a week of their time to serve families like ours. Jill loves going; it is tonic to her soul to be with others who understand her life.

Several years ago, on the first day of camp, Jill befriended a volunteer named Kayla. The next day, Kayla’s week took a bad turn. While in the food line, one camper’s mother heard Kayla say something negative about her parenting. The mother complained to the camp directors, who brought Kayla in and asked her about this. Kayla had no idea what this mom was talking about — she couldn’t remember speaking badly about her at all. Even still, many of the camp volunteers soon found out about the situation. The leadership handled the problem as best as they could, but a cloud hung over Kayla.

The next morning, Kayla came to Jill and me distraught. She couldn’t apologize for something she had no recollection of doing. It was hard to serve joyfully with this cloud over her head. She felt like her ministry was over. But I knew it was moving to a whole new level.

I told her, “Before this happened, you were in a good transaction — giving time and money and receiving thanks and the joy of helping others. Now, instead of honor, you are getting dishonor in return. Instead of thanks, you are getting misunderstanding and possibly even slander. This would be a miserable path — except that it is the one Jesus walked. You are entering the sufferings of Christ.”

A Downward Rising

The picture I had in my mind as I spoke was a part of the apostle Paul’s teaching that I call the “J-Curve.” Throughout his writings, Paul remembers that Jesus’s path moved downward into death before moving upward into resurrection. We often forget, however, that Paul frequently describes the normal Christian life as a reenacting of this gospel — the death and resurrection of Jesus (see Philippians 1:29; 2:5–9). Like Jesus’s path into death and back, our own lives take the shape of a downward rising.

We see this most succinctly in Philippians 3:10, where Paul expresses this hope: “that I may know [Jesus] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Paul then journeys hopefully from Jerusalem to Rome, experiencing the dying of Jesus in persecution of all types. But the apostle’s experience goes far beyond dying; he shares in Christ’s rising through gospel witness, conversions, reconciliation, and much more.

From Victim to Victor

But we also see the J-Curve illustrated in Kayla’s far more ordinary story. Kayla is being humbled as she serves. She is losing power. And she is beginning to realize that this is what it means to enter the gospel. At the bottom of the J-Curve, the gospel moves from being something that saves Kayla to the very center of her life. By embracing the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10), the worst part of the week is completely transformed. Kayla’s story is reframed. She is no longer living in a story about Kayla; she is part of the narrative of Christ.

Now, the mom who accused her is not the person who ruins Kayla’s week; she’s the one who draws her into Christ. Kayla’s focus shifts from what was done to her in the past to what God is going to do for her in the future. She receives the suffering from her Father and continues to serve cheerfully throughout the week.

Whereas dying with Christ removed the negative vision of her tarnished reputation and seemingly pointless sacrifices, rising with Christ gives her a positive vision for ministry on the other side of her heartache. Kayla begins to look like Jesus as her focus shifts from what others have done to her, to how Christ is revealed through her suffering. Kayla goes from victim to victor.

Kayla may not know the exact timing or character of the resurrection God will provide, but she knows one is coming because she is walking the path of Jesus. And that’s exactly what happened: Kayla now returns to the camp year after year and is one of the camp leaders.

Remap Your Life

What if following Jesus means not only head-level assent, but remapping your entire life in such a way that every act of love draws you down into the pattern of Jesus’s death and resurrection? What if every time you faced disappointment, hardship, or struggle you took the opportunity to participate in the life of Christ?

The real point of the J-Curve is not to help us cope with suffering, although it will do that. The J-Curve helps us recast our expectations of what the Christian life looks and feels like, locating our place on the map of Jesus’s life and freeing us to experience the rich gratitude and joy of walking with Christ in all the ups and downs of real life.