Paul Miller: If God is Real, Why Do We Suffer?
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Paul MillerPaul E. Miller (MDiv, Biblical Seminary) is executive director of seeJesus, a global discipling mission, and best-selling author of books and interactive Bible studies including A Praying Life and J-Curve. He and his wife, Jill, live in the Philadelphia area and have six children and a growing number of grandchildren. Follow @_PaulEMiller on Twitter, listen to the Seeing Jesus with Paul Miller podcast, or learn more at seeJesus.net.
If God is real, why do we suffer? Author Paul Miller proposes a new framework for life’s losses—and revolutionizes the way we see God in our pain.
Paul Miller: If God is Real, Why Do We Suffer?
Paul: Suffering often feels like a sucker punch, especially when it hits: you’re confused; you don't know where you are. It's a way of participating in Christ; because when all of us are in these dyings/these J-curves, what do you do when you're helpless?—you pray.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: So when I first gave my life to Christ as a junior in college, I had this belief—I think a lot of people might resonate with this—that, if you give your life to Christ, it'll be better.
Ann: Yes; I think a lot of us thought that.
Dave: Life will be better; everything will be better.
Dave: I mean, if I get married, my marriage will be better; my family—everything will be better with Jesus—it's sort of like everything is better with Coke® or Pepsi®.
Ann: Well, it's true, in a way; it's just you weren't expecting bad things to happen.
Dave: No, I really thought there wouldn't be pain. I mean, a month later, I end up in the hospital with a knee surgery that I thought would end my college football career. I remember laying in the hospital bed, going, “I did not sign up for this. I thought You would make my life better. You've made my life worse.”
Ann: “You,” meaning Jesus/God.
Dave: Yes, I felt like that was sort of my lament at the time. But I think a lot of us walk into the Christian life, thinking, “It's going to be just glorious from here on out.” I think that's a myth we need to dispel a little bit.
We've got Paul Miller in the studio today at FamilyLife Today in Orlando. You’ve been on FamilyLife Today before in Little Rock; but first time to Orlando; right, Paul?
Paul: Right; that's correct.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife. We're glad you're with us.
Paul: It's great to be here.
Dave: Yes; tell our listeners a little bit about what you do. I know you write; but you teach a lot on what I just brought up: this topic of how the Christian life is really going to be.
Paul: Golly, what my work—and the mission that I direct—is called seeJesus®. We're a discipling mission. I'm a discipler, who learned the craft of writing in order to disciple better. My passion is Christ formation in the church. This J-Curve® is one aspect of Christ formation. The J-Curve is like the letter “J”: it goes down into death and up into resurrection. The idea of it is the Christian life is shaped like the letter “J,” which is Jesus’ life: He goes down into His death and up into His resurrection and enthronement. That's why the upper part of the “J” is perfect for that.
You think of WWJD: “What would Jesus do?” I think that's great; like I think that people think about that—I think that's a good thing to do—I'm not knocking that at all or belittling it. But for most people, that can translate as just mere niceness: you know, so to become like Jesus is to become nicer, which is good. But this idea of the J-curve is that the normal Christian life is a reenacting of Jesus’ dying and rising; so to become like Jesus is much more than niceness, but it's entering the story of His life.
Dave: And that's really what I did not understand—
Dave: —initially. Again, I'm a brand-new follower—I'm 20 years old—I'm a college kid.
When I picked up your book, J-Curve—you know, I didn't even pick that up—I'm like, “What is the J-Curve?”
Ann: Even looking at the subtitle: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life.
Dave: Yes; but explain this whole idea, because I don't think it's a general understanding for most of us, as followers of Christ.
Paul: Let me just give you one story that was one of the times where this was particularly fresh on my mind. We were going from Philadelphia to Orlando, and I was taking my daughter, Kim, with me.
Ann: —and you have six children.
Paul: Yes, we have six children. Kim’s our fourth, and she's got some significant disabilities. It was a speaking weekend; I was speaking over in Central Florida. I thought, “You know what? I'll take Kim with me and give Jill a break for the weekend.”
She [Kim] has autism, so doing things the first time can kind of overwhelm her; you know? We get to long-term parking; she starts complaining because, she goes through her book bag, and mom didn't pack her book. We get to the bus stand to take the bus to long-term parking, and I've got these boxes and Kim to get on the bus. I'm panicking, and the door shut on me. Kim starts laughing; I mean, that's just sort of Kim. A few other mishaps happen, and we're in the back of the plane. She's fully electronic—she's listening to her book—she's got her speech computer.
The pilot comes on and says we're 12th in line for takeoff. Now, Kim can't see any of these other planes; but she hates waiting in line. So just knowing she's in a line—like if he would've lied, it would have blessed us; okay?—[Laughter]—so Kim has this grand mal meltdown in the back of the plane. I'm sitting there, thinking, “This was a mistake; I will never do this again.”
Ann: I bet; yes, it's hard; and you're getting ready to go speak; so it’s probably hard to keep that on your mind.
Paul: Yes; I’m rattled; I’m embarrassed; you name it.
Dave: Everybody is looking at you.
Ann: Is she loud on the plane?
Paul: Oh, yes; she's having a meltdown. I mean, it's not often that she has these; but
Ann: But you're thinking, “This wasn't even worth it.”
Paul: Absolutely; like, “This was a mistake.”
And then, I thought, as I processed it over that night and then the next day, I realized something I was really familiar with—but I had forgotten—that the entire Christian life, and that piece of my life, was a J-Curve:
I was going down into death—a special kind of J-Curve called a love J-Curve, which Philippians 2 talks about—where Jesus doesn't grasp at having a quiet weekend—you know, I'm translating Philippians 2—and He descends into an airport with Kim, my daughter; and I take a burden away from my wife.
It gives you a frame for looking at life that just has so many side blessings to it.
Ann: So you've processed this on this trip—you decide: “Okay, now that I go through this J-Curve, and I'm dying to self, I'm going to come back up,”—did that help you?—like what did it do? Did you think: “I'll do this again, and bring Kim with me”?
Paul: Yes, and I ended up doing it again. We actually traveled out to Little Rock together a couple times, which was fine, unless there was a screaming kid in the plane that drove her nuts. [Laughter]
But what it does: it gives meaning to my suffering, because I know where I am. When you suffer—whatever it is—suffering often feels like a sucker punch, especially when it hits: you're confused; you don't know where you are. It [J-Curve] locates you: you know, “Where am I?”—I'm not in pain on the back of the plane; and you know, an emotional plane—but it's a way of participating in Christ. Because when all of us are in these dyings/these J-Curves, what do you do when you're helpless?—you pray, and so you're in a fellowship of His suffering—what Paul calls in Philippians 3.
You are not alone—you’re weakened: so your pride is weakened; your will is weakened—and the resurrection: there's so many different kinds of resurrections that come out of it; but one of the most immediate resurrection is a humbled self, because I don't know how to do life. You know, “Jesus, help me to be patient as I endure this being shamed”—as it were—“on the back of a plane.”
Dave: Yes, one of the things that I found fascinating, watching you teach the J-Curve, was how you connected Philippians 2. I want to read it—because I'm thinking some of our listeners may not be real familiar with the words—and then just have you comment on how that works in terms of Jesus lived the J-Curve.
Dave: I'm just reading Philippians 2, verse 5—it says: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset”—here it is—“mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing”—kenosis—
Dave: —“by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”
Now, as I read that, now with the J-Curve,—
Dave: —in my mind, I see it.
Dave: I want our listeners to see it like I see it, because I've heard you teach it. Walk us through that, because I think you're so right. When we get that mindset, it changes the way we live, every minute of every day.
Paul: Right; so if I know I'm in Jesus’ story, then it kind of gives it kind of a glory, a glow to it almost.
Think of the downward move—the “J”—it actually splits into two parts. The first part—the incarnation—I call the easy part. Now, we actually don’t talk to Jesus, like, “How difficult was that?”—but you know what I mean.
Dave: Right; right.
Paul: But there's clearly His self-emptying, and it's talking there about His humility/His humbling Himself. And then, the second part is then He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
It's really helpful to see those two parts; because the first part is like: engagement, and wedding, the honeymoon—no kidding—you know what I mean?
Paul: And then you bear the cost of that love: and then you have to work through tensions in your marriage, having kids.
Think of it: the first part is the commitment and the descent, and then the next part is where you bear the cost of it. The first part I call a love J-Curve, and love J-Curves always lead to suffering J-Curves.
Ann: Let's say it's marriage.
Ann: So you kind of define that: the beginning—it’s the honeymoon
Ann: everything is wonderful.
Ann: And then does every marriage go into a descent?
Paul: Not only just every marriage—but every time you concentrate, in love, you go into a descent—it really helps you to realize that: “Like this isn't a marriage problem; this is what the Christian life is like.”
What we do is—we're/as we're down at the nasty part, what we do is—we rethink the first part
Dave: Yes; exactly.
Paul: and think
Dave: buyer’s remorse.
Paul: —we kind of look back, up at the “J,” and [say], “Look, if I hadn't made this commitment, I would never be in this mess.” But that's the structure of love; it's the structure of God heart. It's such a beautiful thing.
Usually, if you're suffering—with your kids, like teenagers; or in a relationship, where there's some tension in the marriage—a lot of the suffering is just humility. It's just very humbling, you know; or someone is treating you badly. And to receive that—like Jesus is in a J-Curve/at the bottom of the J-Curve, at Gethsemane—to take that cup, and receive the cup, and to say, “Father, I take what You've given Me.” It's just: this act of the will transforms the whole story; so you're no longer in a story of you pursuing life, but you're in the story of Jesus.
Ann: I'm thinking of our marriage when we were really struggling.
Ann: I would say we were at the bottom; we had descended.
Dave: I mean, six months after our wedding day, she says: “The biggest mistake of my life was marrying you.” [Laughter] She says that,—
Dave: —out loud, to me; and I felt the same thing.
Paul: She's looking back up the “J.” [Laughter]
Ann: Exactly! [Laughter] But in that/at the bottom of that—you're right—it's: I came to an end of myself, of saying, “God, I have nothing; but all I can do is offer myself to You and this marriage to You.” It also revealed my selfishness, my sinfulness; and it was that: “Apart from You, I can do nothing.” You're saying there's a beauty to that point.
Paul: That's when the beauty of Jesus emerges out of us.
I think all of us are perfectionists—and that's not bad—it's just: “What's perfect?” It's not so much my circumstances are perfect; but by continually living in, and receiving these dyings, what becomes more and more like Jesus—what becomes perfect—is my spirit as I begin to look like Jesus. So the perfection is not in the circumstances, but in the beauty of Jesus.
Dave: Or I can check out; right?
Dave: There's part of me; it’s like: “Yes, it's beautiful,”—
Dave: —because when you said it earlier, I'm like: “You’ve got to explain how it’s beautiful,”—because a lot of us/we hate pain. We get in that suffering—
Ann: —we blame God.
Dave: —we don't want death—we want life; I want resurrection—I don't want… So there's a choice I have to make in the middle of that; right?
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Paul Miller on FamilyLife Today. We'll hear Paul’s response in just a minute; but first, all this week, when you help reach more families with God's truth by giving to FamilyLife, we want to send you a copy of Kay Wyma’s book, The Peace Project: A 30-Day Experiment Practicing Thankfulness, Kindness, and Mercy. You can get your copy when you give this week at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call, with your donation, at 800-358-6329; that's 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Paul Miller and the choice to trust God in the middle of suffering.
Paul: That danger of checking out is escaping the J-Curve; then, it always lands you in something worse; you know what I mean? But that's why it is so critical, as you're going through this death, to receive it/to take the cup. I would write that out as a prayer—“Father, I take this difficult spouse,” “…I take this difficult child,”—it's an act of the will, so you're surrendering your internal heart’s demand that God give you a pain-free life. When you do that, you're entering Christ in new ways.
Dave: Is that something you had to do on that plane flight?
Paul: It was just that evening, later on; because I had been doing a lot of taking the cup. I just—the thing about the J-Curve: we forget it—because what we want is sort of the slanted line—you know, if you think/you know, going up.
Ann: Yes; our emotions rule in the moment.
Dave: —up and to the right, yes.
Paul: Yes, yes; we want to go from the lower part of the “J” to the upper part of the “J.” That's kind of our flesh’s default; so that keeps coming back in.
As I thought about it, I thought—to just some of the ways that played out on that trip with Kim—that Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, he says: “Death is at work in us, but life in you.” Sometimes, our dying is someone else’s resurrection.
The next day, we went to one of the parks. Kim had lost her temper again, because we missed the train to take us somewhere. Anyway, I called home; and my daughter, Ashley, picked up. She said, “Mom says, every five minutes, ‘It's so nice without Kim around.’” [Laughter] And we love Kim dearly.
Dave: Right, right.
Paul: She just/you know, when she's not getting her way, she'll let you know.
So my death was a gift to Jill.
It was Friday night when we did that; on Saturday, I was speaking and getting filmed. God was giving me a gift of humility/a dying to prepare me for the next day’s rising, so He was ministering to my soul.
Ann: —which is so interesting; because we never think He's ministering to our soul—
Ann: —when we're in a hardship, or we’re in a—
Ann: —hard place; but sometimes, that's when he does His most beautiful work.
Paul: Yes; sometimes, the dying and rising are almost simultaneous. You can see this in Jesus’ life—that it comes through, particularly in Luke, where you'll see dying and rising paired—so like at His baptism, the humility of His baptism and then the heavens opening; how magnificent His birth is, but it's only shepherds that show up. There's all these pairings of dying and rising all through His life.
Ann: I thought it was interesting that you say: “The Holy Spirit finds your weakness irresistible.”
Paul: Think of the J-Curve that you read—Philippians 2—so the down J-Curve, from Philippians 2, goes all the way down to Jesus’ death, even death on a cross. Then Paul has this word—that turns at the word: “therefore,—God has highly exalted Him.” The idea of that word, “therefore,” in the Greek—the sense of it is that—that is why I choke up so easily; [emotion in voice] so bear with me on it, because it’s just so often I’ve lived so many of these—Jesus’ dying: the resurrection is His Father’s response to His obedience. It just sort of takes your breath away.
The resurrections are embedded in the deaths; they’re like the launching pads. Without the dying, there’s no rising. I mean, obviously, we know that in Jesus’ life. I mean, I’ve known both men and women, who’ve endured in a hard marriage, where they’ve been honest with their spouse; and it hasn’t worked. You can see their dying affect their children; that it brings life. That there’s—it’s the Father’s—sorry—[emotion in voice]—I should have warned you about this, that I feel these things so deeply.
Ann: It’s so beautiful.
Paul: Yes; that the—God is so excited by our deaths, by our obedience, our ongoing surrender—that His/He gifts us with the Spirit, and that's what resurrection is. That's what He did with His Son on Easter morning: is He gifted His—sorry—[emotion in voice] He gifted His obedient Son with the resurrection. And that—and the whole Christian life—that is not just dying, but it's waiting for and entering these resurrections that are just remarkable.
Ann: When we're talking about enduring in a hard marriage, and staying when we're at the bottom of that J-Curve, we are not talking about enduring any kind of abusive situation.
Dave: —physical abuse
Dave: —sexual abuse.
Ann: Right; that means, if you're in that situation,—
Dave: —get safe.
Ann: —get safe and get out.
Dave: That doesn't mean get divorced, but just get safe. God can still heal that marriage, but you need to protect yourself.
Ann: When you said that: “…as children watch their parents die,” what do you mean by that?—like if there's a beauty to that.
Paul: By that, I mean—say a parent enduring in a—
Ann: —in a hard marriage.
Paul: —in a hard marriage.
Ann: You're saying there's a beauty to that.
Paul: Yes; because, well, what you said earlier, Dave, about the exit—if you don't take the emotional exit of bitterness,—
Ann: —of checking out and being bitter.
Paul: —I would say bitterness and sort of constant quarreling. [Laughter] You know, you'll see some couples who have been married—they’re in their 70s, and they're still snipping at one another—and “You know, if honesty didn't work the first 50 years, you might want to try a different strategy.” [Laughter] I mean, just a thought; you know what I mean?—something/just something to think about.
And so if you don't go through the doors of bitterness, gossip, or crankiness, or quarreling—but you take the cup that God has given me: a difficult spouse, and I'm going to take this cup—what can I control? I can control how I respond; I can control gentleness. I can—and I can't even do that—I need the Spirit of Jesus to be in me.
Dave: Yes; you know, as I listen, one of the thoughts I have as we wrap this up is: “Expectations are so critical for us to understand in marriage, but especially in our Christian walk.” It's like when you're on an airplane, and the pilot comes on and says, “Hey, fasten your seat belt; turbulence is about to happen.”
Dave: When it happens, you're like, “Oh,—
Ann: —“he said it was coming.”
Dave: —“you know, I’m prepared for this.”
But when we walk in the Christian life, thinking it's only going to be resurrection—and there's going to be no death and suffering—it's harmful. But if you're ready for it—it doesn't make it easier—but it does prepare you; right?
Paul: Yes; and just a very clear example of that is in 1 Thessalonians, Chapter 2. Paul told the Thessalonians that they were going to suffer, and we're probably only talking like a month later. Paul has prepared them for the normal Christian life. So every new Christian ought to hear, right away, about the J-Curve: that it's not your life anymore; your life is going to look like Jesus’ life.
Ann: And it's out of His love that refines us.
Ann: It's not that He's a bad God, who wants bad things to happen; it's His love and His mercy.
Dave: And I think it's also very important that every marriage needs to understand the J-Curve.
Dave: You're going to suffer; there's going to be death; it's going to be hard—it doesn't mean your marriage is done—it means you're living the life that God called you to be; and if you are obedient, there can be a resurrection on the other side.
Ann: —and a surrender.
Dave: I'm not telling you what that's going to look like, but God's going to walk you through the J-Curve.
Shelby: You've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Paul Miller on FamilyLife Today.
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Tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will continue their conversation with Paul Miller and explain how facing triumphs and suffering is a central part of the Christian life.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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