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The Pain of the Passion: Atonement, Suffering, and Spiritual Formation

Adam Johnson

What is the connection between the suffering of Christ's atonement and our sanctification and spiritual formation?

Associate Professor of Theology, Biola University
June 27, 2016

Editor’s Note: For a fuller treatment of the atonement in the thought of St. John of the Cross, see: Adam Johnson’s “The Crucified Bridegroom: Christ’s Atoning Death in St. John of the Cross and Spiritual Formation Today.” Pro Ecclesia 21, n. 4 (2012), pp. 392-408.

A Spanish friar named John fell into a trance one day, and received a vision. Upon awaking, he reached for the materials nearest to hand, and sketched a tiny drawing of Christ crucified. It later inspired the 1951 painting “Christ of St. John of the Cross” by Spanish painter Salvador Dalí.

St. John of the Cross’ collected writings are one of the great contributions to the field of spiritual formation, sharing his years of experience as a monk and spiritual advisor. In particular, his Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel are two widely read and loved classics of spiritual literature, as they trace the soul’s journey toward God. Less well known, perhaps, is John’s great contribution to art history, or, more specifically, to artistic representations of Christ’s suffering passion.

The truly unique feature of this little drawing is that it is the first time in the history of the church that the passion of Christ was portrayed from the vantage point of the Father, highlighting the intra-Trinitarian dimensions of the suffering and death of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God.

And this brings us to a central question: How were John’s interests in spiritual formation and the passion of Jesus connected?

Or, more generally: What is the relationship between Christ’s suffering atonement and our spiritual formation?

St._John_of_the_Cross
Crucifixion sketch attributed to St. John of the Cross, XVI century.

Expanding the Doctrine of the Atonement: Reconciliation

The first thing to note is that the answer to this question varies greatly depending on how one views the work of Christ. One could say:

The atonement was a matter of the Father sending the Son to bear our sin (and therefore punishment) in our place, that through his resurrection and the gift of his Spirit we might be innocent before God.

And this would be true enough, of course, for the Triune God did indeed do this. But there are relatively few resources contained within this statement for drawing connections to spiritual formation.

Consider instead this equally accurate, but quite different, explanation of the work of Christ:

The atonement was the matter of the Triune God doing away with our sinful existence in the death of the incarnate Son, while re-establishing us in his image through our resurrection and the subsequent gift of the Spirit.

Both summaries of the saving work of Christ are true and biblical, but while the former aims at our innocence before God, the latter goes beyond this, adding the fact that through his death and resurrection we are refashioned in the image of God. The Father sent the Son that we might become fully human, just as God had originally intended.

Death and Resurrection: A Vital Dialectic for Spiritual Formation

The implications of such an approach are significant. First, it is vital that we note the dual emphasis, rooted in death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. The atonement is about this whole work, because if Christ only died for us (but did not rise) we are still in our sins, still unjustified (1 Cor. 15). Therefore we must attend carefully to both the death and resurrection.

“…[O]ur sin does not cling to us as a loose garment. Rather, it is woven into the fabric of our being, and to remove these sins—these deeply woven patterns and characteristics—is to tear at the fabric of our being as we now know it.”

Put in terms of spiritual formation, a two-fold pattern should attend our path. On the one hand, the work of Christ’s suffering and death should be continued in us as we are brought into conformity with him. Every vestige of sin, of the will bent in upon itself, of the patterns of this world, must be put to death—a painful process of suffering and loss as we take up the cross of our sinful life daily. Spiritual formation is therefore a negative, gruesome and purgative matter of transformation through death and destruction of the old habits, ways of acting, thinking and feeling, the old way of life, the old self. Suffering, darkness and pain—these are the themes of the day, for our sin does not cling to us as a loose garment. Rather, it is woven into the fabric of our being, and to remove these sins—these deeply woven patterns and characteristics—is to tear at the fabric of our being as we now know it.

But if we stop at this point, we are little better than fools, according to Paul. For Christ came not to die, but to rise again, that in him we might partake of this resurrection. Spiritual formation, therefore, is as much a matter of life as it is death, resurrection as it is passion. Ours is a life of putting on the armor of God, as we begin to live out the eternal life we have in Christ, as we live in him through the power and work of his Spirit. Joy, vivacity, freedom, power… these should characterize the life of the believer as much or more than any of their darker, more somber counterparts. And it is in this that John of the Cross shines so powerfully. Many develop the theme of death to self, but the joyous image of the Bridegroom coming to us that he might cleanse and then marry his bride… in this vision, John shines as brightly as a bride on her wedding day.

Spiritual Formation as a Means or an End?

Second, such an understanding of the atonement—recall: The Triune God does away with our sinful existence in the death of the incarnate Son, while re-establishing us in his image through our resurrection and the subsequent gift of the Spirit—demands that we see spiritual formation not as a step, not as a means, not as a mere paying of dues, but rather as the true and joyous thing itself: that for which we were saved.

Christ came that we might have life—but life in him. And this is what spiritual formation is: bringing our lives, our selves, into conformity with Christ; taking on his mind, his character, and his abilities. For this was his purpose in being made man—that we might be fashioned in his image.

“Spiritual formation is a work of death and suffering, for only through such drastic measures can Christ separate us from ourselves, from the kingdom of death, that he might unite us to himself.”

Spiritual formation, therefore, is not a way to get into heaven. Neither is it a way to survive this present darkness without ending up in hell. It may very well include both of these things, but only as an after-thought, much like the tax benefits of marriage should be an after-thought to a bride and groom as they make their wedding vows. Spiritual formation involves our becoming one with Jesus—taking on his mind, character, and abilities—for the simple reason that it was this for which we were made in the first place, and it is this which brings us to completion and joy.

In this present age spiritual formation takes us down a path of suffering and loss, just as it did for our Lord; but it is an effective suffering—a joyous loss, bringing us to greater perfection in him. The only fitting response to the cross of Christ is to enter the way of the cross in an act of thanksgiving. And the way of the cross taken by the believer is not simply like the way of Christ, nor does it seek to repeat the way trod by Christ (offering atonement for sin once again), but rather is a participation in the way of Christ on the basis of his otherwise inimitable work. Spiritual formation is a work of death and suffering, for only through such drastic measures can Christ separate us from ourselves, from the kingdom of death, that he might unite us to himself.

Spiritual Formation as Corporate

Here is one last implication. What the incarnate Son did for us, he did uniquely. He did this work in our place. We are not to repeat this work for ourselves or for others, as though the work of Christ was in some way incomplete or ineffective for us. But as we are in Christ, we participate—we share—in the reality and benefits of his work. We die and rise in him. We are remade in him. But who is this “we”? While the Christian faith makes room for the individual believer, we do well to attend to the corporate interest of the Gospel—we participate in the work of Christ as the church, as his body and bride.

What does this mean for spiritual formation? While it is certainly something we do as individuals, spiritual formation is first and foremost a work of the community, with which and in which we are shaped and aided. We bear our own cross, to be sure, and take it up daily—but we do so as the community, the people of Christ, not treading this path alone. The way of death and the way of the resurrection is a well-travelled road, crowded with pilgrims who together share these burdens, and join in these celebrations.

The insights of John of the Cross were gleaned from years spent overseeing those under him within a monastic community, and like the monks under him, we grow most and best within the fellowship of the church, which provides so much guidance and fellowship in this way of death and life, suffering and joy. After all, the goal of Jesus is to be united to his bride, and the work of spiritual formation, including the dark night of the soul, is but one aspect of what is first and foremost a romance. Jesus Christ is the bridegroom, inviting us, the church, his bride, to enter the way of the cross, of spiritual formation, as he prepares us for marriage to him.

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