Passivity and Suffering in the Passion of Christ

(See follow-on related post On passivity, mood and free will in Christian regeneration: With a little help from Glen Miller and Little Richard).

To focus on the physical suffering of our Lord is secondary to a much deeper meditation on His spiritual suffering. How, though, do you talk for five minutes, never mind a half an hour or more about such an intangible unearthly thing as spiritual suffering? Isn’t it much easier, and more experiential, to go the more palpable route by describing how Jesus’ body was broken for ”you.” For Jesus did indeed say, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

What is the Lord asking us to remember – on Good Friday? The graphics; the whipping, the flaying of skin and flesh, the blows with rods and fists, the one-inch razor sharp thorns (no, not three-inch ones)? Many a sermon has taken that emotive route, with great effect; “Jesus did all that for me.” The question is whether that route really gets to the root of Christ’s Passion? I suggest we are led astray by the term “passion.” In normal English usage, “passion” means “strong emotion” of short duration. Armed with this – as we shall see – faulty understanding of meaning of the term ‘The Passion,” the preacher may ask the congregation to try and feel some of the emotions Christ felt hanging on the cross. It’s the sort of meditation common in the Roman Catholic “Stations of the Cross.”

The heart of the “Passion” lies in its historical (etymological) meaning. “Passion” comes from the Latin root passio “to render.” So when we suffer, we have to submit to causes that deprive us of our freedom or well-being.

When I was at the 1993 Congress of Philosophy in Moscow, where I presented a paper, I attended a session where the French philosopher,Paul Ricoeur, “one of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century,” (Stanford Encyclopedia) spoke on “suffering.” He spoke in English. I noticed, after he had used the word “suffering” several times, that his context nothing to to do with the English meaning of “suffering,” namely, extreme distress or pain. I studied the mesmerised faces of the audience. It seemed to me that even if he had talked backwards, they would’ve accepted it as Gospel. Hopefully the backward flip that I have done with my prospective sermon has faired a little better.

As I had some familiarity with Ricoeur’s philosophy, I was pretty sure that his “suffering” had nothing to do with extreme mental or physical pain but rather with one of his important philosophical themes, namelypassivity in actionSee END NOTE1). At question time, I asked him what he meant by “suffering.” The problem was, I said, that in French there exists the two words “subir” and “souffrir,” which originate from the same etymological root. “Souffrir” means “suffering”(extreme pain), while “subir” has the meaning, as in the King James Bible Version, of “suffer little children to come unto me,” (Mark 10:13), that is, let, or allow, them to come to me, or don’t take in action that will prevent them coming to me. So, when Ricoeur used the word “suffering,” he was thinking “subir” (passivity). And what was Ricoeur’s response? He meant “subir” (passivity) not “suffering.” He had committed a common error in French-English, English-French translation called “faux amis”(false friends). (For an example of a Yiddish-Hebrew “false friend” see When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?

To return to the Passion of Christ; its main meaning is the French “subir” – passivity, submission, undergo, be subjected to.

There are different degrees of passivity. For the Christian, the highest degree is when Jesus had reached his lowest point – in the garden of Gethsemane: “falling with his face to the ground, he prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’” (Matthew, 26:39). This leads on to he more evident events in his Passion.

What kind of suffering (passivity) must it have taken to submit to not only the brutal onslaught of men but to the crushing anguish of being torn from the bosom of his Father. How does one begin to grapple with such a mysterium tremendum? (See Rudolph Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy”). Human wisdom is useless. Understanding has to be granted from above, as does everything that is the Gospel is granted from above. To see even darkly into this holy “mystery,” one has to have the same vantage point as Christ; looking from above. He always was from above; we, if he has drawn us to him, has also drawn us up above, into heavenly places. We’re seated there now, yet still suffering in this world. Every Christian knows when he is suffering, but few realise they’re doing so in heavenly places; which makes all the difference to one’s attitude to towards that suffering.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:3-10).

A very important point. Just because Christ is passive in his Passion, this does not mean that he is helpless. Not at all; He is deeply involved. The deepest aspect of this involvement is his voluntary emptying of Himself (Philippians 2:5-10).

Scripture (the words) is not the revelation itself. “Revelation”is when the Holy Spirit of God reveals to you the meaning of the words. This meaning is far deeper than the linguistic meaning. The Passion begins more or less when Jesus is led “from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters (John 18:28) and ends in his Death with, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30). The Passion is one of those moments, but of course, a pivotal one.

I ask the question again: What is Jesus really asking us to remember? After all, there were thousands that suffered a more barbarous and excruciating death. It is this: He suffered the full wrath of His Father. All the horror of sin was concentrated in those few hours. But worse; He was also cut off from the Father. To understand some of this requires to be borne on high by Christ, but first we have to be born again. Only then will I be able to see what the world or no psychology can see.

“It is finished.”

Now “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you (the Father), the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”(John 17:1-3).

1“Ricoeur’s account of the way in which narrative represents the human world of acting (and, in its passive mode, suffering)” “Asserting Personal Capacities and Pleading for Mutual Recognition

Kluge Prize Winner 2004 – Paul Ricoeur Acceptance speech of Paul Ricoeur – December 2004

“I identify myself by my capacities, by what I can do. The individual designates himself as a capable human being—and, we must add, as a suffering human being, to underscore the vulnerability of the human condition.”

9 thoughts on “Passivity and Suffering in the Passion of Christ

  1. You understand very well the value of being ‘passive’…I am at the moment curious to know how do you act ‘passively’ in your being protestant/Calvinist, in your being part of your church? Since the church is the body of Christ on earth…would be useful for me to know

    • I would start with the biblical definition of the “church” as the body of believers with Christ at its head. Is that acceptable to you?

      I doubt so:
      outside the (RC) Church – “extra ecclesiam”, there is no salvation – “nulla salus”. There is nothing in the Bible about that.

      I am aware of the RCC argument that it, through God, gave the world the Bible, and as only one part of God’s total revelation; the other part being post-biblical tradition.

  2. The fact that you doubt is a good thing 🙂 but it is not a good doubt if it not considers that actually people in the RC are people…and so they can differ their opinion as for example different popes but it is generally not true your being completely aware about all that there is to it…
    Latin phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus[1][2][3] means: “outside the church there is no salvation”.[1][2] The most recent Catholic Catechism interpreted this to mean that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.”[4]

    This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the 3rd century. The axiom is often used as short-hand for the doctrine, upheld by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, that the Church is necessary for salvation (“one true faith”). The theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers.

    etc etc.
    You have yet not answered my question about how you are in a ‘passive’ mood in your denomination…and you know it 🙂 But it is not so bad…after all you are not praying passively the rosary 🙂

    • Your oxymoronic question: how do you act (tee hee) ‘passively’ in your being protestant/Calvinist, in your being part of your church? And your further comment: You have yet not answered my question about how you are in a ‘passive’ mood in your denomination.

      There is the passive “mood” in grammar and being in a passive mood as in Glen Miller’s “ïn the mood;” (for what, the music doesn’t tell us because it has no lyrics,

      Grammar: Active mood: “Christ saves me.” Passive mood “I am saved by Christ.”

      Our issue, of course, is not the grammatical mood because in both the active and the passive mood, the agent and recipient of the action is the same. In my example, it is Christ who is the active party in both the active mood and the passive mood: He gives the faith; I receive it.

      The question is: is my will passive in the reception of this faith. Not at all. I actively accept the faith that Christ has gifted to me. But I can only will (move my heart) to accept once – as Christ says – Christ has made me free. So I was passive (indeed dead) before God regenerated me and then (logically, not chronologically) gave me faith (Ephesians 2:1-3), but once I was made alive, I accepted (received actively) with joy – as did the last sower in the parable of the sowers – the faith that God planted in my regenerated soul And that’s Calvinism AND the biblical view.

      “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:44. If you are drawn, you come; if you come, you WILL be raised on the last day.

      Here is a bit from my'”Anthony Flew and CS Lewis come to God”

      Whether one is forcefully persuaded, as in Flew or “gives in” as in Lewis, they both, in Lewis’ words, were “given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut. I chose to open.”

      Brothers Lewis and Lazarus have been dead and buried for four days, and stinketh by now. Jesus says “Lazarus and Lewis come forth!” Lazarus exercises his atrophied muscles, rolls off the slab, staggers erect and stumbles out the entrance of the opened tomb. Lewis exercises his free choice to rise from the dead, get off the slab and move to the closed door. But look, the door is already open. I could’ve done that myself, says Lewis, but thanks for the gracious help.

      As Lewis didn’t believe in the inerrancy of scripture, it would have been hard for me to appeal to what Jesus says in John 6:44:

      “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Like a good Arminian, he believes that Jesus is knocking at the door of his will, and pleading: “Let me in, let me in, please; and if you don’t, it’s curtains – for me.” What does John 6:44 really mean? It means that God enables a sinner to come to him., which does not mean come as far as the moment of decision (shall I or shan’t I believe). No, “coming”means “believing,” And we need his grace to come to Him; that is indisputable.

  3. Are you concern about what possibly is the stand of the RCC? Why am I not concerned about what your denomination would think about my possible salvation? Isn’t a good starting point our different reaction to this matter? I am not concerned about what the Jewish tradition would say about my personal salvation either…Why do you think catholics are generally less prone to consider their salvation in comparison to what other doctrines say? Is it only blessed ignorance or is it more peace of mind about not being in a continous protesting/ not passive state of mind toward God and what He means and wants etc.? Isn’t an enough nice way to be being in accordance to Jesus’ ‘passive acceptence? And again how do you imitate this passivity in your denomination?

  4. “A very important point. Just because Christ is passive in his Passion, this does not mean that he is helpless. Not at all; He is deeply involved. The deepest aspect of this involvement is his voluntary emptying of Himself (Philippians 2:5-10).”
    Do you see the oxymoronic problem in what you reported? ( passive but involved)….
    Anyway how are activily ‘passive’ in your faith has not be answered…what you said it is all theological refrasing of what has been said before…all the time the activity of interpretation etc….nothing that shows how you are practising your faith in a passive way…in other word how are you acting in a passive mood. In your entry you understood the importance of Jesus being ‘passive’ in his passion…how are you passive in your religious passion? The point is that you are never never passive in your protestant ways

    • I was passive, so passive that I was dead (in sin). Christ raised me (regenerated) from death. He made me free to actively accept him, because only dead people don’t accept what is given to them. Through Christ’s grace (gratis) he gave me the gift of faith and now he is working in me, and through me to act out my faith in good works (action).

      That’s the Reformers’ position, and mine.

  5. It’s easy to find this post; just type into your search engine, “what should i not eat if my blood tipe is a passivity,” as someone did a little while ago.

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