Sarah Coakley’s Confusion of Sinful and Redemptive Suffering

Some conceptions (popular and academic) of Christian experience fail to distinguish between the suffering experienced due to sin (as depicted in Romans 7) and the prayerful groanings compared to childbirth (as depicted in Romans 8) connected to the redemption of all things. The former is a complete futility which gives rise to a living death, while the latter is a joyful, hope filled, experience of a new form of human subjectivity, no longer defined by the old order of oppression and suffering. Paul spends most of chapter 7 describing a form of suffering that is definitive in its all-consuming alienating agony. This suffering is the product of being separated from the love and life of God, and apart from the remedy of life in the Spirit, this suffering reduces one to complete wretchedness and death (7:24). There is suffering in chapter 8 but, in light of the hope of glory, this suffering is in no way definitive. Paul suggests it is not worthy of comparison to the hope of glory (8:17) and it is not a suffering of death but is likened to labor pain. Paul goes so far as to list the possible sufferings of the Christian – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword (8:35) – but the point is that, unlike sinful suffering, this suffering cannot separate from the love of God. No matter the type of suffering or its source (death, life, angels, principalities, present and future, powers, height, depth, created thing (8:38-39)) this sort of suffering is not of the same order as that which can, indeed, separate from the love of God. Confusing the two forms of suffering can result in a practical misunderstanding of the normative tenor and experience of the Christian life, a misunderstanding of both suffering and redemption, and ultimately a misunderstanding of God.

At both a popular and academic theological level, the failure to delineate forms of suffering results in the valorization of suffering per se, such that it can be presumed one must continually contend with poverty of spirit, depression, darkness, or even abuse and oppression, so as to be spiritual. The compounding of the problem of mental illness and depression by well-meaning Christians (a common experience I witnessed with several friends and students in a Christian college) is bad enough, but more troubling is that the best of theologians (the very ones I admire and depend upon), are guilty of the same error. In both instances there is a tendency toward sacralizing suffering, as if suffering per se is redemptive.

Sarah Coakley is one of the most nuanced of contemporary theologians and while avoiding the cruder forms of heterodoxy, she nonetheless reifies suffering, making it integral to salvation. She speaks of a “productive suffering” and “a productive or empowering form of ‘pain’.”[1] What we learn from John of the Cross, according to Coakley, is that “physical and spiritual pain are inexorably welded together” and the “subjective experience,” whatever happens to him “neurologically or physiologically,” is of “a progressive transformation into God, even if only retrospectively understood.”[2] While we might agree that suffering is a “necessity” in one sense, in that it is tied to human experience and Christian experience, the error is to speak of it as a positive necessity, integral to salvation and Christian maturity. As Linn Tonstad has put it, Coakley’s depiction of being vulnerable and open to God “continually, inextricably, and intrinsically involves suffering.”[3]  

I am presently using Coakley’s, God, Sexuality and the Self, as a text in a course on the Holy Spirit and am in enthusiastic agreement with her description of contemplative prayer as a point of entry into reflection on the Trinity.  Her innovative examination of Romans 8 and focus on the key role of the Spirit make her text one of the best of contemporary resources, and my critique in no way undermines the basic premise of her work. But the tone of her depiction of contemplative prayer and her peculiar attachment to suffering of a particular bent, bear the mark of not having delineated the two varieties of suffering Paul is describing. Even where one might completely agree with her description of Christian suffering, the question concerns the integral necessity and quality of the suffering and the fact that there is no counterbalancing joy, peace, or simply resting in God’s presence from which one might begin. Suffering seems to be, for her, the point of departure into the deeper Christian life.

Take for example her opening description of the work of contemplative prayer:

Such deepening of vision will eventually also involve at some point a profound sense of the mind’s darkening, and of a disconcerting reorientation of the senses – these being inescapable fallouts from the commitment to prayer that sustains such a view of the theological enterprise. The willingness to endure a form of naked dispossession before God; the willingness to surrender control (not to any human power, but solely to God’s power); the willingness to accept the arid vacancy of a simple waiting on God in prayer; the willingness at the same time to accept disconcerting bombardments from the realm of the ‘unconscious’: all these are the ascetical tests of contemplation without which no epistemic or spiritual deepening can start to occur.[4]

As she makes clear further on, she is not simply presuming suffering is part of growth, but she is positing a necessary dereliction of the sort which caused Christ to cry out in forsakenness on the cross. That is, every Christian will have to pass through the dereliction of abandonment experienced by Christ. If Christ’s Spirit is that which is “breathed out of his scarred body” then this “fire of purgation (T. S. Eliot’s ‘flame of incandescent terror’, if you will)” must be allowed for along with “the refreshment of the comforting dove.” She concludes by asking, “Could it be that the acceptance of Christo-morphic pain is part and parcel of the full acceptance of trinitarianism in the ‘church’ type of Christianity?”[5]

Though she does not describe the contrast and means of passage from sin (in Romans 7) and life in the Spirit (in chapter 8), Coakley recommends a prayerful life of purgation as the/a means of transition. She says as much in her appeal to St. John of the Cross, where she describes the necessity of “negative pressure, causing disturbance, deep uneasiness, the highlighting of sin and even the fear of insanity. Such are the death throes of the domineering ego.”[6] As Cha Boram describes it, she equates “dark experiential vulnerability,” such as that found in Christ’s cry of dereliction, with a turn to dependence on God. She simultaneously sets aside the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (suggesting it is not biblical) and turns to what she calls “noetic blankness” or “that-without-which-there-would-be nothing-at-all” as the point of ultimate dependence.[7] Jacques Lacan, an atheist, would concur as he too sees the subject as arising via a reified nothingness (an atheistic creation ex nihilo). His is a subjectivity circulating the power of negation (referencing Romans 7 in his argument). It is not clear how one would distinguish Coakley’s dependence on “that-without-which-there-would-be nothing-at-all” and Lacan’s dependence on a reified nothing. Rather than a recognition of dependence on next to nothingness overcoming or destroying the ego, Lacan, in his reading of Romans 7, sees death, nothingness and anxiety as the very substance of the ego.    

The ego of Romans 7 cannot be overcome by being starved, dissolved, dispossessed, or denied, as this defines the very energetics which give it reality. The “negative pressure, causing disturbance, deep uneasiness, and the highlighting of sin and even the fear of insanity” describes the power of this ego. It is anxiety, fear, and insanity by definition. Of course, this is not anything real or part of God’s good creation. It is the substance and dynamic of a lie that has the failed subject in its grip.

Coakley’s imagined defeat of this ego (through negation, disturbance, etc.) duplicates Paul’s description of the substance of the ego. Both are a description of the energetics of the body of death. The difference is, she lends a reality to this domineering ego which Paul would deny. In Paul’s description, one does not get rid of this lie by engaging its negative pressure but by being joined to the truth.

Coakley describes negativity as if it is part of the reality of being conformed to Christ, on the order of the agony in the garden, or the dereliction of the cross, making no distinction between the suffering of Christ and sinful human suffering. She concludes that the “all too human experiences of anxiety and desolation” are indicators of “the most powerful and active presence of God.” I fear this failure to discriminate pictures redemption in the language of Paul’s depiction of sin in its reification of suffering and death.

Coakley misses the stark contrast between the human subjects portrayed in the two chapters (Romans 7 & 8). The “I” split within himself, colonized by sin, in continual agony due to an oppressive orientation to sin, is deceived and this deception is definitive. This “I” does not arrive at life in the Spirit through intensifying his struggle, as this struggle is deadly and marks “I” as wretched and hopeless. The subject of 7 is without hope, without the Spirit, without prayer, without Abba Father, without Christ, and all he has is law and a desire which has overtaken him in deception with death. This subject is suffering, but this suffering is not redemptive but deadly. The intensification of the suffering seems to be its natural trajectory but no matter how intense, this suffering does not produce the Christian subject of chapter 8.

The only way to move from the deadly suffering of 7 to the birth pangs of 8 is through a change of subject. The passage from the subject of chapter 7 to that of chapter 8 has already been detailed in chapter 6 (verses 3-4): “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Paul’s call is for the Roman Christians to live up to their baptism and to the fact that they have been joined to the death of Christ. Having been joined to him they now have his resurrection power, so that they might “walk in newness of life.” They are not joined to the death of Christ through their own dereliction but through his. It is not their capacity to overcome sin but his which enables them to reorder their lives. Paul is calling them to act like who they are. He calls them to take up a cruciform and resurrected life because this is already the reality into which they have been inducted. “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:5-6). Their life is no longer defined by an alienating, oppressive orientation to sin and death. Certainly, their will, their practice, and their discipline are called upon, but this is not the point of departure but a reality enabled by Christ and the gift of his Spirit. “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:10-11).

What we should learn in the contrast between Romans 7 & 8 is that the human tendency to valorize and reify death and nothingness induces the suffering originating in a form of failed human subjectivity, and to separate out this sort of suffering from the groanings of the Spirit and groanings of creation will put a different emphasis and tenor on prayerful participation in the Trinity depicted in Romans 8. Both 7 & 8 might be linked to different versions of creation ex nihilo, but in 7 the nihil and nothing serve as an abiding resource, so that the failed subject might be described as channeling the force of negation and death as if it is life. The gift of the Spirit depicted in 8 brings creation ex nihilo to bear directly on human subjectivity, so that the redeemed subject has life as a direct gift from God.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 36.

[2] Sarah Coakley, “Palliative or Intensification? Pain and Christian Contemplation in the Spirituality of the Sixteenth-Century Carmelites,” in Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture, ed. Sarah Coakley and Kay Kaufman Shelemay (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 91.

[3] Linn Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, (New York: Routledge, 2016) 114. The above are quoted in Cha, Boram (2019) Suffering, Tragedy, Vulnerability: A Triangulated Examination of the Divine Human Relationship in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Rowan Williams, and Sarah Coakley, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/13372/

[4] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition) 19.

[5] Ibid, 180.

[6] Coakley, “God as Trinity: An Approach through Prayer.” In We Believe in God: A Report by The Doctrine Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England, 104–21 (London: Church House, 1987) 109-110. Quoted in Boram, 157.

[7] Coakley, Powers and Submissions, 56. Boram, 155.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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