Atonement: The transforming power of suffering love

By Dr. Margaret Turek

“In this way the love of God was revealed to us … that he sent His Son as atonement for our sins” (1 Jn 4:9-10). The theme of atonement takes us to the very heart of the mission of Jesus Christ. Revealing the love of God as a mortal man, while bearing the conditions of sin-wrought estrangement, God’s Son atoned for the sins of the whole world (cf. 1 Jn 2:2). Atonement is the form that the love of God takes in his Son, Jesus Christ, under sin-wrought conditions – a love than which no greater can be conceived. Christians in every age should know and witness to the God of Jesus Christ in precisely these terms.

It should be cause for concern, therefore, that a characteristic of much of catechesis in recent decades is the absence of efforts to explain the cross event as a work of atonement. Despite the fact that the Church’s Scripture, doctrine and worship all sanction the faith-conviction that Christ by His passion and death atoned for sin once for all (Heb 9:26), this understanding has largely fallen out of favor. Among theologians, one can detect an unmistakable reserve – even embarrassment – with regard to the idea. And things aren’t hugely different in the world of parish faith formation from which the idea of atonement has almost totally disappeared.

So how might we account for what at best is a general neglect of the idea of atonement, and at worst is a strong aversion to it?

Pope Benedict XVI offers an initial answer in his book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” where he singles out “the trivialization of sin.” We seem to have a very small estimate of human guilt, the menace of evil and the damage it causes. We presume that we sinners know all about sin, that we can properly “contextualize” it from our own point of view; after all, we are its perpetrators. To the degree that the trivialization of sin holds sway in our minds, the message that “God sent His Son as atonement for our sins” cannot but strike us as an overreaction on God’s part.

Besides this inaccurate assessment of sin, another troublesome reason for the modern aversion to the idea of atonement lies in a grossly distorted depiction of God the Father’s role in the cross event. Ever since the 17th century, and well into the 20th, a trend arose among theologians and preachers to portray God the Father as a celestial child abuser (to put it bluntly), as someone blinded by rage who unleashes violent fury on His Son for sins of which His Son is innocent. Such a portrayal of the Father gained a foothold in Catholic circles under the influence of Jansenism.

Here is but one example from a sermon by a bishop, Jacques-Benigne Boussuet: God the Father “beholds Him (Jesus) as a sinner, and advances upon Him with all the resources of His justice. … I see only an irritated God. … The man, Jesus, has been thrown under the multiple and redoubled blows of divine vengeance. … As it vented itself, so His (the Father’s) anger diminished. … This is what passed on the cross, until the Son of God read in the eyes of His Father that He was fully appeased. … When an avenging God waged war upon His Son, the mystery of our peace is accomplished.” Regrettably, many more texts could be brought forward that imagine God the Father as thirsty for vengeance and demanding the passion and death of His Son to calm His rage. Even today images like these still haunt the Christian imagination.

Closely coupled with this mistaken view is another faulty notion, one which errs in thinking that the Father undergoes a change of heart in the face of the Son’s self-sacrifice. According to this false notion, the Son sacrifices himself to win back the Father’s love for the human race. But this is at odds with the Johannine proclamation that “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son” (Jn 3:16; cf. 1 Jn 4:8-10), as well as with the Pauline passage that declares: “God (the Father) proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8; cf. 8:31-34). Both John and Paul cite the Father’s love as the primary ground and motive for the Son’s atoning sacrifice. Both insist that we have come to know that God is love precisely in view of God sending His Son as atonement. So if we are to uphold the biblical testimony, we need to understand that atonement is the result of the Father’s love. It does not result in the Father’s love being revived or jumpstarted, as it were. Christ’s self-sacrifice does not “earn” the Father’s love for us. To the contrary, it is the fruit and expression of that love.

However, it is not enough simply to assert this. We need to uncover and bring to light the logic of love hidden in the cross event. Such a challenge calls to mind my favorite words of St. Augustine: “Our one task in life is to heal the eyes of our heart so that we can see God” (Sermon 88) – see the God who is love in the face of the cross event. And see the cross event as a dramatic epiphany, shaped in response to sin, of the (staggering) love of God for us, while we were yet sinners.

To facilitate our capacity to see, we can begin with the realization that the event of Christ’s cross did not irrupt suddenly into history – like a lightning bolt that struck “out of the blue.” There was a preparation for it in Israel’s covenant history with God. In the preaching of the prophets, God’s mercy signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sins and infidelities of the people. God’s power of love is a forgiving power, but its outworking does not remain one-sided. Rather, the prophets make clear that the process of dealing with sin involves an interplay between God’s forgiving love, on whose side lies the initiative and ultimate power over sin, and His people’s contrite love, which cooperates by making atonement. In this interplay of love, God is the one who always takes the first step, and God loves His people in such a way that he aims at mutuality with an unswerving commitment.

Following the Bible, we can see this interplay of love as an interplay between paternal love and filial love – as we find in Jeremiah, where the Lord says outright: “I am a father to Israel, Ephraim is my first-born” (Jer 31:9). When this interplay of love is broken due to sin, God Himself takes the initiative in restoring the relationship, but only so as to re-establish the interplay. God’s own readiness to be reconciled and His own power to forgive cannot, in and of themselves alone, become actual forgiveness without violating the spirit and abandoning the aim of that very bilaterality that God initiates with His people. There must be an interplay – bespeaking reciprocal love – between God’s paternal love and Israel’s filial love, which in the face of sin takes the form of forgiving love and atoning love, if sin is to be erased or expiated. The way in which God forgives and still takes the freedom of His people seriously is by enabling Israel to collaborate in the work of bearing sin away through the power of their reciprocal love.

In order to illustrate this interplay of love between forgiveness and atonement, let me share what Pope Benedict XVI says in his book, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Straightaway he asserts that forgiveness is not a cheap gift. After all, “guilt is a reality, an objective force,” and hence it has real effects, real consequences: it “causes damage that must be repaired.” For this reason, “forgiveness must be more than a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget.” The baneful effects of sin and guilt “must be worked through, healed and thus overcome.”

Now this means that “forgiveness exacts a price” – and “first of all from the person who forgives.” This might surprise us. We might expect that the cost of forgiveness would rest entirely on the guilty person, on the trespasser. The guilty person should have to take the first step (so we think), should have to “pay up front” with some token of regret in order to be tendered forgiveness.

But Benedict says otherwise. The cost of forgiveness is paid in the first place by the person who forgives. This person – the one wronged – takes the initiative in the process of forgiveness by willingly keeping his heart open and “suffering through” the evil done to him. Suffering of this kind can be called “love-suffering”: not that the sufferer loves to suffer (that would be › masochism) but that the lover is willing to suffer for the sake of love’s continuance, in order that love may endure. This capacity for love-suffering is what St. Paul extols at the conclusion of his “hymn to love” in 1 Cor 13:7-8. “Love bears all things, … endures all things. … Love never fails.”

“As a result,” says Benedict, the one who forgives “also involves the other, the sinner, in this process of transformation.” But how, exactly, does the one who forgives involve the other in this process? By showing or making visible his inner attitude toward the other, specifically, his willingness to keep his heart open as he “suffers through” the evil done to him, for the purpose of restoring the relationship. The revelation of his love-suffering has a potent capacity to evoke contrition, ignite renewed love and empower the sinner willingly to mirror or reflect back such love-suffering on his side – to bear with contrite love the effects of his wrongdoing until they are “suffered through” – and thereby borne away. And notice: it’s the suffering of forgiving love that initiates and accompanies the whole process of atonement. Thus both parties are involved in this interplay of love that bears sin away. It is a shared work of love-suffering that begins with the person who forgives.

From here we can begin to see more clearly the hidden logic of love at work in the cross event, a logic that gradually unfolds in Israel’s covenant history with God. For a book-length treatment of this theme, see “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian and Spiritual Theology.” But already now we can note a few key points in summary. It is God’s forgiving love that gives rise to the sinner’s repentance, and not the other way around. It is a love that proves undiminished despite exposing itself to heartache (cf. Hos 11:8). Indeed the revelation of God’s love-suffering has the power to evoke and engender the response of contrite love in the sinner’s heart. However, this change of heart on the sinner’s side does not of itself undo the consequences that his wrongdoing has set in motion. The converted sinner still has to bring his regenerated love to bear on the effects of sin. Sin is not merely walked away from; sin must be “borne away.” To bear away sin means to take sin’s effects upon oneself and “carry” them, to endure the consequences that sin has wrought (cf. Hos 13:16; Ez 4:1-8). But – and this is the miracle – by the very fact of bearing sin’s effects, albeit now with a contrite heart (under the leading of God’s grace), the penitent transforms these sin-wrought effects into an occasion for the expression of filial love for God. By being borne in this way, sin is borne away, annihilated. Atonement is a work that “annihilates” sin by changing it into the suffering form of filial love.

At this point we arrive at the threshold to the event of Christ’s cross, “the great mystery of atonement” – when God sent His beloved Son to become the man of sorrows who bears away the sin of the whole world (cf. 1 Jn 2:2). 

Academic dean and professor of theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, California, Dr. Turek earned a doctorate in sacred theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Prior to her theological studies, she received spiritual formation as a Carmelite for six years. Her new book, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian and Spiritual Theology,” is published by Ignatius Press.

This essay contains excerpts from Margaret Turek’s book, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian and Spiritual Theology,” courtesy of Ignatius Press, all rights reserved.

Visit to join Dr. Margaret Turek for a free online course, “Atonement: the Transforming Power of Suffering Love,” sponsored by the Archdiocese, meeting on Tuesdays 7–8:30 p.m., Feb. 13, 20, 27 and March 5, 12, 19, 2024.