Unfallen Suffering and the Image of the Trinity

Several days ago Ben and I listened to a podcast which pointed to a fascinating concept that they called “unfallen suffering.” While acknowledging the reality of true suffering and evil in our world today, the speaker made the argument that there are certain aspects of our humanity in which suffering is actually creative and life-bringing: a return back to the selves we were intended to be before the Fall. 

For example, St. Paul prays in Philippians, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death”. Christ’s death and resurrection are not just something that happens to God, but a revelation of who God is. Through the Cross, He is made known to us, and we are invited to be united to Him through his sufferings.  

Elsewhere, Scripture tells us that there is a laying down of life within the very Godhead. The Son does the will of the Father, the Father glorifies not himself but the Son, the Spirit testifies to the Son and the Father. This continual self-serving in love leads to an overflow of life, a generative abundance.

All of this speaks to something that I have been wrestling with for a while: the biblical invitation to die to ourselves, to undergo a certain kind of death that brings forth life. Even as I meditate on the ways that Christ’s death has defeated the sting of death forever, my self-preservation instincts rebel against the idea of walking towards things that feel even a little bit like death: the giving up of my own power and rights, the acceptance of my own smallness and often powerlessness, the willingness to be misunderstood. I cannot yet pray honestly with Paul that I might find fellowship with Christ through his sufferings. 

From talking with others, I have learned that I am not alone in this. A lot of us, especially women, have a complicated relationship with a message that tells us to die to ourselves, to become less, or to grow passive. Honestly there are really good reasons for this. But the more I consider the invitation to “die” in light of the true nature of God, the more I am realizing that there is nothing passive about it.

Genesis tells us that man was created in the image of a mystery: the Triune God, three and yet one. If we want to understand the blueprint by which we were created, we cannot expect to live our spiritual lives in independence from the suffering of others. We have to fix our gaze on the eternal and ever-coexisting Trinity, serving and pouring themselves out in abiding love for one another since before the world began. 

“Just as the three persons of the Trinity ‘dwell’ in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so we humans, made in the image of the Trinity, are called to ‘dwell’ in one another, in and through the Trinitarian God,” says Timothy (Kallistos) Ware. 

If this is true, then the moments when we choose to give of ourselves to others, to move towards the other, to “unself” for another’s benefit: these are all movements towards God-likeness, the end to which we were created. It is an active, initiating stance that may feel like suffering – and the more we cling to our own autonomy and our self-centeredness, the more suffering it will be. But in reality, it is the ingredient for the generation of new life. 

“We can say the preference of the other over the self is a form of suffering,” says Stephen Freeman, “but we would also have to say that it is unfallen suffering, for it is a reflection of the very love of God.” 

“Greater love has no one than this,” writes John, “that he lay down his life for his friends.” And any movement born of love, in the end, leads to life and not to death. It does not belong to the Fall, but to God.

4 thoughts on “Unfallen Suffering and the Image of the Trinity

  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts! It seems to me that you may be describing a couple of different ideas by the term “unfallen suffering”.

    – The idea that God uses suffering (some types? any type? not sure exactly which you’re suggesting) to grow us to be more like him. Suffering in this context makes me think of illness, broken relationships, struggle, and death. In this way, suffering is redemptive, although perhaps not existing independent of the fall.

    – The idea that sacrificial love shapes us to be more like God. Is this suffering? Perhaps it could be thought of that way, although I wonder if the degree to which I feel that my sacrifices equate to suffering sometimes is simply an indication of how much growth remains for me.

    Am I understanding your idea of “unfallen suffering”?


    • Thanks for this helpful clarification Andy! When I’m exploring the idea of unfallen suffering, I’m exclusively speaking to the second point you mentioned, the idea of sacrificial love = a type of suffering. I think you said it well that it’s certainly tied to our own growth – the more we grow the less it may seem like suffering. Maybe there is a better word for it; maybe if death had never entered the world the archetype of “death to life” would have been entirely different. Who knows.

      I also think suffering is such a mystery and can’t always be put into neat and tidy categories, so I agree that, in regard to your first point, much suffering comes from our broken world and yet can still be used redemptively. Even though I see the two differently I think they are often intertwined. It’s obviously not for me to determine for someone else whether their suffering is “unfallen” or not, but is mainly part of my own thought process as I feel my way into what feels like a healthy and biblical theology of dying to self. I hope that makes sense!


      • Appreciate the further explanation! And I agree that it is often difficult to categorize or tease out meaning, at least when you’re close to the situation. (I just finished reading Job again – he might agree. 🙂 )

        At first reading, the term sounded a little self-contradictory, like “jumbo shrimp”. But the idea behind it is interesting to explore. Even if there were no sin in the world (or perhaps better put, when there will be no more sin in the world), I think it’s likely that the character and nature of God would still result in some demonstration of sacrificial love. There’s a lot of nuance to explore in those words.


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