Why are we here just to suffer?

Job experience - suffering unspeakable things

"I hope you have a job experience"That's what it says in a letter she received after her operation. She is in her mid-thirties, married and has a young son. Now she is a cancer patient and doesn't know how much time she has left. She works at the university, is a lecturer at the theological faculty. Through her work she knows many people from very different churches. They now take part in her suffering and send her well-intentioned words of comfort. But as Kate Bowler, the theologian and patient, reads: "I hope you have a job experience" she gets upset.

"I can't think of anything worse that one could wish for a person. God allowed Satan to take everything away from Job, even his children. Do I have to lose more to understand God better?" [1]

I find the wish from that letter just as cruel - especially when, like Kate Bowler, you look at the beginning of the Book of Job. There we meet Job - put to the test by God, so many of us know it. In the book of Job, Satan is part of the heavenly court; he is not yet God's evil adversary. He has the role of a prosecutor. A children's Bible calls him the "examiner" for this reason. And this "examiner" gets permission from God to subject Job to a test that couldn't be more gruesome. And all of this just to find out whether Job's piety is clear-cut. Because of this, Job now loses his belongings and his 7 children. When he nevertheless remains loyal to his God, the examiner, with God's approval, goes one step further: now Job is seriously ill, covered with ulcers from head to toe. A picture of misery that makes one shrink back. His wife, tortured by the sight of his misery, reacts in an aggressive defense: why are you still holding on to your God? Curse him and die.

No, this is not about a historical person. The book of Job is poetry. Here a clever poet or a group of clever people wanted to fathom a question that still presses us humans: why do bad things happen to good people? How can God allow this?

Job now sits on a heap of ashes and scratches his ulcers with a shard, he suffers devotedly to God and tells his wife. "You talk like a fool. We have received much good from God, shouldn't we accept the dark?"

Three friends come to help him. They are shocked when they fail to recognize Job in the man on the ashes. They tear their clothes, weep for their friend and sit silently by his side. 7 days, 7 nights, being there without a word, because they see that his pain is so great.

After this week, Job is at the end of his patience, at the end of his strength. He starts complaining, screaming out his despair. Now the friends can't take it anymore. They talk to him verbatim. They are beginning to interpret his suffering: Your sons died for their sins. God does not allow anyone to suffer for no reason. Surely you did something that God must punish. But Job defends himself against his friends, I don't need clever words, I need your support. Speech and counter-speech fill page after page.

This Job is one of us. He replies to his friends:

You are my friends! Have mercy!

What knocked me to the ground was God's hand!

Why are you following me as hard as he is?

Haven't you tormented me enough?

I wish somebody wrote it all down

that my words would be recorded

carved into the rock with a chisel,

blackened with lead so that they will last forever!

But no, I know that God, my lawyer, is alive!

He speaks the last word here on earth.

Now that the skin is on me in tatters

and I have no more meat on my bones

now I want to see him with my eyes

I want to see him himself, not a stranger!

My heart passes with longing! (Job 19 from "Good News")

Book of Job: Everything must have a reason

“What did I do wrong, what am I being punished for?” An old woman complains. Until recently she was in good shape and able to take care of herself. Yes, everyone thought she was dying as she often said: at some point I will fall over and I'll be dead. But it turns out quite differently: she has to experience how her strength dwindles and she becomes completely helpless. Who did this to her? And what is the reason for that? Time and again, as a bedside chaplain, I have seen people being tortured by the old woman's question. It would never have occurred to me to say like Job's friends: You will have been guilty of something. Within my church it is long gone to interpret illness as God's punishment. For me, the question of why is an expression of despair. Whoever provides them needs someone who listens, endures the pain and takes an interest. Nevertheless: It is deep inside me and my fellow human beings to ask about the reason when something goes wrong or an accident hits us. It must be someone's fault. As we hear it from Job's mouth here: What knocked me to the ground was God's hand!

Kate Bowler has her own experience with the why question. In her doctoral thesis, she dealt with a group of Christian communities that promise a cure for personal tragedies. In the USA, this group is nicknamed "prosperity gospel", which means "prosperity gospel". Because their followers represent the doctrine that God gives you everything your heart desires, lots of money, a nice house, an intact family and health. You just have to believe hard enough. Kate Bowler interviews long-standing proponents of the gospel of prosperity, television preachers who claim in front of an audience of millions that everyone can receive a financial blessing from their God. The glamorous life of the preachers is the visible proof of this: you just have to believe, then not only will suffering make a wide berth to your life, no, you will also become extremely rich - with a villa by the sea and your own plane.

Kate Bowler, who grew up in a down-to-earth Mennonite community, feels herself being drawn into the gospel of prosperity. Everything is successful in her life, the marriage with the man she loves, the long-awaited child and then, right after her doctorate, a lecturer position at the university. Yes, she too thinks: God has a precious plan for my life, every setback is therefore always a step forward. But her illness leaves nothing of these beautiful thoughts. Yes, she is frightened when people now interpret their suffering. She is reading a letter

"Some people think it is cruel of God to let you die so early. But the answer is simple and very clear. It is righteous of God to let you die. That is the punishment for your sins." She experiences how many people now want to give her the certainty that there is a hidden logic behind everything that happens to her.

"When I was still in the hospital," she tells, "A neighbor came to our front door and told my husband that there was a reason for everything.

"I'd like to know that," he replied. "You're welcome?" she asked in surprise. "The reason my wife has to die," he said in his nice and direct way. That was the end of the conversation. The neighbor stammered something ... "[2] and disappeared.

The fear of being forgotten

I wish somebody wrote it all down

that my words would be recorded

carved into the rock with a chisel,

blackened with lead so that they will last forever! (Vv. 23-24)

Job does not just want to disappear and be forgotten - a wish that becomes powerful when suffering destroys previous life. Sometimes I feel this wish in the gratitude that is given to me when I visit someone in the days of restricted contact. If you are forced to quarantine at home due to old age or illness, you have to spend a lot of time with yourself. It is impossible for anything else to structure and enliven the days. The concert subscription remains unused, the nursing home service is canceled, the gymnastics group is paused. Your own life becomes dull, loses its strength and shine. Job's life is not only lackluster, it is devastated. There is nothing left but a narrow existence overshadowed by illness. A shadowy existence that the friends pass over in their zeal. He longs not to be forgotten. Yes, for the future - the inscription in the stone.

But for now, Job has a completely different hope. He hopes that God will finally answer his call. God's silence makes him angry and impatient. Because the poets of the Book of Job leave no doubt: Job is innocent, he leads a godly life, is without fault or blame.

Job wants to challenge God

When bad things happen to more or less good people, the question often arises how this could have been prevented. A couple must bury their child. Soon after, the mutual accusations begin: "Why didn't you take better care of him?" "Why weren't you home? I had my hands full with other things!" "My family has always been so healthy, but your relatives have bad genes." "If only you had fed him more sensibly!". The parents, although loving each other, are deeply wounded. Therefore her anger swells and everyone lets it out on the other.

Anger takes our breath away, it has to go. But where do you put it? If somehow possible, we should direct our anger towards the situation at hand, not towards ourselves, or towards the people who are trying to help us, or towards God who makes us suffer. Anger at ourselves makes us depressed. Anger at other people makes it difficult for them to stand by us. Anger with God builds a wall between us and all the help and consolation of religion that might support us.

Yes, those who suffer need anger - and good for those who find the right place for them. In his anger, Job does not completely lose faith that God can help him. As a man of his culture, he thinks: God must allow me to go to court in which I can prove my innocence. A process in which I am acquitted. There is an advocate, an advocate, in heaven for that. A solver. The redeemer Job hopes for is God himself. In despair, one last tender hope.

Longed-for divine show

Now that the skin is on me in tatters

and I have no more meat on my bones

now I want to see him with my eyes

I want to see him himself, not a stranger!

My heart passes with longing! (Vv. 26-27)

Job's tender hope is directed towards something that is far beyond our experience - the vision of God. That he can face God - that is Job's great longing. Now God is not this or that which can be viewed by us like a thing or a living being. Nevertheless, people experience each other in special situations in such a way that they are certain: At that moment I was lifted out of my current reality. In faith, some people interpret this as being lifted up in God.

Kate Bowler says: "In the first few days after the diagnosis, when I was still in the hospital, I wasn't allowed to see my son, I couldn't get up, and I couldn't say with certainty that I would survive this year. And yet it felt like I would have discovered something like a secret of faith. Even in bright moments I couldn't describe my feelings. I just kept saying the same thing over and over: "I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back. "At a time when I should have felt like I was abandoned by God, I didn't feel like I was in ruins. I had the impression that I was floating ..."

She talks about how she feels carried by the friends who come to her or bring her small homemade gifts. How a great deal of closeness is created in the conversations. But she suspects it: at some point the feeling of being miraculously lifted and carried will disappear. She asks the friends, theologians, nuns and pastors: what should I do when it disappears?

"They knew exactly what I meant because they had either felt it themselves or read about it in great works of Christian theology. Augustine called it" the sweet ". Thomas Aquinas called it something mystical like" the prophetic light ". And everyone said, yes, it will pass. The feelings will disappear. The impression of God's presence will evaporate. ... But they all gave me a little bit of certainty ...: When the feelings disappear as the tide ebbs, then they become one Leave a trace.

Somehow I would be shaped by the presence of a God who came to me like an unexpected guest. "[3] 

God's answer to Job's challenge

Job's wish is finally granted. God speaks to him. Of course, it is now Job who has to be asked: "Where was Job when the world was created? Is he able to keep the world in balance, as God can?" No, Job cannot. Job answers God's speech: "I only knew you from hearsay; but now my eye has seen you." He is overwhelmed by God, by God's presence. A new life begins for Job, a new family, a new happiness. He dies after many years, old and full of life.

This fairytale story of Job should help us with the question: why do people have to suffer? How can God allow this? We do not get a final, all-encompassing answer. But one thing is certain: suffering as God's punishment - the thesis of the friends of Job is invalid.

They are expressly reprimanded by God for their speeches at the end of the Book of Job. But why are we suffering then? God created the world, a living space in which a balance of growth and decay works that makes life possible for us. A living space in which life runs smoothly - according to the rules of the laws of nature. And God does not intervene in these rules, just as little as in the process of becoming and passing away. God's creation includes oats and brewer's yeast, golden eagle and rattlesnake. Yes, I think the Covid-19 virus is also part of creation, it came about at some point in the course of evolution.

The vulnerability and fragility of our life bring us joy and sorrow. Just think about the birth of a child or our susceptibility to an ugly virus. We often wish otherwise, yes, it would be good if God protects us from all adversity.

An understandable wish, but also one that has it all. The poet Wolf-Dietrich Schnurre sums it up in his thoughts on God's difficult situation:

"And spare us fire, bad harvests and swarms of locusts," the farmers prayed on Sunday morning. At the same time the locusts held a supplication service in which it was said: "And strike the enemy with blindness, on whom we can gnaw his fields in peace." [4]

I do not come to a peaceful conclusion with my reflection: my trust in a merciful God and my belief in God the Creator are struggling with one another. The gracious God gives us a world in which suffering and death belong as inevitable conditions for our lives.


[1] Kate Bowler, I Just Have To Believe Hard Enough The "Certainty" chapter in Kate Bowler, I Just Have To Believe Hard Enough ... and other lies that I've loved. Translated from the English by A. Findeisen-MacKenzie Gießen 2019 ebook; Brunnen-Verlag Giessen.

[2] Kate Bowler, Chapter "Certainty".

[3] Kate Bowler, Just Believe Firmly Enough, Chapter "Certainty".

[4] Wolf-Dietrich Schnurre from Hubert Halbfas (Ed), More than everything. Stories, poems and pictures for clever children and their parents, Ostfildern 2017. p.24.


The Evangelical Morning Celebration

"Half an hour to breathe, think and reflect" - the radio station Bayern 1 plays the Evangelical Morning Celebration for its listeners every Sunday from 10:32 am to 11:00 am. Pastors from all over Bavaria have the floor. "It's about personal experiences with faith, the things in life - about God and the world."

Sonntagsblatt.de publishes the text of the Evangelical Morning Celebration every Sunday morning at this point.