8 Questions on Suffering
Dr. George Samuel
An Interview with Dr. George Samuel
1. Dr. Samuel, we understand that you have faced situations in your life that cause one to think about ‘suffering’ in more than a peripheral way?
Yes. Three of my four children have died before their time. One son died in early infancy. He and his two brothers all suffered form cystic fibrosis, a condition for which there is no curative therapy available. My wife used to stay awake for days, to give them suction, oxygen, inhalation therapy, and artificial respiration. The prolonged exhaustion and stress for over twenty-eight years wore her down, producing muscle paralysis and associated problems. Her death was followed by the deaths of my younger son (aged 22) and that of my older son (aged 32), after life-long struggles between life and death.
2. How did you respond to these heart-breaking events?
It was tempting to be discouraged when we faced such insurmountable problems. But those same problems gave us the opportunity to prove whether the One who gave us His promises really would step in. [What had happened to us is not so important, we realized. What mattered was what happened through us]. What God does inside us, when painful experiences arrive, is of greater value than keeping such suffering at bay. Within a space of three years, I lost not only my wife and two sons, but also both of my parents. Yet at their funeral services I was able to celebrate the certainty of our hope in Jesus. Because of this certainty, I am able to decide on the priorities of today. With God’s help, we have been able to turn tragedy into triumph, obstacles into opportunities, the worst into the best, and problems into projects that will have great and lasting valued.
3. It is indeed an unusual attitude for our times!
In an earlier age, this attitude may have been less unusual. In the past, suffering was an incentive to inquiry and not an excuse for unbelief. Only since the Enlightenment, has the problem of suffering been seen as ground for unbelief. Rationalism, though, has no answer to evil. [Evil cannot be explained in scientific terms. Our understanding of it must come from ‘revelation’]
4. What is your understanding of the Biblical explanation for the evil that we see all around us?
Scripture is very clear on the problem of evil (see Job 5:7, II Cor.13:4). God made Satan the most beautiful of all creatures, with the gift of free will. Satan rebelled against God, and that was the first sin and the pattern of all sin that followed. Nothing outside his own free will caused Satan to sin. He was the first cause of his sin, and we can’t go back any further than that. As the story of the Garden of Eden shows, Satan has passed his sin down to man. Man [generic sense] brought evil upon himself, like Satan, by selfishly choosing his own way apart from God’s way.
The idea of evil lies in the idea of perfection. God made everything perfect. One of the perfect things God made was freedom of choice. Such free will opens the door to evil. We, by our wills, are the cause of the evil we do. God allowed for that possibility by making us free creatures. He actually took the risk of giving us freedom. Both the opportunities – to choose good and ability to choose evil are included. Freedom of choice endows with responsibility and accountability. [God created the fact of freedom. We perform the act of freedom]. And sadly, those actions are all too often foolish, sinful, and unwise. Thus imperfection arises from perfection – not directly, but indirectly through freedom.
5. So, how will you hold on to a good Almighty God in the face of evil? Is that not a contradiction?
The idea of a good and powerful God is not irreconcilable with the existence of evil. God’s existence and the reality of evil are not logically contradictory. God is morally free, in that nothing can make him do anything against His nature. God’s nature is perfectly good. But, having exercised His omnipotence in creating the universe and endowing His creatures with freedom, He does not block the outcome of that freedom – even if that outcome is suffering and pain. The corollary of this is that evil cannot be destroyed without destroying the freedom. If freedom were destroyed, that would be evil in itself, because it would deprive free creatures of their greatest good. Scripture says that God is victor. The devil is not out of hand. Evil is not running loose and unchecked. God will triumph all the evils of the world. This is declared on the basis of revelation in God’s world. God is a God of judgment – in history as well as the end of time (Romans 1-2).
6. How has God dealt with the issue of evil and suffering?
Just because evil is not destroyed right now does not mean it will continue forever. God’s will is holy, wise, good and just. God will have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering. God grieves over tragedy, sin and evil. God can work in the area where there is evil, rebellion and sin, no matter how great the evil is (see Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23; Romans 9:17). Whenever He wills, God can enter the very arena of evil, and turn it to His purposes. Remember, God allowed the occurrence of evil in His universe from the very beginning. He did this in order to display His own perfection. His plan was to punish evil by taking the punishment on Himself and pardoning those who committed it. That involves saving us from the power of evil, while using it to build virtues we couldn’t have gained without it.
7. What are some of the lessons you had learnt from your encounter with suffering?
We need to lean on the promises of God, and not be thrown into confusion when something bad happens to us. We need not let sufferings confuse our mind between what God wills in His goodness and what Satan wills in his wickedness. We have to approach the problem of evil with humility and openness. [It is better to learn to live with it, while trying our best to alleviate it].
The cross gives us the ability and the strength to withstand evil, to endure suffering, and to live in this context of confusion. We are challenged to do good and noble things and to overcome evil tendencies. Courage is only possible where there is real danger. Self-sacrifice is only noble when there is selfishness to overcome. Hope in God enables us to cope with sufferings in this present life. Just as suffering is real, so are the promises of God and the hope of eternal life. We are on our way to a better world.
8. What does the future mean for a child of God?
Revelation 21:8, 27 foretells a day when everyone has free will but no one will sin. The God who himself suffered transfigures the sufferings of his people. The glorious transfiguration of suffering is an integral part of our faith. Suffering and glorification are part of the same process of growth in the Christian life. We have nothing in this world to compare with the glory that is to come (see Romans 8:18). When we hold such a purpose before us, the suffering of today is not felt as suffering. In this world of suffering and evil, we know that, wherever we go, the God of all compassion goes ahead of us and journeys with us, consoling and strengthening us until we see Him face to face.