There are a lot of canned answers, most of which go along the lines of suffering drawing us closer to God, that God brings good out of evil, or that we learn from suffering. I don't think any of those things are untrue, but somehow they fall short of hitting the satisfactory answer that most are searching for.
You see, we've all known suffering on some level, even if it's all in our heads. But some of us have known suffering on an extreme level. Take children who are sex slaves, veterans who have survived the horrors of war, or victims of 9/11. Some people can't even name what they are suffering from, giving them a feeling of being alone in the world (sometimes from unidentified sources like diet). Suffering can be so awful that taking the time to try and heal is too painful, and never happens. Or it can be so agonizing that the victim goes insane. How is that drawing closer to God? How do we learn from that? How is that good coming from evil?
Part of it is a 1st-world problem. The American Christian religion doesn't understand what it would be like to be born into suffering, spend your life that way, and die after having an almost non-stop miserable experience. A child born with AIDS in Africa might understand, but not the typical American Christian.
Recently, I took a step back and looked at suffering in the face. Why is a God who is Love letting it happen? I have no flipping clue. But I do know reality, since I'm living in it every day, and I've drawn some interesting conclusions.
Conclusion #1: God doesn't seem to be as concerned about suffering as we are.
Suffering doesn't pick sides. It hits Christian and Hethen alike. It's all over the place. A friend of mine once said, "If God's in control, couldn't we get someone else up there to take the wheel?" A point well taken. He isn't doing anything about it. It's like the energizer bunny: It keeps going, and going, and going...
Conclusion #2: God cares about us.
I have no doubt that there is a place within each person which is free of suffering. At our core, we are complete. "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." It is there where we are at one with God, made perfect without the slightest need. We have peace, joy, etc.
The problem being that most people live in the egoic mind and aren't much atuned to this inner space. Doesn't mean it's not there. And when we do get in touch, the love of God connects to us. He's there, and he's Love. That's what I believe, based on my own experiences. You can believe whatever you want.
Conclusion #3: This is all a big Sandbox.
This little terrarium called Earth seems constructed to be the ideal Free Will Experiment. It has laws like physics, chemistry and mathmatics. No one can change those laws. No one can "break" those laws. They are as solid as it gets.
Within the context of these laws, there is one variable: Life. The laws are like the sand, toys and walls of gigantic sand box. And life is like the children playing in it. Interacting, making harmless or harmful choices, and learning.
Naturally, although each living creature is acting according to its nature and, in our case, it's will, consequences will happen accordingly. It might be because of physics (throwing sand in the air might cause it to land in your eye), or because of other life forms (your neighbor might hit you over the head with his Tonka truck). Either way, the consequences are very real. So the choices are real. So, therefore, the free will is real.
Conclusion #4: God cares a lot about free will.
If God didn't want anyone to have free will, he'd have to put us in a padded cell, or not give us physical bodies at all. But that's not what he did. He put us here. And even though our choices might lead to us suffering or someone or something else suffering, our choices are never messed with. They are there and they are real. A massive Free Will Experiment.
Conclusion #4: This is a learning experience.
This world and it's situations cannot harm our untouchable inner self. From the safety of God's arms, the inner self watches, matures, grows and learns. An infinite spirit having a human experience.
I must make it clear that this type of learning doesn't require a brain. It is soul growth, and can occur whether or not you possess reason. The soul is learning here. Everything, including suffering, is its teacher.
Conclusion #5: God cares a lot about union with us.
When you see God working, it's in the heart. He rarely does miracles on the physical plane. But miracles of the heart? He's at that every day, all day long.
If you think about it, life is a two-fold path: Hope or despair. With every decision, you are choosing one or the other. With every attitude you take, you stand for one or the other. God's quietly calling us toward hope, and union, all the time. Saying, "Come out of the egoic mind, rest here with me in green pastures."
The Christ came to show us God in a very tangible way. Jesus showed us God is indeed Love, Compassion, Mercy and Complete Acceptance. Jesus suffered willingly to get the point across, and made the miracle of Free Will living in harmony with Loving Union possible.
Final Conclusion: This world is necessary to give us Free Will AND Loving Union.
Perhaps there was another way. But Love dictates that if he could have saved us from suffering and still given us Free Will, he would have. There is something so INFINITELY IMPORTANT about free will, God thinks this world is worth it. Whatever. I supposed we are at liberty to disagree.
We must remember, too, that it is a huge assumption on our part to think that doing away with suffering would be good for the world. Have you ever met someone who's never suffered? They turn out pretty special.
All in all, reality is what it is. Many say God is love, and an overwhelming majority also believe in suffering. It is quite the conundrum to resolve, and the Sandbox Theory is my way of making sense of it. If you find a different way, God bless you.