I was having a discussion with a man once who had asked me about the "problem of evil". He asked me to explain why God allows suffering if He is a benevolent God. And then he added, "I suppose you're going to tell me about the 'secret will of God'?" Well, what he meant by that phrase was that God always has a purpose for everything, even suffering, and we just don't always know what it is. Well, this 'secret will of God' idea is an answer that I personally find satisfying. Why should I presume to know, or to have the right to know, why God allows the suffering which He does allow? For this fellow, the idea that God would do something that we're not privy to, or are not able to understand, seemed to be a sufficient argument that God can't even exist. Yet the Bible says "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." God has revealed much to us in His Word; without it we could not know Him. It is sufficient for us. But God hasn't revealed all things to us, and there's no reason to suppose that He should. The essential thing that God asks of us is to trust Him. That's what faith is. If we knew why God was allowing the various trials and tribulations in our lives, where would be the faith? But James says "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (James 1:2-3). This verse itself hints at a purpose for suffering; that through it our faith might be strengthened. James is not saying that no matter how much we're suffering we should just put on a happy face. He's saying that we can at least take comfort in the fact that God is working in our lives to build our faith. The suffering is not good and we don't need to pretend it is; but the outcome is good - our faith is made stronger. Or as Romans 8:28-29 says; all things (including suffering) work together for good so that we might become like Christ, or be "moulded" into the image of Christ. Often we only understand how this process is working when we are able to look back and see it in perspective. But I dare say that we won't really have the clearest perspective until we're in eternity.
So much for suffering in the lives of those who have a faith to strengthen. But what about the faithless? Why do they suffer? Again, I'm not denying that God may have a purpose in it which He has not revealed, but even here I think we can generally see that through suffering people without Christ can be brought to Christ. Jesus said "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:23). Why? Because they are self sufficient and don't feel their need for God. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses warns the people that when they come to possess the land and everything they have has been given to them by God, not to forget God. It is human nature to want independence and autonomy. But God wants us to be dependent on Him, and to make Him the Lord, or Master, of our lives. Suffering poverty or illness can be what makes us dependant on God, and this is that "ultimate good" of God's purpose. But you know, we could spin it in such a way that we bring into question God's purpose in allowing anyone to become rich! The truth is, we don't understand all that God is up to. We don't understand God's purposes for suffering any more than we understand the Biblical doctrine of election. We don't understand what God is doing, just as young children don't understand why their parents won't allow them to do certain things; like drink Coke before bed, or visit the neighbours by themselves, or watch certain movies; or why they are made to do certain things like tidy their rooms and brush their teeth. To them, Mummy and Daddy are just horrible because there's no possible reason they can see as to why they have to suffer these things.
Now this fellow I had been speaking to asked me this... Apparently citing William Rowe, he said "when a fawn dies in a bushfire and no human ever so much as sees the bushfire, there is no ultimate good for any man. Explain that..." Well, I think that we live in a fallen world, and such a thing as innocent fawns dying is just the sort of thing that happens in a fallen world. God cursed this world because of our sins. If innocent fawns dying in a bushfire bothers us, we ought not to be angry at God about it; we ought to be sorry for the sinfulness of mankind. We ought to long for God to redeem all of Creation and restore the right order of things. We long to live in a world prophecied by Isaiah where the "wolf shall dwell with the lamb ... and a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6). Why doesn't God bring this new world now? As Peter says:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
That is, if God brought about this new world without sin, it would mean that many sinners would have to face their judgment. God waits, rather, for you to turn to Christ. And He even suffers the loss of many innocent fawns for your sake...