Some might argue that Christian belief is merely an excuse to escape the harshness of reality, but that's no more reasonable than arguing that atheism is a mere excuse to escape the harsh reality of judgment and the thought of an eternity spent without and away from God. The more important point, though, is that the oft-repeated criticism that bad things happen to good people says nothing at all about God, but everything about human beings. Pain may not be desirable, but it's only a feeling, as is joy. Yet pain is not mere suffering, but also a warning sign and a way to protect us against danger. That something may hurt is undeniable, and that we will all feel some sort of pain at some point is inevitable, but whether this pain is our doing or God's is something entirely different. The all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God allows us to suffer, just as he allows us all sorts of things, because we have the freedom to behave as we will. But he has also provided a place with the greatest contentment we can imagine if only we listen to him, listen to his Son, and listen to his church.
As to the specific issue of pain and suffering, C. S. Lewis, who watched his beloved wife die of cancer, put it this way: "But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." God's plan is for us to return to him, and to lead the best possible life on earth; sometimes we need to be reminded of our purpose. Pain is a sharp, clear tool to achieve that purpose. A needle may be necessary to prevent disease or infection; nobody welcomes or enjoys the injection, but it prevents a far greater suffering, just as what may seem like even intolerable pain now will lead to far greater happiness later.
Lewis also wrote:
By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively his lovingness …. By Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, "What does it matter so long as they are contented?" We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves" and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all."
Today this applies far more obviously even than when Lewis was working and writing—he died in 1963. If I want something, runs the modern idiom, I need something; and if I need something, thus I must have something. To the Christian, however, God knows our needs better than we do, and also knows that our wants and our needs are distinctly different. Which leads to the challenge of why God would allow us to go and do wrong, or why he allows us to want something that's not necessarily to our eternal advantage, or even to our immediate good.
Freedom to Choose
We have freedom, and we have free will. We have that free will because Godis love, and no lover would allow anything else. I always remember when our first child, a son, was around 12 years old and attended a school a few miles from where we lived. We had driven him to school each day, but it was now time for him to take public transit. We worried about letting him go off alone in the crowded and, frankly, sometimes dangerous big city. But it was time, it was the right time. Off he went. And there was me, waiting at the end of the day, sitting by the door, anxious to see him come home. When he did—totally ignoring me beyond a perfunctory teenage grunt of acknowledgement—I was so incredibly happy and relieved. My wife and I had to let him go, but we were so relieved when he returned. Imagine, then, how God feels when we return home to him. He lets us go, he sets us free, he acts as a loving father does, but he so much wants us home again. That God allows us freedom, and sometimes a freedom to disobey, says everything about God's love for us, and nothing against it.