Most Christians understand, at least theoretically, that suffering is part of life and that God does use suffering to work good (Rom 5:3-5; 8:18, 28, etc.). We trust God to take our hardships and use them to produce character in us and to bestow benefits on his people and his world. Our spiritual theology is in place. But when faced with the apologetic question of why evil exists in the world, we shift into a different line of thinking: "Evil is never God's will" ... "There is evil in the world because of human free will." I agree that evil is caused by creaturely freedom, but usually more is meant by this. The implication is that when humans (or demons) willfully choose to commit evil, these evils are beyond God's ability to properly prevent. That is, he can only prevent evil by violating creaturely freedom, which he is committed not to do. This is commonly known as the free will defence against the problem of evil.
As most of my students know, I think the free will defence is seriously flawed - as much as I liked it and used it profusely for many years! The free will defence demands that God does not have an appropriate way of preventing or eradicating evil in the present world. Some theologians (e.g. Gregory Boyd) would even say to the sufferer, "God weeps with you, and would gladly remove your suffering if he could. But we are at war with some powerful demonic forces. And sometimes they inflict real damage." This is one of many manifestations of the "theology of love gone soft" (more on this in future posts). The assumption is that, if God is not doing everything in his power to prevent evil, he is not to be trusted. (Incidentally, this is the same assumption held by atheist proponents of the problem of evil.) One of the major problems with the free will defence is that it diminishes God's sovereignty - we are left in the hands of evil men! And if God's sovereignty is diminshed, can he still be trusted? Is it enough to say, "Lord, even though things in our world are downright ugly, I know you're doing your best"?
1 Peter 3:17 implies that sometimes, the evil acts of men are in fact "God's will." As disturbing as this may seem at first glance, there is hope to be found here. If it is sometimes God's will that we suffer for doing good, we can know that our sufferings are not ultimately tragic. They can be redemptive. We can know that, though we are surrounded by evil, we (and our world) can still be in his will. Though we are at times victims of evil (technically true, but nevertheless a laughable thought when we consider the kinds of victimization many in our world experience), we are ultimately IN HIS HANDS.
Whether we are witnesses or victims, what we need, and what the scriptures offer, is not a loving but helpless God who is 'doing his best', but a powerful and wise God who knows what he is doing. We trust not only in his love, but also in his wisdom. We are not left to the hands of evil men, but held securely in the strong loving hands of a Mighty God. I would rather say with David, "Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man" (2 Sam 24:14).