I was talking to a friend recently who has seen alot of death and suffering in his life. Because of what he has experienced, he came to believe that there couldn't be a God. As we were talking about the subject, he reminded me of stories in the Old Testament where God killed people for doing simple things like touching the Ark, or turned Lot's wife in to a pillar of salt for looking back at Soddom and Gomorrah. He said to me, "Isn't God supposed to be nice?". He questioned why God lets people suffer or die. I gave him a short answer, but the more I think about the subject, the more I want to say.
My initial thought on the subject, and my answer to him was, "Would God be nice if He let people live forever? We would get all pruny." I really believe that death can be a blessing in many cases. I have talked to many old people (and remember old is a relative term, so not all of them were what I consider old) who wished God would let them die because they were tired of living in their old body. I have also talked to very ill people who also wished the same thing.
The other aspect of his question, which I really didn't answer in full, was about why God punishes people for things. My answer to him was, "Parents might appear evil for punishing their kids, but sometimes that is the only way the kids will learn." One of the absolute laws of the universe is that we have laws, and everyone, including God, is bound by those laws. If someone breaks a law, they must suffer the consequences. That is a little different from "commandments". God gave us commandments, but it is up to his discretion whether or not to revoke or change those commandments. He might say, "Thou shalt not kill." but then command Abraham to sacrifice his son on the altar. The commandments are given to us to help us in this life. But even God must abide by the eternal laws, or he ceases to be God.
Here is an example of the type of law by which God is bound. What God says he will do, he must do. For example, if he promises that a person will be blessed in some certain way, he must keep his promise. An example is that of Abraham who was promised that he would have a child even though he and his wife were past child bearing years. God promised Abraham, and although she was in her 90's, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
Another law is that only those who obey God are worthy to act in his name and have the Priesthood. If God allowed just anyone to act in his name, someone who would act contrary to God's will might do something in his name, and truth and justice wouldn't be served. This was the situation with the Ark. Those holding the authority to carry the ark were carrying it along, when someone without the authority came to try to help. He was struck dead, not out of spite, but to teach a lesson to the children of Israel that only those holding the authority should do the things of God. Death may seem a severe punishment, but in the eternal view of things, death really isn't as bad as it may seem. Those who die return to God, and are still alive as spirits in heaven. So God meted out a harsh punishment, but it was to help the stiff necked Israelites to see that this was a serious matter.
Next comes my friend's question about why God allows suffering. This takes a little bit longer to explain. One of the key aspects of our life on this earth is that we are allowed free agency to choose for ourselves how we will live. This life is a testing ground of sorts to see if we will choose good over evil. If we aren't allowed to choose for ourselves, how can we truly be tested? If I teach my dog to not sit on the couch, will he only obey when I am in the room? Or will he obey when I leave the house? The only way for me to find out if he really has learned is to allow him the chance to be alone without my supervision. So too, we are on this earth to be tested, and we are given the freedom to act however we choose. Luckily, because of our moral standards as a people, we have set up laws to punish those who use their free agency to hurt others. God also, will punish those people at the judgement day for hurting others. But we must be allowed the opportunity to make mistakes or we won't learn.
The unfortunate aspect of this is that some people are hurt very badly by others. Children are unmercifully abused. Some people are murdered or tortured. My friend wonders how God can be a loving God and allow these things to happen. God loves us very much, and is pained more than we can comprehend by what we do to each other. But he must do what he said he will do. He must allow us free agency to choose for ourselves. If he doesn't do this, the whole purpose of this life will be thwarted. In fact, in the pre-existence, Satan had a different plan. He wanted to force us to do what is right in this life. The scriptures talk about a war in heaven where 1/3 of the host of heaven rebelled and was cast out, with Satan as their leader. Why were they cast out? Because they went against the plan that gave us all the freedom to choose for ourselves. This law is essential to our growth as eternal beings.
So is God a loving God? My answer would be, absolutely! When Jesus Christ suffered in the garden of Gethsemanee, he not only suffered for the sins we would commit, but for the pains that we would suffer. The scriptures talk about how he would suffer so that he would know how to comfort his people. That comfort is what God offers to us if we seek him. He will help us to overcome any pain in our life if we have faith and turn to him. It may be a long road, it may not be easy, but he will help us to have the influences in our life, and other help that we need.
Another important aspect of this is that we should help each other. Spencer W. Kimball said, "God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs." Why doesn't God help us himself? That's part of the test too. Often he does help us himself, but more often he inspires others to do it so that they will learn from the experience too. Will we choose to reach out to each other? We ask if God is a loving God, but we should be asking if we are loving people. This life is our test. Will we pass the test?