Mercy requires an object. It can’t be an object that is perfect, because if it were perfect, there would be no need for mercy. No, it requires an object that is fallen, depraved, suffering and in pain. The mercy of God simply cannot be seen without that. This amazing side of God, this dimension of his personality, could have remained hidden, of course, but that would have been a tragedy of a different sort, much worse in the eternal scheme of things. We lament the condition of our world as a horribly tragic condition, and it is. But have we ever considered that the absence of evil would also have lamentable consequences? So many aspects of the character of God – the ones we praise him most highly for, in fact – are aspects that are invisible without a foil. The question was not whether the tragedy of evil could be avoided. The question was which tragedy to avoid – the tragedy of pain or the tragedy of the substantially hidden God. God chose to accept the former. There’s a high cost to revelation. If he is to be revealed in his mercy, there must be evil. The backdrop of imperfection had to be raised.
That’s why suffering in this world means something. It sets up a very real stage on which God is demonstrated. As we have discussed, it is not logically possible to have an unfallen world and a thoroughly revealed God. So the sacred drama has some awful ugly elements. It must.
But the promise of our pain is just as surely embedded in Scripture as the reason for it is. This promise is clearly demonstrated in the parable of the prodigal son: we who return to the Father in humility and repentance will be welcomed and thrown a party that will more than make up for our generally self-inflicted suffering. Something in the whole rebellion-and-return process will enhance our relationship with the Father. We will see him in ways we’ve never seen him before, and so will others – the servants, the big brothers, and the readers of the story in the distant future. The parable of the prodigal son is backed by the truth of the redemption story and its God-honouring themes. It gives us a glimpse into the whole plan. It shows us the God who runs with open arms.
From chapter 5 of Why a Suffering World Makes Sense, published by BakerBooks 2006