I have an auntie who is in constant pain from arthritis. I have tried to tell her that God understands her pain and suffers with her, but my parish priest tells me that God is unchangeable and cannot suffer. If this is true, how can I console my auntie?
Let me begin by explaining how your parish priest is right, but then go on to suggest how we can help suffering people by telling them that God indeed understands their suffering, is with them in it and helps them in a way far better than by suffering with them.
We know that God is all perfect in himself and hence unchangeable. God cannot change for the simple reason that to do so would mean to acquire some perfection or modality he does not already possess, but God is infinite and possesses every perfection. St Thomas Aquinas explains it simply in his Summa Theologiae: “… everything which is moved acquires something by its movement, and attains to what it had not attained previously. But since God is infinite, comprehending in himself all the plenitude of perfection of all being, he cannot acquire anything new, nor extend himself to anything whereto he was not extended previously” (STh I, q 9, art 1).
So since God is all-perfect, he cannot change in any way, and hence he cannot suffer with us, because to suffer would mean to be changed in some way by our suffering. So your parish priest is right. God cannot suffer.
Nor would we want God to be able to suffer with us because then he would be like a creature and unable to help us. What we want, and in fact have, is a God who knows our suffering, who loves us and helps us, who can work a miracle to cure us if he so chooses and in any case gives meaning to our suffering, using it to bring about our salvation.
We know that God knows all things. He knows each one of us and everything about us, for he is not only our creator but also our loving father. He created us through the love of our parents and infused the soul in each one of us at the moment of our conception. Even when mankind sinned and distanced itself from him, he promised a redeemer (cf Gen 3:15) and in the fullness of time, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). So God truly loves us and cares for us.
Pope St John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris on the Christian meaning of suffering (1984), explains how Christ, having overcome sin and death by His own suffering and death on the Cross, is present in all human suffering and transforms it into a source of salvation: “Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation. By His suffering on the Cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death. He conquered the author of evil, Satan, and his permanent rebellion against the Creator. To the suffering brother or sister Christ discloses and gradually reveals the horizons of the Kingdom of God: the horizons of a world converted to the Creator, of a world free from sin, a world being built on the saving power of love. And slowly but effectively, Christ leads into this world, into this Kingdom of the Father, suffering man, in a certain sense through the very heart of His suffering. For suffering cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within. And Christ through His own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of His Spirit of truth, His consoling Spirit” (n 26).
We can understand this by considering that Christ is the head of the Mystical Body, the Church. While He cannot suffer in himself since He is God, He can suffer in the members of His Body. St Augustine explains: “Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but He still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of His Body, have to bear. He showed this when He cried out from above, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ and when He said: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’” (Sermon on the Ascension of the Lord, Mai 98, 1-2).
In summary, God cannot suffer with us but He helps us in a far more effective way, transforming our suffering into a means for our salvation. It is up to us to accept our suffering in this light so that it truly unites us with Christ on the cross and brings about our salvation.