Over the last few weeks I’ve been considering the question of whether God changes his mind. Here’s what we’ve looked at so far:
- In the first post in this series I observed that many passages of Scripture say that God does change his mind, while others say that he does not.
- In the second post, I argued that because God has infinite presence and knowledge, he doesn’t change his mind.
- In the third post, I suggested that given the infinite nature of God, the passages that speak of God as changing his mind should be interpreted as accommodative language, language that says something about God in terms that are sort of like but not exactly like what such language would mean about human beings.
Let me say a bit more about this matter of accommodative language. Accommodative language helps us to understand profound truths in concepts that we can grasp. When the weather person talks about “sunrise” and “sunset”, she is describing something that is really true – our position relative to the sun is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or scientifically the case (the sun isn’t moving – the earth is). In the same way, when the Bible speaks of God changing his mind or regretting a decision, it is describing something that is really true – someone’s relationship with God is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or theologically the case (God isn’t changing – people are).
But can we have a genuine relationship with God if he doesn’t change? For instance, if God doesn’t change his mind, why should we even pray to him? To some people, the notion of an unchanging God means that God is static and unresponsive. But I would like to suggest that the fact that God is unchanging doesn’t make God less relational – it makes him far more relational than we can imagine.
The only reason we would think that God’s unchanging nature makes him unable to relate to us is by assuming that God must relate to us in the same way that we relate to each other. In human relationships, we don’t possess infinite presence or knowledge. We are bound by time and space. I can’t be two places at one, and I can only do one thing at a time (“multi-tasking” is really doing a bunch of different things switching back and forth one at a time). And while we can sometimes predict what will happen and plan accordingly, that ability is limited and imperfect since we are locked into the flow of time.
But these same limitations do not hold true for God. He can be two places at once (actually, all places at once!). And he can do more than one thing at a time (he’s not limited by time at all!). God is not locked into the flow of time, but transcends time in his eternity. So if we are imagining that God can only respond like human beings respond – in time and space – we are severely truncating the limitless nature of God.
For God to be truly responsive, what must be the case is that our choices really matter to God. But this doesn’t mean that he must be restrained by time and space like we are. All that is necessary for God to be responsive is that if we did not make certain choices, God would not make certain decisions. But the fact that our choices are made in time and space whereas God’s decisions are made in eternity doesn’t diminish the reality of the relationship. To be responsive is to act because of something, not necessarily after something.
In God’s eternity, all of the moments that are past/present/future to us are like “now” to him. And so, what is sequential and episodic to us is present all at once to him. It is sort of like what we experience when we look at a diarama, like this Cyclorama in Atlanta. It portrays various events in the Battle of Atlanta. These events took place at different times and in different locations, but we can see them all at once. God’s view of all time and space is like this, only infinitely greater.
With this in mind, consider the story of Jonah. Did God have to wait to see what Jonah would do, step by step, in order to respond to him? Not at all. In his eternity, God sends Jonah. He sees that Jonah runs. Because Jonah runs, God sends the storm. Because of the storm, Jonah is thrown off the ship. Because Jonah is thrown off the ship, God sends the great fish. Because Jonah is in the fish, he prays. Because God sees and hears Jonah’s prayer, he saves him. In Jonah’s world of space and time, these events happen sequentially, one after the other in time. But in God’s eternity, he sees this all at once. But this eternal perspective doesn’t eliminate the genuine choices Jonah makes in time, and it doesn’t eliminate the genuine responsiveness of God. God acts because of Jonah’s free choices, but not after his free choices. In God’s eternal nature there is no “after” but there is responsiveness.
In fact, there is far greater responsiveness than we can imagine. We are limited by time and space in the way that we respond to each other. I’m often frustrated by my lack of time, resources, and availability to help other people. But almighty God is not so limited. In fact, because my future is swallowed up unto his eternal “now,” God already knows what I need, and is already at work providing answers to prayers that are yet future to me in time but present to God in eternity.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)
But why do we even bother to pray if God already knows what we will ask? Because prayer is about more than treating God like a heavenly ATM machine! It is about a relationship, a melding of our will with God’s. As John Chrysostom wrote sixteen centuries ago:
But if he already knows what we need, why do we pray? Not to inform God or instruct him but to beseech him closely, to be made intimate with him, by continuance in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of our sins. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 19.4).
Distinguishing God’s perspective in eternity from our perspective in time also helps us to understand various passages in which God says one thing will happen, but something else actually happens. In the story of Jonah, the LORD gives Jonah this message for the people of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). But after forty days, Nineveh was not destroyed. Who changed?
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
On the surface, it seems like God changed – just like it seems as if the sun rises and sets. But the deeper change was on the part of the people of Nineveh – they turned from their evil way. And since they turned from their evil way, they experienced the God of holy love in a much different way than had they persisted in their sin.
In his eternity, God knew that the Ninevites would repent. But as God related to the Ninevites in time, he addressed the situation on the ground as it was from their perspective. So long as they were in sin, they faced the wrath of his holy love. But when they repented, they encountered the mercy of his holy love. Since God relates to us in time, our choices are truly meaningful (see Jeremiah 18:7-10). He just isn’t limited to our time-bound frame of reference.
This discussion is a little mind-bending for sure. But what else would we expect when we creatures of the dust try to grapple with eternal God’s nature and power?! The most important point to take away from this look at God’s unchanging nature is that since he doesn’t change, we can always count on God. We often falter and fail; God does not. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). And the faithfulness of God assures us that whatever happens in this transient world, God is constant and dependable.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Abide With Me, Henry Francis Lyte (1847)