Does God change his mind?
When we think about God, need to be careful not to think of him like a man that's somehow better, like a “super man.” I think that is often what we do, we say, "Well I know what it's like for me to love, so God must do it that way, but better". Or, "I know what it's like when I get mad, but when God does it, it must be somehow different". It is somehow different, but we're reasoning in the wrong direction when we start with us, as man, and then think of how God must be as a result. We also have to consider that the bible is describing a being that is like none other in language that conveys something close to how he is, so that we can understand it.
We're going to have a hard time understanding what God is fully like because he is the only one of his kind. When we've talked about the Trinity before, I've always said that analogies are always going to fall short; you're not going to find anything in the created world that is a good analog, or analogy, for the creator. It's the same when we think of God’s character. That doesn't mean we can't understand some fundamental things about him, but it does mean we have to be careful, and we have to realize that while, for instance, the bible says, "God is light", he's not like any light know, as an example.
Today I want to consider the question, "Can God change his mind? Does God change his mind?" The reason this question is important is because we have passages in the bible that make it seem like he can't. Then we have passages in the bible that make it seem like he does. Then we have just general philosophical/theological thought that would say, "Well if God could actually change that would mean some bad things".
We need to consider this topic with the understanding that scripture is not going to contradict itself. Once again, we ask the question like we've been doing recently in this podcast, "How do we harmonize these different and disparate passages in scripture?" Let's look at a few.
Malachi 3:6 says,
"I the lord do not change, so you Oh descendants of Jacob are not destroyed".
So God doesn't change, that's good.
James 1:17 tells us,
”Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows".
Another verse that says he doesn't change, this one in the New Testament.
”God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?"
Of course the answer to those rhetorical questions is, no he does not.
Those are three of many passages that present God as unchangeable, as immutable - not changing. Let's look at three or four additional passages that seem to say something different.
Genesis 6:6 says,
”The lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain".
Jonah 3:10 says,
”When God saw what they did, and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened".
Exodus 32:14 says,
”Then the lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened".
This is interesting, these verses seem to present a different view of God. One where God is acting differently then he had said he would. It appears as though he's changed his mind. We have other verses that say God repented, or relented, or was grieved. We have to say, "How do we account for these verses? If God is unchangeable then isn't becoming angry a change? If God is unchangeable then being grieved, or relenting, or appearing to change your mind by acting differently, that would seem to be a change".
This points out the need for a more careful definition of what it means for God to be immutable, to be unchangeable. Here's what we need to say: The consistent harmonized teaching of scripture teaches that God is unchanging with regards to his character, essence, and will, and plan. He does not change those things. God is fundamentally the same type of being tomorrow as he is today. We can count on that.
He is also not going to change his will. He always wills the same thing. From eternity past to eternity future, he doesn't change his mind in that way. We'll address the biblical passages in a minute. He also doesn't change his character, this is important. If God, as this passage points out, was a man and could lie, what would that mean for salvation? If he said, "Well salvation requires you to come to the cross, to bow your knee, to repent of your sins, to submit to Jesus as lord", and those types of things. Then he could say, "Well you know, tomorrow it just means you need to own five tomatoes". That would not be good. We could not trust a God who would change in that way.
God’s immutability is a fundamentally important point, for us to be able to trust him, to be able to trust his word, to be able to trust that when he says something it will hold true far into the future, indefinitely into the future. That's what a systematic understanding of scripture would say about God’s immutability on a very thumbnail sketch - He doesn't change his character, will, or plan, or essence.
Now, we need to consider what does it mean when God acts differently in the verses we looked at, in Genesis 6:6, Jonah 3:10, etc. When God is moved by compassion, or he regrets having made man. What people want to say on a service level reading of these is, "Well yeah. God did regret it, he came to change his mind about man. Man was good before; man makes me angry, I wish I hadn't made him." The problem is, this is far too simplistic of a view of God. God knows everything, this is also the consistent teaching of scripture. In order for someone to then have a regret, on a human understanding, they needed to learn something that they didn't know previously. Some circumstance needed to change.
For instance, when I go to a restaurant and I'm really excited about ordering a steak. I order a steak, and the steak comes, and I'm like, "This is a great decision". Then I eat it, and let's just say that it's horrible. (Which would be a truly horrible event, to order a steak and it not be tasty.) Let's say I order it, I taste it, and I regret having ordered that steak. What actually changed from the, "I'm glad I ordered this steak", to the, "I regret ordering this steak". I learned something; I gained new information, namely that the steak tasted bad.
God doesn't gain new information, so this really has to cast his emotions, and his grieving, and his relenting, and appearing to change his mind in a different light. If God knows everything, he knew from before creating man that man would fall. He knew from before he created man that Christ would go to the cross. He knew from before he created man that man would mess up, that God would then be grieved, God would be very displeased and angered with this. Yes, God knew all of that, he does not gain knowledge.
We need to understand that God is not moved by things outside of himself. One way to think about this might be that he's impenetrable. He's not able to be effected without his permission, from outside of himself. Why is this important? When I experience emotion, when am I grieved, when I am angered, that is in response to something external to me. I don't actually choose that emotion. I feel an emotion, I can choose how I respond to that emotion, but I do not choose to feel that emotion. If someone hits me in the face, I'm going to get angry, I didn't say, "Hm, I've been struck. Perhaps I should get mad.” We're not Spock from Star Trek, we just get mad.
Now, how we retaliate or if we retaliate is a choice that we will make. All that to say, the human experience of being moved by emotion from outside of ourselves is not the same with God by any means. This is where we get into trouble when we try to think about God as man but somehow better. How does emotion work with God? Well, there are so many volumes of books that have been written on this topic, but I think the approach that best harmonizes what scripture has to say is that "God does express emotion, but he is not moved by emotion without his choice". When God displays anger, or the bible says, "He got angry". Yes, that was in response to something man had done, but God did not have to get angry. God chose to get angry, that's very different then my experience of anger where I get angry, and I didn't choose it.
Yes, we can work on how we respond to events and train ourselves so our responses are less angry over time. That's also the outworking of the spirit in our life. None the less, there is a righteous anger and God does display that, but he chooses to display that as subject to his sovereign will. He does not have to, it's not inflicted upon him like emotion is inflicted upon us. Good or bad, we don't always choose that, not so with God. This is how God can express emotion in scripture, and he can be grieved, and he can be pleased with a show of faith, and all of these things, but at the same time be immutable. Nothing outside of himself moved him to do something. He responded to something outside of himself but he was able to choose, in a way that we are not.
To answer the question, "Can God change his mind?" No, not in a strict sense. God will act differently in different situations. He might say, "I'm going to destroy this town". When the people repent God doesn't change his mind, he acts differently when the situation is different. The people repented, God doesn't destroy them. He always knew that he would not destroy them, but sometimes, and I would say often times in scripture and in our lives, what actually brings about the repentance is in part the threat of the punishment for not repenting.
If God hadn't threatened judgement on a town, would they have repented? Probably not. Did God know they would repent? Yes, he did. We must not jettison the perfect attributes of God. His omniscience (that he knows all things), his omnipotence (that he's all powerful), or his omnipresence (that he is everywhere) in order to somehow make God seem like he's more approachable. "Well yeah he changes his mind, I change my mind. He gets mad, I get mad. We're kind of similar people. Even though he's much better than I am". We have to be careful of that type of thinking, and that's often what happens when we read one verse in scripture and don't say, "How does this harmonize with everything else?"
I think this is important for simply the harmonization issue. On the surface have verses that seem to contradict, we need to understand how they fit together. There's also another important lesson in considering the attributes of God, something that is often considered to be a “head-y”, or theological topic. The more we consider God, and how splendid and marvelous he is, and the purity and holiness of his character. We hopefully come to see ourselves as much more different, as wholly different. I think one of the problems of not considering the person and attributes of God is we kind of collapse the distance between God and man. "See we're not that different, he's a nice guy, I try to be a nice guy. He lived a really moral life, I try to do that. He gets mad, I get mad. He changes his mind, I change my mind."
That makes for a god that is much more approachable. The problem is, we don't need a God who's approachable, we need a God who can accomplish things that we could fundamentally never accomplish.
There's this problem today in the political arena on both sides where people seem to want to vote for the candidate that they're most likely to want to sit down and have a beer with. Not the person who would be the best national or international leader, but the guy that's most approachable that. That's implicitly how people seem to think about this. I think people bring that to God too, "I want a God that's like me but maybe a better example". The problem is, when we do not understand God as he truly is, and we worship something else, we're not actually worshiping God, we're not understanding God. We sometimes create God in our image, instead of realizing that we are created as a testament, and in his image.
I would encourage you, that when you read scripture, try and think about how different verses and statements must fit together, when they seem to present different aspects or views of God. Also, take time in your bible reading, in your prayer time, to consider the majesty and splendor of God. Think on the perfection that is his being, and that everything that is wrong with us as people is right with God. He is just so otherly different, and perfect, and majestic. We are not, and yet he still condescended and came to earth out of love for the father and to glorify the father in achieving the salvation of us.
Think on that this week in your prayer time, in your Bible reading. Consider the fact that we do have a God that knows everything, and isn't subject to the whims and waves of emotion the way we are, but yet expresses those things as a choice out of his sovereign will.