Wednesday, June 16, 2010

God Changes His Mind and I am Glad He Does

Moses mosaic on display at the Cathedral Basil...

Image via Wikipedia

This post will take the risk of sounding heretical, but only to those that misunderstand what I am saying.  So please read it carefully!

Often times we hold on to doctrine and then extend that doctrine way beyond the original teaching.  One teaching about the nature of God is His immutability.  Immutability deals with the unchanging nature, character, and will of God.  It is supported by several verses throughout the Bible (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Ps. 102:26; Mal. 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:13; Heb. 6:17-18; James 1:17).  This unchangeableness is best described by the statement:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Hebrews 13:8 (HCSB)

This seems pretty straight forward until you come across verses in the Bible that suggest that God does in fact change (Gen. 6:6; Exodus 32:14; Deut. 32:36; 1 Sam. 15:11; 1 Sam. 15:35; 2 Sam. 24:16; 1 Chron. 21:15; Isaiah 38:1-5; Jer. 15:6; Jer. 18:8; Jer. 26:3; Jer. 26:13; Jer. 26:19; Jer. 42:10; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10). 

One might suggest that God Cannot both change and not change otherwise the Bible is contradicting itself making it an unreliable source for knowledge.  This is often a position of atheists or agnostics. 

The problem is not with the suggestion of contradiction.  It seems very apparent that this is a contradiction.  The problem is in the understanding of the nature of God.  Let me just affirm that I do believe in the teaching of the immutability of God.  So then what do we do with these contradictions?

I think one important attribute that we need to understand about God is that He is relational.  That is to say He is knowable and he relates to those that seek Him (Jer. 9:23-24; John 17:3; I John 5:20, I John 2:13; Gal. 4:9; Phil 3:10; I John 2:3, 4:8).  This truth is very well summed by this:

Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.
Hebrews 11:6 (HCSB)

This verse indicates to me that God rewards those that have faith and seek Him.  This is the foundation of Christian faith.  It is by trusting (faith) and turning to God (repenting/seeking) that we are saved from sin. 

Since relationship with His creation is an attribute of God then this attribute is unchangeable.  That is to say it is an immutable characteristic of God.  It is is in that context that these apparent contradictions begin to make sense and resolve.  Let's take a look at a couple of them. 

When the Lord saw that man's wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time, the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
Genesis 6:5-6 (HCSB)

When God finished His creation He saw that it was "very good (Gen 1:31)."  So then we had the fall of man into sin.  From this event things got progressively worse.  It seems that as man became more bent on doing evil the more it grieved God's heart.  This grief produced a feeling of regret.  Note that this is a feeling and not an action or change in will.  If God had wanted to act on this feeling of regret he could have very well wiped out man and started over.  He has the power to do this.  So the feeling of regret is not the same as the action of regret (which would lead to undoing).  This feeling is based on the fact that God desires a relationship with people.  As people reject Him by acting evil it grieves Him. 

The Lord also said to Moses: "I have seen this people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone, so that My anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation."
Exodus 32:9-10 (HCSB)
But Moses interceded with the Lord his God...  ...So the Lord relented concerning the disaster He said He would bring on His people.
Exodus 32:11, 14 (HCSB)

In this section it is clear that God is relating to Moses.  He is plainly saying step aside Moses so that I can destroy these people.  God was angry with them because they had given the Glory of their deliverance from Egypt to the Egyptian god Apis.  God was offended that they would worship the false god of the very people that He had just delivered them from.  "Stand aside Moses." 

However, Moses chose not to stand aside, but to intercede on behalf of the people of Israel.  He identified reasons why God should not act on the anger to destroy the people of Israel.  Moses was appealing to another attribute of God, His divine Mercy.  Mercy is unwarranted compassion or leniency for wrong behavior.  God changed from His righteous anger to mercy.  In fact as we look at these situations that are described God as changing it is this very fact that God changes in His dealing with people from righteous anger to unwarranted compassion and leniency that happens the majority of the time.  This attribute of God is the central tenet of the Christian Faith.  It is this capacity to change in His dealings with mankind (from judgment to mercy) that led to providing the ultimate sacrifice of His son that we might have the forgiveness of sin and restored relationship with God.  Let's take a look at another verse.

Then God saw their actions-that they had turned from their evil ways-so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.
Jonah 3:10 (HCSB)

God's righteous anger was burning against the people of Nineveh.  His anger was based on them being a violent people.  Being consistent with His nature God provides an opportunity for repentance for the people of Nineveh.  That opportunity would come from the voice of the reluctant prophet Jonah.  It is an very interesting story in that God used a prophet that did not want the Ninevites to repent (that is face God's wrath) to preach repentance (staying God's wrath).  In this situation God is changing based on the relationship with the people of Nineveh.  They repented, that is  they trusted in God's mercy and turned their ways to Him.  This is another example of God's changing from righteous anger to mercy. 

In short since God is relational His disposition will change with regard to a person or people based on their actions.  That God's disposition would change does not in any way diminish that He is unchangeable. 

Let me give an example.  If one of my kids is doing something wrong that leads me to feel upset, I have not changed in my relationship as their father.  What is more, if they come to me and seek forgiveness with a sincere heart then I am again likely to change my disposition toward them, but I have not change in the nature of the relationship of being their father.  Now this analogy falls apart if we press it to much as being fallible and imperfect I do in fact change in nature (and as a father), but I think it illustrates the point I am trying to make.

If someone suggests to you that God has changed then let me suggest that you determine if that change is related to a feeling of remorse, the result of someone's intersession, or the result of someone's repentance.  In these God does change, and I am sure glad that he does.  Facing God's righteous anger without mercy is certainly no place that I want to be. 

Lets look at one more verse:

You have left Me. This is the Lord's declaration. You have turned your back, so I have stretched out My hand against you and destroyed you. I am tired of showing compassion.
Jeremiah 15:6 (HCSB)

This verse is an example of God changing in His disposition from Mercy to divine wrath.  It says to me that God is overwhelmingly merciful. However, He cannot forever extend mercy (longsuffering in this case).  This is especially true when people leave Him.   Notice that this change in disposition is based on the actions of the people themselves.  They turned their back on God and refused His offer of mercy.  God is saying that he will not relent based on the intersession of the Prophet Jeremiah or any other prophet (see Jer 15:1).  However, there is still room in God's heart for a repentant people (see Jer 18:8, 11).  Take heed this warning that you can reach a point at which intersession of others will not be effective and without repentance judgment is certain.  We would do well to weigh this truth and not presume upon God's longsuffering.  It is this change that leads me to look to the Lord with awe and holy fear. 

God does change in his dealings with his people and it does not diminish that He does not change in nature, purpose, or character, but rather the change is based on the fact that he is a personal God that relates favorably to those that believe in Him and seek Him and unfavorably to those that turn their backs on Him. 

Enhanced by Zemanta