Sunday, October 12, 2014

Does God Change His Mind?

This morning I was going to wear a nice blue shirt with my khaki pants to church. After looking over the other shirts in my closet, I changed my mind and picked another shirt to wear. There is nothing particularly unusual about that. I change my mind a lot. For the baseball game tonight I decided to get chicken wings from a local place. Then I changed my mind and went to another place for wings. As I said, I change my mind a lot.

This week a friend asked me if God ever changes his mind. My initial thought was “hopefully not as much as I do!” But, it got me to thinking about changing minds and how to think about God changing his mind.

On the one hand there are biblical passages that seem to clearly answer this question. For example, Malachi 3:6 says “I the Lord do not change.” Indeed, in that verse God attributes the fact that Israel is not destroyed to the fact that he does not change. In other words, his continued willingness to honor his covenant to Jacob (Israel) is what has spared them. Numbers 23:19 is even more clear. That verse says “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?” The New Testament, too, gets into the act when James observes in 1:17 that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

Those passages would seem to settle the issue. Yet, what about a verse like Gen 6:6 that tells us that “the Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” While it is true that being grieved over something is not exactly the same thing as changing your mind. But, it does, at the very least, indicate a change in disposition. After all, God went from saying the creation of man was “very good” (Gen 1:31) to being “grieved” and “pained” that he had made man. That represents a distinct change!

And then there are occasions in which God declares his intention to punish or bring judgment on a people and then change his mind. The Ninevites of Jonah 3:10 come to mind as an example. God had told Jonah he intended to punish the people of Nineveh, but upon seeing their repentance, “he had compassion and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Similarly, Exodus 32:14 says that “the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” Here again, the Lord responds to the intercession of Moses and does not bring the judgment on the people he had threatened.

So, how do we understand this? Well, I do not propose to fully expound on such a complex theological and biblical issue in this short blog. Rather, I want to give some thoughts on how to understand God and his (changing / unchanging) mind.

It is probably wise to think about God changing his mind in the following categories. First, God does not change his mind because he has learned something new. We usually change our mind due to the addition of new information. I decided to switch chicken wing restaurants based on the ease of access to the restaurant. I decided to switch shirts because one needed to be ironed, while the other did not. Because God is omniscient (all knowing) he does not change his mind due to the addition of previously unknown information.

Second, there are some things about which God will not change his mind. I think of Isaiah 46:10-11 “…declaring the end from the beginning, and from the past things which were not done, saying, My purpose shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure … What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.” God’s intention to conform believers to the likeness of Christ (Eph 1:3-14) is an example of that. God’s decision to send Christ to be the sacrifice for our sins (Acts 2:23; Isa 53) is another example of something about which God would not change his mind.

A third area to consider are those times when the Bible has expressed that God changes his mind. It seems to me that the majority of these occasions (if not all of them) are in the context of judgment and repentance. In these cases it may be that our language fails to adequately communicate what is going on. In other words, it is likely that the Holy Spirit is using anthropomorphic language to help us understand what is happening. Anthropomorphic language is employed when an author represents the forms, feelings, or actions of God in human ways.

So, when God threatens judgment and then relents, it appears he has changed his mind. But, because God knows the end from the beginning, it is more likely that he knows that the threat of judgment will result in repentance. And it is the repentance of sinful people that God desires.

So, does God change his mind? Well, yes and no. He does not change his mind the way we do. But, he appears to change his mind at times. It is key to remember that it is the unchanging nature of God that means we can trust him and take him at his word. His unchangeableness is not a negative, but a huge blessing to us.

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