Changing God’s mind.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 November

If you know your bible—heck, if you’ve seen The Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston—you know the Hebrews had a major lapse when they were at Sinai. The previous month, the LORD handed down his 10 commandments, then Moses went up the mountain to get more instructions, and while he was gone the people decided they wanted an idol. Whether this idol was meant to represent the LORD or some other god, we don’t know. What we do know is the idol violated the very command the LORD handed down last month. Ex 20.4-6

Understandably, the LORD was pissed.

Exodus 32.9-14 KWL
9 The LORD told Moses, “I see this people. Look, the people are stiff-necked.
10 Now leave me: My rage is hot towards them. I’ll end them. I’ll make you a great nation.”
11 Moses begged his LORD God’s face, saying, “Why this hot anger towards your people, LORD?
You brought them of Egypt’s land with great strength and a steady hand.
12 What will the Egyptians say?
‘He brought them out for evil, to kill them in the mountains, to end them from the face of the earth.’
Repent of your hot anger! Relent of the evil you plan for your people!
13 Remember your slaves Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,
You swore by yourself to them when you spoke to them:
‘I’ll increase your seed like stars of the sky.
I give your seed all this land, like I said. They’ll have it forever.’ ”
14 And the LORD relented of the evil he said he’d do to his people.

That’s right. The Almighty backed down. A lowly human got him to do it.

And it’s not the only passage in the bible where God changed his mind. There are dozens. Here’s a few notable instances:

  • God regretted making humans. Ge 6.5-7
  • God regretted making Saul king. 1Sa 15.11
  • God relented from destroying Jerusalem with plague. 2Sa 24.16, 1Ch 21.15
  • God showed Amos two visions that he immediately took back after Amos protested. Am 7.3, 6
  • If a nation repents, God takes back the disaster he had planned for it. Jr 18.8, 26.3, 26.13, Jl 2.13-14, Ps 106.45 Like Judah Jr 26.19 and like Nineveh. Jh 3.10
  • If a nation goes rogue, God takes back the good he had planned for it. Jr 18.8, 10 And gets really tired of doing this. Jr 15.6
  • We used to be God's enemies, but now we're his friends. Ro 5.6-11

Problem is, this flies in the face of the beliefs of many Christians. Because they don’t believe God changes his mind. Ever. At all.

The God whose will is set in stone.

Okay, so why don’t these Christians believe God changes his mind? Part of it is how they imagine God’s sovereignty works. Part of it is how they imagine God’s almightiness works. And part of it is the doctrine of God’s immutability, the idea he doesn’t change. If he doesn’t change, neither does his will.

Almightiness first. Part of that is the idea God knows everything. Or as we theologians call it, God’s omniscience—he knows past and future, front to back, the deepest things in the darkest minds. There’s nothing he’s unaware of.

Humans change our minds because there’s plenty we are unaware of. We make initial decisions based on partial information. When we get more info, we change our minds. Or—let’s be honest—our emotions change, so our minds change: We don’t wanna follow through with our initial decision; we like another decision better. Or we lose our nerve and chicken out.

Whereas God never loses his nerve. Never lets his emotions sway him from doing the right thing. And if he knows all, he can’t possibly make decisions based on partial information: When he made the initial decision, he already had the complete, comprehensive information necessary to make the perfect decision. He also knew all the possible results of all the other courses of action he could’ve taken… and chose this one. So he can’t possibly regret, repent, rethink things, nor change his mind. Doing that would imply he’s not really omniscient.

Now sovereignty. Some Christians imagine God wouldn’t change his mind not just because God’s decision-making process isn’t finite like ours: They imagine God wouldn’t change his mind because God’s in charge and always gets his way. Whatever he determines to do, he does. No force in the universe can stop him. Nobody can get him to change his mind. If anything, he’ll change our minds; never the other way round.

And now immutability. The idea originates in Greek philosophy, ’cause Aristotle of Athens (384BC–322BC) imagined if something’s truly perfect, it’d never need to grow and get better, never age nor decay, never anything. It’d just sit there and be perfect. So that’s kinda how Aristotle imagined the Highest God: Just sitting there in heaven, immobile, being perfect, with nothing affecting him ’cause nothing should affect him. Not even our prayers.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) was a huge Aristotle fan, and tried to sync him up with the scriptures as best he could. This immutability idea really worked for him, and he read it into all the scriptures which suggest there’s something utterly unchangeable about God:

  • “I, the LORD, don’t change.” Ml 3.6
  • God neither lies, changes his mind, nor regrets. Nu 23.19, 1Sa 15.29
  • God’ll do whatever he says he’ll do. Ek 24.14
  • God doesn’t go through phases. Jm 1.17
  • Jesus the same yesterday, today, and forever; He 13.8 the one who is, was, and is coming. Rv 1.4, 8

The result is many Christians who insist God never changes, ergo he never changes his mind. He’s perfect and never would change. He’s omniscient, so his first decision was always his best decision, and he’d never need to change. What he said he’d do, he’ll do. He doesn’t need any armchair quarterbacking from us fallible, self-centered humans. End of discussion.

I gotta agree their logic is pretty sound. If God’s truly perfect, sovereign, omniscient, and immutable, it stands to reason he’d never change his mind. Here’s the problem: We’ve got scriptures which indicate he totally does.

The God whose will is not set in stone?

Remember, we have that passage where Moses, hardly a perfect man himself, talked God out of wiping out the Hebrews and instead turning Moses into his chosen people. Moses wasn’t shy in sharing that story either. Dt 9.13-14 Made him look like a hero. But the existence of this story demonstrates God can be talked into or out of stuff. Otherwise Moses was a dirty liar.

Calvinists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are two of those groups who insist God doesn’t change. How do they get around such scriptures?

Well, sometimes they edit them. The English Standard Version, produced by Calvinists, and the New World Translation, produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, simply remove the idea from the bible.

Exodus 32.14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. So Jehovah began to reconsider the calamity that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
Jonah 3.10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 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. When the true God saw what they did, how they had turned back from their evil ways, he reconsidered the calamity that he said he would bring on them, and he did not bring it.

Even though the very same word, nakhám, appears to mean “change one’s mind” when it’s used to describe what God won’t do—or of other people.

Exodus 13.17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” Now when Pharaoh sent the people away, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near. For God said: “The people may change their minds when they are confronted by war and will return to Egypt.”
Numbers 23.19 “God is not man, that he should lie, / or a son of man, that he should change his mind. / Has he said, and will he not do it? / Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” “God is not a mere man who tells lies, / Nor a son of man who changes his mind. / When he says something, will he not do it? / When he speaks, will he not carry it out?”
Psalm 110.4 The LORD has sworn / and will not change his mind, / “You are a priest forever / after the order of Melchizedek.” Jehovah has sworn an oath, and he will not change his mind: / “You are a priest forever / In the manner of Melchizedek!”

To be fair, “relent” or “reconsider” are pretty similar in meaning to “change one’s mind.” But they’ve also got plausible deniability. One can argue, and many have, that “relenting” means God changed nothing; he simply dialed back the rhetoric or delayed the wrath. But he still did as he was gonna do in the first place. He still destroyed that generation of Hebrews, and had ’em die in the wilderness instead of Canaan. He still destroyed Nineveh… a century later, but still.

Other Christians have simply argued against taking any of these passages literally. R.C. Sproul, fr’instance.

Using the word repentance with respect to God raises some problems for us. When the bible describes God for us, it uses human terms, because the only language God has by which to speak to us about himself is our human language. The theological term for this is anthropomorphic language, which is the use of human forms and structures to describe God. When the bible talks about God’s feet or the right arm of the Lord, we immediately see that as just a human way of speaking about God. But when we use more abstract terms such as repent, then we get all befuddled about it. Sproul @ Numbers 14

Sproul recommends we just ignore the fact the authors of the scriptures used such words as nakhám/“changed his mind.” Because the authors must’ve known then, what Calvinists like him know now: God doesn’t really change his mind, and they used nakhám because it was way easier to describe what appeared to happen, than what really happened. And we should be wise enough to read between the lines.

Um, if God only appeared to change his mind, so much so the authors of scripture decided to describe it that way, but he wasn’t really, what was he really doing? Acting? Psyching Moses out? Trying to push Moses’s buttons? Pretending, so he’d see what Moses might do? Doesn’t this kinda violate all the scriptures which insist God doesn’t lie?

We can try to explain this incident away as “anthropomorphism.” But to do so implies the scriptures aren’t an accurate description of God. That in fact our beliefs about God’s immutability, take precedence over his less-than-immutable behavior in the scriptures.

I’m a Protestant, so I’m gonna have to protest: That’s not how proper theology is supposed to work. Our beliefs are derived from the bible. Not borrowed from Aristotle, then overlaid upon the bible. If the scriptures say God changed, he changed. If the idea bugs you, tough: You change. Not redefine the idea till it suits you better.

How far does immutability go?

Most of the problem stems from the fact humans are creatures of extremes. If a bible verse suggests God doesn’t change, doesn’t relent or repent or regret, Christians assume this applies to absolutely everything having to do with God.

So, what about different bible verses which suggest God does change, like the story at the top of this article? Well then we’ve got an apparent contradiction, a bible difficulty. So let’s pop the hood on this bible, and see which of the two passages we’ve gotta neuter till it doesn’t bother us anymore. Calvinists obviously choose the verses which say God changes his mind.

Me, I say God’s immutable in some areas. Obviously not all. Applying immutability too widely, too liberally, is what’s creating a bunch of apparent—and unnecessary—bible difficulties.

God interacts with humans. All the time. In order to do so, he’s gotta exist within spacetime. And time is change. Stuff grows more complicated, or more chaotic. Our relationships with God grow closer, or farther apart. You honestly think your relationship with God doesn’t affect him any? (If so, I can’t see how your relationship with him is gonna do anything but suck.) So, some things about God are changing. Do change.

Those who insist God’s immutable, also tend to insist God exists outside time. Time is change, and they prefer an unchanging God—as if that’s a good thing. Problem is, if God’s outside time, he’s not omnipresent, not everywhere. Space and time are one and the same, y’know. And a timeless God might work for Aristotle, but the idea’s wholly inconsistent with scriptures which demonstrate him regularly interacting with time. (God likes music too, y’know… and music can’t exist without time. Think about that.)

When the author of Hebrews wrote Christ Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, He 13.8 obviously she couldn’t’ve meant his wisdom, age, and favor: Luke stated Jesus grew in these things. Lk 2.52 ’Cause Jesus lived in spacetime. Obviously stuff changed for him. He walked from place to place. Grew hungry. Grew tired. Gained, then lost, students. Got killed; got raised. Changed a lot. So what is it about Jesus that’s the same yesterday, today, and forever?

His character. ’Cause that’s what makes him God. God’s character is immutable. He’s never not gonna be love. 1Jn 4.16 Never not gonna be kind, compassionate, peaceful, patient, forgiving, gracious. Never not gonna be himself. 2Ti 2.13

Same with God’s promises. They’re tied to his immutable character: He always fulfills them because of his character. He 6.18 It’s why the essentials of Christianity never change—and why the author of Hebrews warned her readers about strange new ideas, He 13.7-9 namely those which might lead us away from Jesus.

But to say God does nothing new? He regularly does new things. Nu 16.30, Is 43.19 Jesus’s covenant with us Christians is a new covenant, remember? He 12.24 The Holy Spirit consistently does new, unexpected things—though always with the goal of pointing us to Jesus. Always producing the same spiritual fruit, the overflow of his character—the truly immutable part of God.

Go ahead. Try to change his mind. He’ll let you.

Not only can God be talked into and out of stuff, Jesus went one step further and declared God’s cool with us talking him into things. Hence his Unjust Judge story:

Luke 18.1-8 KWL
1 Jesus gave his students a parable
about the necessity of them always praying, and not quitting,
2 saying, “Some judge was in some city. He had no fear of God, no compassion for people.
3 A widow was in that city, and came to him to say, ‘Prosecute my opponent!’
4 At the time, he didn’t want to.
He told himself about this, ‘I may neither fear God nor have compassion for people,
5 yet because this widow’s causing me trouble, I’ll prosecute on her behalf
otherwise, in the end, she may come give me a black eye!’ ”
6 The Master said, “Listen to what this unjust judge said.
7 ‘God may never bring prosecution on his chosen people’s behalf’?—
those shouting out to him day and night, and he’;s patient with them?
8 I tell you he’ll bring prosecution on their behalf swiftly.
Still, at the Son of Man’s coming, will he find any faith on earth?”

Christian beliefs about omniscience and immutability clearly need to take this into consideration. Our picture of a perfect, all-knowing, unchanging God is clearly a deficient picture. Because God is perfect, is all-knowing… yet still lets his kids talk him into stuff.

True, he’s not always gonna say yes, ’cause our motives are deficient too. Jm 4.3 In many cases our prayer requests really will lead to us changing, not God. But to say God’s will can never, ever change, no matter what? Then what’d be the point of boldly approaching God with our prayer requests? He 4.16 What’s the point of his even interacting with us, when he can simply decree how everything’s gonna go? What kind of relationship can we have with a God who’ll never deviate from his program? We’d have a more fruitful one with a frozen computer.