Friday, April 17, 2020
That's A Good Question! How can an unchanging God change His mind? More on God's emotional life.
In the last post we began to look at God's emotional life here: http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2020/04/thats-good-question-answering-recent.html. Recently, I had received a question about this topic in a Sunday night live Q&A service (in which we live streamed and received questions from viewers). I began to deal with how God's emotional-life differs from our emotional life. In this post, I continue on with the response I gave to this question, focusing on the seemingly perplexing issue of how an unchanging God is described as "changing His mind" or emotions. For those interested in watching the video segment to which this question is related, you can click on the link here to our church's You Tube channel that features the "Q&A service" from April 5, 2020 and forward to time segment 30:15-43:30 in which the question is addressed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbH84ZEGlR0&t=2607s
So what does the Bible mean when it says "God changed His mind", even though it elsewhere describes God as unchanging?
1. Scripture does present God as unchanging in terms of His being while seemingly "changing His mind".
"Scripture says that on several occasions (for instance in the book of Jonah), that Jonah is talking to God in chapter three of His prophecy. Jonah said something to the effect: "I knew that you were a God who would change your mind". What had happened, Jonah had been told by God to proclaim throughout the city of Nineveh in three days God was going to judge them. Then, the King of Nineveh decreed a time of repentance where everyone was to dress in sackcloth and sit on ashes (a customary ancient form of mourning) and cry out to God for repentance. It says in the book of Jonah that "God changed his mind". So, some people have asked: "well, how can that be the case?" We read, for instance, in Numbers 23:19
"God is not a man that he should change his mind nor son of man that he should repent".
Yet, there in the book of Jonah, we see God changing his mind. Although God is by nature unchanging (what theologians call "immutable"), we see instances in scripture where we see him described as changing his mind that is referring to God from the standpoint of the creatures. What is going on then?
2. God, in Scripture, uses two different methods of expressing His nature and identity.
Scripture talks of God in two ways. There are those verses that speaks of God as He is in and of Himself - namely, He's unchanging. Then, there are those verses in which God adapts the revelation of Himself in forms of figurative language to bridge understanding to His people (older writers liken this to a parent speaking baby-talk to their child).
As to the first sort of way scripture refers to God, we turn to James 1:17, which says -
"every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of heavenly lights with whom there is no variation nor shifting of shadow."
So, with respect to God from God's perspective, there is no change within Him. His emotions are constant. They are "always-on", so-to-speak. God's emotional life is unvarying.
To illustrate, whenever I was a child, my mom or dad would take me to do errands or go on a trip. They would tell me at the beginning of the trip - "we're going to the store" or "we're going to Grandma's house". As to their plan and point of view, there was nothing different to alter that plan. They told me what was happening. They were the same mom and dad to me. As a principle of perspective and truth - my mom and dad kept the same unvarying plan and course.
But with respect to our finite perspective, as we experience and interact with God from our point of view, it seems as if God does change his mind. Romans 2:4 says this:
"do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience, knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance".
So, we understand that it is God's intention to change people and to change their lives. So whenever we read in scripture those places where God is described as "changing his mind", that is, figurative language used in scripture to ascribe changeable human-like emotions to God (called "anthropopathism", or "human-like emotions"). God does this in revealing Himself by adapting the revelation of Himself to people so that they can relate to Him.
If we go back to my illustration of my parents and myself as a child on a trip, my parents could make several stops along the way to our intended destination. In my child-like understanding, I wondered why my parents "changed their minds" about our trip. Sometimes they would explain to me in words I could grasp why we were making this stop or that stop (and sometimes they would say "trust me").
As a child, it was hard for me to grasp they're overall intentions, yet, they had never ultimately changed in their intentions nor as my parents in the illustration of the journey. If anything, such interactions demonstrated I was the one who was changing: learning to trust them or growing in contentment. As to my vantage point, my parents seemed to change their minds a lot, yet, from their vantage point - they had already had those plans in mind and still had the ultimate destination of our trip in mind.
In divine revelation, it's God's way of expressing himself in ways that are understandable to us. Scripture itself demonstrates this principle by which God adapted His communication to words in the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek written by the prophets and apostles (over 770,000 words an average English translation of Old and New Testaments). In other words, wherever we read in scripture where it says: "God changes his mind", that's actually Scripture's way of indicating a change in ourselves.
The author A.W. Tozer puts it this way, more-or-less:
"that whenever we read of God changing his mind that means there's been a change in the moral situation of the person. So, for example, a person who perhaps all their lives was in rebellion against God and opposition against God hears the Gospel. The Spirit of God does His work in them and now they're responding by faith to Jesus Christ. What has taken place? Has there been a change in God? No. God's always angry at sin and He hates it. God is always gracious and merciful towards those who repent. So what's changed? It's not God. Instead, its the person that's changed."
Sometimes we can illustrate it in this way. Say you have the sun and then you have maybe a block of wax and a block of clay. As you sit that block of wax and that block of clay out in the sunlight, the block of clay will harden but the block of wax will soften. Now what has changed? It's not the sun. The sun is shining. It's doing what it always does.
The sun does not change relative to the block of wax and the block of clay. Instead, it's the block of clay and the block of wax that has changed. So, from the perspective and the vantage point of the blocks of clay and wax, there has indeed been a change (a change in the situation of each). In like manner, when we talk about people and how it is they experience what seems to be a change in God, it's actually those persons experiencing a change within themselves.
3. God has an emotional-life without the frailties and sin we typically have because of what kind of God He is by nature.
So, how is it that God can have an emotional life and yet we have emotions? Furthermore, so oftentimes our emotions come out as sinful and frail. How can we draw all of this to a conclusion? We've been made in the image of God. We read in Genesis 1:26 where God says: "Let Us make man in our image in our likeness." And so when God made human beings, He included in His design of human beings that they were to have emotions. Moreover, they were to have a creaturely emotions that were expressive of their Creator. Of course, when man fell into sin, that meant that the entire nature of man's being (emotionally, psychologically, intellectually) was affected by sin.
So, emotions in of themselves are not sinful. Rather, they are expressed in connection with ,the nature of the one that expresses them. For God, God has emotions that are expressed without sin because He is God, that by nature, cannot sin (see Habakkuk 1:13; Titus 1:2; James 1:17; 1 John 1:5-7). We express emotions and they are subject to change. We respond to the changes of circumstances. Just because God has emotions it doesn't necessarily mean that they are sinful. As a final thought, Scripture certainly bears out that God has an emotional life, even though it is different from our own."