For those of us who grow up within Christianity, one of the first things we’re taught about God is that God never changes. In theological terms, we’d call this immutability — God is the same yesterday as God is today or as God will be tomorrow.
Unfortunately, this attribute of God has been historically misunderstood, both to the detriment of ourselves and in the way we see God. Where we get into trouble is not in confessing that God never changes, but when we assume that God never changes his mind — or that God would repeat past actions in the future, as if God were a scientific study that could be repeated with the same results over and over again.
For example, when I teach the nonviolent ethic expressed by Jesus in the gospel accounts, many Christians will point to the use of divine violence in the Old Testament as a way to dismiss the teachings of Jesus. All it takes is lifting a verse that attributes a certain action to God, and then saying, “and God never changes.”
This is not how immutability works (nor is it how Scripture works). God can be unchanging in nature, but still willing to change his mind about things — something that we see throughout Scripture. Greg Boyd has previously compiled examples found in the Bible where God clearly changes his mind and adopts a position that conflicts with one he previously held:
1 Chron. 21:15 — God said that he would destroy Jerusalem, but then he relented.
2 Kings 10:1-6 — King Hezekiah was told through an inspired prophet that he would not recover from sickness. But after Hezekiah pleaded with God, the Lord told him “I will add fifteen years to your life.”
Ex. 32:14 — Because of Moses’ intercessory prayer, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on this people.”
Ex. 33:1-3, 14 — In the light of Moses’ pleading, the Lord reversed his plan not to go with the Israelites into the promised land.
Deut. 9:13-29 — The Lord “intended to destroy” the Israelites, and was even ready to destroy Aaron. Moses’ 40-day intercession altered God’s intention.
1 Kings 21:21-29 — The Lord says that he will bring disaster because of Ahab’s sins. But when Ahab repents, he says that he will not bring disaster.
2 Chron. 12:5-8 — The Lord was going to allow the Israelites to be conquered because of King Reheboam’s rebellion. The king and his officers repent, so the Lord changes his plan.
Jer. 26:2-3 — The Lord tells Jeremiah to prophesy to Israel that they should repent, saying, “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on [Israel] because of their evil doings.”
Ez. 4:9-15 — God tells Ezekiel to act out a prophesy with human dung, but Ezekiel objects. God then allows Ezekiel to act it out with cow dung.
Amos 7:1-6 — The Lord revealed two judgments and two times Amos intercedes. Twice the Scriptures say, “The Lord relented concerning this …”
Jonah 3:10 — God “changed his mind” about the destruction he planned to carry out on Nineveh.
If we can demonstrably see in Scripture that God changes his mind, confessing that God is unchanging or immutable must done in a way that recognizes God does in fact, change his mind and reverse course, or change directions, depending on given circumstances. Affirming that what God did then might not be the same as what God would or does do now, is something that gives one a higher view of God, not something that diminishes our view of God.
This is because when we say that God is unchanging, we are referring to God’s essence — and the Bible tells us the essence of God is love.
And here’s the paradox: while God is unchanging in his essence of love, the nature of love itself is to always be adapting and evolving, depending on the real-world variables one is working within.
Love is not static. Love, in essence, is constantly changing.
Love adapts in order to give the object of love what they need on any given day. What is most loving today might not be what is most loving tomorrow, depending on the variables the object of your love is experiencing.
Sometimes love pulls close.
Sometimes love gives space.
Sometimes love provides safe boundaries.
Sometimes love erases those boundaries.
Sometimes love circles back.
Sometimes love quietly waits it all out.
Sometimes love professes itself from a mountaintop.
Sometimes love screams itself with silence.
Love cannot be static when the object of love is not static. Even when the object of love needs the opposite of what they may have needed yesterday, love adapts in order to constantly become more loving.
Love is always changing the ways it manifests itself — but it never ceases to be love.
Love does what is most loving, and what is most loving is not the same today as it will be tomorrow, or the day after that.
Thus, being true to love means the one doing the loving must be constantly flexible, because true love is willing to bend and shape itself in order to accommodate the needs of the other.
I believe that God is love, and that in this way, God is immutable and unchanging.
I also believe that love is something so beautiful that it ebbs and flows into different shapes and sizes, in order to give what is most loving in that moment.
This is precisely why God does in fact change his mind: it wouldn’t actually be love if it always looked the same — it would just be a rigid formula that failed to take into account the needs of the one being loved.
That’s not love.
Love is so much better than that…
And so is God.
Benjamin L. Corey, an Anabaptist author, speaker and blogger from Auburn, Maine, is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. This first appeared on his blog, Formerly Fundie, where he discusses the intersection of faith and culture from a progressive/emergent/neo-Anabaptist vantage point.