Questions from the street: “Does God Ever Change His Mind?”

Mark Wheeler

June 1, 2014

Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church

Genesis 22:1-19; Exodus 32:9-14; Malachi 3:6

Questions from the Street: “Does God Ever Change His Mind?”

God of certitude and confidence, You invite us to pray for things we think we need and for our loved ones – teach us to pray with understanding so that we can pray with faith and assurance of Your perfect unchanging will and grace and mercy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Have you ever gone out to a restaurant, and had a hard time ordering? And after finally making your choices, specific and clear and special ordered – you hear what someone else orders and so you change your mind? (Husbands, do NOT look at your wives right now – unless it’s with a sheepish expression of guilt/apology.)

Or maybe it was a much bigger decision – like a new car. And after you got it home you wish you had gotten it in blue instead of red?

Maybe it was a career choice, or a city to move to, or the name of a child. Once it’s done, it’s a little too late to have regrets – but have you?

Have you ever wondered if that inability to make a decision and stick with it – or to be happy regardless of what else comes along next week – is a piece of how we were made in the image of God? If it is, does that mean God, too, might want to change His mind? Does God have regrets over God’s plan? Hmmm.

We are in a series addressing questions people off the street might ask. We have been blessed to get some questions from some of your friends and neighbors. Today’s question comes from one of our deep-thinker members. The question asked was “Does God ever change His mind?

The question comes from the oft quoted, and almost never referenced, Malachi 3:6, which says, “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.

We’ll take a closer look at that later. There are other verses which say things like, “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” And we link that with God’s promise to “never leave us or forsake us.”

But then we read a story like what we find in Genesis 22. This is a key Old Testament story, one on which the foundation of the whole Bible-story is built. What do we do with this? Listen to the Word of God, Genesis 22:1-19 …. —-

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”         “Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”…

10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”         “Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.…

17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Now there’re whole sermons of theology in this story – in fact this question came after such a sermon during Lent this year when I was preaching on the theme of sacrifice that runs through the whole Bible. We could spend hours talking about how sacrifice illustrates God’s perfect justice and perfect love for us – how Abraham was to offer his only son, whom he loved, on the same mountain that God’s only Son, whom He loved, was the ultimate sacrifice for our sin almost 3,000 years after this Abraham and Isaac story.

But the question that came from this story was – why did God change His mind? He told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and then He changed His mind and had Abraham sacrifice a ram caught in the thicket instead. “I thought the Lord did not change – but here He did.

And then I thought of this other Old Testament story where God is convinced that His plan needs to change, and so He does. This is the story where Moses and the Israelites are traveling through the Wilderness from Egypt to Canaan and Moses climbs up Mount Sinai and spends time with God getting the 10 Commandments, but when he comes back down the mountain he sees that Aaron had invited the restless Israelites to melt all their gold jewelry into a mold that they made into a golden calf to worship. Listen to God and Moses as they haggle over the right thing to do with these people. Exodus 32:9-14 …. —-

‘I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.”’ 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

What? This God who does not change, it says, “relented and did not do what He had threatened”? So, does God ever change His mind, or not?

The short answer to this question is that God does (insofar as you and I are able to understand it and experience it) seem to change His mind on some things, but that is only because God never changes his mind on others. I would suggest that Godchanged His mind” in these two stories (and we could find several others) in order to remain unchanged, true, to His character and essence.

“Changing direction” for God is not, as it is for us, an evidence of indecisiveness. It is rather a change in His method of responding to a person based on some change in the other individual.

The change, then, was in Aaron and the Israelites. The problem was with their disobedience, their wayward hearts and lack of trust.

The change was in Abraham’s faithfulness. There had been a time when Abraham did not trust God enough to give him his promised son, so Abraham and Sarah’s maid took matters into their own hands. But now Abraham fully trusted that God would somehow miraculously provide what would be needed for Isaac to still be the beginning of the promises God gave to Abraham. Since Abraham changed, God offered a different sacrifice, a substitutionary atonement.

To assert that God is unchanging does not mean He cannot experience regret, grief and even a change of heart. If unchangeableness meant transcendent detachment from people and events, God would pay an awful price for immutability. Instead, God enters into relationship with sinful humans that demonstrate His willingness to respond to each person’s action uniquely according to their obedience to His will.

The point here is that God’s essential nature and His ultimate commitment to His own sovereign will and ultimate authority do not change.

When God engages in relationship and interaction with a volitional person (such as Abraham or me or you) or a people (such as the Israelites or us), He remains true to His own “God-ness” and His ultimate purposes. In cases where the person or people with whom God is partnering decide we don’t want to do things along the lines of God’s will, God remains true to Himself, which will mean that we will feel and experience every indication that we and God are not on the same page.

In the case of Adam and Eve, it was God’s intention to work through them to project His image into the creation, and to expand His dominion over all of the creation through them. When they decided to ignore God and do their own thing, God remained true to His ultimate commitment while “changing the plan”. Thus, the first couple is ushered out of the program, and God Himself engages in the process of restoring what people ruin. This exact pattern can be seen over and over again in the Old Testament. God never changes His ultimate purposes, and God never changes in His goodness and His “God-ness.” 

Thus, Go­d can be said to change His mind, or regret, or change His actions toward people on various occasions, as a way of illustrating (and ultimately remaining true to) His own unchanging nature.

Ultimately, the larger story of Scripture resolves with Jesus opting to function completely on God’s terms to the point of death, and with God vindicating Jesus through resurrection as the affirmation that Jesus is the one person who was wholly faithful to God.

Jesus remains true to God, and God remains true to Jesus; and in the end, God hands the entire creation over to Jesus (see Matthew 28:18) which is exactly what God said He would do in Genesis 3:15. And what He promised in both of today’s Old Testament stories.

Back to that one verse in Malachi. Listen again to what this Old Testament prophet says: “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.God’s ultimate aim to hand the world over to an image-bearing human who reflects His image back into the creation, and who rules on His behalf, never changed. Jesus, as the fulfillment of thousands of years of covenantal promise, stayed true!

God does not change simply because it is not in His nature to mutate – He is immutable. And it is that constancy which keeps His people from being destroyed. Thank You, Jesus!

In a few minutes we come to the Lord’s Table, and we commemorate the immutable, unchanging character of God’s perfect justice and grace and mercy – doled out for us on the cross and from the tomb.

God of certitude and confidence, You invite us to pray for things we think we need and for our loved ones – teach us to pray with understanding so that we can pray with faith and assurance of Your perfect unchanging will and grace and mercy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Resources:

Burchard, Kenny; God Sometimes Changes His Mind (But Only Because He Never Changes); ChurchLeaders.com; 05/20/2014.

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