The Problem with an Unchanging God

As always, these thoughts are provisional and are subject to change. In fact, they probably will…*

But it seems the first problem with having an unchanging God, of course, is that we have to do away with parts of the Old Testament. For instance, we’ll have to get rid of the passages that claim God regrets creating humans at all (Gen 6:6) or those where Moses and Abraham can talk God down from his decision to whack entire cities and/or people groups (Gen 18:16-33 and Exod 32:14).

That is hyperbole of course. We would never get rid of passages in our Bible. Are you kidding? It’s easier to keep it in and then just explain it away by saying “it only seems like he is changing.” That’s much less disruptive. But why is it that when the Bible “clearly” says something we don’t like we are free to dismiss it? Many evangelicals have no problem believing that the Bible “clearly” says a man survived being swallowed by a fish for three days or that “In the beginning” there was a magical place where snakes talk and a naked man was able to name every animal on the planet during the world’s longest parade — so then why not believe the Bible when it says that God changes his mind? What gives?

Now maybe we are reluctant to believe in a God who changes because other parts of the Bible seem to point to a God who doesn’t change. Fair enough. But if we are afraid of the idea of a God who changes, if we are not even able to allow for that possibility, we might be shielding ourselves from being confronted by the God we find in the Bible. That is, how we read these uncomfortable passages may reveal more about us than anything…maybe they show us that we often believe in a God we wish we had but don’t.

Maybe the idea of an unchanging God also springs from our inability to trust God rather than from truths we find in the Bible. This is ironic since many will read this post and accuse me of “not trusting the Bible.”

But we experience broken promises, unfaithful spouses, and shady car salesmen types (no offense to any non-shady car salespeople) throughout our lives. Our life is an ever-changing existence where we run into unexpected tragedy, wrinkles, friends coming and going, and our favorite coffee shops closing.

And so it seems, in a reactionary move, we place onto God all of our expectations for security and stability. And since so much is riding on that, it’s not enough for God to say he will always be faithful, I want him to (meta)physically be unable to be unfaithful. We would rather have a robot-God who is completely incapable of any change in order to make sure he will be faithful than actually trust a God who could be unfaithful but chooses not to be. It’s a risk my fragile psyche is just not willing to take.

But what I want to suggest is that not only does this reaction show that I do not trust God, it also might mean I am in an anemic if not delusional relationship with God. Let’s make an analogy with my marriage. If I assumed my wife never changed, my marriage would be in deep trouble. Instead of doing the hard work of continually learning about Sarah, I would get lazy. I would start to assume I know my wife exhaustively, acting as if the wife of 2004 is the same as Sarah Byas, the person of 2012.

I am, in a sense, in a relationship with my conception of my wife rather than with my wife herself. Is this not too often true of our relationship with God?

Fortunately, this is not the reality in my marriage. My marriage is great, not because Sarah never changes, but because she remains faithful even in the midst of all kinds of changes. Sarah keeps surprising me. Not only do I find out things that have always been true about her and just never knew, but I also recognize that she is constantly changing.

But a relationship with someone who changes is risky. Some day she might change in a way that I am really uncomfortable with. But that’s the risk of all relationship. Do I really love them for who they are? Or do I only love them if they fit inside my parameters? Do I love them for how comfortable I am with who they are or what they affirm in me — or do I love them for the person they are, right now?

That is to say, are we in a lively dance with the creator of all things, listening intently to his every move to see where he will go next? Or are we in math class, trying to figure out God’s algorithm so we can predict his every move?

And perhaps a more provocative question is: How does our relationship with God cause us to treat other people and their views of God?

*In this post, I am not interested in debating the idea of a changing God philosophically (as I’ve learned in school, it’s both boring and largely unproductive). I am primarily processing how my relationship with God changes if I see him the way the Old Testament presents him: as a person who changes but is ever-faithful.

** I understand that there are other passages that seem to indicate that God does not change. But the question of how to reconcile them and/or whether or not we even need to reconcile them is a completely different conversation.

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3 responses to “The Problem with an Unchanging God

  1. Greetings Jared, Good post. One observation regards assumptions about terms. Does God being immutable mean he loses power to respond to those he loves, or to render him incapable to alter the effects of his will?

    Another observation is that we tend to assign immutability to those in scripture who have experienced contact with the Almighty. It seems sort of anthropocentric to read these stories in the sense that God changed and not the participants perceptions. It seems that many observations in scripture concerning God may have been flawed …or at the very least the understanding that was present at the time of the observation does not travel well across culture and time.

    The third observation is that scripture is the collection of the deposit of faith. It is the story of Man’s encounter with God through the Hebrew and Christian cults. The presence of misconceptions regarding God does not invalidate scripture or our faith. The living faith is transmitted through teaching, traditions, and ministrations – it is not a product syncretized from bible understanding nor from some sort of doctrinal regeneration. It is a fact that our tradition comes from a long line of people with really bad thinking seeking and being found by the Almighty.

    Your linking of the issue of mutability with the issue of trust reminds me of the reflections of Albert Einstein who was rather forceful in his belief that the immutability of universal truths was the great evidence of the Creator. Einstein maintained that as the main intellectual basis for his own belief in God.

    peace

  2. good post, jared. first of all, i think more and more people are catching up with the contemporary theology that has been questioning the immutability and omnipotence of God for decades now. so your post is an important addition the conversation.

    i appreciate the analogy to marriage. i think that the marriage relationship is the highest *image* of God’s relationship with creation that we human beings have. the metaphor of the Church as the Bride and the Song of Songs as the “holy of holies” of Scripture should catch our attention. as such, i think more and more people should consider the dynamics of such a love relationship when pondering our relationship with God.

    lastly, i agree that we have the tendency to make God and object rather than a subject. i’m afraid that this is what ontotheology ultimately does. you’re so right that it is our metaphysical description of God that applies these [idolatrous] characteristics to God. perhaps we need to make distinctions when discussing God’s being – namely, between “substance” and “character.” our Greek influence tends to overemphasize an ontology of substance, I think.

    for me, i’m becoming more and more convinced that i cannot begin to understand God apart from God’s own revelation in the human Jesus. Ebelhard Jungel writes, “For Christian theology can use the word “God” meaningfully only in a context which is defined by the understanding of the human person Jesus. Whatever the word “God” is to mean for our thinking is determined, for the Christian faith, in Jesus. … For responsible usage of the word “God,” the Crucified One is virtually the real definition of what is meant with the word “God.”

    Christians must take the Incarnation more seriously. thanks for the post.

    • Great thoughts Josh. I like Jungel’s quote because it points out to me that we really don’t need to differentiate between character & substance since the latter is both always unknown and apparently not to be desired. If God is not like humans then his substance is always unknown because we only know him by metaphor or anthropomorphism. And even more, this information is not to be desired since it always leads to idolatry. That is to say, our not knowing God’s substance is essential to God’s freedom since, ethically speaking, the prophets cite one of the major problems with the pre-exilic Jews as elevating the acts of God to the metaphysical substance of God, thereby confining him according to their conception of him. It seems unnecessary then to talk about “who God really is” since we are simply not privy to that information. What do you think?

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