I’m sure over the course of time as a Christian you’ve heard the phrase, “but God never changes.” A variation of this phrase is repeated several times in Scripture (See for example, Mal 3:6, Heb 13:8, James 1:17).
However, it is my contention that we often do not actually understand what this phrase means. At times we unintentionally misapply the concept to soothe tension in the Bible. Other times, we say “but God never changes” as a way to win a theological argument.
For example, I cannot count the times when my fellow Christians have quoted the Law of Moses and either insisted the Law still applies to Christians, or contended that the Law somehow reveals God’s true and unchanging character.
It usually works like this: I say, “Jesus taught us to love our enemies” and they say “But there’s all sorts of violence and enemy killing in the Old Testament, and God never changes.” This fancy trick can be applied to a host of issues– just quote a random verse, add to it “God never changes” and poof, the debate is supposedly settled.
(I take that back. I bet if you told them, “There was polygamy in the Old Testament, and God never changes!” they’d reject the argument.)
We use it in other ways that misapply the concept, but with perhaps less intentionality than as a debate winning strategy. For example, we might look at how God acted within a particular story in Scripture and insist that God would act that same way in other scenarios, because of course, “God never changes.” This too, I believe, is a mistaken use of the concept.
But, the Bible does say that God never changes. Like, a bunch of times. If we affirm Scripture, we affirm the truth of the statement– but what does it actually mean? What if the whole thing is a paradox and affirming that God never changes is actually an affirmation that God is always changing?
I believe affirming that God never changes is simply an affirmation of the central essence that makes God who God is. However, this doesn’t mean that God always acts the same from one situation to the next, or even that God doesn’t change his mind. It is simply an affirmation that God’s core essence is unchanging.
For example, I could say, “I am Benjamin L. Corey, and I never change” and this would be a true statement if I were speaking of the core essence of what makes me, me. My core essence is that I am a human being made up of all the molecules and DNA that makes a human a human. My core essence is also that I am an image bearer of God. In that regard, I never change. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t change my mind or that how I interact with the world around me, or in relationships, is always the same. Clearly, it’s not.
I believe the same can be said of God: God never changes because the essence of God never changes. In the Bible we are told that this essence is pure and complete love (1 John 4:8). Thus, we can say that God never changes because God is always love and nothing can make him less than love. Furthermore, we can say that God never changes because God is unable to act in any way that would be unloving. (For more on this concept, see the Uncontrolling Love of God by Dr. Thomas Jay Oord.) Thus, God is unchanging because God is love and God always acts in loving ways.
However, beyond the constraints of God’s love-essence, God does change. In Scripture we see both that God does change his mind, and does change in how he interacts with the world within given scenarios. Greg Boyd outlines some examples of God changing in this way:
“The Lord frequently changes his mind in the light of changing circumstances, or as a result of prayer (Exod. 32:14; Num. 14:12–20; Deut. 9:13–14, 18–20, 25; 1 Sam. 2:27–36; 2 Kings 20:1–7; 1 Chron. 21:15; Jer. 26:19; Ezek. 20:5–22; Amos 7:1–6; Jonah 1:2; 3:2, 4–10). At other times he explicitly states that he will change his mind if circumstances change (Jer. 18:7–11; 26:2–3; Ezek. 33:13–15). This willingness to change is portrayed as one of God’s attributes of greatness (Joel 2:13–14; Jonah 4:2).”
Now, why does any of this matter for the average Christian?
I think it matters a lot, but more than anything because it invites us to ask the same question that God is always asking: “What is the most loving choice out of all of the options available to me?”
God is unchanging love. But the way he loves changes all the time depending on the circumstance. In fact, love invites us to be constantly changing and adapting to achieve the most beauty that’s possible– even if that means we love in ways that contradict how we loved in the past. Ironically, the unchanging nature of God is the very thing that causes God to be constantly changing— because love always grows, changes, and surprises us in beautiful ways.
Yes, God changes. His unchanging essence of love demands it. That’s the paradox of love.
In Scripture I see a God who is always changing– not in essence, but in how to love a world that’s constantly changing. The reason God changes is due to a combination of his unchanging essence of perfect love, and the divine constraint that requires God to always seek the options that lead to the most beauty. As situations change, the options as to how to love best also change.
It’s how we went from Gentiles being out to Gentiles being in. It’s how the outcasts became the guests at God’s banquet. It’s how the late vineyard workers got paid a full day’s wage. It’s how the unclean became clean.
It’s why the excluded progressively become the included, even today.
Love changes as other variables change– even unchanging love.
And here’s where that ultimately matters: the Bible invites us to be imitators of God, and God it seems, is always asking: “What’s the most loving choice out of all the options available to me?”
Call me crazy, but I think maybe we should all ask that question a little more often.
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