These last few weeks have been a long string of goodbyes for me, as friends graduate and move away. Brother Anthony has recently moved from Brooklyn, NY to Victoria, KS en route to Santa Inez, CA as part of his journey into his novitiate year of formation into a friar (he blogs about it here). My friend, Jeremy, is moving from Tulsa, OK to Portland, OR. Another change is coming for me next weekend as my friends Meghan and Ken wed. Meghan will be moving away from Boston to Western MA and starting a new job. Their relationship will enter a new dimension of existence. And although, as the soloist at their ceremony, I have been preparing for it for months, it's going to be an adjustment not having them in Boston as much. Since I've been thinking so much about change, and on the God Talk blog we talk about- what else?- God, my thoughts have turned to God and the concept of change.
A common assumption about God in Western Christianity is that God does not change at all, that is, God is immutable. One of the most famous Baptist preachers of all time, Rev. Charles Spurgeon, preached that God is immutable in several ways: 1. God's essence (substance) does not change; 2. God's attributes (qualities) do not change; 3. God's plans do not change; 4. God's promises do not change; 5. God's threats do not change (yikes!); 6. God's love for us does not change.
While I certainly do not dispute numbers 1, 2, 4, and 6, I take exception to numbers 3 and 5. First of all, regarding his fifth point, I am not a fan of fire and brimstone. I don't believe that God calls us into personal relationship with Godself by threatening us with hell. Instead, the Holy Spirit beckons us with promises of God's love and mercy. Second of all, regarding his third point, as a Methodist I don't believe in God's plans in the way that Spurgeon, a Calvinist, believed in them. God's dreams for our lives are intents and purposes, not marching orders. When I was young, I worried that I would somehow mess up God's plan for my life by doing the wrong things. My mom explained to me that God, as the Great Creator, is infinitely creative. If I messed up in my life, Mom said, God would creatively find ways around the new situation I had created and eventually wind my path back where it's supposed to be. Wesleyans like United Methodists believe that God allows us free will to make our own choices. While God would like us to do certain things and become more like Christ, God will not force us into it.
Spurgeon's main theological move in his sermon, however, is not about the finer points of Calvinism. He suggests that God is not God if God can change- that if God changes, then God is not perfect or infinite. Spurgeon can't conceive of a God that changes. In fact, he calls the concept "madness"! But why is he unable to think that way? I didn't consider that question until I got to seminary and studied early Christian theology in the Greek tradition like that of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysus. I was told that the idea of immutability was carried over from Greco-Roman paganism, and at first I was skeptical. Then I stopped to consider Scripture.
In the story of Abraham and Sodom, God decided to wipe out the city and Abraham pleaded with God not to do it. He convinced God not to destroy the city if 50 righteous people lived there, then 45, then 30, then 20, then 10. Although the city was ultimately destroyed, Abraham succeeded in convincing God not to go through with the original plan. Think of the story of Noah. God wiped out the entire earth except for Noah and his family. Afterward, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise never to do that again. Note the story of Jonah, in which the city of Ninevah was about to be destroyed, and then God commanded Jonah to go there and prophecy judgement to bring about the people's repentance. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), in order to reconcile with God and have one's sins forgiven, it was necessary to sacrifice an animal. Then God sent Jesus, so we no longer have to make sacrifices.
I realized that in many cases, God decides to do something different. And this has been a pattern throughout Scripture. Spurgeon asserts that Jacob believed in a God who never changes, but based on what we've seen of Scripture even at the time of Jacob, I'm not convinced that's the case. In fact, after the episode with the golden calf, the Scriptures say that Moses asked God to remember God's promise to Abraham to multiple his descendents, "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people" (Ex 32:14).
I realized that ancient Israelites didn't have any qualms about a God who changes, and I began to see how immutability as an attribute of God creeped into our theology with the Greeks and their philosophy.
One thing I noticed, though, is that there is a pattern to all of the stories I just mentioned. God makes a plan to destroy sinful humans, and then a prophet convinces God not to do that (or God decides not to do it). This pattern highlights God's mercy and love for people. While there are many instances in which God seems to evolve or reverse course, that happens because God lives in relationship with us. God loves us and wants to forgive us. And when we have personal relationships with Jesus, we show the Godhead why we do what we do. This requires God to adjust to us! Think about it: as a married person, I love my husband and live my life in relationship with him. When he does things that are unexpected, surprise me, or with which I disagree, I have to adjust who I am and how I behave. If he is having a rough time, then I suffer with him. I change the way I live so that his needs are met. Likewise, God adjusts to us and to our experience of suffering. If it were not so, we would not have complete freedom to act. God doesn't control us or solve our problems for us. But God will be there to help and save us when we need it.
Despite my objections to Spurgeon, I agree with him in that God's attributes do not change. I would suggest that God's essence and attributes do not necessarily depend on God's immutability. God may adjust to us, and respond to our suffering, but God is loving and merciful- and always has been and always will be. Even as the circumstances of our lives change, and our relationships change, God is there with us. God is operating within our new circumstances and finding new ways to comfort us. Whatever happens, we don't face it alone. God is with us.