Does God change his mind?
Many statements in Amos could be identified as ‘major points’ within the Minor Prophets, but we will focus on one that should get the attention of any thoughtful reader.
After seeing the first vision, about locusts, Amos cried out, ‘O Lord God, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’ (7:1-2).
The prophet’s reaction to God’s warning should hardly surprise us. Any believer whose country is in a moral and spiritual tailspin should pray that God would change the hearts of leaders and followers and reverse the downward trend — for the bedrock biblical reason that, ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people’ (Proverbs 14:34).
What should now get our close attention as a ‘major point’ is God’s response to the prophet’s plea: ‘The Lord relented concerning this: It shall not be, said the Lord’ (7:3).
Instead of sending the devastating plague of locusts and the scorching fire (Amos 7:4), God withheld both. What can this mean? Did God abandon plan A in favour of plan B?
That can hardly be the case, as it would mean that plan A was flawed, whereas ‘the Lord is righteous in all his ways’ (Psalm 145:17, emphasis added).
Then did he suddenly decide to ignore Israel’s rebellion? This idea can also be rejected, as God ‘cannot look at wrong’ (Habakkuk 1:13), let alone shrug his shoulders or sweep it under the carpet.
We can be sure of this because of what God revealed to Amos in the third vision (Amos 7:7-9). He had graciously answered the prophet’s prayers and set aside the punishments of locusts and fire threatened in the first two visions, but in the third he drove home the undeniable fact that Israel had grossly deviated from God’s standard of righteousness (represented by a plumb line) and that there would be consequences.
This lies at the very heart of the message that Amos was told to bring. A holy, covenant-keeping God was being rejected by an unholy, covenant-breaking nation — and there would be a price to pay.
The fact that God answered the prophet’s prayers and set aside the judgements threatened in the first two visions raises a question that has often engaged and baffled many Christians: does God sometimes change his mind?
Anyone reading the Bible from start to finish runs into the issue very early on: ‘The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the Lord of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart’ (Genesis 6:5-6).
Later we read: ‘The Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people’ (Exodus 32:14). These are very striking statements, but God’s perfection tells us that his sorrow cannot mean that he had made a mistake in creating man, Instead, it expresses the response of a holy God to man’s sinful rebellion.
As we know that God ‘cannot deny himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13) — that is, he can never do anything that is out of character — the right way to begin answering the question is by establishing two of God’s attributes.
The first is his immutability, that is, his changelessness. He himself says, ‘I the Lord do not change’ (Malachi 3:6). With God ‘there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1:17).
This attribute is fine-tuned when we are specifically told: ‘God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind’ (Numbers 23:19), while elsewhere we read: ‘The counsel of the Lord stands for ever, the plans of his heart to all generations’ (Psalm 33:11).
God’s changelessness is obviously related to his moral perfection, which the Bible underlines by stating that ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5). Since God is eternally and absolutely perfect, he cannot change for the better; nor can he change for the worse, as this would mean him becoming less than perfect.
His knowledge, principles, thoughts, motives, promises and plans are unchanged and unchangeable. Yet to say that God is immutable is not to say that he is immobile and so incapable of any movement.
The Bible’s opening words — ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1) — show God in unimaginably powerful action.
Before that chapter ends, we are told that ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27) and the Bible teems with evidence that an unchanging God is constantly engaged in a dynamic relationship with mankind, acting and reacting for his eternal glory and his people’s eternal good.
The second of God’s attributes that relates directly to our question is his omniscience, his perfect knowledge of everything, past, present and future. Nothing shocks him, takes him by surprise, forces him to change tack, or leaves him uncertain as to how everything will work out.
God never ‘learns’ or ‘discovers’ anything. Using the prophet Isaiah as his mouthpiece, God challenges false gods: ‘Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods’ (Isaiah 41:23), and of course they could do no such thing. In total contrast, the entire future is an open book to God.
Some theologians say that as God never changes he must be impassable, that is, without passions or emotions, but this hardly ties in with God being ‘sorry’ and ‘grieved’ in his heart. When he joined Martha and Mary in mourning the death of their brother Lazarus, Jesus, the God-man, was ‘deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled’ (John 11:33).
He ‘wept’ (Luke 19:41) over the impending doom of Jerusalem and ‘rejoiced’ (Luke 10:21) when his disciples reported on a particularly successful mission. The Bible is rich in language reflecting God’s emotional involvement in everything that happens in the world, without ever suggesting that his emotions take over (as ours often do).
To a greater or lesser degree all human beings are prone to be emotionally unstable at times. Yet as we have just seen, ‘God is not man’ and we must view him differently. The most straightforward way to do this when faced with the question ‘Does God sometimes change his mind?’ is to see phrases such as ‘the Lord relented’ and ‘the Lord was sorry’ as examples of what theologians call ‘anthropopathism’.
We can easily break this word down: anthropos is the Greek word for ‘human’ and pathos the Greek word for ’emotion’. Anthropopathism means speaking about God in words we use when speaking about human emotions, but without in any way implying that God shares our limitations and weaknesses.
It means speaking of God acting in ways that, were he human, would have been the result of his emotional reaction to circumstances over which he had no control. In such a way, God is stooping to our weakness and leading the biblical author to use language we can easily understand in order to convey truth that would otherwise elude us.
One attempt to settle the question goes under the name of Open Theism (or Neotheism). This says that if God knows every detail of what will happen in the future, man’s freedom to respond to responsibility and to make choices has no real meaning.
It claims that God’s omniscience covers only that which is knowable, and that as man’s future choices are all options and not certainties they cannot be known. It accepts that God can influence these choices by precepts, warnings and promises, but says that options became certainties (and therefore knowable, even by God) only after man makes his choices.
It also claims that God’s intentions are influenced by human behaviour in such a way that he adjusts his plans and acts differently when he learns something new.
There are biblical statements that at first glance seem to give Open Theism some kind of credibility, but the theory runs headlong into the fact that ‘God works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).
Nothing could be more inclusive — or conclusive — than ‘all things’, which must by definition include wrong attitudes, decisions and actions. God said of Pharaoh, ‘I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go’ (Exodus 4:21), and we are told of the pagan king Sihon: ‘God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate’ (Deuteronomy 2:30).
We are specifically told that even the worst sin ever committed — the brutal murder of Jesus — was ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23), and that the death of the Son of God was ‘foreknown before the foundation of the world’ (1 Peter 1:20).
God has not deserted his creation, but is actively governing his universe and knows precisely how people will behave. When Peter swore that he would never desert Jesus, he was told: ‘Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times’ (Matthew 26:34).
God controls even random events that seem to rely on chance or luck: ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord’ (Proverbs 16:33). Jonah’s amazing story includes a key moment when sailors cast lots to see who was responsible for the storm that threatened to sink their ship, ‘the lot fell on Jonah’ (Jonah 1:7). God knew that this would happen, just as he knows the result of every lottery before the balls, tickets or tokens are ever drawn.
In becoming Christians, people exercise repentance and faith, which on the surface seem to be purely personal choices, yet when people repent they do so only because ‘God has granted repentance that leads to life’ (Acts 11:18), while faith is ‘the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2:9).
The issue becomes clearer when we realise that God’s will includes conditional and unconditional elements, leaving him free to treat people differently without compromising his own consistency.
God told the prophet Jeremiah: ‘If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.
‘And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it’ (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
Men can and do change, but God does not. Nothing that happens forces him into a U-turn or changes his eternal intentions.
God’s eternal purposes are not shuffled around when he reacts to changes in people’s response to his dealings with them. While God is not impervious to human pain or unmoved by human sorrow, none of the pain, sorrow, sin (or any other human conditions or circumstances) surprise him, force him to alter course or make him react in ways that he had not anticipated.
The nineteenth-century American theologian Augustus H. Strong applied this to God’s dealings with his people: ‘God’s immutability itself renders it certain that his love will adapt itself to every varying mood and condition of his children, so as to guide their steps, sympathise with their sorrows, answer their prayers’.
Open Theism belittles God and bloats man and in doing so seriously distorts what the Bible teaches. As someone has said, the theory ends up with ‘a weakened deity who is finite in power and knowledge, makes mistakes for which he may even have to apologise, is often frustrated and disappointed and cannot assure us of a triumphant outcome to history’.
But if God does not know the entire future, we are left with our spiritual fingers crossed, vaguely hoping that things will eventually turn out as God wishes. J. I. Packer is right: ‘What [God] does in time, he planned from eternity. And all that he planned in eternity he carries out in time’.
When we read in the Word of God that he was sorry, or that he relented or changed his mind, we must accept that it is expressing truth we could never begin to grasp were it not couched in the kind of language we commonly use of human emotions and actions.
Applying this to the book of Amos, there was nothing phoney in the prophecy about locusts. Amos took it very seriously and cast himself upon God’s mercy, crying out for him to intervene and to spare his people.
With centuries of hindsight, we see the prophecy, the prayer and the pardon in chronological order, but God — for whom ‘one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’ (2 Peter 3:8) — saw all three as a whole.
God is outside of time, not hemmed in by it. Before he was even ‘forming the locusts’, he knew that Amos would cry out for mercy and that he would grant the prophet’s prayer.
God’s word to Isaiah clinches the matter: ‘I am God and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come’ (Isaiah 46:9-10, emphasis added).
After he had gone through very testing times, the nineteenth-century English lay preacher and poet Josiah Conder wrote a hymn that included these rhetorical and unanswerable questions:
The Lord is King! Who then shall dare
Resist his will, distrust his care,
Or murmur at his wise decrees,
Or doubt his royal promises?
Edited from the author’s latest book Major points from the Minor Prophets (EP Books, £8.99, ISBN: 9780852347829)