Can God Change His Mind?

Posted November 11, 2009

There are many thousands of objections and questions that deal with the proper interpretation of God’s word (that’s the basis of apologetics as a science). This is because of what Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:14: “There are many things [in Paul’s writings] which are difficult to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You, therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest….you lose your own stability.”  Weak-faith Christians will tend to “lose their stability and see their faith crumble unless they find convincing answers to such doctrinal conundrums as the immutability of God in the face of many scriptural references that seem to indicate that God sometimes “changes his mind,” and shows “regret” or “repents” of his former decisions, etc.

Of course God is intrinsically immutable–unchangeable; otherwise he would not be God.  Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man that he should lie, not a son of man, that he should change his mind.”  1 Sam. 15:29 uses almost the same wording. Hebrews 6:17 says, “God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear…”  You probably don’t need his proffered support to make that truth very clear, but if you do, check out the following:

Mal. 3:6 says: “I the Lord do not change.”   In the New Testament, Jesus says, “My words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35); see also Acts 4:28 and 2 Cor. 1:20. James 1:17 refers to “the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” The list of pericopes on this subject of God’s immutability goes on and on.

(additional scriptural references: 1 Kings 8:56,   Job 23:14,   Ps. 33:11,  Ps 102:27,   Prov. 19:21,   Eccles. 3:14, Is. 14:24,  Is. 31:2,  Is. 46:10).

But the Scriptures also speak of God “repenting” or “regretting,” even for having created man (Gen. 6:6-7), and for having made Saul to be king (1 Sam. 15:11, 35). It seems that God had a “change” of heart or intent. Such statements are simply the sacred writers’ use of a journalistic technique called “anthropomorphisms” or subjective “humanizing” of God to describe him and his actions that cannot be easily understood except by envisaging them in accordance with our human way of thinking and acting. Thus, we speak of Jesus sitting “at the right hand of God”, though God as pure spirit has no “right hand.” We speak of the “eye” of God being on us, though he has no “eye.”  Thus, “the finger of God,” the “anger” of God–as if it were a human emotion, etc.; there are hundreds of similar references, like: “You shall be as gods,” or “Man is a little less than God” (Ps. 8:5).

Some similarly confusing passages presume that the reader-audience is aware of the distinction between the human and divine natures of Christ in his one personhood: “The Father is greater than I”; or, “Not my will but your will be done” ; “Not even the Son of Man knows the day or hour of the tribulation.”  Hundreds of confusing Scripture passages make the Bible “difficult to understand,” as Peter says (above). Without the exegetical interpretation presented by the Catholic Church’s magisterium, we Catholics would end up with the confusing multitude of doctrinal interpretations of the current 18,300 non-Catholic denominations worldwide.

But back to the main question: How can God’s will (plan or providence) be immutable if he seems to change it in answer to petition prayer, etc., as well as being re-directed from threat of punishment–like Moses’ prayer that “changed God’s mind” and prevented the Israelites’ near extinction?

Classic theology–especially that of St. Thomas Aquinas–demonstrates that God has two dimensions to his will–positive and conditional. His positive will is never “changed”, but that same divine will in its conditional mode, can be “fulfilledor “non-fulfilled” by its interaction with the free will of humans or angelic spirits.

Thus, God, by his positive will, desires or wills the salvation of all men (1 Tim. 2:4). But his conditional will is: “I will save you IF you repent. I will work the miracle of healing that you want IF you have enough faith, trust, perseverance, etc.”; I would have answered Paul’s prayer for healing of the “thorn in the flesh”–the evil spirit of infirmity (a “messenger of Satan,”  Paul calls it in 2 Cor. 12: 7)–IF I had not seen a better response in my divine mind–my divine power manifested more perfectly working through human weakness, instead of curing that weakness” (verse 10).

Notice the “if” in God’s will–IF you repent; If you have enough faith, perseverance, etc.; IF my divine mind sees a better direction than you see in your human anguished petition, etc., etc. This makes it seem as if God changes his mind when a condition is fulfilled. No–His positive will always remains unchanged, and even his (conditional) will is not really “changed”–it is fulfilled–often by the apparently God-controlling decisions of us humans–who are empowered for this by virtue of the fact that we are made to his image and likeness.