God Is Flexible—God changes his mind

God Is Flexible—God changes his mind

God constantly changes his mind in order to show greater mercy

In some Christian circles there is a strong belief that God doesn’t change his mind, doesn’t change in any way, the favorite “proof texts” being the following:

God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind [Hebrew נחם nḥm].                    —Numbers 23:19a

[God] will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind [Hebrew נחם nḥm].        —I Samuel 15:29


The passages are taken out of context. The statement in Numbers is part of a prophecy Balaam spoke to his sometime employer (and Moabite king) Balak, who hired Balaam to curse Israel. The basic idea was that just a day or so earlier, God had said that he was going to bless, not curse Israel, and that’s what he was going to do. Period. The statement applied to a highly specific situation. It was in no way a general theological statement. Even if it had been, Balaam was not a paragon of righteousness from whose mouth we should quote theological verities.

The same is true of the account in I Samuel. Samuel had just announced that Saul, because of his disobedience, was being fired as king of Israel. As part of the original message, Samuel said, essentially, “This is Yahweh’s word right now, and he’s not going to relent. The kingdom truly is being taken from you, and God isn’t going to reverse his decision.” It was not a universal statement that God never changes his mind—just that in this instance it wasn’t going to happen. In fact, just six verses later (I Samuel 15:35) the text says that Yahweh repented  [Hebrew נחם nḥm] that he had made Saul king in the first place (i.e., God changed his mind)!

Many books and tracts and websites, and thousands of sermons, have gone through logical contortions in attempting to reconcile biblical statements to the effect that God doesn’t “repent” or “change his mind.” The Hebrew verb, as already shown, is נחם (nḥm)—it’s used in the Numbers 23 and I Samuel 15 passages, as well as in many others that clearly state how God changed his mind. Here are some of them:

And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humans on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, “I will blot out humans whom I have created from the face of the ground, humans and beasts and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry [ נחם nḥm ] that I have made them.” —Genesis 6:6-7

And Yahweh repented [ נחם nḥm ] of the evil which he thought to do to his people. —Exodus 32:14

Whenever Yahweh raised up judges for them, Yahweh was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for Yahweh would be moved to pity [ נחם nḥm ] by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. —Judges 2:18

. . .and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent [ נחם nḥm ]  of the evil 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 repent [ נחם nḥm ] of the good which I had intended to do to it. —Jeremiah 18:8-10

If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I repent [ נחם nḥm ]  of the evil which I did to you. —Jeremiah 42:10

. . . rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to Yahweh, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents [ נחם nḥm ] of evil. —Joel 2:13

Our Lord changes his mind all the time. He is nothing if not flexible. He is infinitely responsive to every tiny incident as well as every cataclysmic event.

In fact, it seems quite possible that God waffled on the very first promise he made. He told the man and woman concerning the tree of life: “In the day you eat of it, you will die (Genesis 2:17).” But did they die? No. I don’t think it’s fair to theologize on God’s threat, to say after the fact that, well, he didn’t really mean they would die, as in ceasing to breathe, but must have meant they would die spiritually. That may be the case. But what he said was that they would die. Most nonbiased readers—whether reading in the original Hebrew (which is quite straightforward) or in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) or even in English or another modern translation—would conclude that, when God said the man and the woman would die, he meant they would breathe their last.

Although I would never insist that anyone accept my interpretation, I suspect that God just changed his mind in the Genesis 2-3 story. That’s no more of a flip-flop than what happened in the story of Jonah, when God decided not to kill the people of Nineveh.


God sovereignly changes his mind

Yahweh’s message for the people of Nineveh, spoken through Jonah, was unambiguous:

Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! —Jonah 3:4

No escape clauses. Not “Unless you repent. . .” The message was unequivocal: To use today’s vernacular, “You guys are toast!”

But then the Ninevites repented, and

God changed his mind [ נחם nḥm ] about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.  —Jonah 3:10

Yahweh’s grace-based flexibility is clearly the fundamental point of the Jonah story. Sunday school curricula love to repeat the account of Jonah’s trying to flee God and being swallowed by the fish; yet the climax and main point of the narrative is God’s repentance, his changing his mind, in order to show mercy to the Ninevites. The entire story is a proclamation of Yahweh’s great mercy to all people—even pagans.


God changes his mind in response to human pleas

During the exodus from Egypt, after the people of Israel had made and worshipped the golden calf, Yahweh told Moses he was going to wipe out the entire nation and start over with Moses. But Moses interceded for Israel, begging God to change his mind.

And Yahweh changed his mind [נחם nḥm ] about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.  —Exodus 32:14

Centuries later, God showed Amos two visions of disasters that would come to Israel because of their rebellion. Each time, Amos pleaded with God to change his mind and not to permit the disasters. And twice, in response to Amos’s plea, we are told that

Yahweh relented [נחם nḥm ] concerning this; “It shall not be”. . .  —Amos 7:3 and Amos 7:6


Keeping an open mind

Sometimes it’s important to understand the mere possibility of God’s changing his plans, whether or not he actually has done so. Early in Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, God warned the people of Jerusalem and Judah to repent:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. —Jeremiah 7:5-8

The “deceptive words” in which the people trusted appeared to be summed up in the previous verse:

“This is the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.” —Jeremiah 7:4

To put it in modern terms, the people were “quoting scripture” at God—focusing on certain historic words and actions of Yahweh inspired by what had happened several generations earlier in the time of Hezekiah:

Therefore thus says Yahweh concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says Yahweh. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David. —Isaiah 37:33-35

I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city. —Isaiah 38:6

Yes, that’s what Yahweh had said and done in the past concerning Jerusalem and the temple. And the people of Judah, goaded by false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear, seemed to assume that what God had promised historically was immutable: “Yahweh said he would protect the city against the Assyrians, and the temple where he ‘dwells’ [or so they believed] is still here, so clearly he will continue to protect the city from the Babylonians. The temple is our guarantee of security.”

For a long time, however, God had said through his prophets that the nation of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, were doomed to destruction if they did not change their ways. And in fact the country, beginning in the last days of the good king Josiah and especially under his not-so-good successor Jehoiakim, had already been largely subdued first by Egypt and subsequently by Babylon. So dependence on the temple as a sort of protective talisman was tunnel vision at best and sheer lunacy at worst.

The leaders of Judah during Jeremiah’s time seemed incapable of conceiving that God might change his mind! If they had had a better understanding of Yahweh (easily obtained through even a superficial perusal of earlier events), they would have known that, even though Yahweh at one time had said he would protect Jerusalem, he always reserved the right to change his mind. It’s never a wise tactic to quote scripture at God! His response is quite likely to be, “Yes, that’s what I said then, but the situation is changed, so I’m doing something different now.”


Jesus clearly understood God’s flexibility

In a sense, God’s flexibility was what Jesus was referring to in John’s gospel when he indicted the religious leaders for idolizing the scriptures:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. —John 5:39-40 [emphasis added]

I believe this concept also underlies Jesus’ experience when he began his ministry with a forty-day fast. Contrary to the claims of many preachers and Bible teachers, Satan was not inherently twisting or misquoting scripture when he reminded Jesus of various Old Testament promises while tempting him to doubt that he was the Son of God. Those promises were not inappropriate in Jesus’ case. Satan’s use of the scriptures was basically sound—it’s just that they were not the final word. One must find life in every word that God speaks, Jesus responded (Matthew 4:4)—and God’s most recent word was that he was indeed God’s Son, in whom the Father was quite pleased (Matthew 3:17).

Whether or not our interpretation is correct,

Life does not lie in the scriptures, in what God has said in the past;

Rather, Life lies in God, and it is always to him that our hearts should be turned.

When we rely on past words, we are idolizing mere words rather than worshipping and submitting to the One by whom and/or about whom the words were written. And that is Life-destroying.

Even when we are extremely confident in our understanding of God’s previous word, we must keep in mind that God is not constrained by what he said previously. He always reserves the right to alter his plans according to what has happened in the interim. We may be sticklers for consistency, but our Lord is not!


Even Jesus made statements that turned out to be wrong

Although there are other legitimate interpretations, I believe that God’s flexibility is behind Jesus’ supposedly problematic statement that he would return in glory within the lifetimes of some of his earthly followers in the first century:

Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. —Matthew 16:28

Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power. —Mark 9:1

It’s been nearly two millennia since he spoke those words, but Jesus still hasn’t come in that way. Christians throughout the centuries have found these statements challenging. Was Jesus not God’s Son, which means he would not lie, nor would he be mistaken in such a prophetic claim? People have endlessly “theologized” on Jesus’ statements, the most common interpretations being: (1) He was really referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit and establishment of the fellowship (koinonia) of believers. (2) The statement in Matthew 16:28 is followed immediately by the account of the “transfiguration,” in which some who had earlier been “standing there” saw Jesus, his appearance gloriously transformed, conversing with Moses and Elijah; therefore it is claimed that that was what Jesus meant by the coming of the kingdom in power.

Although I do not discount the possibility that either of these interpretations is correct, I prefer a much more straightforward explanation that is highly consistent with God’s previous actions within history: God simply changed his mind! Perhaps Plan #1 was to wrap up everything quickly; but for whatever reason—and it must have to do with God’s mercy and graciousness, since that’s what guides all that he does—he decided to go with plan #2 (or #31 or #43 or #580 or whatever). I certainly do not believe it’s worth arguing about. But I definitely think the “He changed his mind” hypothesis should be added to the mix when we discuss this question.

Even if one of the common interpretations happens to be true, their underlying theology, in my opinion, is still invalid, since it rests on the assumption that there is a problem! Yet if we are to understand our Lord’s heart and mind as revealed in scripture as well as in multitudes of human experiences throughout the centuries, Matthew 16:28 should not be problematic. I think our response to reading that Jesus said something, but that the something didn’t happen, should be little more than, “Oh! Fancy that!”

I think the same answer should be given to the supposed “problem” of John 7:8-10, where Jesus told his disciples that they should go on up to Jerusalem without him, because he wasn’t going to go; but then he went! One can engage in all sorts of intellectual hand-waving to explain the clear contradiction between what Jesus said he would do and what he did. Or one can simply assume that Jesus meant what he said at first, but soon thereafter the Father instructed him to go to Jerusalem, and so he did! No problem. He lived day by day, hour by hour, by following instructions from his Father (John 5:19); and presumably, when he made the statement about not going to Jerusalem, he simply hadn’t received his new instructions. The contradiction should not be problematic.


The moral of this essay. . .

In our own lives, it’s important to give God the freedom to be God, rather than insisting that he conform to our ideas of how God should act. That’s idolatry.

I can imagine massive misunderstandings in the end times if our Lord should decide to do something somewhat different from what he said in the various apocalyptic writings—e.g., Matthew 24, Luke 21, and the book of Revelation. In spite of the wealth that innumerable Christian writers have accumulated, in best-selling books and in endless preaching tours, claiming they can explain precisely how things are going to go down in the end, I submit that no one has a clue about the specific details. I can imagine millions of future Christians quoting scripture at God, insisting that “It has to go this way, because the Bible says. . .” Ah, there’s that troubling practice of quoting scripture at God again! It’s risky!

On the more mundane level, we should understand that God responds in his grace to all exigencies, and sometimes he has to go with Plan #2 or with one of several dozen other plans (it’s probably more like Plan #9204 most of the time), depending on our choices and on the choices of thousands of other people. If he has given you a promise through a prophetic word, you can count on him to be faithful—but his faithfulness is to you and to your brothers and sisters, not legalistically to his words.

God once told a close friend of mine that he would marry a certain woman. I felt (and still feel) that this promise was indeed from the Holy Spirit. But my foolish friend immediately went to this woman, who had absolutely no feelings for him and even thought him to be a little strange, and gleefully told her that God had said they would be husband and wife! BAD idea! She exited that entire social circle as fast as she could, and the two never even had a date, let alone entered matrimony. But my friend for a very long time clung to the word God had spoken: “The Lord told me that I would marry her, and I believe he is faithful to his word!” Yes, God is faithful, but he has never claimed to ignore the sovereign actions of his children. What we do, what millions of human beings do on a minute-by-minute basis, often leads God to say, essentially, “Ouch! THAT sure changes things! OK, let’s make a new plan. . .”

It remains for us always to approach our Lord in humility when we consider a personal message he has given us. God is not capricious. In my experience, when our Lord makes a promise to an individual or to a group, in the large majority of cases his word can be counted on. But we must always be careful that we are counting on him, not on what he has said. He is always faithful—but his faithfulness is to us, not to his words. His faithfulness sometimes leads him to change his plans in order to provide us with a greater blessing than what is possible given our present circumstances, since those circumstances may well have changed since he spoke his earlier word. This is not a call to cynicism or to fear, but rather a call to humility and to prayer and to a commitment always to hear what God is saying to us now, not necessarily what he said yesterday. We are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4)—especially what he is saying right now.