I received the following question:
Can you please explain the apparent conflict behind a God who never changes (James 1:17), and a God who not only changes His mind (Jonah 3:10 and Exodus 32:14), but also became flesh (John 1:14). Does God change?
James 1:17. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
Jonah 3:10. Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.
Exodus 32:14. So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.
John 1:14. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
It is absolutely true that God does not change. This is made clear in Scripture. A better example than James 1:17 is, perhaps, Numbers 23:19, where God says to Balaam and Balak, “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?”
You did a good job of pointing out passages where God does seem to change. He changed His mind and didn’t destroy the Ninevites. He changed His mind and didn’t destroy the Israelites. And the fact that God became a man and dwelt among us seems to fly in the face of Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Yet certainly the author of Hebrews was well aware of the fact that Christ became a Man and dwelt among us. He would not have contradicted a crucial doctrine like this. What is the difference, then, and how is it that God can sometimes change?
I believe that the critical question to ask here is: “How is it that God does not change?” There are some who view God as being completely unchangeable by men and anything men can do…an “unmoved mover,” as they call Him. Yet a careful examination of the Bible will flatly contradict this viewpoint. The unmoved mover God is unchangeable no matter what men do. But this is not the picture set forth by the Bible. The Biblical God is a God of relationship, a God Who enters into a loving union with His people.
The critical part of a relationship is that it requires response. One person in the relationship does something, and the other responds to it. When your wife is sad, for example, you must respond differently to her than when she is happy. Without such interaction, there is no relationship. So the God of relationship must alter and change what He is doing as those He is in relationship with alter and change. This is the action/response that is required for two people to be in relationship to each other.
This, then, is what is going on in those passages where God seems to alter and change. He is not changing Himself, but He is changing in response to the changes made in the people He is relating to. In the case of the Ninevites, God originally intended to destroy them for their wickedness. However, He is always merciful and gracious, and when they submitted in sackcloth and ashes to Him, He forgave them and did not destroy them.
The same thing is true in the case of the harm He intended to do to His people. There is no doubt but that, after all their stubbornness and disobedience to the God Who had so graciously rescued them from slavery and cared for and preserved them again and again, they deserved to be destroyed. Yet God made this suggestion, that He was going to destroy them, to Moses, a man whom He had a relationship with. In this case, it was that relationship with Moses that made all the difference, and not any submission on the part of the people. God and Moses had a relationship, and Moses pleaded with God on behalf of His people. Therefore, because of His relationship with Moses, Go relented and did not do the harm He intended to do to Israel.
But then, we must ask, what is meant when the Bible says God is unchanging? I think the answer here is that God is unchanging in His essential nature and character. This is not true of us. Being finite beings, we can and should grow and mature as time goes on. Hopefully over time we improve in character, although some do the opposite and their character corrupts as time goes on. Yet for God this is not so. His nature, His character, is perfect from the beginning, and so no growth or change is necessary or even possible. God is already perfect. He does not need to grow and change in character. The only growth that occurs with Him is growth in relationship with His people, which growth is on our part, and only receives a response from Him.
Therefore, it cannot be that God made mistakes in parenting with Adam and Eve, mistakes which He learned from later. I have actually read someone who taught this! Notice that this would mean that the author was suggesting that he, now, is smarter than God was then, since he obviously believes he has learned the lessons that God did not realize at the time. Somehow, fleshly human doctrines often lead to the conclusion that man is smarter than God.
So in understanding that it is in His essential nature and character that God does not change, we can understand the contrast between “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” When the Word became flesh, He did change, becoming nothing but a Babe in Mary’s womb. Yet His essential nature and character remained the same. He was no different in His nature and character as a Babe in the womb than He was when He was Jehovah in heaven. He might have taken on flesh, then grown up and become a man, a member of Adam’s race, living upon earth, but His essential nature and character did not change. He did not do something when He was a child in Galilee that was contrary to the nature He displayed when He was equal with God in heaven. Instead, He reflected the same nature and character of God throughout His earthly experience.
So it is when we understand in what way God changes and in what way He does not that we can come to understand the unchanging God and the God Who changes in response to His people. I would point out in closing that God is and always has been the God of relationship. Though this might lead Him to respond to the changes in His people and appear to change Himself, that basic fact, that He is God in relationship to those He loves, is part of His essential nature and character. Therefore, praise God, that is something that will never change.
Thanks again for the great question. Keep studying the Word!