instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, March 01, 2007

God is always changing His mind

Among the paradoxes posed by the Catholic faith is the fact that the One God, Who in Himself is perfectly happy and eternally unchanging, is often presented in the Bible as angry, and often enough as fickle.

The Classroom Answer to this is that Scripture was written by men, from whose imperfectly happy and perpetually changing perspective God's impassibility appears as anger and fickleness.

The Classroom Answer is perfectly correct and just fine, as far as it goes, which is about ten steps outside the classroom door, at which point the student stops thinking about what he'll need to write for the test and starts thinking like an imperfectly happy and perpetually changing human being. And human beings don't find the idea that something is utterly unlike what it appears to be very satisfying.

Clinging too tightly to the Classroom Answer is not only unsatisfying. It can be deafening. If, as you read Scripture, you keep telling yourself, "God isn't really like that," how can you hear what God is revealing through Scripture about what He is really like?

This seems to be a paradox best left to wisdom rather than knowledge. When thinking about God in Himself, think about God in Himself. When thinking about God's self-revelation in Scripture, think about His self-revelation in Scripture as it is actually revealed. Don't filter the words of the Bible through dogmatic theology first; take them as they are, and let them steep in your mind and heart together with the dogmas, and see what time and the Holy Spirit can do with them comingled.

Now, I suspect more people do it the other way around, ignoring dogma and assuming God in Himself is often angry and sometimes fickle, but as they say, "The preacher preaches first to himself." And the wisdom of actually listening to what the Bible actually says was brought home to me the other night, when Fr. Alobaidi -- who as a good Dominican is fully aware of the Divine perfections -- said with a smile that, in the Bible, "God is always changing His mind."

Think about the story of Exodus. Pharaoh refuses to free the Hebrews, there's a plague, he says, "Go," the plague stops, he refuses to free the Hebrews. That's what you'd call a changeable mind, right?

Well, not really. Pharaoh is consistently minding what's best for Pharaoh. As the circumstances change, the particulars of what's best change, but his mind remains fixed on the end of his own happiness (as he conceives it). (And we'll leave unmentioned the wrinkle that God is always hardening his heart.)

Similarly, the Israelites in the desert go from, "All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do," to, "Come, make us a god who will be our leader," in less than forty days. Why? They didn't know what happened to Moses. Their minds aren't merely changeable, they're downright flitty.

Except that, as with Pharaoh, the end they sought -- to have a God to worship -- didn't change. If the God they had been worshipping wasn't coming back, then they'd just have to come up with another one.

Compare that to God's reaction the the golden calf:
With that, the LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved... Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, "Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? ... Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky...."

So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.
There are no changed circumstances here; the Israelites are just as depraved after Moses' speech as before. Yet this pattern is repeated again and again, with Moses turning aside God's wrath with just a few words.

If we look a little closer at the pattern, we can put it this way, noting the pronouns the sacred writer uses:
The LORD: I will destroy your people.
Moses: Do not destroy Your people.
The LORD: I will not destroy My people.
When God changes His mind in these exchanges, it is always in the direction of His love for His people.