Read Jonah 3:1–10
Traditional Christian theology, influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, has often depicted God as essentially changeless—the Unmoved Mover, as Aristotle put it. Impassivity was considered a virtue in a deity, partly because it contrasted so strongly with the capricious nature of gods and goddesses in pagan mythology. To be unchangeable was to be dependable; an Unmoved Mover could not be influenced or shaken by outside forces, but could rather be relied upon to be the same “yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).
The problem is that picture of God does not match what we find in the Bible. The biblical God is personal, passionate, and intimate. God gets involved in the lives of God’s people; God becomes angry; God is hurt by the people’s faithlessness; God loves. God seeks out relationship with created beings, and relationships by their very nature require the ability to be affected and, in big and small ways, changed. One can’t have a relationship with a rock. God must be changeable in order to be a true relationship partner with us. Changeable does not mean unreliable, of course. God can be subject to being changed by God’s interactions with us but still be faithful, dependable—a rock, metaphorically speaking.
We find a clear example of God’s changeability in the third chapter of Jonah. In response to Jonah’s reluctant preaching, the entire city of Nineveh repents. They declare a fast and wear sackcloth and “cry mightily to God” (v. 8). If they held to the picture of God as Unmoved Mover, this activity would be futile, but the king and the people go through with the acts of repentance anyway. Their reasoning is based on the possibility of God’s changeability: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (v. 9).
Their gamble pays off. When God sees their response to Jonah’s preaching, God changes the divine mind about the planned punishment. In the language of the King James Version of the Bible, God “repent[s] of the evil” God had planned. That’s a striking, even jarring way of putting it, but it simply means that God has chosen a different response from what God had intended. In relationship with the people of Nineveh, God is changed.
Process theology promotes this idea that God can be changed by interaction with creation. In fact, in the process view change is essential. Every moment God is involved in a sort of negotiation with the matter, from quarks and molecules to human beings to galaxies, that makes up the universe. God always seeks the best for God’s relationship partners, but God only works by persuasion, so matter, including each of us, can resist God’s entreaties. We can follow our own ways, make our own choices, reject divine guidance in favor of our own meager wisdom. When that happens, God adjusts. God adapts to the new situation produced by our resistance and tries again in these changed circumstances to draw us back to the better path.
God loves, so God changes to remain in a dynamic relationship with us. God loves, so God never writes us off. God loves, so God holds out hope that we will come to our senses, repent, and join in the effort to realize God’s dream of peace, abundance, and reconciliation. Thanks be to our ever-changeable, ever-faithful God!
Grace and peace,