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Does God Change His Mind?

Jimmy Akin

Audio only:

The Bible seems conflicted on whether God can change his mind. Can he? And if he cannot, how do we explain those pesky Bible passages? Also, why pray if God can’t change his mind? Jimmy Akin tackles these tough questions for us.


Cy Kellett:

Can God change his mind? Jimmy Akin, next.

Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. And this time we take a question that came from a listener. We’re delighted that people have been sending us questions. By the way, you can send us something that you’d like us to talk about here on Focus. Just send it to [email protected]

Cy Kellett:

And this question, can God change his mind? It would appear, from scripture, that God can change his mind. It would appear from philosophy and from advanced theology that God can not change his mind. How do we reconcile these things? Well, the perfect guy to ask about that is the guy who wrote this book, The Words of Eternal Life, True Happiness and Where to Find It. that’s the new book from Jimmy Akin. So we asked Jimmy, come on in and explain to us, can God change his mind?

Cy Kellett:

Thank you Jimmy, again, for joining us on Focus. Appreciate that.

Jimmy Akin:

My Pleasure, Cy Kellett.

Cy Kellett:

So this question comes from a listener who suggested it via our email, and it’s about whether or not God changes his mind. And I looked up a couple of passages of scripture to share with you. Because in an Exodus 32, in Exodus chapter 32 verse 14, Moses has to try to convince God not to do some smiting because people have not been holding up their end.

Jimmy Akin:

Not been doing what they should, yeah.

Cy Kellett:

Right, exactly. And so Moses is a very good lawyer, apparently. Because Exodus 32, 14. “So the Lord changed his mind about the harm which he would do to his people.” Now I’m going to continue, in first Samuel chapter, 15 verse 29, we get this about God, “Also the glory of Israel will not lie or change his mind. For he is not a man that he should change his mind.”

Cy Kellett:

I perceive a slight conflict there. God changes his mind. And who to turn to except Jimmy Akin to resolve these kinds of things. So in Exodus we have God changing his mind. And actually, I think throughout scripture you could probably find … I mean, I’m sure you could just, off the top of your head, give me more episodes where God changes his mind, or where we’re told that God can’t change his mind.

Cy Kellett:

So the question that came to us from the listener, he’s read scripture, he wants to know, can God change his mind?

Jimmy Akin:

There are a couple of ways to approach this question. The basic answer though, is no.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Jimmy Akin:

So this’ll be a really short episode, I guess.

Cy Kellett:

Okay, thank you everyone for joining us. No, God can’t change his mind.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. But how about a little bit of explanation?

Jimmy Akin:

Okay.

Cy Kellett:

Then why would we see scripture, I think this is the crux of it, why would we see scripture seeming to suggest that God changes his mind?

Jimmy Akin:

The reason is, it’s mentioned in the latter passage that you quoted from Samuel, that God is not a man. And really when you look at what God’s nature is in light of all of the revelation he’s given us, we realize that God is an infinite, uncreated spirit, and that has some implications. Among the implications are, he’s not subject to space and time the way we are.

Jimmy Akin:

Because he created space and time, so he himself, in his essence, is outside of space and time. And if you’re outside of time, that means you don’t change. And if you don’t change, that means you don’t change your mind. And so God, in light of all the things we know about him today, does not change his mind. But what we know today, and what people knew at various stages when the Bible was being written are two different things.

Jimmy Akin:

Theologians have a concept they talk about sometimes called progressive revelation. God, didn’t at the very beginning, just dump the entire Bible on the people of Israel all at once. In fact, the Bible was written over a period of about 1100 years. So more than a thousand years. These books got written in stages. In addition to the books that we have, he also sent prophets at various times that related oral traditions, some of which ended up in the Bible and some of which didn’t.

Jimmy Akin:

But he did all those things to reveal himself, to communicate information about himself to his people. But he did it in stages. He did it progressively. And so if the very beginning of his interactions with the people of Israel, they knew less about him than we do now. They knew things like he’s a God, and he’s our God, and he’s the creator, but they didn’t necessarily realize all of the implications of that.

Jimmy Akin:

Like, oh, space and time are created things, so God is outside of those. They didn’t necessarily realize that. And so one of the things that scripture does to help make God relatable to his people is, it uses a mode of language called anthropomorphism.

Jimmy Akin:

Anthro comes from a Greek word that means human, morph is a Greek word that means form. And so anthropomorphic language depicts God as if he were in human form. And so, even though what for Samuel says is true, God can’t really change his mind because he’s not a man. He is nevertheless frequently depicted as if he’s a man, and thus capable of doing things like changing his mind. You mentioned a case in Exodus, there are other cases like when God sends the flood in Genesis six, it says God repented that he made man.

Cy Kellett:

Oh right, right.

Jimmy Akin:

Which would imply a change of mind.

Jimmy Akin:

We see other anthropomorphisms for God, like in Genesis three, God is depicted as walking in the garden as if he had legs.

Cy Kellett:

Yep, right.

Jimmy Akin:

And so one of the things we find in scripture is this anthropomorphic language. And we have to recognize it and say, okay, well, what is it trying to say? It’s depicting God as if he’s a man, but since we know he’s not a man and doesn’t really work this way, what’s being communicated here?

Jimmy Akin:

It’s a kind of symbolic language. And there are other forms of symbolic language for God as well. There’s what you might call leomorphic language. So Leo is a lion, right? And so leomorphic language would depict God as if he’s a lion.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, right.

Jimmy Akin:

And so then you say okay, well, what qualities do lions have that they share with God, and how can we figure out what this text is meaning by depicting God as a lion? Or there’s what you could call [anumorphic 00:00:28] language. Anu is a lamb, and so anumorphic language would depict God as a lamb. And obviously that happens with Jesus multiple occasions in the New Testament.

Jimmy Akin:

So you say, well, what qualities do lambs have that they have in common with Jesus that would shed light on this passage?

Cy Kellett:

So I have … An implication however, when we get to the full, mature understanding that God does not change. Because then you go back and you look at that passage with Moses and you say, well, Moses is praying to God and the prayer had an effect.

Cy Kellett:

So in what sense can we say … Moses didn’t really change God’s mind, but there’s something going on between the two of them that is at a different level. In what sense can we say that prayer is effective if it doesn’t actually change God’s mind?

Jimmy Akin:

It involves … I’m trying to think of how to say it without using a big, fancy word. I’ll use the least fancy word I can think of at the moment, which is conditional. There are things, there are choices we can make just as human beings that are conditional. We have chosen what we’re going to do, depending on what happens outside of us.

Jimmy Akin:

For example, let’s suppose that your son has done something wrong and you know about it. And he knows you know. Well, your son has a choice. Is he going to fess up and tell the truth and apologize? Or is he going to try to sweep it under the rug?

Jimmy Akin:

Well, you, as a father could decide, okay, if he fesses up and apologizes, I’ll go lenient on him.

Cy Kellett:

Ah, yes.

Jimmy Akin:

But if he tries to sweep it under the rug, he’s going to get grounded.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Jimmy Akin:

And so you know what you’re going to do, conditional on what your son chooses to do. And essentially that’s the way it works with prayer. God is outside of time, he sees all of history all at once, and he chooses what he’s going to do in response to our use of free will.

Jimmy Akin:

This is something that catechism mentions, that in his plan of predestination, God takes into account the freewill choices of his creatures, and that’s us. A creature is just something that’s created. And so God chooses how to respond based on what we do.

Jimmy Akin:

Now, we don’t have access to that information before we interact with God, before we pray or don’t pray. So it could look like, from the perspective of Moses let’s say, God is going to destroy the Israelites if Moses doesn’t intercede for them.

Jimmy Akin:

Moses doesn’t know that God has chosen that, if he intercedes, he’ll go lenient on the Israelites.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, right.

Jimmy Akin:

So all Moses understands is, those people are about to get destroyed. But Moses intercedes and that unlocks God’s decision to be gentle with the Israelites for Moses’s sake. And so God’s mind hasn’t really changed. He knew what he was going to do, whether Moses asked or didn’t ask for him to spare the Israelites. But since Moses did ask, history went down this one path. If Moses had not asked, history would have gone down a different path.

Cy Kellett:

So in a very real way then, it may be that … Say I wanted to ask God for something. Or no, let’s say I failed to ask God for something. There may be things that, if I asked he would give me. But I don’t ask

Jimmy Akin:

Oh yeah, absolutely. That point is explicitly made in the letter of James. Where James says, you have not because you ask not.

Cy Kellett:

And that’s not because I’m changing the un-immutable God. It’s because God has said, well, if he asks, I’ll give it to him.

Jimmy Akin:

Exactly. That’s the point James is making. Some of his readers weren’t praying enough. And so he’s saying, look, if you’re lacking, it’s at least in part because you’re not asking. And so if you would ask for God’s blessings, he would give you more of his blessings.

Cy Kellett:

Ah, okay. And that may be things for others as well. For example, if someone else is going through a hard time, it may be that my prayer … It’s not that God … To go back to that changing the mind thing, it’s not that God has absolutely decided this person is not going to get this help, but there is a conditional there, and that my prayer is actually needed by that person. When the person says, Hey, Cy, will you pray for me about this thing? I ought to do it, because that might be the thing that’s needed.

Jimmy Akin:

Right. Now, the question then would be, since God knows everything, and he knows what we need. I mean, Jesus points out this in the sermon on the mount, God knows what you need before you ask him. Why does God choose to make certain gifts conditional on our asking for them? Because he already knows, do you need this or not?

Jimmy Akin:

Well, you think about that. Well, it’s not for God. God doesn’t get any benefit from our prayers, but we do. And this is something that I often point out on Catholic Answers Live. When people call in and ask about, why does God want us to pray? It’s because it’s for our benefit. Because by praying, we think about more than just ourselves.

Jimmy Akin:

We think about God, we think about our need for God. We think about our neighbor. And so this prayer draws us out of ourselves and helps us think about God and our neighbor. And we know that love of God and love of neighbor are God’s two biggest priorities. They’re the two great commandments. And so by making certain gifts conditional on prayer, God incentivizes us to think about more than just ourselves, and gives us the opportunity to grow in love of God and neighbor.

Cy Kellett:

All right. I want to relate this to Jesus, because Jesus is God. And so do all of these things relate to … The things that we’ve said about God being unchangeable, and these conditionals that you suggested. Are all of these things also true of Jesus, or is there a way in which Jesus, as a man, might actually change his mind like we do?

Jimmy Akin:

Okay, so in Jesus’s case, now, he’s fully God and he’s fully man. So in his divine nature, he is at one with the father and the Holy Spirit. And so everything we just said about prayer applies to Jesus in his divine intellect.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Jimmy Akin:

So all of those same principles applies. Jesus’s divine intellect does not change. However, his human intellect, because he’s also fully man, he has a human intellect. His human intellect is created, it’s subject to time. And so it does change over time because that’s what time is, is a measure of change. And so Jesus’s human intellect does change over time. And we see this in the New Testament.

Jimmy Akin:

Saint Luke, for example, talks about how, as he grew up, Jesus grew in wisdom. And so he learned more things. I think it’s helpful to look at the passage in the catechism that talks about Christ’s soul and his human knowledge.

Jimmy Akin:

If you want to look this up, this is paragraphs 472 and following in the catechism. And it says, “This human soul that the son of God assumed is endowed with a true human knowledge. As such, this knowledge could not, in itself, be unlimited.” So his finite knowledge in his human intellect.

Jimmy Akin:

“It was exercised in the historical circumstances of his existence in space and time. This is why the son of God could, when he became man, increase in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.” That’s the verse from Luke.

Jimmy Akin:

“And,” the catechism says, “Would even have to inquire for himself about what one in the human condition can only learn from experience.”

Jimmy Akin:

So he had to ask about stuff, certain things anyway, to learn about them. And it says, “This corresponds to the reality of his voluntary emptying of himself, taking the form of a slave.”

Jimmy Akin:

Now, it goes on to talk about, in addition to his human knowledge, in his human intellect, he’s also got kind of a direct download about his mission. So he knows why he’s here, he also has supernatural knowledge. But it acknowledges that his human intellect is finite, and that there were things he had to learn. And if you look in the footnote, it gives several examples. Like when Jesus says, how many loaves do you have?

Cy Kellett:

He doesn’t know.

Jimmy Akin:

So the catechism understands Jesus is having to ask to find out the answer. It also cites where he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And it cites, after the burial of Lazarus, Jesus asking, “Where have you laid him?” And then it says, et cetera. So these are not meant to be the only times Jesus has to ask about something.

Jimmy Akin:

Another prominent one is at the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter, where he’s on the way to Jairus’s his house and the woman with the hemorrhage comes up behind him and touches him, and is instant healed. And he says, “Well, who touched me?”

Jimmy Akin:

And Peter’s like, “Dude, there’s a crowd. Everybody was touching you.”

Jimmy Akin:

And he says, “No,” In Luke’s version, he says, “No, someone touched me because I felt power go out for me.”

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. I like how Peter talks like a California surfer dude. Dude.

Jimmy Akin:

Well, we’re translating idiomatically from the Aramaic and Greek.

Cy Kellett:

Right, right. I wonder what the Aramaic for dude was.

Cy Kellett:

Jimmy, extremely helpful. I have to say. Especially the part about the conditional, about the possibilities. That the future is not just, because God knows it doesn’t mean that it’s fixed. it matters what we do, that’s very, very helpful.

Jimmy Akin:

Yeah, thank you.

Cy Kellett:

We should do more Focus with you, Jimmy. You’re really good at this.

Jimmy Akin:

Thank you.

Cy Kellett:

Dude, come back and do this again!

Jimmy Akin:

Anytime for you, bro.

Cy Kellett:

Okay, bro. Thanks Jimmy.

Cy Kellett:

I’ve been working with Jimmy Akin for years and he still surprises constantly with his answers. And so often those surprises are a delight. And to have this idea that Jimmy was just talking about, about these conditionals, where God has said, I will give it to them if they ask for it. And even has told us about that in scripture where he says, “You have not because you ask not.”

Cy Kellett:

This doesn’t mean that there’s a change in the immutable nature of God, it means that this is the way God has made the universe. So that there are things that we can ask for and receive. And if we don’t ask for them, we’re not going to receive.

Cy Kellett:

Let’s take that as encouragement in our prayer life, as we relate to God and to one another, and remember to pray for one another. We know lots of you pray for us, we’re very grateful for your prayers and support. Another way you can support us, If you’re watching on YouTube, like and subscribe. If you like and subscribe, it really does help grow the podcast, and the podcast is growing.

Cy Kellett:

If you don’t get us on YouTube, but maybe you get us on one of the services, Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, if you subscribe there you’ll be notified when new episodes come out. You can also support us financially, and we do need your financial support. Whether you give a dollar or a million dollars, you can do so givcatholic.com. And if you would write a little note, let us know why you are supporting us financially. That means a great deal to us. Whether you give a dollar or a million dollars.

Cy Kellett:

I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here at Catholic Answers Focus.

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