God is not human, that he should lie,
not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfill?
-Numbers 23:19 (NIV)
Everywhere you look, it seems like things have changed. Against our will. Under our noses.
For many of us, our jobs now involve the kitchen table and sweat pants.
A night out means grilling in the back yard.
A celebration means Zoom or a line of cars honking horns.
Church no longer requires getting out of your pajamas.
Those are the easy ones, of course. For some of us the changes include a lost job. A stay in the hospital and an uncertain long-term prognosis. Financial difficulties. The loss of a loved one to a virus whose name we didn’t even know when we wished each other a Happy New Year.
Some are stuck in a house with an abusive, angry spouse or parent. Some are trying to figure out how to stay sober in very stressful circumstances, and some are watching the hard-won sobriety of someone they love slipping away. Some are watching family members or friends with dementia or mental illness getting worse during this period of isolation.
Change is all around us. It’s in the air. Some of the changes were a long time coming and should have happened long ago. Some are sudden, shocking, and wrenching. As disorienting as it is, sometimes change is necessary, even vital, for the flourishing of human beings. Old attitudes that no longer work — some that should never have worked — have to go. Old traditions lose their meaning. Old practices have to be discarded. Old ideas are replaced by new ones. Muted voices are allowed to speak, while those that had the platform all to themselves have to learn how to share. Remembering the “good old days” usually doesn’t include remembering Jim Crow or polio or workhouses with fondness, and rightly so.
As long as the way things are is working for us, we don’t care for change. Sometimes we don’t need any more reason to continue with something than this: That’s how it’s always been. That’s never true, of course. It hasn’t always been this way. What we mean is that it works for me, and it’s worked for others, and so let’s not change it. The second verse of Henry Lyte’s hymn, Abide With Me, captures well our feelings about change:
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
Systems break down. Institutions outlive their purposes. People grow old. Viruses mutate. Change doesn’t always involve decay, but it does often enough. The things we once found joy in don’t do that for us anymore. What was beautiful turns to ashes. Life’s short day heads quickly toward sunset.
If you know Lyte’s song, though, you know I left out the last line of that second verse:
O Thou who changest not, abide with me!
Theologians refer to one of God’s basic characteristics as immutability. You don’t need to remember that word, but you do need to remember the idea. In a world where change is inevitable, and very often necessary if there’s to be any real progress, it’s vital to our well-being to remember that God doesn’t change. It isn’t that he changes slowly and imperceptibly. It isn’t that he only changes in good ways. What theologians mean by immutability is that it’s part of God’s nature that he does not change, ever, for any reason. He doesn’t change his mind, or say one thing while intending another. His words and his actions are congruent. When he makes a promise, he keeps it — even if, as in the case of Abraham, the fulfillment takes generations.
James, the Lord’s brother, says it this way: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Something to note about God’s unchanging nature is that in the Bible it’s expressed mostly in a relational way. That tracks with how God usually reveals himself: not abstractly, through a page in a theology textbook, but through the way he deals with human beings. So we understand and experience God’s immutability through God’s keeping of promises. We understand it through his generosity. We understand it through his compassion. Some theologians have argued about God’s immutability because he does sometimes seem to change in Scripture in one way: he has a tendency to forgive sin and change his mind about punishment. That only illustrates, though, that his compassion isn’t changed, even when his people fail him.
God never changes in that he will always, without fail, seek to show us love, grace, kindness, and forgiveness. Nothing, not even his other fundamental characteristics like holiness or omniscience or omnipotence, change that fundamental thing about him. Whatever changes in your life — and everything will — you will find that God is faithful and will never change. That’s why John says that God is love, and later: “So we know and rely on the love God has for us.”
To trust that God doesn’t change is to find the strength to accept change, however unsettling and disorienting it might be. We can’t expect our jobs or our families or our political party of choice to be the foundation we build our lives on forever. They’ll all change, evolve, let us down, even turn on us. God won’t. He’s faithful to us, he’s compassionate, and he always will be because he doesn’t change.
To trust that God doesn’t change is to have peace. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we’ll never be disappointed, or that we won’t grieve loss. It means we’ll always have a sanctuary, a place to which we can retreat and find shelter and security. It gives us a way to process change, to keep it in perspective.
To trust that God doesn’t change is to have a way to evaluate the changes around us. That’s what Joseph does, for example, when he reflects on his brothers’ treatment of him, years later: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Because he found that God was with him, unchanging, even is literally everything about his life dissolved around him, he was able to see how God’s work in his life came together.
Ultimately, God has shown just how unchanging he is through Jesus. He showed his commitment to making himself known to us through the Word made flesh. He showed how unwavering that commitment is through the cross. “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing!” — that was his prayer from the cross for those who put him there. Love, compassion, grace that wasn’t even changed by mockery, violence, and murder.
Everywhere you look, it seems like things have changed.
Not God. Never God.