Theologian Roger Olson says God changes “in relation to creature’s prayers and needs. I have long believed that God does change- voluntarily and only in His experiences and intentions.” How can Christians understand the changeless God described in the Bible who is also revealed to have emotions and answer prayers by intervening in circumstances. Does God change? Does my sin create a new grief in God that was not there before I sinned? Does God start out on one course but change His plans when I pray? These are not easy questions, but understanding God’s relationship with humanity and the Christian’s relationship with God is important.
The Bible teaches that God does not change. In God is no variation or “shadow of turning.” (James 1:17) “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.” (1 Samuel 15:29)
The Bible also says that God repented. “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” (Genesis 6:6) “The Lord repented that He had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:35) In Exodus 32 God told Moses to leave Him alone and He would destroy rebellious Israel. Moses pled with God to not destroy Israel, “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” (Exodus 32:14)
How does the Christian make sense of this? Does God repent, or is He unchanging? Do my prayers cause God to change His mind? When the Old Testament says God “repents” the Hebrews word nacham, translated “repent” in English, reflects an emotional state. Depending on the context the same word is used for having pity on someone or for regretting an action. We can legitimately say, as the NASB translates it, “The Lord was sorry that He had made man.” (Genesis 6:6) God’s being “sorry” does not imply God erred. Instead, the repentance of God shows His tenderness and justice. God is moved with compassion by our need and moved with sorrow by our sin.
Examining the passages that describe God as “repenting” reveals that God Himself is not changing, only His dealings with man are. From the beginning of the Bible God is shown to change in the way He deals with men. He dealt with Adam differently afer sin than He did before man sinned. He dealt differently with Abraham than Moses, the apostles or Christians today. God acts in accord with His changeless character in all His interactions with man, but the expression of His unchanging nature does not always stay the same.
The ability of God to respond to the actions of man does not mean God is taking a new direction different from what He planned. Isaiah 46:9-10 says, “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:” Acts 15:18 says, “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” God knows all that He will do and He also legitimately and actually answers the prayers of people. He makes what appear to men to be changes in His plans, but in fact God knows all that He will do. Before He created the world, God knew He would destroy the earth in a flood. Before God called Saul to be king, He knew He would take the kingdom from Saul. Before Moses prayed for Israel’s protection, God knew He would not destroy the nation. God has always known all things He will do.
When the Bible says that God does not change it is emphasizing that God always does what He says. (Hebrews 6:17-19) God does not ever go back on His promises. His character, knowledge, nature and being are eternally unchanging. He is exactly the same God today that He was in the eternity before He created all things.