Does God change his mind? Do you think it irreverent to refuse God’s “no” for an answer? Does your view of his sovereignty so cloud your prayers that you settle for the circumstances before you? Well, if Scripture is any guide for our faith, I would encourage you to survey the people who’ve insisted on something with God only to have him change his mind.
But first, it’s important to understand why some insist on accepting life’s events as they come, attributing them to God’s absolute, sovereign will. The quality of God that refers to his unchangingness is immutability. Consider some passages that might lead someone to believe God’s will never changes:
Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.”
1 Samuel 15:29 “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”
Psalm 110:4 “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind.”
Read carefully in context, all of these passages relate to covenant promises, either of blessing or discipline. That is to say, God promised to faithfully bless his people for their obedience, and be equally faithful in disciplining them in ways spelled out in their covenant. Israel was not to “test” God by questioning his integrity and continuing in disobedience. That is what they (we!) tended to do when discipline wasn’t immediate. When Scripture presents God’s will as absolute, it is typically in reference to specific promises where there are clear signals that the declaration was unconditional (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 110:4; Jer 4:28; Ezek 24:14; Zech 8:14).
The reason God in the Old Testament so forcefully stated his unchanging will in relation to covenants may also have to do with the gods of Israel’s neighbors. The gods of the ancient Near East were famous for being unreliable. They acted arbitrarily, lacked moral standards, and were not trustworthy. The holiness of Yahweh, in contrast to false gods, included ethical integrity. God’s people should follow his example. His immutability, then, primarily has to do with his nature. He remains unchanging in his eternality, power, holiness, trinitarian character, etc., and his people ought to behave in a similar manner.
Consider now some positive examples of God changing his mind in response to people. Think of Jacob, who wrestled with an angel and wouldn’t let him leave until he received a blessing (Genesis 35:1-7). How about Moses, who interceded for the Israelites when God was resolved to destroy them (Deut 9:13-14)? Or Rahab, who could’ve accepted her fate as a Canaanite but instead reminded the spies to remember her in their coming conquest (Joshua 2:1-24). Hannah? She wept in the temple and God gave her a son, the great prophet Samuel (1 Sam 1:10). There is Jeremiah 18:7-10 where God says through the prophet:
“If at some time I announce that a nation or kingdom will be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.”
In the New Testament, Jesus responds to his mother in John 2:4 unfavorably (“Woman, what have I to do with thee?”) but she, in her motherly insistence, side-maneuvers him and gets more wine for the wedding celebration. How about the Phoenician woman who chose, instead of walking away from the offense of being compared to a dog, to answer back to Jesus with wit? She also received her blessing (Matt 15:21-28).
There are others whom at first request, Jesus responds as if their needs don’t concern him (Matt 8:7). This is sometimes called the obstacle of faith. In Scripture, many times God is the one who placed these obstacles of faith in front of people! But the marvel is that on so many occasions he commends their insistence—their faith—and grants their desire. There is something deeply formational about asking a good thing of God, and persisting in it. This means that often God’s refusal to grant a request is an invitation to insist. Sometimes God’s “no” means “ask again.” In this way, God genuinely relates to people in a way that highlights our freedom and honors our capacity to love. Should we expect anything less of a trinitarian God?