A certain God in uncertain times

What do we hold on to when it seems like everything is changing?

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve grown increasingly weary of the term “unprecedented times.” Although there’s plenty to support the validity of the phrase in many aspects of our public and private lives, perhaps a more accurate phrase might now be something more along the lines of “disorienting” or “surreal.” So many of us are encountering ideas and engaging in conversations that we might have otherwise never even dreamt of. Church leaders, pastors and church communities are continuing to deal with the ramifications of a world turned upside down and twisted inside out.

On top of this, we’re living in a world where people are becoming less and less sure of what they can be confident. In 2016, Oxford Dictionary selected “post-truth” as its word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (emphasis mine). There is much to be uncertain of, with increased access to digital information, fewer reliable sources of objective truth and addiction to digital devices and social media across nearly all generations.

This is complicated by rapid global change and transition. In his latest book, A Non-Anxious Presence, Australian pastor Mark Sayers describes our current day and age as a “grey zone,” a time of transition between two eras. A grey zone contains the influence of both the passing and forming eras and is therefore “confusing and contradictory, filled with change and conflict. Everything seems to be up in the air.”

Scripture describes God as unchanging, which many theologians call the immutability of God. Why does this matter?

Disorienting…surreal…uncertain. As uncomfortable as they sound, these words are becoming increasingly normative for so many. As followers of Jesus, what will ground us? When it seems like everything we can sense is undergoing change in our world, the Scriptures tell us in Malachi 3:6 that “I the Lord do not change.” The great pastor and preacher Charles Spurgeon adds, “It is well for us that, amidst all the variableness of life, there is One whom change cannot affect.”

Yes, Scripture describes God as unchanging, which many theologians call the immutability of God. Why does this matter? Sometimes there is beautiful change like the growth of a family, purchase of a first home or the accomplishment of a major milestone like earning a doctorate.

This is a topic that deserves much more attention than what can be unpacked in a single article. There are chapters of systematic theology textbooks as well as entire volumes dedicated to the theme of God’s immutability. I find Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology definition helpful, which says that “God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations.”

God is sufficient in his being and perfections. What could be added to God to make him better? He is already perfection. And should anything be taken away he would cease to be God. Likewise, God has no beginning and no end. Psalm 102:25-27 proclaims that “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain…you remain the same, and your years will never end.”

Additionally, God does not change in terms of his plans or purposes, where according to Psalm 33:11, “But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” In Numbers 23:19, God’s nature is contrasted with human nature through the prophetic words of Balaam: “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?”

Now I tend to think that in our humanity, the second half of Grudem’s definition, where “God acts and feels differently in response to different situations” can sometimes cause us to question this attribute of God. But is it possible that in our flesh we’re perceiving that God is changing his mind, when in reality we’re only seeing part of the picture?

Last summer, our church community was journeying through Jonah. As we got to the “impending doom” of Nineveh in chapter 3, God’s word to Nineveh seemed pretty clear: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).

But here’s the thing. The word overthrown is the Hebrew word h¯a¯pak which literally means “to turn.” The implications of this word could result in destruction or forgiveness, depending on the Ninevites’ response. As the story continues to play out, we see God’s deep and profound compassion expressed (another central attribute of God), without negating his immutability.

So, Scripture affirms the beautiful truth that God is constant and unchanging, which Millard J. Erickson, in his book Christian Theology, says excellently, “The biblical view is not that God is static but stable. He is active and dynamic, but in a way that is stable and consistent with his nature.”

God is trustworthy and stable because he is the same yesterday, today and forever. James reminds us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). What joy that the greatest gift is the perfect and eternal Jesus, who invites us to bring our questions, our concerns, our uncertainties before the throne of God with confidence.

It also brings to mind the wonderful hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness. The lyrics draw heavily from the truths of Lamentations 3:22-23, which says, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

There will surely be more confusion, more conflict. But even in our disorientation, we can trust and look upon the God who did (and still does) respond with grace and mercy. In a world that is continually transformed and changed, where uncertainty seems to be the only constant, there is hope because God is stable. God is constant.

God does not change.

This is hope—that God may be the unchanging and eternal rock on which we can confidently stand and declare:

“Great is thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see;

All I have needed thy hand hath provided

Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

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