Ask a Franciscan

Ask a Franciscan: Does God Change?

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In the Old Testament, God often tells the Israelites to make war—for example, against Midian (Numbers 31). Also, God brings about the death of Israel’s enemies when he closes the Red Sea on Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14). God seems very harsh in these instances, compared to the just and merciful God of today. How is this possible? I thought that God never changes. 

God, in fact, does not change, but our ability to understand and appreciate God needs to grow as we grow. A closer example may help here: A 5-year-old can hardly appreciate adult love as well as an adult can. Twenty years or so later, that former child will probably be much better able to understand “adult love,” which has not, however, changed during those intervening 20 years. 

We go from the familiar to the less familiar, always acknowledging that misunderstandings are possible. Always aware that ascribing human characteristics to God can be dangerous, biblical writers constantly take that risk while reminding us that God’s ways are not our ways. 

The author of the Book of Numbers, for example, saw God as the one responsible for the Hebrews’ defeat of the Midianites. The same is true of the Hebrews’ escape from Pharaoh’s troops or later enemies. 

Overall, the Bible describes God’s saving action on behalf of the human family. It is not, however, a court reporter’s transcript of testimony at a trial. Our constant temptation is to make God in our image, rather than the other way around. 

In the second century AD, a Christian by the name of Marcion taught that God in the Old Testament was not the same as God in the New Testament, that the former was one of law, anger, and punishment while the latter was instead characterized by love and mercy. 

Some ideas are too easy and convenient to be true; this is one of them. The Church quickly rejected Marcion’s teaching though it lives on, shared by many people who have never heard of Marcion. Why? It’s very simple and convenient with a projected and rather appealing payoff. 

Parts of the Old Testament show God as very loving and tender (teaching Israel to walk and bending down to feed him, Hos 11:3–4), but the New Testament also shows God as quite ready to denounce the convenient lies that people may tell themselves (for example, the notion that the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned are completely unworthy of respect, an idea condemned in Mt 25:31–46). 

God can be manipulated for very unreligious purposes. Sin can be reduced exclusively to individual actions while turning social blind spots into God-given truth. Sin is indeed reflected in individual actions, but it is also reflected in “what everyone knows” and what must be defended by any and all means. 

The conversion that Jesus preaches is wide-ranging—no person or institution is off-limits. That was true for prophets such as Isaiah and Micah as well as for saintly people in the New Testament and thereafter. 

St. Paul urged the Christians in Corinth to allow God to become “everything in all of you” (1 Cor 9:22). Sin happens when people refuse to do that, usually to strengthen a system that benefits them at the expense of people considered not to count in their society. 

The writer Flannery O’Connor once described smugness as “the great Catholic sin.” In fact, it’s hardly confined to Catholics. The philosopher Francois Voltaire once said that human beings were created in God’s image, and they have returned that compliment! Smugness has its rewards, however shallow and fleeting. 

Although it is true that God does not change, we must not seek out a God who supports everything we already love—and then defend that kind of God at all costs. God has no need for those kinds of defenders. Our job, instead, is to discover and accept a God who can never become a tool for manipulating others while justifying the blindness we regard as holiness. 

This thoroughly biblical God will always challenge and stretch us. When that stops happening, we are well on our way to a type of idolatry, no matter how hard we try to use religious language to make it seem respectable and praiseworthy. 

Last December, Pope Francis warned members of the Roman Curia about “elegant demons” that, once expelled from someone (Lk 11:24–26), can return to tempt that even more subtly. That temptation applies to all of us. 

What is the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and a Catholic Orthodox Church? 

Terminology may be the problem here. There are the Roman Catholic Church and many Eastern Catholic Churches, all united in the same faith expressed in different vocabularies and liturgical rites. 

In a sense, the Roman Catholic Church is orthodox (provides correct teaching), and all Orthodox Churches are catholic (universal). 

What is the Catholic view of reincarnation? Some studies reveal the existence of reincarnation. 

The pre-Christian idea that human souls can migrate into other forms of life (human or nonhuman, up or down) has no support in the Bible or in the teachings of the major Christian Churches. Jesus Christ came to save us as we are in this life. 

It seems to me that this idea is especially attractive to people who seek a do-over for their life, who seek to evade personal responsibility for their decisions now because they might be able to make better decisions in some future life. 

Abraham’s answer to the rich man’s request that someone return from the dead to warn his brothers (Lk 16:27–28) applies here. An “if only” approach in this context is ultimately unrealistic and impossible. 

Original sin can be described as a flight from personal responsibility for our decisions. Instead, Jesus offers repentance and conversion. 

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