Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: The Bible says God “repented of the evil” he was about to do to mankind. Doesn’t this raise questions?
A God too big for words
The Rev. Paul Rock, Second Presbyterian Church, Kansas City, Mo.: Does a repenting God raise all kinds of questions? Absolutely. It messes with you. Some might say that the idea of God changing his mind or somehow learning from or evolving with creation is heresy.
And technically they would be right. God’s character is steadfast and God’s will immutable. So then, what do you do with the fact that, not once but multiple times, Scripture records God admitting to flip-flopping (Genesis, Exodus, 2 Samuel, Jonah, Jeremiah)?
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Well, you let it mess with you. You circle those words in your Bible and incredulously shake your head as you scratch a fat question mark in the margin. And hopefully you’re motivated to pick up another book or reflect with a friend or commence a search to get your head around the contradiction.
If you do, you’ll learn about the anthropomorphic metaphors biblical writers employed to explain a God too big for words. You’ll learn that when God repents, it’s from plans to punish, and only after people have shown evidence of returning to God.
Thus God never repents from his plans to save and bless.
You will find many explanations that may ease concerns, but when we study a living God we will be forced to wrestle with a God who, as C.S. Lewis put it, is not safe, but good.
Try as we might – and it’s important to try – we will never contain or comprehend our loving and lively God. And if we think we do, we’re the ones who should repent.
God cares for his creation
The Rev. Justin Hoye, St. Patrick Catholic Church, Kansas City: Yes, and perhaps that is part of the charm of such a line: It invites us into a deeper reflection of the mystery of God.
In his book “The Prophets,” Abraham Heschel notes, “The Bible speaks in the language of man. It deals with the problems of man, and its terms are borrowed from the vocabulary of the people.”
Scripture employs the finiteness of human language to try to express something that cannot be captured. It can feel unsatisfying to simply state that anthropomorphism is at work, yet a phrase such as this one actually gives credence to Heschel’s assertion that the words of prophets convey the reality of God’s “constant care and concern.”
The Hebrew word referenced can mean both “repent” and “comfort,” indicating in either that God is demonstrating care for his creation.
God is not indifferent to the injustices in the world but intervenes for their correction. It is incorrect to assert that God changes his mind or does something objectively evil, yet from a human perspective that experiences both his abhorrence of sin and the faithfulness of his mercy, that is what it can seem like. God’s unwavering demands for holiness are often the catalyst for mankind’s return to God.
Heschel concludes, “It is precisely the challenge involved in using inadequate words that drives the mind beyond all words.”