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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Unchangeable God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
As we read the Old Testament it seems that God is anything but unchangeable. He becomes angry with his people; they repent, and he is said to be appeased. God watching the infidelity of his chosen ones is grieved; then men like Moses and Abraham pray, and God, it seems, changes his mind. More than once the Old Testament speaks of God either turning toward his people or away from his people.
A changeable god is the most popular god in the world today. We look at ourselves and others around us and we constantly see fluctuation, mutation. What a change! A moment before we were conceived, we weren't; then we became human beings; quite a change! We developed; we know how to speak. The main purpose of education is to change people from not knowing things to knowing things. We have moods; we change with the weather. Even the great St. Teresa of Avila said she had to watch herself on bleak, stormy days; her mood was bad. In a word, everything inside of us and all around is constantly changing.
The bedrock of human civilization is faith in an unchangeable God. And the main reason for the cosmic instability in the world today is its widespread loss of faith in an unchangeable God.
First, the article of our faith: God is unchangeable. God is unchangeable. And no one else is. God is unchangeable. We don't think he is; we don't surmise he might be; God is unchangeable. God is unchangeable. Without dwelling at length on the subject, we should, I think, find out what are the grounds, first in reason and then in revelation, for our conviction that the God we believe in is an unchangeable Holy Trinity.
Reason tells us if God could change he would not be God. If he changed he would either acquire or lose what he had. If he had to acquire it would have to be from outside himself. But he's God. Unless you first postulate a being who has a fullness of being nothing else would exist. And if he lost, someone would have to deprive him of what he had; and then the one or the power or the being that could deprive a hypothetical god of what he possessed, that "other" would be God. Already the ancient philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle concluded to an unchangeable God.
But then, God, as we know, has given us his revelation in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition in order that even though absolutely speaking we might come to some more or less assured conclusion that God is unchangeable, but for most human beings, given the experience of a constantly changing world in them and around them, most people would not conclude that God is indeed immutable. God therefore revealed who he is. There are a number of classic passages in the scriptures about God's unchangeableness: Malachi 3:6: "I, Yahweh, do not change." There are passages in the New Testament especially the letter of St. James and Paul's letter to the Hebrews. In James we read: "Father of all light, there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow- of a change in you;" and in Hebrews, 1:10-12: "Everything changes; but you, Lord, do not change." That is our faith.
Why must God be unchangeable? God cannot change because he has the fullness of being. If he lost that fullness of being he would not be God; if he began to acquire that fullness of being, he wouldn't be God; and if there was no God with the fullness of being then there would be no other being in the world. God, in making the world, made it out of nothing; he began with nothing, he used nothing; God also parted with nothing; he (God) changed in nothing in creating. We are expressing a mystery. The only beings we know, the only conclusion our mind naturally arrives at, unless we tell our mind to explain how the world came into existence, is of a world in constant change.
We want to believe that God is unchangeable. We accept his immutability on faith. We have symbols of the divine immutability; the bible is filled with figures of speech, describing God like a mountain that never changes. The Scriptures speak of the eternal heroes, of the everlasting sea; they speak of God as being eternal light, the unchanging stone, the granite who is God. Now we know, or we should know that those figures of speech do not really tell us who or what God is. In the last analysis, even though we arrive at some knowledge of God's immutability by reasoning to the need of there being some being in the world on whom all changeable things depend, but when we are pressed to explain what we mean, we say: "I believe."
We are talking about the implications not only for our spiritual life but for our moral life, indeed for our mental life, for our sanity. What are some of the implications? Given, as we believe, that God is unchangeable, there must then be a stable unchangeable truth in the world.
What is truth? Truth is the agreement of mind with reality. But our minds are only as stable as the reality which we know is unchanging. I have only as much truth, I have only as much security, only as much stability in my mind as the reality with which my mind is conformed or agrees is unchangeable. God's unchangeableness, therefore, is the foundation for the stability of truth. Is there truth? Sure, there's truth. What's on my mind agreeing with the reality outside of my mind, that's the truth. But, how do you know the reality outside of your mind is a stable unchangeable reality? Name one thing, one person outside of your mind that's unchangeable. With what reality can our minds be conformed to assure ourselves that I have the unchangeable truth? Either God is unchangeable or truth is what most of the philosophers in the world say it is: a changing function.
Because we believe in God's unchangeableness, we have the security, the stability, the quiet serenity, - the three most important nouns in the modern world today: security, stability, and its consequent serenity. Because we believe in God's unchangeableness, we have the peace of mind which is the experience of possessing unchangeable truth.
Part of the most memorable years of my life were teaching at a State university. I was hired to teach Catholic theology along with Confucianism, Shinto, Buddhism and Hinduism. I obliged by teaching the rest, but my main purpose was to teach Catholicism. We had periodic faculty meetings. One evening at the home of the head of the department, we opened the meeting with the head of the department looking me straight in the eye (there were nine of us in the department.) "Hardon, the trouble with you is you are so sure of yourself; you are so d---- sure of yourself! Why not? I've got the truth.
Because we believe in God's unchangeableness, we have that courage in our wills which is based on conviction of mind. Only convinced people are courageous: all unconvinced people who are not sure in their minds are cowards. The reason for cowardiceness is unsureness of mind. I may not like to live up to my convictions; if I am honest with myself I will admit how hard it is to live up to my convictions; but I cannot begin to begin to be courageous unless I first have stable, sound, unchangeable convictions.
Second implication, not only for our spirituality, not only for our morality but for our sanity, is that because God is unchangeable he not only does not change his mind and that we have the assurance of possessing unchangeable truth, but God is unchangeable in his will. That being so, divine laws are unchangeable. To a lot of people that comes as a big surprise.
Innocent human life, God said in the Old Law, is sacred; God says in the New Law it is sacred; God keeps saying, even though most of the nations in the western world have not merely legalized but have legislated abortion. Is innocent human life, unborn human life or, when born, unwanted human life, is it sacred? Does the commandment "You shall not kill" still hold? You would never think so. The lowest figure of United Nations is sixty million legalized abortions each year. The National Geographical magazine, without a second thought, along with some beautiful pictures of communist China, the writer just casually mentions of course China has the law that a couple may have only one child, and they must murder, whether the child is unborn or born , every child beyond the first. It just goes on!
Is the family still the foundation of human society, or can people just, as the expression goes, 'shack up'? How many people I have spent hours with, reasoning, arguing. Why bother with a family? I told them as openly and as kindly as I could why.
Is contraception still a sin? Is adultery, fornication, homosexuality, masturbation still sinful? That's the main reason the Holy See stepped into the picture and removed the Rev. Charles Curran from the faculty of teaching theology at Catholic University. For eighteen years he has been teaching the opposite.
That's the second profound, couldn't be more practical implication of God's unchangeableness. He does not change his mind; therefore we have the stable truth. He does not change his will; therefore we have God's unchangeable laws.
The principles of the spiritual life do not change. There is the absolute necessity of prayer. Unless we pray, we will not only not be sanctified, we won't even reach heaven. All prayerless people go to hell unless they are insane and do not know that you must pray. The sure sign, as far as we can have it, of predestination for heaven is if a person prays; and the surest guarantee of a person not being saved is if that person does not pray. Says God: You've got your nature, you've got all kinds of people and things around you; but besides all you've got in yourself and in others, you need me. Beg me for help. If you do, I'll help you; if you don't, though I am the almighty God, I will not help you." Is that principle of the spiritual life still in existence? Millions do not believe it.
There is the same need in the spiritual life for humility; the need for patience; the need for charity; the need for obedience. There must be divinely instituted authority on earth. God does not speak individually to human beings except on rare occasions to the prophets. And needless to say, if every human being on earth was a prophet, I can tell you exactly how long the human race would survive, just long enough for the five billion people to destroy themselves.
The Church which Christ founded is unchangeable. But you had better believe that Jesus Christ is God, because it is Christ's unchangeable divine nature that confers, as we believe, the essential unchangeableness on the Church which he established. The Church Christ founded must have one visible head. How many now do not believe this.
In the Church which Christ founded, he gave his unchangeable Church the unchangeable seven sacraments. The single most devastating thing which the so-called protestant founders did in the sixteenth century was to say it is all changed; there used to be seven sacraments but not any more. And then, depending on the protestant, you have six, five, four, three, two, one, and many, no sacraments at all. In teaching protestant students at their divinity schools I would tell them: "Ladies and gentlemen, I knew you heard the word sacraments; but as protestants you don't really have any sacraments." So the reformers put it down: We protestants haven't any sacraments.
It's not naming the seven sacraments. The unchangeableness that Christ conferred on his Church is the nature of each of the sacraments. The Holy Eucharist is still the Real Presence taking place by the words of consecration by the priest at Mass. A director of religious education showed me five pages with the directives for religious education in her diocese. She wanted me to give her some opinion. There is no Real Presence; Christ is not present in the Holy Eucharist in that large diocesan religious education program. You begin to see how indispensable is our faith in God's unchangeableness; otherwise everything goes, better, with so many people everything is going.
Because God is unchangeable, we believe in the life of the Counsels, following Jesus and consecrating oneself for a lifetime to the evangelical counsels of chastity, of poverty and of obedience. In one Catholic bookstore I counted forty books on the religious life; everything is changing. Is the religious life in the twentieth century still what Christ wanted consecrated life to be when he founded the Church? Yes. And what the young people are looking for are authentic communities.
Because God is unchangeable we therefore believe that the State has no right to change what God has established as unchangeable either in regarding human nature or the nature of human society or on the laws that are to govern human, collective, communal living.
My four years in Washington taught me a great deal. I came to know not a few people. The hardest thing for Catholics working in government to do is to survive in politics if they insist on certain things in human life being unchangeable. The sixth implication is the conviction, the confidence that where there is instability - and it is rampant - it will be stabilized only through fidelity to an unchangeable God and his unchangeable laws. How many uncertain, disquieted, disturbed people there are in our country? What we most need ourselves is to be absolutely convinced God is unchangeable. Christ is God; therefore what Christ taught cannot be changed. And you don't try to adjust God to people, but people to God.
Interior peace of soul is possible only when a person is sure that he possesses the truth, and sure that God will provide him with the means to acquire and maintain oneself in loyalty to God. But I must be standing on rock. And that rock is that what I believe is the truth is not an opinion. All a person has to do, but they have to do it, is to conform their minds to the mind of God and their wills to the will of God and they will get control of themselves and they will recover what the human heart most wants - peace of soul.
We have got to be convinced that all the instability in the world, all the insecurity comes from believing in man and that all the stability, all the security comes from God. Once people have God, once they trust in God, once they sincerely want to follow God, they will acquire if they don't have it, or maintain if they have it, and even grow in that security and peace that the human heart so desperately desires.
Given the unspeakable importance of this article of our faith in God's absolute unchangeability, we must pray, pray for a deepening of our faith in God's unchangeable nature. Pray that God will not allow us to weaken and doubt for a split second that because I now have troubles that I didn't have before, I do not have that interior consolation that I used to have, that God has somehow changed in his attitude towards me. No! God loves me. In other words we must pray to understand as clearly as we can and deepen our grasp of what we believe - all the mysteries; but one mystery we must beg God: "Help me to never leave hold of my conviction, of my faith in your eternal unchangeableness."
"My triune, invisible God, I believe you are absolutely unchangeable. It is on this faith that I build my confidence, my security, my certainty and all my moral strength. Protect me from ever doubting your eternal immutability. Keep me from being seduced by the instability all around me; keep me firm in my trust in you, my Rock, my Fortress, my Refuge, my unchangeable God. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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