I have recently been watching a documentary series on BBC documenting the dreadful period of witch burnings that swept across Britain, starting around 420 years ago and lasting for a whole century, 100 years!
It is just too barbaric to imagine, innocent women, and men, being tortured until they confessed crimes they could not have committed, and then executed in some of the most horrific ways. And these religious crimes were committed by zealous Protestants who believed that they had left behind the superstitions of Catholicism. It makes me think that if we were transported back 400 years ago, the British culture that we would have experienced would be vastly different from what we call British culture today. It would quite possibly have been as barbaric and religiously oppressive as the Islamic fundamentalism of the Isis Caliphate today with it’s beheadings also in the name of God.
Change is not always something that we like or enjoy. When change comes upon us we often resist it. We often long for things to stay the same. On Facebook recently there was a picture with the words “How I long for some precedented times”. It is a humorous reflection on how we often cling to things as they are.
But the truth is, that we live in a world of change. The ancient Greek Philosopher famously said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Life and the universe is in a state of constant flux. Buddhist teaching will tell you that one of the great sources of our mental and psychological suffering is our resistance to change, because change and impermanence is one of the fundamental marks of existence.
When we are faced with the assertion that everything changes and that there is nothing impermanent in this world, we as Christians might ask the question: Does God change?
Reading, reflecting and meditating on Scripture presents us with some interesting perspectives…
Some passages suggesting that God is unchanging, while others suggest that within God, there is movement and therefore change.
Firstly, on the one hand we hear the author of Malachi making the assertion that God does not change: Malachi 3:6 “I am the LORD, and I do not change.” We hear also the Psalmist in Psalm 102:25-27 “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” And then in Hebrews 13:8 we hear similar assertions about Jesus, “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever.”
In this world of constant change, where as the write of Hebrews puts it, we have no abiding, no permanent city, various authors in the Biblical writings suggests that there is One who does not change, that God is the one constant in the Universe, the still point upon which everything else turns. While everything else changes, God remains constant.
Secondly, on the other hand, in Scripture, we have other passages that suggest that God does change. In John’s Gospel, Jesus favourite way of speaking of God was with the word pneuma… which can be translated as Spirit, or Breath. In John 3:8 we read these words: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit/Pneuma.”
In this passage, the Spirit, or the Breath or Wind of God implies movement, a movement that is even unpredictable, and mysterious. It is probably one of the passages that William Cowper, the great hymn writer, would have drawn on when he wrote the words to the hymn “God’s Spirit moves in a mysterious way.”
And so you have two perspectives across different passages of Scripture that suggest that God is somehow simultaneously both changing and that which is unchanging.
How might God be simultaneously be described as unchaining, the same yesterday today and forever, and yet at the same time like a Wind that blows wherever it wishes. That is one of the paradoxes of theological language, a little bit like science. When observed from different perspectives, light behaves as a wave and as particles. Scientists don’t know how to resolve these two observations into one theory.
So it is with God: God is simultaneously that which remains constant and unchanging, and yet when observed or experienced from a different perspective, God is the breath that breathes and moves through creation.
It is a reminder that we shouldn't resist change. Change is inevitable. When we resist change we end up suffering. According to John’s Gospel, change and movement are part of God’s nature as Spirit or Breath. In that sense, we must thank God for change. Thank God that we don't live in the 1600’s where witches were tortured and burned. Thank God Britain has changed. Thank God Britain no longer trades in slavery. Thank God for change. Where would we be without it?
And yet paradoxically, if we are to weather the storms of change around us, because at the moment in 2020 they do feel like storms, we need to discover the One who is also unchanging, the same yesterday, today and forever, the still point of God’s Presence at the heart of life in which we can find refuge and strength.
One author on the internet suggests that the changing and unchanging nature of God is resolved when viewed through the lens of love. God’s love is a movement that causes creation to come into being, that causes life to grow and things to be born. But God’s love, which is always moving, is always constant and unchanging.
One of my favourite hymns is Abide with me. Perhaps the saddest thing about the hymn is that we generally only sing it at funerals. It is a hymn that invites us, in the midst of the raging tempests of this world, to find the one who changest not. In that sense, it is not a hymn ultimately of sadness, but one of hope, of light that shines through the gloom, of heaven’s morning breaking and the shadows of earth fleeing.
Abide with me,
fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens
Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail,
and comforts flee,
help of the helpless,
O abide with me.
Swift to its close,
ebbs out life’s little day.
Earth’s joys grow dim;
Its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Hold Though Thy cross
before my closing eyes
shine through the gloom
and point me to the skies
heaven’s morning breaks
and earth’s vain shadows flee,
In life, in death
O Lord, abide with me.
And so, when life’s storms rage around us, may we pause to give thanks for change, because within it, we hear God’s whisper of love that “this too shall pass”. And at the same time, may we also hear the invitation of the One who changest not, “Abide with me”.