At our last Student Movie night in Utrecht we saw the 2017 movie adaptation of The Shack, a book written by William P Young, a bestseller since first published in 2007. The movie has received poor reviews, but the consensus from our discussion afterwards was that it was definitely worth seeing, and probably led to the some of the most engaging discussions of any movie we’ve seen as a group.
The story is about a man who experiences deep traumas in his life that have driven a wedge between him and God. He is invited by God in a strange way after several years for a weekend away and has an encounter there with the Holy Trinity – manifested in a way, we are told, that his soul could receive it. This idea that God would manifest himself to us in a way that we are prepared to receive is consistent with an idea from St Augustine that the vision of God face-to-face is not a direct apprehension but by way of a kind of mediation, some sort of image – after all, how can a finite human being ever grasp fully the Infinite God? In the movie the image of God changes in the story when he’s experienced a certain healing from the wounds of his own father.
One minor thing in the movie that started a larger discussion was when the character of the Father responds to the main character’s charge of cruelty because He allowed His own Son to suffer on the Cross. She (the woman who in the movie is an image of the Father) does not give a direct answer but says that she suffered with the Son on the Cross, and she shows her wrists with the marks of the nails. It is true to say in one sense that God suffered on the Cross – because of the union of man and God in the one Christ, you can say that God suffered in so far as Christ suffered in his humanity. But the Church has never taught that God “suffers” any change. In the First of the 39 Articles of Religion in the Anglican Church we say that “there is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions…”
This teaching that God is unchanging can be found in several passages in the Bible:
James 1:17 – Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
James 3:17 – The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.
Hebrews 13:8 – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
Hebrews 1:11-12 – contrasting the Creation with God – they will perish but you remain; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle you will roll them up, and they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.
1 John 1:5 – This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
Malachi 3:6 – For I the Lord do not change, therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed…Return to me, and I will return to you.
Numbers 23:19 – God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
The image of Christ as the Rock, on which we build our house, and from which the Israelites received water in the wilderness is an image of God as unchanging – For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. [Luke 6:46-49; 1 Cor 10:4]
There are many passages in the Bible that speak about God being angry or having compassion or changing his mind, or coming down to see, but they have been understood in the Tradition as anthropomorphisms, in the same way we read of God “covering us under the shadow of his wings” or bringing Israel out of Egypt “with a strong arm”. The Church has taught that God is without body, parts or passions. We do also see God described in the Bible as being angry or repenting or changing his mind, but that has been understood as a way of speaking about a change in our experience of God’s love when we are close or when we flee from Him but it has not been seen as a theologically accurate way of speaking about God in Himself. If God is perfect, and God is outside of time, everywhere present and eternally in the present, it cannot make sense that God changes in Himself.
Why is important that God is unchangeable, without passions?
Parents try to provide a sense of stability for their children, through the ups and downs of their childhood as they grow up. What a comfort for children to know that when they go to their parents they will receive mercy always, compassion always, wisdom always – a steady hand on their home life. I think we all have a sense that this is the way it must be and even more so for us with God. We learn this over time in a number of ways: through the continual offer of mercy Sundayby Sunday in the Holy Communion; through the continual life of prayer; through the filling of our minds with the teachings of Holy Scripture – the Word of God is steadfast. In Psalm 19 we hear these comforting phrases that bring us rest even as we say them: The law of the Lord is an undefiled law, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, and giveth wisdom to the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, and endureth for ever: the judgements of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey, and the honey-comb.
In all of our ups and downs and machinations, it is a comfort to know that the One to whom we are aspiring and being led is perfect and so steady, stable, at perfect rest. Indeed, an image we are given of God in heaven in Revelation is one of God at rest, seated on a throne, and there is “no more sea”, meaning no more waves, the surface is clear and smooth as crystal, a place of serenity, of seeing and hearing that is true peace, true rest [Rev 4; 21:1].
That God is at perfect rest is not meant to imply He is uncaring, but a steady burning Love, our God is a consuming fire [Heb 12:28-29]. Jesus tells us God’s love is a searching love, like a shepherd seeking the lost sheep, or a woman searching for the lost coin – that is our experience when we are found, but His love for us did not change. And having been found, to contemplate God is to be led to a place of peace. Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Be still and know that I am God.
If we think on the Unchangeable God we will be become more like Him – steady, steadfast and unwavering in our love, like the Rock in whom we trust and on whom we rest.
In the love of Christ,