The second of two reflections I offered on the prayers of Kierkegaard at the retreat of The Presbyterian College this year. Like everything, Kierkegaard looks “slant” at the idea of God’s immutability.
If there is anything that gives the impression of unchangeableness, it is perhaps the towering and intimidating mountains that populate the face of the earth. Whether it is the Rocky Mountains here in Canada, the Himalayas of South Asia, or the Alps of central Europe, mountains represent the notion of the unchangeable. They have been and they will be. This summer I had the chance to see the Alps for the first time, and the ideas of durability and unchangeableness strike me as more than apt.
When we transfer these notions of the unchangeable into the realm of theology, it is the term “immutable” that might come to mind – we speak of the immutability of God. And there are theologically and spiritually adjacent terms that might also come to mind; ideas around the omnipotence and steadfastness and infinity and power of God.
In one of his prayers, Kierkegaard picks up on this longstanding emphasis of the Christian tradition concerning the immutability or unchangeableness of God. He affirms this idea about God, among other places, in the prayer that is included at the bottom of this blog post. He speaks to God in this way: “O thou who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes.”
And transferring this theological idea into the realm of human need and wellbeing, Kierkegaard also speaks to God with these words: “For our welfare, not submitting to any change.” After all, who would seek God if there was no assurance it was the same God who could be sought each new day – and not a God who had decided to change character and identity while you slept?
In his prayer Kierkegaard also speaks curiously of our need to “submit ourselves to the discipline of thy unchangeableness.” As if this characteristic of God is a reality we need to keep in heart and mind, intentionally, if we are to find rest and peace in our life and faith.
But again, as with so many things he turns his thoughts toward, Kierkegaard swings the whole prayerful conversation about immutability in an unexpected direction. And perhaps we will appreciate his attempt to do so, if only because ideas of the immutability, unchangeableness, and power of God can leave us feeling cold in relation to God – as if God is out of touch and beyond relationship. Like the mountains themselves, there often seems something unlovingly unmoving about God when we think in these terms.
“Moved” is just the right word, for it is this word that Kierkegaard picks up to turn the unchangeableness of God on its head. He writes/prays:
Thou on the contrary art moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves Thee, O Infinite Love! But nothing changes Thee, O Thou who art unchangeable!
God is unchangeable – but unchangeable precisely in his willingness and capacity to be moved in love. God will always be moved by his creation and world. God’s unchangeableness is defined by God’s being moved by the beauty of
creation, the suffering of creation, the needs of his people, and grief to which so many give voice. God refuses to be changed – inasmuch as God will always be moved by the world God loves and redeems in Christ. The immutability and unchangeableness of God correspond to the constancy of God in love, and the openness of God toward each of our lives. (O’Keefe’s painting captures this possibility, for me, with the light, colour, depth – movement! – of her Red Rust Hills.)
O thou who in infinite love does submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!
It’s not clear exactly what Kierkegaard has in mind in the last portion of this quotation – with this idea that we should be brought into conformity with the unchangeable will of God. But given what comes before this, how could we interpret this as anything other than the possibility that we might come into conformity with God’s capacity and willingness to be moved – to be moved by God’s love for creation, and God’s love for the sparrow, and God’s love for those who sigh and breathe heavily at the grief of life.
If God is so moved by our plight, in Christ – how can we not be similarly moved if we have our life “in Christ.”
When we rejoice in the glory of creation – God is moved in love.
When we stand in joyful awe at twittering sparrows – God is moved in love.
When we sigh with the pain of broken relationships – God is moved in love.
When we sigh at our own persistent failures – God is moved in love.
And our prayer, with Kierkegaard, might be that God would bring us into conformity with his unchangeable will – and be similarly moved. For the sake of love.
His full prayer:
O thou who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes! Thou who are unchangeable in love, precisely for our welfare not submitting to any change: may we too will our welfare, submitting ourselves to the discipline of Thy unchangeableness, so that we may in unconditional obedience find our rest and remain at rest in Thy unchangeableness. Not art Thou like a man; if he is to preserve only some degree of constancy he must not permit himself too much to be moved, nor by too many things. Thou on the contrary art moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves Thee, O Infinite Love! But nothing changes Thee, O Thou who art unchangeable! O thou who in infinite love does submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!