I’m currently teaching through a unit on prayer in my Bible III class (junior and seniors in high school), and the question of “Does prayer change the way God acts?” is posed often. As we as a class have been thinking through this issue, I wrote a short position on the matter myself this past weekend. Hope it is of interest!
The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Some would say, initially, that if God does not change his mind or his plans, then the prayers of his people are of no effect. This will be seen not to be the case.
To begin, let’s look at God and his character. In order to know God as he longs to be known by his creatures, one must look to the pages of Scripture to gain a biblical understanding of God. In this, it must be understood that God’s self-disclosure is always anthropomorphic* in nature. That is, because God is infinite and eternal, and our minds our finite and limited, there is a sense in which God’s revelation of himself is veiled; we are able only to see in part (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). Isaiah 45:15 says, “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.” Simply, we do not have an exhaustive understanding of God, only an understanding in part. However, this should not be discouraging because if our understanding is formed from the pages of Scripture, then we can be confident that the veiled understanding we do possess is indeed what God desires us to know about himself.
Before we tackle the issue as to whether prayer actually changes God’s mind and his actions in the same way a human being would change his or her mind/actions, we must also consider that God is omniscient (all-knowing) and that he exists outside of time (though he acts in time). God, being omniscient, thus knows all things past, present, and future. There has never been an event that has occurred which has surprised God in the least. He knows all things. Specifically, of things in advance, God possesses absolute foreknowledge (cf. Acts 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:2, 20). Thus, it is safe to say that God knows exactly what every human being needs, and exactly what he or she will do in every situation (cf. Job 36:17; Matt. 6:8; 1 John 3:20). Grudem defines God’s omniscience as follows: God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.
To continue, Scripture asserts that the Lord does not change, that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (cf. Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). Moreover, Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and he will not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” In his unchanging nature, he is also holy and just. He is one who always blesses the humble and righteous, while his wrath rests on the wicked. Praise be to the unchanging God, then, in that he sent his Son Jesus that the wicked, through humble repentance, faith, and trust in him alone may be found righteous based on the merits of Christ!
So, now we must address our main question, “Does prayer change the way God acts?” Do our prayers cause the eternal, unchangeable, Creator God to change his mind about events, plans, and circumstances in the same way a human being would change his or her mind? As was stated at the outset of this brief discussion, the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Let’s begin with the negative.
Prayer does not change the mind of God in the same way that a human being would change his or her mind for 3 reasons.
First, human beings change their minds or plans many times because new information comes to light that was not known at first; often showing that the original course of action was not the best or wisest. God’s people do not pray, and are not commanded to pray so that God may find out information concerning their particular situation of which he was unaware (Matt. 6:8). God is omniscient. He knows all things past, present, and future. He knows always, exactly how a person will act in every situation, before it happens.
Second, a change of course or action would imply that the initial course of action was not the best. God is perfect in wisdom (Rom. 16:27; cf. Job 12:13; Jas. 1:5). God never makes a mistake. Grudem defines God’s wisdom in that, “God always chooses the best goals and the best means to those goals.” Thus, God’s eternal plan is perfect in nature. Note, however, that this does not negate the opportunity for God changing his actions within his eternal decree. That is, his decree is eternal, and within that decree he may change his actions, but the ultimate event will come to pass just as it was decreed in eternity past; with his changing being part and parcel of his eternal decree.
Third, for God to change his mind and actions in the same way a human being changes his or her mind or actions would imply that his eternal plans and purposes may be changed by the mere promptings of his creatures; that is, only if he did not first ordain their prayers to be the process by which he prepares them to be spiritually fit to receive what he intends to do.**
Turning now to the positive, in how prayer, in a sense, changes the way God acts. Scripture passages often offered as evidence that prayer changes God’s actions in the same way a human being changes his or her actions are: Exodus 32:14 and Jonah 3:10. For the sake of space, let us only look at Jonah 3:10 which says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” This passage, when understood in light of God’s eternal decree, does not prove a God who changes his mind in the same way a human being changes his or her mind. God here is acting (and in a sense, changing his actions) within his eternal decree to bring about what he has eternally decreed. Because God has ultimate foreknowledge, he knew from all eternity that Nineveh would repent, and he ordained Jonah and his warning as a means to bring about their repentance. A helpful passage of explanation is found in Jeremiah 18:7-11, where God explains his apparent “changing” in anthropomorphic terms: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’”
It must be understood that this is an explanation of all that takes place within God’s eternal decree. Therefore, God can change within his eternal decree, but will ultimately bring about exactly what he has planned and foreknown from eternity past. In relation to prayer then, God ordains the prayers of people to prepare them for what he intends to do.
Thus, we should be people of prayer, and our prayers are not of no effect. They, first, are the process by which God prepares his people to be spiritually fit to receive what he intends to do.**
Second, and similarly, God responds to the prayers of his people within his decree as he works all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
Third, they are an act of loving obedience (cf. Luke 10:2; 1 Thess. 5:17) and fellowship with our eternal, unchangeable, Creator God. God promises to bless those who are obedient to his will. Thus if his people did not pray, they would miss out on the blessings he has for those who walk obediently before him.
Praise be to our sovereign God that we have this precious gift of prayer! Made possible by the sacrifice of our Lord, the curtain being torn from top to bottom, we are free to boldly approach the Throne, through Christ, and speak to the God of the ages.
*Anthropomorphism – any explanation of the eternal Creator in terms of creaturely understanding. For a helpful explanation of God’s anthropomorphic self-disclosure see A.B. Caneday, “Veiled Glory: God’s Self-Revelation in Human Likeness – A Biblical Theology of God’s Anthropomorphic Self Disclosure” Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (eds., John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003) 149-199. Many of my own thoughts have been refined by Caneday’s work.
**This statement draws on a definition of prayer offered by Dr. James MacDonald. “Prayer is the process by which we become spiritually fit to receive what God intends to do.”
-Additional thanks to Joel Senders who, through discussion, refined my thoughts, allowing them to be expounded more clearly.