Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?
When we pray, does it cause God to do things He otherwise would not have done?
By Lance Hartman
Not long after Dallas Seminary was founded in 1924, bankruptcy knocked at its doors. By noon on one particular day, every creditor threatened foreclosure. That morning, the founders of the Seminary met to pray in president Lewis Sperry Chafer’s office. They asked God to provide the needed funds. Harry Ironside was part of that prayer meeting. When it was his turn to pray, he prayed in his characteristically pointed manner: “Lord, we know that the cattle on a thousand hills are thine. Please sell some of them and send us the money.”
Meanwhile, as these men were praying, into the seminary’s business office came a tall Texan. Addressing a secretary, he said, “I just sold two carloads of cattle in Fort Worth. I’ve been trying to make a business deal go through and it won’t work, and I feel that God is compelling me to give this money to the seminary. I don’t know if you need it or not, but here’s the check.”
Well aware of the seriousness of the seminary’s financial situation, and knowing that it was for that purpose the founders were gathered in prayer, the secretary took the check to the door of the president’s office and timidly knocked. When she finally got a response, Chafer took the check out of her hand and stared at it with amazement. The amount matched the exact size of the seminary’s debt. Looking at the signature on the check, he recognized the name of the cattle rancher. Turning to Harry Ironside, he said, “Harry, God sold the cattle!”
What a story! It demonstrates the reality that God is active in our everyday world. But for some this story may raise questions. Was God planning to allow the seminary to go under, but changed His mind when so many godly men gathered to persuade Him otherwise? Would that Texan have come to the seminary with money even if these men weren’t praying? Just what can we expect of prayer?
If you’re a Christian, most likely you pray. But, like most of us, you may wonder what happens when we pray. Is it possible to change our circumstances or the circumstances of others by our prayers? What if God intends to do one thing and I would prefer that He do another? Will my prayers change His mind and His actions? What difference can my prayers make if God decides all things? Will He not ultimately do what He wants? And if He responds to our prayers, is His sovereignty limited?
Scripture teaches both that God is, indeed, the one and only sovereign being, and that the prayers of His people are effective. How can both statements be true? They are true because God has factored our prayers and His sovereign desires into one plan in ways the finite mind cannot fully understand.
Let’s take a look at Scriptures that depict God “changing His mind” and then bring these into perspective with the clear teaching of Scripture concerning the immutability, or unchangeableness, of God.
“And the LORD Changed His Mind.”
The first intercessory prayer is recorded in Genesis 18. In this passage the Lord informs Abraham of the great sin in Sodom and how the outcry against it has been heard in Heaven.
Abraham has relatives in Sodom—Lot and his family. Concerned for them, Abraham asks, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” (Genesis 18:23–24). He goes on to say how out of character it would be for God to treat the righteous and the wicked alike.
After God concedes that He would spare the city for fifty righteous, Abraham lowers the ante. “How about for forty-five?” The Lord concedes. “How about forty?” Again, concession. “How about thirty . . . twenty . . . suppose ten are found there?” By Genesis 18:32 Abraham has won his case. “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it,” replies the Lord.
This kind of story is not an isolated incident. Many years later, in Exodus 32, Moses finds himself in a similar situation, attempting to assuage an angry God. The Lord has detained Moses for so long on the mountain that the Israelites conclude they will never see him again. They need a new leader and a new God! So they fashion a calf made of gold to worship.
The next day God informs Moses how quickly Israel has turned away. He declares in Exodus 32:10, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
In the same fashion as Abraham, Moses intreats the Lord on Israel’s behalf, reminding God of His saving, holy character. When Moses is done, we read in Exodus 32:14 (NASB), “So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” Later, as Moses recounts the episode in Deut. 10, he says, “And the Lord listened to me” (Deut. 10:10).
A God Who Does Not Change
Now let’s look at some clear biblical statements of the constancy of God. In Psalm 102:26–27, the changeableness of the heavens and the earth is contrasted with the nature of God: “They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. . . . But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” After describing how easily the thoughts and plans of people are frustrated and nullified, Psalm 33:11 declares, “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”
When James reflects on the unchanging and unchangeable benevolent character of God, he concludes in James 1:17 that God “does not change like shifting shadows.”
In the story of Balaam, recounted in Numbers 23, we encounter fickleness, so characteristic of man, juxtaposed with the stability of God. Balaam wavers, changing his direction to suit his advantage. God impresses on Balaam that His decisions are irrevocable. In Numbers 23:19, Balaam reports what he has just learned from the Lord: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”
Similarly, Samuel represents God to Saul after the latter has disobeyed the Lord. “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29).
Finally, in Malachi 3:6, God boldly declares, “I the LORD do not change.”
All these verses, and many others like them, present us with a God who is always the same, at all times, in all situations, both now and forever. His being or nature does not change; His character does not change; the truth and efficacy of His words do not change; and His ways and intentions never change.
In God there is no movement from younger to older, from stronger to weaker. He would have to lack some piece of knowledge in order to grow in knowledge. If He could be made wiser, then His present wisdom would be deficient (Col. 2:3). Quantitatively and qualitatively, there can be absolutely no change in God, or He would be less than God. Further, it is impossible for God to do anything that is not in complete harmony with His perfect character. Therefore, prayers cannot and will not ever cause Him to deviate from who He is.
Once we understand this, we must never mistake “immutability for immobility,” as if God were some stoic being unable to be moved or affected by anything in any way. God created people, and He has chosen to enter into relationship with them, to be affected by their choices and actions, by their obedience and disobedience.
Though God does not change, He is portrayed throughout the Bible as a God of action. He actively relates to us and is immersed in our changeableness. But in all this there is never a change in His being, attributes, purposes, motives, or promises. A prayer could not be uttered that could change God in these ways.
The paradox that God is active and dynamic while remaining stable and consistent is clearly illustrated in Ezekiel 33:13–16. He declares that His method of response will always correspond to the changes that occur in us. If we sin, God must alter His response, for He cannot approve of sin and be true to Himself. If we turn from our sin, God will adjust to our change, for He must show approval of those who walk uprightly. In all this it is not God, but we who change.
How Prayer “Changes” God
Let’s return to those passages that depict God as changing in response to prayer. As we look at each one, consider how the immutability and adaptability of God come into play. Did God act in a way inconsistent with His character? Was His will ever altered by man, or was man altered by prayer?
Abraham. With the Genesis 18 episode, notice that it was the Lord who informed Abraham of His concern over Sodom’s sin. Then the Lord waited for Abraham to respond and He affirmed Abraham in his evaluation of the situation. Even though it appears that Abraham haggled with God, here we have an example of God drawing out a man so that he can learn how to depend on God’s righteous and merciful character.
Abraham pleaded the case of God’s honor as One who would always do right, and the Lord concurred. God did indeed vindicate His name in a fashion true to His nature—He didn’t punish the righteous with the wicked, but He did judge the wicked for their sins. In the Sodom account, He did this in a manner not anticipated by Abraham; He brought Lot and his family out and destroyed the wicked who remained.
Moses. A similar sequence occurs in Exodus 32. Rather than allow Moses to come down off the mountain and see what’s going on, God initiated a dialogue with him about the scene below (Exodus 32:7–8). After describing the mayhem in the valley, God said, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). Moses responded by entreating the Lord with such effectiveness that by Exodus 32:14 we read, “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
What’s going on here? Did Moses point something out to God that He had overlooked or forgotten? Did he display sounder wisdom in this situation than God was displaying? Had anger clouded God’s perception of things?
Surely not! Remember, it was God who brought the situation to Moses’ attention. Before Moses speaks a word, we hear God saying, “Now let me alone. . . .” Don’t you find that curious? Not when you consider this was God’s way of inviting Moses to enter into the situation on behalf of Israel.
Sin always evokes from God the holy response of wrath. (It’s a shame it doesn’t do the same in us.) For God to act any other way would be to compromise His character. Just as “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” (Romans 1:18), and God provided a mediator to intercede on our behalf (Romans 3:23–24), so also God invites Moses to step in the gap for His people.
You see, Moses never changed God’s mind. Instead, God brought Moses to a place where he wanted the very same thing that God wanted. The Messiah was to come from the house of Judah, not the house of Moses, and destroying all Israel would have also destroyed this promise.
God wanted to include Moses, His servant, in accomplishing His plan. As a result, Moses drew even closer to the heart and mind of God. God did not change through Moses’ prayers; He embarked on a different course of action based on Moses’ proper response. And this action was entirely in keeping with His unchanging nature—with what He had always intended to do.
Getting in on God’s Act
Having looked at two biblical accounts focusing on prayer, let’s look further at prayer’s purpose and function. Is it a means, if done properly, of assuring that we will receive from God whatever we request? If so, then suddenly the fate of the world would fall into our hands. And even the wisest of us is apt at times to pray for things that would do us or others harm. No, God does not relinquish, for even a moment, His wise providential care of His creation to the prayers of mortals.
To say this does not relegate prayer to a meaningless exercise. Rather, we preserve the absolute sovereignty of God, who established prayer as part of His providence. By providence we refer to the governance and care of all creation by the Creator, who guides it to His intended goal (Daniel 4:34–35; Col. 1:16–17).
When God introduced prayer into the equation, He did not alter His appointed ends; He ordained that prayer should be the means to some of those ends, much in the same way I might ask my son to help me assemble his bike. I would do it without his help, and I certainly don’t need his help (in many ways it would be easier without it!). But I know it will benefit him, give him a greater sense of ownership and responsibility, and teach him how to follow instructions. I not only want to give my son a bike, I attempt to turn it into a profitable experience for him.
Consequently, prayer should not be viewed as getting what we want, but as God achieving what He wants through us. God does not need our prayers (Acts 17:25–27). He has chosen to meaningfully engage His people, for their own benefit, in the process of accomplishing His goals.
In the biblical passages we have considered, it was not God who changed; it was people, through prayer, who changed. It was not prayer changing circumstances, but people expressing their dependence on God and submitting themselves to His will. It has been said, “Prayer moves the arm that moves the world.” This is only true to the extent that we see it is God who first willed both the prayer and His own movement.
Just as He did with Moses, our heavenly Father works in us to pray in a way that is in harmony with His will in order that He may respond to our prayers and carry out His will. This is why in the New Testament we read statements like, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7), and “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. . . . And we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).
In Psalm 37:4 he said, “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” To delight ourselves in God is to want what He wants. We begin to have the same holy desires God has. In this frame of mind, we will ask things that are in harmony with His will, and thus participate in effecting His will on earth and within ourselves.
When we become familiar with God’s Word, we grow in our understanding of His will and pleasure (Romans 12:2–3). Much that God does, He does Himself, such as creating and sustaining the universe and one day judging the unrighteous. There is still much, however, that God has chosen to accomplish in a way that allows people to cooperate with Him in bringing it about.
Let us rejoice that God is always the same, responding consistently and appropriately to us. Let us also be thankful that He has called us to participate through prayer in what He wants to accomplish in us and in the world. Let us commit to and pray for growth in the knowledge of God’s will (Col. 1:9–12). And let us become students of God’s Word (2 Tim. 2:15) so that we can know His will.
Then, as we come to prayer with the heart attitude of “Your will be done,” and a mind increasingly conformed through the Word to the mind of Christ, we can be assured that we have the things we ask for.
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