Friday, 2 February 2018

Why Pray? Part 2: Does God change his mind?

Does God change his mind?

If not, then why pray?

(Make sure you read Why pray? Part I: What difference does it make? for context!)

One of the keys to understanding the purpose of prayer is making peace with the 'Done' and the 'Doing', the 'Being' and the 'Becoming' nature of the Christian faith. There’s the finished work of the cross where, to some extent his kingdom has come, but he wants to complete the expression of that through us. This duality seems to be crux of the whole thing. ('Scuse the pun.)

Now while I find the idea that 'prayer changes us, not God' rather unsatisfactory, (Apologies to C. S. Lewis!) I'm not saying that prayer doesn't change us. Acknowledging our dependence on God on a regular basis can only be good for us, but that's not the primary purpose of prayer.

Still, something about the idea that prayer only changes us just didn't ring true, and when I actually checked my Bible, wonder of wonders, I found my suspicions confirmed.

In fact, it seems like the whole Bible narrative is stitched together by God responding the the prayers of his people.

Some examples...

At one point the Isaraelites had been getting up to no good, not unusual. This specific incident occured just after they had left Egypt. People were extorting money from each other, oppressing the poor, essentially slipping away from what God had called them to. So God says to Moses in Numbers 14:12-20
12 I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you [Moses] into a nation greater and mightier than they are!”
13 But Moses objected. “What will the Egyptians think when they hear about it?” he asked the LORD. “They know full well the power you displayed in rescuing your people from Egypt. 14 Now if you destroy them, the Egyptians will send a report to the inhabitants of this land, who have already heard that you live among your people. ... 15 Now if you slaughter all these people with a single blow, the nations that have heard of your fame will say, 16 ‘The LORD was not able to bring them into the land he swore to give them, so he killed them in the wilderness.’
17 “Please, Lord, prove that your power is as great as you have claimed.
I’m not sure I’d be quite so bold as to pray that kind of prayer, but seeing as he isn't incincerated yet, he continues...
For you said, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. ...’ 19 In keeping with your magnificent, unfailing love, please pardon the sins of this people, just as you have forgiven them ever since they left Egypt.”
20 Then the LORD said, “I will pardon them as you have requested.
Moses is quite bold in his response, but, somewhat surprisingly, God acquiesces: 'I will pardon them as you have requested.'
Not, 'I will pardon them because that was what I going to do anyway.'
He actually says, 'I will pardon them as you have requested' - because of your request, I will pardon them.

There are other examples where Moses cries out on behalf of the people and God appears to change his mind. And the same with David. It's a scary thing to say, I know. People get very stressed when we observe God changing his mind, because we have this idea that changing one's mind suggest inconsistency, but we see it in scripture so we’ve got to find a way to figure this out.

Another example: God tells Elijah that because King Ahab humbled himself, he (God) wouldn’t destroy King Ahab’s dynasty in his generation as he promised to do - he actually says ‘I promised’ but because KingAhab humbled himself I won’t don’t it.

Because of King Ahab's response, God changed his mind as to what he was going to do. If God had intended that outcome all along, then he was lying when he said he had changed his mind, or he actually does change his mind and King Ahab's prayers actually did make a difference. (1 Kings 29:21)

Then there's verse we’ve all seen on bible covers and mugs at the Bible shop - 2 Chronicles 7:14-15
14 ...if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. 
Did you catch all those 'ifs' and 'thens'? We see this 'if - then' pattern quite regularly in scripture. God has given us this incredible gift called agency - our decisions do actually influence what happens on earth.

This also has a negative side - we see in Ezekiel 22:30
30 I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.
God relies on our prayers to get things done - and just as things change for the good when we do pray and act, so things change (or stay the same) in a way that is contrary to God's will when we don't pray.

This illustrates to us again the insane importance of prayer. It’s not just something we’ve made up to feel pious. It’s the way God has chosen to govern this earth - by relying on our prayer.

It’s a difficult thing to say, 'God needs our prayers,' especially when God's own name is Yahweh: 'I am', the self-existent one who needs nothing.  But there is a difference between something needed for existence and other kinds of needs. God needs nothing from us in order to continue existing, but he has chosen that for his will to happen, our prayers are required, which is maybe an easier word than needed.

Also, I see people start twitching when we talk about God changing his mind. But even in Genesis 6 concerning the flood, the text says that God repented of creating human beings - which I understood as regret. This understandably raises some concerns as most churchgoers today see the idea of God changing his mind as totally inadmissable - and I think I know why.

Let's start with a teeny tiny philosophy lesson. The whole idea of change being bad comes from Greek philsophy, Plato specifically.

A friend went to study theology at a university that shall remain unnamed. At one of their first lectures, the lecturer starts by sayng, ‘God is perfect. Agreed?’ The first years nod their heads. The lecturer relates an instance where God seems to change his mind and asks,  'And if something perfect changes, what does it become?' The immediately obvious answer seems to be, 'Imperfect'.
Imperfect. God. What?
You can see everyone blinking. Uh oh!

Plato is credited with the idea that when something changes it can only change for better or for worse. Later theologians applied these ideas to Christianity: If God changes his mind and it is something better then he wasn’t perfect to start with, if he changes his mind to something worse, then he has become imperfect. Either way there is no option for God to change his mind.

Where there is change there is sequence and where there is sequence there is time.

'If God is unchangeable then God experiences all of history and all of the future as a timeless unchangeable ‘now’.  If everything that will happen is already eternally settled in his unchanging mind, why pray?'

If nothing changes in his experience, if there’s no way I can genuinely interact with him. If it is all eternally settled and unchangeable, why pray?

I don’t feel like I can have any response to that other than passivity.

So before you panic - it's the underlying assumption all change is for better or for worse that is at the heart of the problem, and I want to say that I reject that assumption.

Greek philosophy is not derived from the Bible but a lot of our Biblical interpretation is derived from Greek philosophy which is unfortunate.

But we need to remember that when we talk about God's changelessness, we're referring to his character. He is always loving and always just and always good, but the precise way in which he chooses to express that can take many different forms, and, I believe, can change in response to our prayers.

If I'm asking him to do something he wasn't already planning to do, surely it wasn't the best thing? But, we see in Scripture God accommodating and even inviting our input. As risky and ungodlike as it might sound, he invites us to engage with him and he responds to our engagement. His character will never change and he'll never act contrary to his essence, but still he wants to give us say-so in our relationship with him.

It’s almost a bit like being married in community of property - you need a co-signee to do things like open a bank account. God invites us as his bride, in community of property, to be his cosignee. There’s things he wants to do for both of us, there’s things that he wants to accomplish, things that he wills, but he needs (requires?) our cosignature on it. Without that second signature, without us aligning ourselves and agreeing to his will through prayer and action, he can’t do what what he wants to do.

That’s huge.

And quite sobering.

It made me realise how lightheartedly I’ve taken prayer, glibly declaring, ‘Let’s pray.’
God is restoring a sense of gravity to ‘let’s pray’. We know that when we pray, something is going to  change or happen ormove because he's chosen to assign that importance to prayer.

Having said all that, I'm not sure getting things done is God’s primary purpose for prayer.

I believe the primary purpose is to build relationship. It’s not just for us to get our needs met, like some kind of transactional thing. He wants relationship with us because he loves us. He is so good. He wants to draw us in - he wants to engage with us.

Otherwise this incredible gift of prayer, this intimate engagement and dynamic relationship is reduced to a transaction - the bank teller in the sky where you punch in the right numbers and put in your request and your wish is granted.

Even with the risks, he’s chosen for us as the church, his bride, to rise up into our authority and co-reign with him. It seems the most insane thing to say that we are called to co-reign with God - but it's right there in Revelation 5:20:
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.
Some translations even say 'they reign' in place of 'they will reign'.

I am continually in awe that he refers to us as co-laborers, co-rulers, even as a marriage partner - even though we sometimes act like employees or even beggars. We come primarily to get our basic needs met when God has called us into intimacy. Having said that, it is by no means a symmetrical relationship, but it is definitely a reciprocal one.

For there to be any real intimacy there has to be mutual influence, give and take, like a dance where each impacts the other, where we actually have some way of effecting change.

So prayer makes a difference, because God has chosen for that to be one of the methods to accomplish what he wants done on earth.

But, prayer is not magic. When prayer works like magic, then we've lost the relationship again.
So why aren't all our prayers answered? More on that in Part 3.

Do you feel the post answered the questions raised in Part I: What difference does it make?
Did you have any, 'Yes, but what about...?' moments? Please share below.
Share if you found it helpful!
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You can listen to all three parts of the series as an audio teaching using the link below:


  1. I really love this post. A relationship with God means that he hears us out and vice versa. Thank you for breaking down scripture in such an eloquent way.

    1. I love that relationship is dynamic! Thanks for reading and commenting :-)

  2. Love this post. You are so spot on and I love that you brought in some philosophy. My hubby teaches philosophy. I love that God created us and this world with an amount of logic and order, yet He is still a "smidge" beyond our understanding. I also agree with the idea that God does not change, meaning His character, but He is God after all He can change his mind. Great way to work it out. Can't wait for part 3. - Amy

    1. Thanks so much :-) I know some people find philosphy scary, but I love how it helps us to think deeply about things.

  3. "God needs nothing from us in order to continue existing, but he has chosen that for his will to happen, our prayers are required." - This is the point of our free will. He wants us to choose to want to seek Him and thus choose for Him to intercede on our behalf. God is a relational God!

    1. I am always amazed at how he has chosen for our lives and actions to make a difference in how things go! Thanks for reading!

  4. This post is very thought-provoking. I can't comprehend the consistency of God and yet His mind can change?! I guess that's the beauty of knowing God is in control. I don't have to understand but rather trust He knows what He's doing. I won't know He changed His mind anyway until He tells me in Heaven!

    1. I hear you. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. This is a very good post that made me stop and think about my own prayer life. I love how you talked about how God needs us to accept is offer of intimacy in order for Him to do what He wants to the fullest capacity!

    1. It is such a privilege that he chooses to colabour with us!
      Thanks for reading.

  6. I believe so much in prayer,and it has impacted on my life to a large extent but I have never understood it in this perspective.You have made me understood that God depends on my prayer to act.
    That is great. I love this post.

    1. I have found this view so refreshing for my own faith. My action or inaction can change the future... Wow!