Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?

Any reasonable examination of “intercessory” prayer admits of two explanations: either we are seeking to bend God’s will to ours — or seeking to change the mind of God — or we are merely aligning ourselves with God’s will in the act of communing with God.

John Goldingay, in his new book Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers, is not afraid of what the Bible says about intercessory prayers and seeks to construct a theory of intercession on the basis of what the Bible says — not on the basis of theories about God like his immutability or impassibility or omniscience.

How real is intercession with God for you? How do you explain what we do? Do we change God’s mind? Or are we changed toward the mind of God (alone)?

A paradigmatic text for Goldingay is Genesis 18:17-33, which I have provided in full after the jump. However you explain intercessory prayer, this prayer by Abraham is a non-negotiable.

“God created us as God-like and commissioned us to share in God’s work in the world. The Abraham story suggest that intercession is one of the ways in which human beings do that” (183).

Furthermore, “Human words can have the power and effectiveness of God’s own words.”

His study includes the intercessory work of the prophet, and I have tended to see priests and prophets on opposite ends of the cycle: God speak to us through prophets and we speak to God through priests, but prophets were also intercessors.  Samuel (1 Sam 12:19, 23), Amos 7, Moses in Exod 32-34, Ezekiel’s famous “stand in the breach” in Ezek 22:30 … and Goldingay sees God appointing people to trouble God.

Here’s his big conclusion:

“If God invites human beings … to take a share in the making of decisions concerning what happens in the world, this implies a markedly different understanding of God and of God’s relationship with the world from the one implicit in much Christian theology and piety” (185).

His proposal is that God is not only King and Father, but also “rector” who participates in collaboration with humans. I would say Goldingay sees God as semi-sovereign; God has ultimate aims and our prayers are part of finding alignment with God’s aims. But these “discussions are real and issue in real change” (186).

One more point: he sees Christ’s intercession to be objective and the Spirit’s role to be subjective. It’s not that simple in his sketch, but these are two big ideas.

Gen 18

17 Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.[a] 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20 Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.[b] 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[c] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://proteavalleyfamilychurch.blogspot.com/ Brent

    Good post with some great ideas…I was debating this with some friends just yesterday. I am with Goldingay on this and I believe that believing that prayer can change God’s mind does not violate God’s sovereignty or his immutability. Whilst we might change God’s mind we do not change his character (immutability) and whilst we work together with God and may sway him to change his decisions, we cannot make him do something he is not willing to do and hence we do not affect his sovereignty.

    If our petitions have no affect why are we called to pray them repeatedly in the scriptures?

  • David Himes

    Outstanding subject — I believe the value of prayer is to draw us closer to the mind of God.

    Otherwise, for a lot of prayers, it would require God to coercively control the behavior of other people, which I don’t believe he does today.

  • Susan N.

    Bingo! Abraham, because he *did* have such enduring faith in God’s immutable character, had the audacity to challenge God to keep His promises. I love this passage from Genesis 18.

    Several years ago, I read Philip Yancey’s book ‘Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?’ There were many good ideas in this book, but the major theme that stuck with me is that prayer is a major mode of communication to build our relationship with God. And that relationship is dynamic. I have no idea how God does what He does, and weaves the stories of our lives together to fit His ultimate plans, while giving us the freedom that He does, and interacting with us in the process, but I so, SO believe that He does do this!

    The answer to this question, “Do we change God’s mind? Or are we changed toward the mind of God (alone)?” — I believe, is BOTH. And this is a thrilling and wonderful thing for me to contemplate — makes me want to shout for joy!

  • http://seguewm.blogspot.com/ Bill

    “Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence.” Karl Barth

  • http://homekettle.wordpress.com David N.

    I’ve struggled with this for a long time. I brought it up at a Bible study last year, which probably wasn’t a good idea.

    I certainly don’t understand (or practice) prayer as well as I would like, but I think my understanding of prayer has shifted more toward spiritual intercession than actually altering the outcome of events. This springs mostly from the fact that I just don’t think God manipulates outcomes as much as I used to regardless of our prayers.

  • tscott

    Saying Goldingay believes God is semi-sovereign is a euphemism to believing in a closed system. Power looks different through an open system lens.

  • Matt

    If God has sovereignty over everything, doesn’t that mean He has sovereignty over everything, including His sovereignty? But seriously, I really do believe God can do whatever God wants to do.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    I think we have to live in that tension in which we are not the main player in this life, but neither are we and our actions, even especially our prayers, without effect.

    I’ve been reading Scot’s One.Life, and he talks about two kinds of “peace”: the inner peace of serenity, and the larger, outer peace between and among people. God’s kingdom seeks to bring both to the world. Some people approach prayer as if they only bring about one kind of “peace” or the other. I think we must acknowledge that the scriptures say that our prayers can have bearing on both arenas, both the inner and outer world.

    What possible sense can so much of scripture make (e.g., “you have not because you ask not”) if God does not act in a way He otherwise would not but for his people asking?

  • http://www.TheFaithLog.com Jeff Doles

    When I intercede, I count on God keeping the promises He has made. For instance, as I have been interceding for Egypt in these recent days, I am reminding God of what He promised in Isaiah 19:19-25.

    OTOH, I see that there is also some “give and take” in intercession, like in the example of Abraham, or of the Syrian woman who came to Jesus to deliver her daughter. In both instances, I don’t see them as merely trying to discover the will of God. It is more like pressing the heart of God, like the give and take of personal relationships.

    Jesus told the woman that He was sent to the house of Israel. We know that, before long, the gospel would be going, not just to Israel, but into all the nations of the world. But the time for that had not yet come, so the woman, in a sense, was asking for something that was not yet in God’s timetable ~ and she received it!

    As I pray for Egypt, out of Isaiah 19, I don’t know what God’s timetable is for that ~ but I am pressing for it to be now.

    I used to follow that line of theology that taught that God is impassible, and that prayer was merely discovering the will of God and simply acquiescing to it. But now I believe that God allows Himself to be influenced by our prayers, and I think of prayer as more like discovering the heart of God.

  • MikeK

    I wonder if the response of God to our intercession is- following the ideas of Bruce McCormack, who is developing Barth- that God taking action is an event already within God, and therefore:

    We don’t have to enter questions of passibility. God invites the relationship with the creature, and as “rector”, the relationship has a formality and authority with humanity to fulfill the aims (think: mission) of the rector. The rector wants to enact those requests made that cohere with his mission, e.g., Genesis 18:17-33

  • BPRjam

    Justo Gonzalez wrote a book called “Manana”, which is excellent.

    In it, he criticized the early modern project, with its emphasis on total immutability. He called it silly, and leading to all sorts of contraditions about the nature of God which made him confusing, far-off, aloof, and irrelevant to our real lives.

    In the book, the stresses that God is immutable only in the largest senses – that He is love, that He is trinity, that He participates with humanity, etc.

    LeRon Shults picks up on a similar view of immutability in his Reforming the Doctrine of God.

    Bottom line is that I’ve begun to seriously consider that the modern understanding of immutability needs to be properly nuanced by the Biblical examples of God’s ability to change in response to human intercession.

  • http://www.evangelicalmonk.com/apps/blog/show/6031227 Bill H

    I have leaned in the direction that no, our prayers do not change the mind of God, and acknowledging this may be somewhat of a misunderstanding on such issues as immutability of God, but I tend to err on the side of avoiding being in a place where I look to God to fix things for me or make things happen that I believe are the right things to do. My thoughts have been toward prayer as something that leads to draining away of us and opening us up to the work/promptings/teachings of the Spirit.

  • http://tankrumblings.blogspot.com/ Sherman Nobles

    I increasingly understand prayer as sacramental, a means of grace, a means of bringing heaven to earth. “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
    Through prayer we encounter God and are changed and participate in the increase of the Kingdom of God on earth.
    In the sited case, note that Abraham didn’t change the mind of God, the will of God, or the ultimate outcome but came to understand the depravity of Sodom. Off hand I do recall two cases where God apparently did bow to the desires of man. 1) Israel wanted a king though such was not the will of God, and God gave them a king. And 2) the king (don’t recall which one) that God said was going to die in a certain time frame, prayed and ended up living 15 years longer. Both situations though resulted in more suffering and heartache than God’s plan.
    And I’m reminded of Eli whom Samuel prophecied about his death and the death of his sons. Eli showed great faith in God when He agreed for God’s will to be done though it was negative for him and did not plead against the Judgment of God.

  • http://manofdepravity.com Tyler

    I like where he’s going here because it contains elements of an open theological system but still remains in a closed/sovereign system. Thanks for sharing this.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    If we are changed through the contact with God, wouldn’t that then be changing God’s mind to be in contact with us? Certainly he did not initiate the action…

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    However you choose to answer this particular question, I don’t think the Genesis passage is a particularly good one to use. As far as I’m able to tell, any even vaguely “orthodox” Christian believes God is intimately involved in sustaining this world and knows the hearts of all mankind better than we do ourselves. And if God knows the hearts of all men, he knew how many righteous there were in Sodom and Gomorrah even if Abraham did not. Abraham here is calling God to be faithful to his nature and God reassures him that he will be.

    Personally, while intercessions are certainly important, I think we’ve seen a reduction of prayer to the point where it’s often little else. And I don’t see that that’s ever been the primary point of prayer.

    Anyway, the question is an interesting one. I would tend to say that through our actions we tend to shape reality in synergy with God. I would also tend to say that I don’t think God is ever surprised by the process or result. I do think prayer is one of the means in and through which we mystically align and shape ourselves in and through God. (That doesn’t really seem to say exactly what I want to say, but I don’t seem to have exactly the right words.) I do think it’s more important that we pray than that we figure out exactly what happens when we pray.

    But I don’t think Genesis 18 is a particularly good illustration of anything other than we should always pray to God to have mercy.

  • ahaak

    Looking at the topic for a different perspective, is it always a good thing that our prayers can change God’s mind? The story of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20 comes to mind.

  • R Hampton

    For perfection, the only alternatives available are to move downward to something less than perfect. Now you could argue that there can be multiple scenarios that are perfect, and thus when God changes his mind he is moving from one perfect state to another.

    But we also know that God is good, so by necessity God does not, nor can not act/think this is anything less – he can not be corrupted or corrected for there is no space higher in goodness to occupy. So for God to have plan A in mind, which we must assume is Good, a mortal would have to offer a plan B which must be at the very least equally as Good.

    What then is gained by God changing his mind? If there is some benefit, say the saving of an additional soul, then God’s initial plan was not as good and thus God is not perfect. If nothing is gained by God changing his mind, then why would God do so in the first place?

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.com/ Blessed Economist

    This is the wrong question.

    Part of the problem is misunderstanding about the way that pray works. Misguided prayer is a major cause of distress, as usually nothing happens. It leads to a theology of prayer that implies that God is stingy and miserly.

    Something good needs to be done, and he is able to do it, but has chosen to nothing, but if some pleads fervently, he might change his mind and act. Getting other people to pray might help. If enough good people beg God to take up this cause, he might be persuaded to act. If some of those praying are really godly people, that might help swing him around.

    Under this approach, God is all powerful. He can do anything, so if prayer is not answered, it must be because he is reluctant to answer it. A little more pleading and begging by the right people might change his mind.

    This is all the wrong way round. The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind. The purpose of prayer is to find out what God wants to do and release his Spirit to do it.

    More at Authority and Prayer

  • JohnMc

    RHampton@18

    “Perfection” is an indefinable abstraction and is no help when talking about God, unless we acknowledge that God too is indefinable. Is God “perfectly” flexible – whatever that means?

    And “Corruption” is also of little value when talking about God because to discern corruption one needs to begin with a knowledge of that which is uncorrupted and from there follow the devolution to the uncorrupted state. Since the “uncorrupted” God is unknowable, we have no point of reference.

    This is a really good example of a situation where applying mathematical style formula to God fails.

  • R Hampton

    JohnMc,

    God’s Perfection and Incorruptible nature have long been subjects for theology. In the above, I have followed in the tradition of Aquinas example of applying reasoning to understand God. But I do appreciate that many Protestants (non-Catholics) have a different view.

  • JohnMc

    Regardless of whether you are reflecting the arguments of others before you, no matter how well respected, the point remains that the terms ‘perfection’ and ‘corruption’ are meaningless when trying to analyze the ineffable, because we have simply have no frame of reference.

    How does the idea of divine perfection help us understand how to relate to God? Yes God is perfect but what can that possibly mean in anything other than human terms. And within human terms ‘perfect’ implies that something has progressed from what is humanly cognizable or achievable to that point infinitely in the distance which humans can no longer grasped. Moreover, you risk suggesting that God is merely the perfection of all things human.

    The term “perfect” is content-neutral until you have a frame of reference. The most that can be said is that it is honorific. For example, one may say that God is not merely good, but God is perfect. “Perfectly good” perhaps, but then we measure perfectly good from the frame of reference of merely good, as understood in human terms. But how can we properly honor God by measuring God in human terms, or by measuring God at all?

    You say that God is incorruptible. Are you suggesting that God is complete and that anything outside of God, including human pleadings, if it were possible for them to penetrate the perfection which is God, risk corrupting the incorruptable with a substance, which is foreign and by definition corrupt? Corrupted because human pleadings are not God’s own thoughts or substance?

    (I suppose that it could be argued that a single human thought defies the theory of incorruptiblity as well as the theory of perfection. A human thought is by definition outside of God, and thus God is either imperfect for the lack of including the thought within God’s personhood or God was not perfect until the thought was shared with God. A very imperfect God indeed, unless God has thought all things or unless all humanity (and all humanities thoughts) are included within the personhood of God – a surprisingly Eastern understanding of God.

    As for corruption, if a human thought defined as corrupt because of its human origins, then to avoid corruption God must either entirely close God’s self off to human intercourse, or God has been corrupted from the beginnings of human/divine interaction.)

    Is God so fragile that theoretical safeguards need to be interposed to protect God from the hazards of corruption?

    The argument goes on and on like this and mostly what you arrive at is a mathematical theorem which is circular and ultimately worthless to the person who is struggling with pain and a God who is impassive to the struggle.

    Scripture on page after page denies this scenario. Regardless of how literally or metaphorically one interprets Scripture no one can deny that the underlying message is that God hears the cries of God’s people and cares deeply about those who know neither their right hand from their left.

    Is that perfection? Is that incorruptibility? Do the ideas of divine perfection and incorruptibility have anything at all to say in this regard?

  • R Hampton

    Yes, God is complete. That is the nature of perfection – to lack nothing and to contain no flaws.

    Man is fallen, yes? We are, by Christian understanding, corrupted, and those that are saved are transformed to join God in all eternity in his home whereas that are not are lost for all eternity.

    Now then, even though we have Free Will, God certainly knew every thought before we could have conceived of them. Thus all our requests were anticipated by God before Creation existed. So in this life that we experience, we can not change the plan (God’s mind) since that was determined prior to our existence.

    More importantly, it is of considerable hubris to suggest that any human being can conceive of a better Good for this world that God.


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