Can Prayer Change God’s Mind?

Prayer is our essential communication tool to share our worshipful love of God and our appreciation for his love of us and the sacrifice of his son for us, and to share our hopes, our fears, our needs and our desires.

We read an interesting article that suggested it is possible to change God’s mind through sincere, energetic and passionate prayer.  The article quoted from Exodus 32 where Moses persuaded God not to destroy Israel.  Another example is in Genesis 18 where Abraham bargained successfully with God to spare Sodom.

In the New Testament there are certainly plenty of encouragements to pray, and promises to expect a response.  A useful text is  [1 John 5:14-16] (AMP)

14 This is the [remarkable degree of] confidence which we [as believers are entitled to] have before Him: that if we ask anything according to His will, [that is, consistent with His plan and purpose] He hears us.
15 And if we know [for a fact, as indeed we do] that He hears and listens to us in whatever we ask, we [also] know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted to us] the requests which we have asked from Him.
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not lead to death, he will pray and ask [on the believer’s behalf] and God will for him give life to those whose sin is not leading to death. There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for this [kind of sin].

This is helpful, because it sets out a couple of conditions for prayer to be answered.  We don’t have a “blank check” to ask God for anything/everything and expect it to be automatically given to us.  “Dear God, please let me win the lottery” is not a prayer that you can guarantee will be answered!

First, we have to be asking for something that is congruent with (ie conforms to) God’s general will, purpose, and plan.  We couldn’t, for example, ask him to save all sinners (although we’ve been astonished to see preachers asking for that) because that is a fundamental cornerstone of God’s plan – the only path to salvation is through Jesus.  But if we are asking for something that aligns with God’s general plan and purpose, it seems there’s a good chance that our request will be granted.

Second is the condition in the third cited verse (v 16).  This is consistent with the first condition.  Asking for someone else to be forgiven for a deadly sin is not a request God would agree to – it is too far at variance with God’s plan and purpose.  Note that this is not the same as saying that if we ourselves directly, personally, and sincerely repent and ask for forgiveness after committing a deadly sin, God would not forgive us – in that case, it seems much more likely that he would.  The mercy and transformative salvation of Jesus is offered freely to all.

We liken this to a chess player.  He is considering moving a piece to another position on the board, but someone else urges him to make a different move – maybe to move the same piece elsewhere, or to move a different piece entirely.  Maybe he is about to sacrifice a piece to gain a valuable overall advantage, and a good friend urges him not to do so.

In such cases, if the chess player believes he can adjust his move and not risk losing the game, he may well choose to do so as a favor to his friend.  But you could never say “Move your King and place him in check” because that is forbidden under the rules, and you could never ask him to, eg, sacrifice his Queen for no good purpose, because his objective is and remains to win.

In our case, it is entirely likely that God’s plan is sufficiently robust to adapt to minor changes to the plan, and so if a request from us requires only a minor change, and it conforms to God’s plan and is a generally good request, we are told God will agree to it.

But we should also understand – and let’s switch back to the chess analogy again.  Our chess player is about to move a bishop forward three spaces to threaten the other player’s King.  A friend says “Why not leave the bishop, and instead move your knight.  You’ll still end up threatening the King”.  While that is true, the chess player is looking beyond the immediate threat and the other player’s response, and is projecting several moves ahead to when the new position of the bishop will be very helpful, but moving the knight would not be strategically valuable at all.

So the chess player would refuse, for reasons that are not obvious to the person asking him to change his move.

Similarly, we might ask God to spare us from an affliction, or to grant us a positive outcome, and, even though, from our very limited perspective, our request conforms to God’s will, and is a good and Christian action to ask for, and would create good outcomes benefitting many people, our request is not answered, because God is seeing all the steps ahead in his plan, and what we think is a small adjustment might have broader consequences subsequently.

That is the puzzlement we have to accept (and see also our articles on “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People” and “What to Pray For“).  Yes, God will answer our prayers, but sometimes his puzzling answer is “I have something better than this planned for you” or its twin “The outcome you ask for would actually create subsequent greater negative consequences for you and the people your request is intended to benefit”.

There are many other verses we could cite where we are told that our prayers will be answered.  But the answer may not always be “Yes”, and the passage cited above in John’s Epistle sets out the key point that needs to always be considered.  Our requests will be answered as long as they conform to rather than confound God’s general purposes and plan.

The concept of unexpected responses to prayer is suggested also in Mark 11:24.  And note also the AMP translation includes that same bit of “fine print” “in accordance with God’s will” :

For this reason I am telling you, whatever things you ask for in prayer [in accordance with God’s will], believe [with confident trust] that you have received them, and they will be given to you.

We suggest that one interpretation of this requirement to believe that our requests have been granted is that we need to sometimes accept that the granting of our prayer may not be in the exact form we ask for it.

For example, let’s say we suddenly need to fly from where we live, in, say, Los Angeles, to another city, let’s say Denver.  We check the flights remaining today, and they’re all showing as fully booked.  We pray to God “Please let us get on a flight today”, and we believe our prayer will be granted, even though the flights are still all showing as full.  We go to the airport, to standby for a flight, because we believe our prayer will be answered.

Two outcomes could occur.  Maybe a seat does come available, and because we had believed, we were at the airport and able to take advantage of that.

Or maybe, no seats open up, and we go home dejected.  But perhaps the next day, we learn that what we thought was an imperative and pressing need to get to Denver yesterday no longer existed, and we’ve saved ourselves the cost of an expensive last-minute ticket, and the inconvenience of flying to Denver unnecessarily.  Or maybe some bigger crisis erupts at home or elsewhere, and because we were not in Denver, we can better resolve the more important issue.

Sometimes, the answer to our prayer is unexpected.  We should learn to couch our requests to anticipate and allow for that.  In the case of the urgent need to get to Denver, our prayer should not be “Dear Lord, please find me a seat on a flight to Denver today”.  That presumes that we know best what the most appropriate outcome to our perceived need is.

Instead, more humbly, we should ask “Dear Lord, it seems there is an urgent requirement for me to get to Denver.  Please help me and this problem.  Perhaps please assist me to get there in a timely manner, or help me and the problem to solve itself in some other manner that doesn’t require me to get to Denver today.  I trust in your wisdom and however you choose to assist, and if it is your will not to respond at all, I understand and accept that you best know your plan and how I can serve as part of that.”  And so on (but keep your prayers short and directed, rather than vague and fuzzy and all over the place).

So, are we in effect changing God’s mind?  That’s a definitional point.  His mind is utterly and totally fixed on his specific purpose and the ultimate “end game” as set out in Revelation.  He will triumph over the devil, who is, after all, a lesser being than God.  We can never change his mind about that.  But if it is possible to allow for prayer to be answered without challenging his ultimate goals and objectives, and without creating unexpected negative outcomes elsewhere, we are told he will respond positively.

So, if your prayer is not answered, you should see this as a sign that either you are asking for the wrong thing, or that God has some other better purpose for the thing you are praying about.

One last point, which is the same as the final point in the article we cited at the start.  Your prayers to God should be regular, worshipful, humble, and only occasionally selfish in nature.  See for example James 5:17, telling us about Elijah’s praying – described as “earnest” in some translations, “fervent” in others.  If something is important to you, you should indeed be passionate, energetic, earnest and fervent, and committed in your prayer.  If you can’t be bothered to properly ask for something, how can you expect God in turn to be bothered to respond?

Supplement your prayer with selected Bible studies, try to find some passages in the Bible to quote to God to show how your request is appropriate and aligned with your understanding of how you and the people/things you are praying for can better serve God and his purpose.  Grow close to God, now, and stay close to him, so that when you need to ask for his help, you’re not a stranger to God, but a close regular companion.

Prayer is our essential tool to communicate with God, to share our worshipful love of him and our appreciation of his love of us and the sacrifice of his son for us, and to share our hopes, our fears, our needs and our desires.  It is important we understand how to use prayer, what to pray for, how to pray for it, and what to expect in return.

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