Can Prayer Change God's Mind? : Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 7

It really goes without saying but the question in the title of this post is a sort of "hot topic" in theological circles these days. Typically, you have two camps that answer this question different ways: The "Yes Camp" and the "No Camp". What I want to do in this post is attempt to navigate through some of the ramifications of this inquiry. It is not my goal here to exegete lots of Scriptural narratives or do any sort of word studies. Instead, I want to offer a few thoughts, ask a couple more questions and then, give some feedback that I think is helpful.

First of all, I want to share my definition of prayer once again: "Prayer is attending to the presence of God both around us and in us." As I have said over and over, this view of prayer places the focus squarely on God and not humans! And I believe that this is a good thing. One of the results of having this view of prayer is that since God is the centerpiece, we humans are attempting to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for His wants and desires. This could be said another way: With this view of prayer, we humans, are attempting to know and understand God in a better, more fruitful and healthy way. And actually, I might make the point here that in my opinion, this is the whole point of "theology" anyway: To understand the nature and character of God better.

Now, this flows right into what I want to say next: From a theological (and Scriptural) point-of-view, God's nature and character NEVER change! Let me dissect that a little more. According to Scripture, which informs my view of both God's nature and character, God's nature is Triune. To be "Triune" means, at the heart, to be "relational" (e.g. 3 persons). When the Triune God created humanity in His image, He was creating humans to be relational beings (as He Himself is). When we read Genesis, after the creation of humans, God tells humans to "be fruitful and multiply". What's the point of that? Well, if humans are made in His image, then reproducing means multiplying His image all over the earth. Thus, God is issuing a sort of genuine, "relational" movement.

I say all of this to say: God, as the MOST relational being (perhaps I could coin a word and say "Omnirelational"), desires to have genuine relationships with humans. Now, if I couple this fact with the definition of prayer that I offer above, then this means that our relationship towards God and His relationship towards us, can be affected through prayer. So, if prayer is focused on God and His wants and desires, then when we pray, we should be asking not for "things" but how we can please God by fulfilling His wants and desires.

Now, here's where problems usually occur for "Christians": Sometimes what God wants or desires is not the same as what we want or desire. And that's where the question in the title of this post really comes into play: Can our prayers change God's mind? Without arguing over stories of Scripture (because there are clearly stories where God changes His mind and stories where He doesn't), we should probably ask another question: Would God changing His mind as a result of our prayers, help us understand God less or more? And, does God changing His mind mean that His nature and character change too?

To the second question I would answer "No". It seems clear to me, even in human terms and situations, that because someone changes their mind on an issue (regardless of what caused the change) does not always mean that person's nature or character changed. I can crave a bag of chips and then when someone suggests that I do not eat those specific chips, I change my mind, that does not mean my nature or character changed. The same is true of God. Now, to address the former question: Does this help us understand God less or more? I would argue that it can help us understand God more.

If God is truly genuine in terms of relationships (and I believe He is), and when we are attending to His presence around us and in us as genuinely as we possibly can, the "human element" of prayer comes into play. Even though prayer is "God-centered" and "God-focused" there is a human element. It is this human element that makes room for genuine human requests. I must emphasize "genuine" here because I am not talking about the sort of thing where people use prayer as a "manipulative" tool. I am talking about honest, genuine prayer here, prayer that first of all recognizes God's wants and desires but that also recognizes "honest" tension between what God desires and what we may desire.

You see, to pray, even though it is attending to God's wants and desires, does not mean that our desires must be ruled out, even if there is tension between our desires and His! Prayer is not a bending of our will to God's or a bending of God's will to ours; that is not the right way to think about it. Instead, prayer is a genuine, interactive relational event. Prayer is realizing that sometimes we do need to change our minds, hearts, wants and desires. But prayer is also being honest with God and being able to ask Him to change His mind on behalf of humanity's good (much like in the Jonah and Abraham stories!).

One of the results of this, and one that makes many people uncomfortable, is that it really reveals the sort of "back and forth" relational aspect between humans and God. To put it differently, it moves us from a point of taking our prayers (and prayer itself) for granted and making us a little more humble. I shall use myself as an example here. In the first few years of my faith, I was quite presumptuous about prayer. I read verses out of context all of the time, which made me have the mindset of "If I just ask, I'll get". Well, when I realized how much I was abusing prayer and trying to take advantage of God, I made a vow to God that I would NEVER presume upon Him again.

This has changed not only the tone of my prayers but really, the entire attitude I have towards it. No longer do I presume that God did something or even anything. No longer do I act as if I know for sure when God is speaking or not. No longer do I use cognitive tricks and convincing language to make myself appear as though I have God's activity in the world around me or in my life mapped out. Instead, in humility, I am now able to come to God and say things like, "Lord, if this was you at work, I thank you" or "God, were it such that I just heard your voice or experienced your presence, I am grateful for that". The point is: No longer am I presumptuous about prayer but now, I have an incredibly heightened sense of humility. And isn't that how it should be? Should we approach God any other way than honest, geuine and humble?

This all might make you uncomfortable but it has allowed me to understand God more fully and healthily. Even more, it has allowed me to experience the prayer event from a new vantage point and perspective. Now, my theology of prayer seems more in-line with the nature and character of God than it has ever been. And friends, that all started when I stopped being presumptuous and started being humble!


Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?

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