DOES PRAYER CHANGE GOD?
The early church fathers assumed that God was personally interested in their prayers and that He answered all prayers one way or another according to what was best for them. Progressing through history, one of the great teachers of the 3rd century was Origen. Origen was not big on the hope that prayer can change things. He said, “If God foreknows what will come to be and if it must happen, then prayer is in vain.” Both Augustine in the early 5th century and John Calvin in the 16th century had a different slant on prayer. They shifted the focus of prayer away from having an effect on God to its effect on the person praying. All the writers during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries saw less and less reason for prayer as they shifted to more naturalistic causes for everything that happens. Immanuel Kant, the last major philosopher of that era, said it was an absurd delusion to think that a person’s prayer would change God’s plans.
Nevertheless, we should be careful to examine the Bible’s viewpoint. Biblically God is a personal Being who listens to our prayers and responds. If you have any doubts just read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ perfect example. Jesus treated God’s foreknowledge as a reason to pray. We don’t have to convince God of how desperate our need is –He already knows. We already have God’s ear. Most of the events of the Bible took place only after God’s people prayed. God delights in our humility, our contrition, and our faith exhibited by our prayers. God wants to respond to our repentance.
As far as God supposedly changing His mind as the Bible infers in such stories as Ex 32 and Jonah 3:10, it is clear that God’s actions are determined by His love and mercy in partnership with their repentance. God must act according to His attributes, therefore when His subjects confess and repent and seek His forgiveness, God responds according to His nature. God is not an aloof ruler uninvolved in His subject’s lives. He is the God who personally interacts with and responds to His creation.
C.S. Lewis wrote that God chose a style of governing us that is like a partnership. God granted believers a role in causality. It is like a playwright who allows his characters to affect the play itself, and then incorporates all their actions into the final result He so determined. The scenes and the general outline are fixed by the author (God), but the minor details are left for the actors to improvise. God has allowed us to cause real events by prayer.
Philip Yancey, in his new book on prayer, has some interesting observations. He said if it was done his way God would provide all the manna from heaven necessary so no one would be hungry. God would eradicate all the strains of dangerous virus and bacteria, and God would eliminate all tyrants. Instead, God had a different plan—He sent His Son to live here for a few years. He delivered a message and then left, claiming His leaving would be for our own good. The disciples who were presenting their questions and requests to Jesus in person would have to change to a different approach—PRAYER. Jesus told His disciples that after He left they would do greater works than His (Jn.14:12). We find in the book of Acts that this actually happened. Jesus went away for our sakes, as a form of power sharing, to give us a crucial role in spiritual warfare—the struggle for people’s souls.
We have a God who chooses to be affected by our prayers. God likes to be asked, He wants to be depended on. God yearns for relationship with us. Yancey makes the point that an abiding relationship “ups the urgency of any information.” It is the difference between hearing the news of a need of people we don’t know versus watching those same reports when your son is there. God has chosen in prayer a way to get us involved and a way to increase the love between Him and us.