Does Prayer Change God?
It’s halftime, you’re down, and your team huddles up after a rip-roaring speech from the coach, and somebody says, “Lord, give us the victory!” All the while, the scene in the opposing team’s locker room is just the same. “Lord, help us crush ’em!” And God is up in heaven. What do you think He’s doing? Flipping a coin? First come, first served? Taking bets from the angels?
All kidding aside, there are halftime moments in life when you’re down, when the only thing to do is pray and hope that God changes the outcome. As Christians, we can affirm that God knows all things, including the future, and yet does not determine all things. The question remains: Does prayer change God?
There are two attributes of God that can help us best answer this question: his immutability and his impassibility.
A.W. Tozer explains in The Knowledge of the Holy,
“To say that God is immutable is to say that He never differs from Himself. The concept of a growing or developing God is not found in the Scriptures. It seems to me impossible to think of God as varying from Himself in any way.”
God’s immutability means He is always consistent with His own nature. He cannot change for better or for worse. He won’t become more holy. The reason we can trust God to be faithful is because He is immutable. This is unlike a Muslim’s concept of Allah, who is quite whimsical.
J.I. Packer in Concise Theology says that it is because God is unchanging that when people change their attitude toward God, He changes His attitude toward them. He cites examples from Genesis 6:5-7; Exodus 32:9-14; 1 Samuel 15:11; and Jonah 3:10.
Exodus 32:9-14 says,
“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ”
Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Jonah 3:6-10 says,
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
In these two passages, it seems like God changes His mind, and the biblical authors do not try to justify it. God hears the prayers of Moses on behalf of the people and of repentant people in Nineveh. And each time the accounts end with God not bringing what He had threatened.
Second, God is impassible. This means that what God feels, like what he does, is a matter of his choice. John Drury says that being passive means being a patient rather than an agent, who acts on the patient. This doctrine says, “Because God is eternal and free and can will what he wants, God is not moved by anything else. God is moved by Himself.” Yet, God could, in theory, choose to allow Himself to be acted upon by something else. He could allow Himself to be passive. He wills to have our prayers and sin affect Him.
So our prayers don’t make God change in His character. We cannot pray for God to punish someone who doesn’t deserve punishment and wait to see him do it. He will always respond to our prayers in a manner consistent with who he is. This seems like common sense. But second, and more importantly, God chooses to be affected by our prayers and to change his mind about what he will do on the basis of our prayers. This is not to say that every time we pray, we change God’s mind, but only that our prayers have the potential to call him to do something else.