Our prayers can get God to change His mind

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GOD’S MIND CAN BE CHANGED

People give up on prayer for all sorts of reasons. Some don’t believe that prayer really accomplishes anything. Others feel like God is unable to make a difference.

But perhaps the most common reason we stop praying is because we believe that God has said no.

And certainly this make sense. There’s several occurrences in the Bible where God clearly says no, and God’s people quietly accept that God has declined their request. They simply stop praying and move on.

But on other occasions, God’s people are not so submissive. God declines their request, and they keep praying anyway. God makes an announcement that they’re not happy with, so they argue with Him. All through out the Bible we find example after example of people who take God on and seem to find a way to change God’s mind.

THE PROBLEM

Mention the idea of ‘God changing His mind’ and all sorts of questions are raised…
> How can we change God’s mind if God is sovereign?
> Doesn’t God know the future? If so, then surely He knows what He is going to decide before He decides it?
> How could God change His mind when the Bible specifically says: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19)?

At the same time however, the Bible mentions numerous occasions where God did change His mind…
> Abraham convinced God that if there were 10 righteous people in the City of Sodom, that He should not wipe them out, even though God had previously declared that He would (Genesis 18).
> Moses convinced God not to wipe out the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf, even though God had previously declared that He would (Exodus 32).
> At a later date, Moses again convinced God to change His mind in regards to wiping out the Israelites (Numbers 14).
> Ahab convinced God not to kill him, even though God had told him that he would die (1 Kings 21).
> Hezekiah convinced God not to allow him to die, even though God had just told him that he would die and not recover (2 Kings 20).
> Ezekiel convinced God to change His command because Ezekiel was not willing to obey (Ezekiel 4).
> The Ninevite’s actions prompted God to change His mind about the destruction He had promised (Jonah 3).
> Amos convinced God not to bring about two judgements that He had previously declared would take place (Amos 7).
> The Canaanite Woman convinced Jesus to free her daughter from demons even though Jesus had previously declared that He had not come for her (Matthew 15).

Phillip Yancey even goes so far to say: “Three times God commanded Jeremiah to stop praying. God wanted no alteration in his plans to punish a rebellious nation. Prayer had, after all, softened God’s resolve before”. 

So it is clear that God at least appears to be changing His mind.

But how can God change His mind if He is sovereign?

4 WAYS TO RECONCILE ‘GOD CHANGING HIS MIND’ WITH HIS ‘SOVEREIGNTY’

VIEW #1 – God doesn’t ever change His mind. He just wants us to believe that He does. 

According to R.C. Sproul, God doesn’t ever change His mind. It just appears that He does because the Bible uses ‘Phenomenological language’: “The illusion or appearance of something, ‘the way we see it’ from our perspective. As they appear to us, not necessarily as they really are. The aim of the writer is to make a theological statement, a truth about God and man and his world, he’s not using modern scientific precision and technical terminology. Scripture frequently describes events in terms of how they appear to the observer. The Bible does not ‘teach’ that the sun revolves around the earth, but it does speak about sunrises and sunsets”.

Regardless of whether this view is correct or not, we can be sure that God wants us to believe that He is changing His mind, even if He isn’t. Sproul goes onto say: “The point of these narratives is to encourage us to pray. We are to make intercession”. 

God wants us to believe that our prayers make a difference. God wants us to believe that even if He has said no, even if He has made a declaration contrary to what we want to see happen, there is still hope. We don’t need to take no for an answer.

VIEW#2 – God planned the course of history at the beginning of time by allowing our future prayers to affect His decisions.

This view takes into account God’s sovereignty, God’s knowledge of the future, and God’s willingness to be affected by our prayers.

Before the beginning of time…
1. God planned out the course of history because He is Sovereign
2. God was able to hear all the prayers that would one day be prayed because He has knowledge of the future.
3. God took those prayers into account when he planned the course of history because He allows Himself to be affected by our prayers.

C.S. Lewis explains: “When we are praying about the result, say, of a battle or a medical consultation the thought will often cross our minds that… the event is already decided one way or the other.  I believe this to be no good reason for ceasing our prayers. The event certainly has been decided—in a sense it was decided ‘before all worlds’. But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering…  Thus something does really depend on my choice. My free act contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity or ‘before all worlds’; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time-series”.

VIEW#3 – God uses ‘IF-THEN’ statements

Those familiar with the fields of Mathematics, Logic, or Computer Programming would no doubt have come across ‘IF-THEN’ statements. These statements simply dictate a certain outcome given a specific set of conditions.

Some examples include…
IF (temperature is “cold”) THEN (heater is “high”)
IF (oven is “on”) THEN (light is “on”)
IF (door is “closed” and “locked”) THEN (office is “occupied”)

According to Steven Packer, another way to reconcile ‘God’s Sovereignty’ with ‘God changing His mind’ is to imagine God using ‘IF-THEN’ statements to make His decisions.

Consider the following Biblical examples:

IF (Ninevites “don’t repent”) THEN (God will “destroy them in 40 days”)
IF (Ninevites “repent”) THEN (God will have “mercy”)

IF (Hezekiah “accepts that he is about to die”) THEN (Hezekiah will “die”)
IF (Hezekiah “argues that His life is worth saving”) THEN (Hezekiah will “live” and “the city will be saved”)

IF (The Canaanite Woman “is willing to leave without Jesus casting out the demons”) THEN (Jesus will “not cast the demons out”)
IF (The Canaanite Woman “is unwilling to leave without Jesus casting out the demons”) THEN (Jesus will “cast the demons out”)

Under this view, our prayers make a massive difference. Not because we are able to convince God that He is wrong. But because they change the conditions under which God was initially making His decision. As the conditions change, so to does the decision.

VIEW #4 – God does actually change His mind

Andrew Murray, a Calvinist who believed strongly in the sovereignty of God, says: “God does indeed allow Himself to be decided by prayer to do what He otherwise would not have done… The blessing of prayer is that you can ask and receive what you will; the highest exercise and the glory of prayer is that persevering importunity can prevail and obtain what God at first could not and would not give”.

E.M. Bounds, the 19th Century Methodist minister, wrote: “Prayer affects God more powerfully than His own purposes. God’s will, words and purposes are all subject to review when the mighty potencies of prayer come in. How mighty prayer is with God may be seen as he readily sets aside His own fixed and declared purposes in answer to prayer”

Under this view, God’s mind can in fact be changed by our prayers.

This of course raises two questions:

> HOW CAN GOD BE SOVEREIGN AND YET ALLOW HIMSELF TO BE AFFECTED BY OUR PRAYERS? 

According to E. M. Bounds, God has sovereignly decided to allow Himself to be subjected to our prayers: “He has ordained prayer as a means whereby he will do things through men as they pray, which he would not otherwise do. Prayer is a specific divine appointment, an ordinance of heaven, whereby God purposes to carry out his gracious designs on earth and to execute and make efficient the plan of salvation… By his own ordinance God holds himself bound to hear prayer”.

> WHAT DOES THE BIBLE MEAN WHEN IT TALKS ABOUT GOD NOT CHANGING HIS MIND? 

All good parents know that its important not to make decisions based on the kind of mood they are in. The key is to be consistent.
All good parents know that they need to keep their word to their children. If they lie or break a promise their children will be reluctant to trust them.

The same is true for God.

Those who hold to this view argue that the Biblical writers were never intending to say that God’s mind can’t be changed. Rather their point was that God is like a good parent…
> God’s character is unchanging. He doesn’t just make a decision because He’s in a good mood or a bad mood. He is consistent.
> God’s promises are trustworthy. He won’t lie or break a promise. He can be trusted.

WHY NOT ASK?

When King David was told that his child would die, He could have easily thought that there was no hope. He knew that he was guilty of sin. He knew that he deserved judgement. He knew that God had already struck his son.

But instead, David fasted and prayed. Why?

Because He knew that his prayers could affect God. He knew that just because God declares that something will happen, doesn’t mean it has to happen. He knew that God’s mind could be changed (or at least appear to change).

So although God ultimately declined his request, David knew that his prayers were not in vain: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live”. (2 Samuel 12:22).

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