16. Can we change God’s mind with our prayers?
Yes and No. There are Old Testament examples of people who pleaded with God in prayer to not apply a punishment that He said He would do. And as a consequence of their intercessory prayers, God relents and doesn’t do what He said He’d do. It seems to me that the times that He has changed His mind in the Bible were almost all because of appeals to His merciful side, to spare the people the terrible consequences of their sins.
The thing is, I don’t think this “mind-changing” necessarily applies to whatever we want it to apply to. I think that we can still appeal to God’s mercy in intercessory prayer, but I don’t think we can just alter God’s best path or plans for us with our prayers, whenever we want. We can refuse to go His way, but this will take us out of His best Will for our lives.
I think that, many times, God has to groom us and train us for the path that He wants us to take (by pruning, convicting sin, purifying motives, etc.). And this moves us from reluctance to acceptance, from fear to boldness. But He may not necessarily change the “call” that He gives us or the trial that He’s allowed. And it would be better if we let Him grow us for these calls and through the trials, instead of fighting Him.
He can’t be talked into anything He isn’t willing to do (and He has His mysterious reasons for not being willing to do it), no matter how much we pray and plead. An example of this (as well as an example of God causing something “bad” to happen) is in 2 Samuel 12. In this chapter, David learns that the child Bathsheba is carrying will die, as a consequence of his sin of adultery.
Verse 14 shows the reason why God “struck the child.” “But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.” The Lord takes the child, not so much to punish David (God had already forgiven him), but because His name and His glory have been run through the mud. And a public consequence like this shows David, the Israelites, and the enemies of the Lord that God does not tolerate this. God’s name will be revered!
In verse 16, though, we see that David pleads with God to spare the life of the baby, even laying on the ground and refusing food for a week. But David’s prayers, no matter how earnest, could not change what God had decided to do, if God was not willing to change it.
We might desperately wish that God would change something, but we have to rest in the knowledge that if He’s not willing to change it, it’s because He can see how it can be used for greater reasons and purposes than we can know. And we may never see the good things that come out of it until eternity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that He caused it for those purposes (sometimes He does), but that He looked ahead and saw the good that He can do with it.
God doesn’t like to see us in pain. He doesn’t want to see us sick and dying and heart-broken. I believe that it pains Him to not grant certain requests because it hurts Him to see us in pain, such as not granting prayers for healing. (Think of Jesus’ crying when He saw the pain that Mary and Martha were in when Lazarus died.) But we have to trust that He’ll use it for good, as He promised. And that may be the only bit of comfort that we have in the pain: knowing that God hurts with us, that good will come out of it someday, and that He will wipe away all tears in Heaven where evil will be no more.
But now, on the other side of the coin, if what we request is something that He’s willing to do, He will alter things based on our prayers. If we pray according to His Will, He hears it and will do it; as seen in numerous examples in the Bible, when God hears a prayer and changes His plans because of it.
One such example is the story of Hezekiah. In 2 Kings 20, we read how God informed Hezekiah (through the prophet Isaiah) that he was going to die. In verse 2-3, we read this: “Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, ‘Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly.”
In response to that prayer, the Lord relents. “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you . . . I will add fifteen years to your life.” (Verses 5-6). I don’t know if God would have given more years if Hezekiah had not prayed and pleaded with Him. (However, what happens in the extra time that he was granted was not good. So maybe it would have been wiser to go with God’s first plan.) The more I learn, the more I think that prayer makes a difference. Not always, but definitely if it lines up with what God is willing to do.
Posts in this "Understanding God's Will" series:
3: His Will Is A Verb 4: Taking It Seriously 5: Prayer Matters 6: But God Can Read Minds 7: But God Knows Our Needs 8a: Pray Specifics? 8b: Three Keys For Next Step 8c: About Smaller Decisions 9a: Name It Claim It 9b: Help
9c: Verses 9d: Idolatry 9e: Unanswered 9f: Not Listening 9g: More Verses 9h: Effective Prayer 9i: Still Waiting 10: Bad Things Happen 11a: Happens For A Reason? 11b: Marriage Trouble 11c: Deliberate Ignorance 11d: Bad Things Beyond Us 12: God Works Good 13: Limiting God? 14/15: God Forcing Things? 16: Change God's Mind? 17: But God Can't Change? 18: Our Responsibilities