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Can our prayers change God’s mind?  


God doesn’t merely enlist us as spectators to watch him building his Kingdom. Rather he invites us to share in the work, even allowing us at times, through prayer, to shape the manner in which that task is achieved. By Chris Band

God Answer Prayer

It might seem unorthodox or even downright heretical to suggest that God, with all his wisdom and knowledge, might be ‘changed’ in some way by our prayers. Can our intercessions really cause him to change his mind or adjust his plans?

Well, as unlikely as it might seem, this does appear to be precisely what scripture teaches.
If you have ever spent time navigating the waterways of Britain you will be well aware of the difference between a river and a canal. Canals are usually straight, comprising the shortest route from A to B. Rivers on the other hand take a winding route, back and forth, across the landscape.

Which of these I wonder, the canal or the river, best describes the flow of God’s action through human history? If his will is like that man-made canal, then it becomes an inviolable path carved through time, an undeviating straight line from promise to fulfilment. But such a direct course would surely cut through the very freedom that God has granted us.
Is it not truer to say that God’s will is brought about in a meandering fashion? Sometimes his plans are temporarily frustrated by human sinfulness. But at other times, as we pray, our intercessions present new channels through which God allows his purposes to flow. Scripture illustrates this, time and again:

  • God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah but after Abraham’s prayerful ‘haggling’ with God, Lot and his family were saved, specifically in response to Abraham’s prayer (Genesis 19:27-29). 

  • In Exodus 32 the Lord told Moses, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to destroy the rebellious Israelites. But as a result of Moses’ intercession for the people, God relented from judgement and journeyed on for a further forty years with the nation.   

  • God pronounced immediate judgement on wicked King Ahab, but following the king’s repentance he delayed his punishment for a generation. (1 Kings 21:28-29). 

  • God told Hezekiah that his illness would prove fatal. But after Hezekiah’s earnest prayer, God added 15 years to his life (2 Kings 20:1-6).  

  • And through the prophet Jonah, God told the Ninevites, in unconditional terms, that he would destroy them. But following their repentance he refrained from judgement (Jonah 3:10). 

What all these incidents make clear is that Biblical history is not a straight line but rather a meandering route, because God’s actions are in a significant way responsive to our prayers.
Of course God’s character itself is unchanging; as we read in Malachi 3:6: “I the Lord do not change”. And his ultimate purpose, that we each be conformed to the image of his Son, is also unwavering.

But from the ‘stability’ of these unchanging truths there arises a divine ‘flexibility’ that enables God to genuinely respond to our prayers as he builds his kingdom. And so we find not only that we are permitted to enter the King’s presence, but that we are also welcomed into his royal council. We are not merely those who execute his plans but, through the gift of prayer, we also deliberate over them with him.
One hot summer’s day as I cycled alongside the Oxford Canal, I passed an allotment where a father was watering the plants with the help of his young daughter. There was nothing unusual in that. But what struck me as odd were the containers that the water was being carried in - jam jars! Surely this couldn’t have been the father’s original plan. I’m sure he must have begun with a large watering can.

But of course his daughter would have asked to join her dad in the task and a full watering can would have been far beyond her strength. So the father was faced with a choice. Should he continue this task alone or should he change the detail of his plan so as to accommodate his daughter’s request?

Perhaps if his sole aim was to water the vegetables then he would have continued on without her. But evidently his desire that day was not merely to get the job done, but to do it with her. And so I watched as he carefully dipped the jars into the canal and then passed them to his daughter who eagerly ran to water each plant, individually, in turn. I can’t imagine how long the work must have taken, but I know that the father-daughter relationship was being strengthened moment by moment and that he was teaching his child valuable lessons for the future. 
God is like that father. He doesn’t merely enlist us as spectators to watch him building his Kingdom. Rather he invites us to share in the work, even allowing us at times, through prayer, to shape the manner in which that task is achieved.

In Pascal’s words, God has given us the gift of prayer, "Pour communiquer à ses créatures la dignité de la causalité,", that is, ‘to confer on us, his creatures, the dignity of causality’, a dignity both to cause things and to change things.

Such a God-given status could lead us to pride, but surely it drives us instead to humility. God is so powerful that he need not give our prayers a second thought. But he is so loving that he not only hears us, but also, wherever possible, entwines our expressed desires and plans into his own.  


Picture | Greg Rakozy | Unsplash

Chris Band is the author of On my Knees: Rebuilding our confidence in prayer [Monarch Books]. The book is accompanied by a website (www.onmyknees.co.uk) which contains, amongst other things, a free small group study guide.

Chris is a minister at Headington Baptist Church, Oxford

Rebuilding our confidence in prayer Baptist minister Chris Band was overwhelmed with questions about prayer. It led to a deep study, lengthy interviews... and a book called On My Knees. He shares some of that journey


Baptist Times, 21/06/2017
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