Is prayer about changing God’s Mind?

February 4th, 2016 by

Often in discussion about prayer, the topic quickly turns to one matter in particular: petitioning God. We ask God for things in prayer. Jesus himself seems to encourage this in the canonical gospels, where he is reported as saying, “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7.) Later in the same passage he remarks, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:9-11.) Doesn’t this give us reason to think that prayer is about petitioning God for things in the expectation that he will grant them to those who ask in faith?

My answer is: yes, and no. Or, to be more precise, yes, we should take seriously what Christ is reported as saying in this biblical passage (and the parallels elsewhere in the canonical gospels); but, no, this does not necessarily mean we should think of petitionary prayer as about seeking to “change the mind of God.” Why not? Because it is not clear (to me at least) that we are in a position to change the mind of God. Suppose we think that God ordains all that comes to pass, including our actions. Many Christian thinkers of the past have thought something like this is true, on the basis of biblical passages like Ephesians 1, Romans 9, and Prov. 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap; but its every decision is from the LORD.” Well, if God ordains all that comes to pass, how might our petitions affect the mind of God? It is difficult to see how this might be the case. For, as the psalmist tells us “before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” (Psalm 139: 4.)

Standard ways of thinking about petitioning God seems to depend on what is sometimes called a two-way contingency. At the moment of prayer, we think a certain outcome extremely likely, and pray that God would intervene to grant a different outcome. Maybe we think that our school grades are likely to be poor, and pray that God will raise them. Or, maybe we worry that the cat is lost, and pray for its safe return. There are many, many other circumstances we could cite as examples from the trivial to the extremely serious. In each case the assumption is that somehow my prayer can affect the outcome. But perhaps that is a mistaken way of thinking about petitioning God. Perhaps a more careful way of thinking about petitionary prayer involves conceiving of it as us bringing our desires into line with God’s will, rather than us attempting through prayer to “change” God’s mind.

This may be thought a rather unlikely approach to petitionary prayer. But consider the Lord’s Prayer, which Christ taught his disciples when they asked him how they should pray. Examination of this prayer turns up some interesting results. The first line says, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” No petition here. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Notice here that the prayer is for God’s kingdom and will, not for my program or concern. “Your will be done,” not “my will be done.” This is followed by “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Here we seem to have something more like the sort of petitions we expect. If we ask God for our daily bread and for our sins to be forgiven, aren’t we asking him to do something that he would otherwise not do? However, if the Christian is reconciled to God through the work of Christ, then all our trespasses are already forgiven. So why ask for forgiveness again? Could it be that these are not petitions asking God to change his mind, as it were, but a way of bringing to mind things that are true about our relationship to God? He will look after those who trust in him (we might think). He will forgive us our sins because of the atoning work of Christ. He doesn’t “lead us into temptation”, and he does “deliver us from evil” via Christ.

Thinking about prayer can be tough work, and there is much to be done in this area. In fact, careful scholarship on this topic may end up taking us in directions we hadn’t expected in advance. Yet if this is a topic that is important—and surely it is vital for any person of faith—then it is time well-spent. If petitionary prayer is more to do with bringing our own wills into line with God’s will rather than changing God’s mind, then we will need to think again about what we believe we are doing when we petition God—and that may be a good and helpful thing.

 

 

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Oliver Crisp is a professor of systematic theology who joined Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He holds a PhD from King’s College at the University of London, an MTh from the University of Aberdeen, and a BD from the University of Aberdeen. Crisp’s current research projects include writing a book on the atonement, and work on the doctrine of sin.

6 responses to “Is prayer about changing God’s Mind?”

  1. Charles Twombly says:

    Super piece, Oliver. Basically agree. Would wish to tweak this a bit, however. In the OT, God seems to invite real engagement from figures like Abraham and Moses when he announces that he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah or Israel and that he’s “repented” putting up with them in the first place. When their pleading seemingly “changes” his mind, is this just a ruse–merely part of the “big plan” God had in mind all along? Same with the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: If our trespasses are already forgiven, are we invited merely to go through the motions? Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, we find one of those scary sayings of Jesus in which he tells us our own sins won’t be forgiven if we refuse to forgive others. I know: it’s kind of a Matthew’s gospel versus Paul’s letters situation, the thing that makes reconciling different strands of Scripture both so exciting and perplexing. Blessings.

    • Oliver Crisp says:

      Thanks for this, Charles. I suppose much depends on whether one thinks God is immutable or not. Some biblical data seems to suggest he is; others press in the direction you indicate. I guess I think that God is immutable, so we must understand those passages that seem to suggest he changes his mind as anthropomorphic, that is, as attributing human changes to God. This doesn’t solve all the problems and doesn’t explain exactly how to understand the passages you cite, but the same would be true for those who take the opposite view and then have to fit their account with those biblical passages that suggest God is unchanging and that he ordains all things from before the foundation of the world.

      • Charles Twombly says:

        Thanks, Oliver. Good words. I’m certainly not a process guy–or even an Open Theist (if I understand that view correctly). So I’m with you on immutability. But both creation and incarnation qualify (complexify!) what we mean by immutability, don’t they. I prefer to say there’s a cloud of mystery hovering over that intersection between God and us whereby saying that we influence God says far too much but so does saying “God ordains all” (in the way I think you mean it). Perhaps my patristics/Eastern Orthodox dabblings plus years of hanging around Wesleyans/Arminians has helped make words like synergism more palatable than they were in my Fuller student years. I hold firm to the claim that God’s will will be done. What I sit loose to is how our pleas and actions are factored into that process. I seem to recall JI Packer saying (perhaps in his Payton Lectures in the mid-sixties) that we often imagine that God and humans can’t both be acting freely in the same actions/decisions. We often play a zero-sum game in which God’s freedom reduces or precludes ours. Anyway, thanks again for helping to jump-start some important reflections. Much appreciated.

        • Oliver Crisp says:

          Thanks again, Charles. I don’t mean to dismiss mystery — far from it! But I wonder whether invoking mystery too quickly in these discussions is just a way of avoiding answering hard questions. I’m not saying YOU are guilty of that. I think you’re questions are very helpful. But I think that this can sometimes be the case in discussion of prayer. There is a fine line to be walked between respecting the mystery (so to speak), and asking the hard but important theological questions. I hope we can continue to tread that line without falling off one side or the other!

  2. Tom Watts says:

    Hi Oliver, thanks for a thought provoking piece. I share the same presuppositions about God but i wonder how you would analyse other Scriptural prayers, e.g. of the apostles in Acts, which appear to be more basic petition? I have often thought of the essence of prayer as dependence, i.e. the point of praying to a God who already knows what we’re going to pray is that we get to express our dependence on him as his creatures. And that he may have chosen to order the world in such a way that our prayers are included in the means by which he brings about his will. So that prayer is then secondly a matter of obedience as well as dependence. What do you make of that?

    • Oliver Crisp says:

      Thanks, Tom. Good to hear from you! Your view sounds a bit like that of Eleonore Stump. Have you read her well-known paper on petitionary prayer? It is terrific. Worth reading. I agree that prayer is about dependence on God. I guess my thought here is that this is consistent with my own position: we align our wills with God’s will, underlining our own dependence on God for all things in obedience to what God has told us to do. However, I’m not sure how my prayer is included as (part of) the means by which God brings about his purposes. Why does God need to do that if he has the power to determine all that comes to pass (Prov. 16:33, etc.)?

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