God, Please Change Your Mind

Don: I’ve been thinking all week about this statement from Jesus:

“And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22)

Would that include a prayer for God to change His mind about something? James said that the effective prayer of the righteous man can work wonders:

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:13-20)

Effective prayer seems to be conditional upon belief, faith, and righteousness. If that is so, then ineffective prayer—prayer that does not achieve the expected result—can be assumed to lack a good-enough basis in one or more of those conditional attributes.

There are other questions, too, such as: If we pray for someone else, whose faith matters? The person doing the praying, or the person prayed for? Is it both? Does a lack of faith in one cancel out the faith in the other? Is there some psychological value in believing we can influence God through “effective” prayer, even though we can’t? Do we do God and ourselves a disservice by claiming that we can? Or is the process of prayer more important than its outcome? Do we overemphasize the outcome at the expense of the process, which is where the real value of prayer may lie?

King David ordered the murder of the husband of a woman whom he (David) had made pregnant. When challenged by Nathan, a messenger sent by God, Samuel said:

“I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.” So Nathan went to his house.

Then the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s widow bore to David, so that he was very sick. David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him in order to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling and would not eat food with them. Then it happened on the seventh day that the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was still alive, we spoke to him and he did not listen to our voice. How then can we tell him that the child is dead, since he might do himself harm!” But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David perceived that the child was dead; so David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” And they said, “He is dead.” So David arose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he came into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he came to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate.

Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
(2 Samuel 12:13-22)

Evidently, David thought there was a chance God might be persuaded to change His mind, hence his elaborate display of contrition. Yet when God ignored him, he simply shrugged. It was worth a try. His servants were shocked.

Several stories in Scripture explicitly say that God can be persuaded to change his mind. Abraham persuaded God to reduce the number of righteous Gomorrans it would take to convince Him to stay the destruction of Gomorrah (Genesis 18). Moses persuaded God to be more God-like—to think of the bad publicity—and forbear from destroying the Israelites, after He caught them worshiping a golden calf:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”

Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. (Exodus 32:7-14).

Moses had to bail out the Israelites again after they threatened mutiny:

The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst? I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.” … [Later, after Moses pleaded with Him:] So the Lord said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it. (Numbers 14:11-12; 20-23)

God changed his mind about killing Ahab, Hezekiah, and (after they mended their ways) the Ninevites—annoying Jonah no end.

Yet God is quoted in Scripture as saying that He does not change:

“For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. (Malachi 3:6)

This leaves us with a dilemma: If God’s mind cannot be changed, then what is the point of prayer? If it can be changed, then what is the point of God? If it cannot be changed, then we must perhaps conclude that any point to prayer lies in the process, not in the outcome. The three Hebrew worthies Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, seem to have subscribed to this view when they told King Nebuchadnezzar, as he challenged their God to save them from his fiery furnace:

“… we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-17)

Their prayer did not look for an outcome. The Lord’s Prayer, however, does specify outcomes: The coming of God’s kingdom; The doing of His will; Our daily bread (a basic sustenance that God has already assured to the righteous, according to Isaiah); Forgiveness of our debts to others; Protection from temptation; and Deliverance from evil. Since God has already assured us of all these outcomes, then whatever we ask of him that is righteous—as all of these outcomes are—will indeed be granted.

Robin: I wonder if the Scriptural statements that God does not change refers to His character rather than His mind?

David: The angry, vengeful God who allowed one man to use God’s power to cause a three-year drought (causing, presumably, millions of innocent people to suffer and many to die, no doubt with prayers for rain on their lips) just does not square with the loving God of Jesus. With regards to the Lord’s Prayer, the request for daily bread is confusing if it indeed refers to daily physical sustenance.

Aishwarya: The outcome of prayer and whether prayer aligns with the will of God seems situational. Humans can nothing about a drought, therefore it is not unreasonable to pray to God for relief. But to pray for an A in an exam for which one has not studied is unreasonable.

Donald: If prayer is about establishing a relationship with God, as we have discussed in previous weeks, then dialog would seem to be called for. But it would be a one-sided conversation consisting mainly of requests from us and no direct response from God. This would not seem conducive to a closer understanding of God and a closer relationship with Him. But then, can we expect His responses when we pray the Lord’s Prayer?

Don: The request in the Lord’s Prayer that “Thy kingdom come” seems to me to ask that the kingdom principles of going to the back of the line, loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and so on as espoused by Jesus, will become operative in one’s life. It is a radical prayer to take the way of the cross, not a frivolous appeal for an A in an exam or a win in the lottery. It is an unselfish prayer focused on giving rather than receiving.

Mikiko: In my understanding of Matthew 6:10, God’s kingdom is what comes after Armageddon—the replacement of human government by God’s governance and the removal of Satan and his angels from heaven (Revelation 12:9-10).

Anonymous: Perhaps God doesn’t answer prayers because…

If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear;… (Psalm 66:18)

Michael: Maybe “wickedness” in this context can be defined as asking for the wrong things.

Kiran: Some translations use “sin” instead of “wickedness”.

Anonymous: It is not a sin to pray for a new car.

David: I beg to disagree. Anything requested for oneself is a selfish request.

Anonymous: What if you need the car?

David: Suffer! This the teaching of Jesus.

Kiran: When we ask for something, God already knows. His sunlight and his rain fall upon everybody, good and bad. By nature, God is benevolent towards all His children, whether they pray or not. So sometimes I wonder, why pray? For me, prayer is comforting and helps reduce stress. Just talking about a problem (through prayer) helps reduce it.

Jay: I have no interest in changing the mind of a God who is all-knowing and who loves me. Whatever He does is to my benefit. The true purpose of prayer, it seems to me, is to help build a relationship with God, not to change His mind about anything. But building a relationship with God is not like building and sustaining a relationship with another human being, which usually involves a quid pro quo—“I’ll do this for you if you do that for me”—that grows as the relationship grows. This is not what happens with God. All that is needed to establish and sustain that relationship is to align our will with God’s. That is why the Lord’s Prayer has “Thy will be done” up front, before we get into daily bread, forgiveness, and so on. So unlike a prayer involving a quid pro quo with God, a prayer for the alignment of our will with His will always be answered.

Michael: Perhaps it’s not good to go all the way, because it smacks of predestination. It is unsettling. Something seems not fitting.

Jay: We fear that God is not a God of pure love if He allows bad things to happen. It causes dissonance. But we have to remember that God’s ways are not our ways, so second-guessing His methods and motives is futile.

Michael: As a Catholic boy I was always told that sin distances us from God. Now, it seems to me that the knowledge of my sin is what draws me closer to God. I do not mean we should sin in order to be close to God.

David: That was the case with the Prodigal Son: The more he sinned, the closer he got to his father! Dissonance is the crux of the issue. I think it stems from our conflation of the spiritual and the physical. To me, the Lord’s Prayer is a spiritual prayer. Our daily spiritual bread does not take the form of a sliced Wonderloaf. It is, rather, the nourishing recognition that God exists and is Love. To pray for things in this life—a lottery win, a cure for a loved one’s cancer—is futile. To pray for things in the next life, when God’s will alone will be done, in his kingdom, with perpetual daily nourishment for the soul is the prayer that is called for, it seems to me. We have a foot in the spiritual world by virtue of God’s spirit within us, and we have both an ability and a duty to nurture a relationship with that spirit through spiritual prayer.

Robin: Jesus told the disciples that He is the “bread of life”. I think that must mean the bread of spiritual life.

Don: Paul said:

The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)

So indeed sin does seem to bring us closer to God.

Anonymous: Awareness of one’s sin might bring one closer to God, but to continue to commit sin one is aware of cannot be good for the relationship.

Michael: In Catholic church I was taught that I could overcome my sinful nature through my own efforts, but it didn’t seem to work! I have to conclude that the Church was wrong.

Robin: Only God can give spiritual blessings, and only God can forgive spiritual sin.

Kiran: In prayer, we confront our true selves and evaluate our behavior as revealed in that light. It is not a matter of changing God’s mind: It is a matter of changing our own minds. Prayers helps us understand who we really are and what we really want.

Aishwarya: Or you can pray to blame God if something does not work out the way you want. In either case, the prayer brings you closer to God.

Mikiko: God knows what you want before you pray:

…your Father knows what you need before you ask Him (Matthew 6:8)

But we still must ask:

Help me, O Lord my God;
Save me according to Your lovingkindness. (Psalms 109:26)

For I am in distress; answer me quickly.
Oh draw near to my soul and redeem it;… (Psalms 69:17-18)

Chris: It’s clear that we have been given choice, so there is no question of predestination. The central choice is between God’s will and our own wills.

Enoch lived 365 years before he was suddenly taken by God. He:

“walked with God: and he was no more; for God took him” (Genesis 5:21–24)

Enoch must have been aligned with God, having walked and talked with Him for so long. That “talk” is what we would call prayer. Old family friends whose young child was badly hurt in an auto accident prayed that he would not die, and he did not until the age of 25. But his life in the interim was a life of suffering, and his parents were in anguish and regret over their prayer.

Anonymous: It shows that indeed we do not know what to pray for, or how to pray, as Paul wrote.

Donald: It seems sufficient to pray for the purpose of acknowledging God’s existence and role as our savior. All requests of God seem to go too far.

David: I don’t think we need to acknowledge God through prayer. Our spiritual groaning in the depth of our sufferings is acknowledgment enough. True prayer—which we might not even recognize as prayer at the time—is always accompanied by suffering, I believe. The Prodigal Son grew closer to his father through sin, but there was a price to be paid: Suffering. Grace is God’s gift to the sufferer. Jesus seemed reluctant to teach prayer, perhaps because he knew we don’t really need it.

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