Every broadcast of Southwest Ministries begins with Dr. Noah Hutchings declaring, “God is on the throne, and prayer changes things.” It’s a great thing to remember as we strive to advance on our Christian journeys. But, it can cause confusion about God’s nature.
God never changes. Since he is perfect and holy, any alteration with regard to him or his actions would mean that there is a preferred outlook or state of being. If there’s a better option, that must mean he has learned something or improved his outlook in some way. Not possible.
What does this mean about our prayers? We don’t always pray for God to do things, but it is a big part of our interaction with him. In James 5, prayer is regarded as the thing that can heal people (James 5:15). Paul credits the prayers of the Corinthians as the reason he was saved from certain death (2nd Corinthians 1:11). When his disciples were having trouble casting out a demon, Jesus said it could only happen through prayer (Mark 9:29).
Do these things indicate that God has changed his mind? Though this may sound like a contradiction, based on these verses and much of Scripture that answer is obviously yes. Even if his previous course of action had been to not intervene in those situations, then by doing something in response to the prayers of his people he changed his course. The Exodus passage where Moses begs God to relent on punishing the nation of Israel for their rebellion by annihilating them is an example that sticks out, “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32:14, NIV)”
The word “relented” means that God ended up not doing what he had been considering. However, this Exodus passage isn’t claiming that God changed from a less righteous action to a better one in response to Moses, even though there can be no doubt that he altered his original course.
So it appears that the question about God changing his mind needs clarification. Can God change his mind without changing his nature? Does it make God less holy if he has several equally righteous actions to choose from and his decision is based on his interaction with the people that he holds dear?
I know I’ve been quoting Richard Foster a bit lately, but here goes again:
Through prayer we work to sort out what role we will play as secondary agents in God’s primary purposes. Prayer is not telling God what we think, or simply thanking him for his provision of food and drink. Rather it is our active, intentional effort to understand what God is doing and how we can join him. (Longing for God, Intervarsity Press, p. 97)
God’s plan of salvation for the world is as unchangeable as he is. But he allows us to partner with him in making it happen. In that Exodus story, if God would have destroyed the unfaithful Israelites that would have been right and good. His plan of salvation through the line of Abraham would have been carried out through the line of Moses. But the Almighty allowed Moses to play a role in a detail of the plan without changing his overall intention, and it gives us insight into the personality of God in the process.
You have the same ability! The Almighty actually listens to you. God is on the throne, and even though prayer cannot change a perfect and unchangeable King, he graciously allows you the privilege to get involved in his awesome plan.