Can prayer change God's will?

Ask a Pastor
02/25/2013

Can prayer change God's will?

Can prayer change God's will? -- From Linda, a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Mesquite, Texas


Anne: Dear Linda, I was drawn to your question because it's come up in my life, too, and I've never found a completely satisfying answer. So, while I can't promise a satisfying answer, I'll share some thoughts and resources that have helped me through times when I've wondered what impact my prayers were having on God.

There are some stories in the Bible where it seems like prayer changes God's plan. My favorites are conversations between God and Moses during the wilderness wanderings: check out Exodus 33:12-23, Numbers 11:10-23 and Numbers 14:13-25. Moses advocates for the people of God and appeals to God's mercy when punishment seems immanent. When I read these passages, I believe that God was engaging in a genuine back-and-forth, a real conversation that had an impact on Moses, on God's people, and on God.

God says to Moses: "I will do the very thing that you have asked" (Exodus 33:17). We don't usually get such direct feedback from God when we pray. We do know that God wants us to pray: persistently, unceasingly, and boldly asking for what we really want (Luke 18:1-8, for just a quick example). Prayer must be more than just a game for God and more than a futile exercise for us.

When loved ones are sick or dying, or when life takes a desperate turn, the idea of "God's will" can be a comfort or a burden, and prayer can seem powerful or completely pointless. If you're going through a difficult time and still looking for resources, there are two I can't recommend enough. The first is William Sloane Coffin's eulogy for his son, Alex, who died at 24 after a car crash. You can find it online. The other is a wonderful book, "When God Doesn't Answer Your Prayer" by Jerry Sittser. Drawing on his own experience of tragic loss, Jerry delves into all kinds of difficult questions about prayer with profound honesty. No satisfying answers, but thoughts that will shape your understanding of and relationship with God, and maybe offer some healing, too. 

Monica: Dear Linda, you ask a deep question and I am sure that my answer will not be sufficient. My heart immediately turns to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. A deeply disturbed Jesus prayed for God's will to be fulfilled. It's not what Jesus wanted but he trusted his Father. The darkness of the world moved Jesus to the cross. But then, the unimaginable happened, death is swallowed up by God's love. God's will for humanity and all of creation is always life; renewing and restoring life on earth and the promise of life eternal. In our earthly life we may experience grief, pain, suffering, illness, isolation, depression, hopelessness, desperate situations, violence, etc. These experiences are not God's will nor are they punishment for sin. Like Jesus we can cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" God hears our prayer. May God assure us that we do not walk alone through the valley of the shadow, but that Christ's light is leading us into life. 

Ron: Prayer at its most basic form is conversation. Good conversation has two parts to it: speaking and listening. I think of Jesus praying at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:42):

"Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done."

Clearly Jesus was making a request for something to happen, but at the same time he was also praying to be in "alignment" with God's will and plan for the world.

I also think of Abraham who in "conversation" or prayer with God negotiated with God in Genesis 19 in regard to what God was going to do at Sodom and Gomorrah. Additionally, Moses in Exodus 32:11-14 "implored" God to forgive the people and the text tells us "God changed his mind." Another part of the equation that this excellent question raises is the whole idea of discernment. I love the following passage from Romans 12:2.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect."

Prayer is that place and space where we talk to God and listen to God so that we might have our will changed as well. 

David: Linda, What a wonderful question!

Many of us were taught, or absorbed at some point, the idea that we shouldn't argue with God. But the God of the Bible seems to encourage us to engage, to argue, to discuss. One of my favorite stories in the Bible centers on this sort of relationship with God. While Moses is talking with God on top of Mount Sinai, the Israelites build a golden calf and worship. God decides to destroy the Israelites, but Moses argues with God. And, as a result of Moses' arguing with God, "the Lord changed his mind" (Exodus 32:14).

To be in a relationship with a person is to change in response to them. Indeed, this is what it means to pray that God will be merciful -- to show mercy is to change from anger to forgiveness, to change from punishment to love. Every time we pray for God's mercy or God's forgiveness, we are asking God to change.

And, at least insofar as God has been revealed to us, it does appear that God changes. Just as loving your child changes a parent, just as loving a spouse changes a person, loving us changes God.


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You might also want to read:
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When you haven't got a prayer
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