“The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” - James 5:16(NLT)
Following the tragic death of a dear friend, I often felt speechless when I tried to pray—as though my heart and mind had shut down completely. For 8 months, I pleaded with my entire being for Him to heal my best friend. But He chose to call her home instead. In my grief, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my prayers were in vain.
When we pour out our hearts to God in earnest prayer but receive an outcome opposite of what we hoped for, we might wonder: Does prayer change God’s mind?
Disclaimer #1: Christians across the world dedicate their lives to questions of this nature and have yet to reach a consensus. While Christians agree that prayer has powerful effects, whether it changes God’s mind is debatable.
Disclaimer #2: Although it’s important to critically examine questions like this to arrive at Biblically-sound and educated beliefs, we can never fully know the mind of God. His ways are far more infinite than anything our human minds could possibly conceive:
“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” Romans 11:33 (NLT)
The Theological Debate
In Across the Spectrum by Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy, the authors compare differing viewpoints held within the spectrum of evangelical Christianity. During the authors’ debate of freewill, one argument suggests that throughout Scripture, “a great deal of what God does in the world is influenced by whether his people pray.”
In a subsequent chapter regarding the degree of God’s foreknowledge, a similar argument states:
“Scripture describes God’s character as unchanging (Mal 3:6), but it never teaches that God is unable to change in any respect (e.g., his intentions, experiences) … And it teaches that God sometimes chooses not to change his mind (Num 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Ezekiel 24:14; Zechariah 8:14) but never that he cannot change his mind.”
Most people agree God does not always change His mind in response to prayers.
But is it true that some prayers of God’s people in the Bible did influence His decisions?
A Look at Scripture
Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites repeatedly turned away from God and angered Him to the point that He threatened to destroy them. In desperation, Moses intervened on their behalf and pleaded with the Lord to withhold the destruction He had planned. Time and time again, God answered Moses’ prayers with mercy and chose not to bring about the destruction He had threatened.
For example, in Exodus 32 the Israelites created a golden calf and worshipped it in place of God. The Lord in his fury threatened to destroy His people (Exodus 32:10). Moses threw himself at God on behalf of the Israelites, pleading for Him to relent:
“Change your mind about this terrible disaster you have threatened against your people!” (Exodus 32:12 NLT).In his unfailing mercy, “the Lord changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14 NLT).
What would have happened if Moses had not turned to God in prayer?
“So he said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them” (Psalm 106:23 NIV).
Even the Psalms imply that if Moses had not pleaded for God’s mercy on their behalf, the Israelites would have been destroyed. But God in His faithfulness responded to Moses’ pleas and spared His people.
Like the Israelites, the people of Nineveh also experienced God relenting from His plan of destruction after they turned towards Him:
“When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.” Jonah 3:10 (NLT)
With both the Israelites and the Ninevites, God chose to spare them in response to human prayers and repentance. This decision on God’s part to act a certain way because people cried out to him is, I believe, a recurrent theme throughout the Bible.
Similar examples of God choosing to relent from His plans in response to the prayers and sufferings of people are seen in Numbers 11:1-2; Numbers 14:12-20; Numbers 16:20-35, Numbers 41-48; Deuteronomy 9:13-14, Deuteronomy 18-25; Judges 10:13-18, Judges 11:1-33; 2 Samuel 24:17-25; 1 Kings 21:27-29; 2 Kings 13:3-5; 2 Kings 21:27-29; and 1 Chronicles 21:15.
In both the Old and New Testaments, God responded in mighty ways to the prayers, petitions and needs of His people. He provided incredible military victories against impossible odds, sent rain in the midst of droughts, created food during times of famine, freed slaves from bondage, healed the sick, delivered people from demonic possession, and raised the dead back to life.
Had His people not cried out to Him in prayer, would the outcomes still have been the same?
The more I study the character and actions of God throughout the Bible, the more I believe it demonstrates that God changes His mind and plans in response to the prayers of His people as He sees fit.
Intimacy with God as the Highest Goal
We serve a God who cares deeply for His creation and longs desperately to be in relationship with each of us. Prayer is essential to that relationship, for it is the method by which we talk intimately with Him.
Dr. Gregory A. Boyd, in his book “Letters from a Skeptic,” explains it this way:
“It’s not that God needs our petitions to be informed or empowered to do anything…But because a loving relationship with Him is His highest agenda for us, He constructs the order of things such that a loving relationship with Him will be facilitated. And thus He ordains that some things will only be done through prayer.”
In other words, because God’s ultimate desire is for us to live in a loving relationship with Him, and because prayer is the means he created in order for that relationship to exist, God might very well determine that some things will only come to pass through prayer.
Ultimately, it’s not about God giving us what we want. It’s about communicating with our Creator and living intimately with Him.
When God Doesn’t Change His Mind
With all that said, however, we will experience times when God answers our prayers with a “no” for reasons beyond our understanding.
But in the words of Dr. Boyd, “…Far more important than knowing the mechanics of answered prayer is knowing that God’s on your side even when the prayer is unanswered."
Regardless of whether we believe prayer changes God’s mind, if we trust that God is sovereign and that His love always prevails in the end, we can trust that our prayers are not in vain and He is at work redeeming all things—even things that look like unanswered prayers in this life.
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Kimberly Carroll is a military spouse, mother of two, and graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. She has a heart for the weary and broken-hearted, holds tightly to her eternal hope in Christ, and wants nothing more than for her life to be an outpouring of God's never-ending love to those around her. On her blog, Kimberly discusses mental illness, grief and the importance of never giving up. Follow her blog at https://kims88.