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Philip Yancey

Does Prayer Change God?

Probing a fathomless mystery.

—"I the Lord do not change." (Malachi 3:6)

—"My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused." (Hosea 11:8)

Those two statements, both recorded in the Bible as the words of God, frame a major theological dispute. I could marshal other verses that clearly present a changeless God, and balance that list with an even longer list of passages that show God changing his mind. Truth to tell, we want some of both: a trustworthy, dependable God we can count on and yet a God who allows himself to be affected by us. What we conclude about this issue may well determine how we view the utility—or futility—of prayer.

Origen was the first Christian writer known to mull over the paradox of praying to a God who does not change: "First, if God foreknows what will come to be and if it must happen, then prayer is in vain. Second, if everything happens according to God's will and if what He wills is fixed and no one of the things He wills can be changed, then prayer is in vain." Origen came down on the side of a changeless God, concluding that God from the "foundations of the world" could see in advance all that a person would freely choose, including the contents of their prayers.

Many philosophers followed along the same track, one laid down by Aristotle's notion of God as the "First Unmoved Mover." Immanuel Kant, for example, called it "an absurd and presumptuous delusion" to think that one person's prayer might deflect God from the plan of his wisdom.

Calvinism, with its emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God, likewise shifted the emphasis of prayer from its effect on God to its effect on the pray-er. As Matthew Henry put it, "It is true, nothing we can say can have any influence upon him, or move him to show us mercy, but it may have an influence upon ourselves, and help to put us into a frame fit to receive mercy." The devout Jonathan Edwards questioned whether petitionary prayer had any effect. He wrote, "God is sometimes represented as if he were moved and persuaded by the prayers of his people; yet it is not to be thought that God is properly moved or made willing by our prayers"; instead, God bestows mercy "as though he were prevailed upon by prayer."

As discoveries in science provided explanations for phenomena that people had always considered part of providence, modern sons and daughters of the Enlightenment saw less reason for prayer. The natural world became more predictable, apparently less subject to the whims of God or those who prayed to God. Thomas Hardy described God as "the dreaming, dark, dumb Thing that turns the handle of this idle Show." Kurt Vonnegut mocked the Serenity Prayer in his book Slaughterhouse-Five:


Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

Arguments by philosophers and cynical novelists alike, however, collide with the portrait of God in the Bible, that of a personal being who listens attentively to prayers and responds. Jesus gave flesh to that portrait, and the disciples took up praying right where Jesus left off, asking God for such things as physical healings, liberation from prison, and safety on missionary journeys. Paul interceded for churches constantly, and did not hesitate to make personal, specific requests.

The world's most famous prayer, the Lord's Prayer or "Our Father," Jesus gave spontaneously in answer to his disciples' request for teaching. Introducing it, Jesus acknowledged that God already knows our needs in advance of our prayers:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray.

For Jesus, God's sovereignty is no deterrent but a positive encouragement to pray. We do not have to work to gain God's attention through long words and ostentatious displays of religiosity. We don't have to convince God of our sincerity or our needs. We already have the Father's ear, as it were. God knows everything about us, and still God listens. We can get right to the point.

"Prayer holds together the shattered fragments of the creation. It makes history possible," wrote Jacques Ellul, a modern French philosopher who could not avoid the Bible's clear statements that God acts in history in response to prayer. Indeed, the great hopes of the Old Testament—Abraham's family, Joseph's ascendancy in Egypt, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the victories of Joshua and King David, deliverance from Assyria and Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple, the yearning for Messiah—all found fulfillment after God's people had cried out in prayer.

Throughout, the Bible depicts God as being deeply affected by his people. God "delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love." Yet, as the prophets tell, at times God feels loaded down with the nation's sins, wearied by disobedience. God's patience reaches an end point: "For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant."

The Bible does not hesitate to suggest that our prayers make a difference to God and to the world:

"Ask and it will be given to you."
"If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. … The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer.
You do not have, because you do not ask God.

Underscoring these lavish promises, the Bible tells of Elijah and Elisha and the apostle Peter praying for the resurrection of dead bodies; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth praying against their infertility; Daniel praying in a den of lions even as his three friends had prayed in the midst of fire. When God sent the prophet Isaiah, arguably the most God-connected person of his day, to announce to King Hezekiah his impending death, Hezekiah prayed for more time. Before Isaiah left the palace grounds, God changed his mind, granting Hezekiah fifteen more years of life.

As if in ironic proof of the power of prayer, three times God commanded Jeremiah to stop praying; God wanted no alteration in his plans for judgment of a rebellious nation. "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned," the prophet Jonah proclaimed to a heathen city; but "when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened." Four times, in fact, the Old Testament reports that God "relented" or "changed his mind" in response to a request, and each time forestalled a promised punishment. God was merely following through on a principle spelled out to Jeremiah: "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned."

Since no human being can comprehend the point of view of an infinite, timeless God interacting with a material, timebound planet, any attempt to reconcile the changeless God of the philosophers with the responsive God of the Bible falls short. Like a sudden flash of light in a dark room, such an attempt may yield insight, but not resolution.

The revivalist Charles Finney, who moved away from the strict Calvinism of his youth, grounded his confidence in prayer in God's unchanging character. "If you ask why he ever answers prayer at all, the answer must be, Because he is unchangeable." For example, a God of love and mercy bound by his unchangeable character must forgive a sinner who prays in repentance. God changes course in response to his creatures' change in course, and does so in a manner consistent with eternal qualities of goodness and mercy.

The contemporary theologian Clark Pinnock follows a similar line of logic. Because God's nature is love, he says, God must be impressionable and sympathetic: "Because God's love never changes, God's experience must change." Pinnock contrasts two models of God's sovereignty. We can picture God as an aloof monarch, removed from the details of the world, unchangeable, an irresistible power. Or we can picture God as a caring parent with qualities of love, generosity, and sensitivity, an infinite Being who personally interacts with and responds to those he has created. In that view, God considers prayers much as a wise parent might consider requests from a child.

Andrew Murray, himself a Calvinist, concluded that "God does indeed allow Himself to be decided by prayer to do what He otherwise would not have done." Murray points to the Trinity for an understanding of how God might change his mind. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have a kind of inner conversation going, showing that God invites debate and counsel. We have seen how Jesus on earth relied on prayer to commune with the Father and to make requests—some of which, notably, were not granted. Now Jesus, as our advocate, represents our interests within the godhead.

The apostle Paul implies that the Holy Spirit has an even more personal, intimate role in prayer: "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." In one of the few verses that mention all persons of the Trinity, Paul brings the three together: "For through him [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit."

C. S. Lewis seemed fascinated by the questions posed by prayer, especially how a sovereign God listens to and responds to our prayers. He explored the topic in several of his books and many of his essays and letters. Here is how he set the problem, in a skeptic's voice:

I don't think it at all likely that God requires the ill-informed (and contradictory) advice of us humans as to how to run the world. If He is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn't He know already what is best? And if He is all-good won't He do it whether we pray or not?

Lewis replied that you could use that same argument against any human activity, not just prayer. "Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they'll come clean without your washing them … Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything?" God could have arranged things so that our bodies nourished themselves miraculously without food, knowledge entered our brains without studying or teachers, umbrellas magically appeared to protect us from rainstorms. God chose a different style of governing the world, however, one which relies on human agency and choice.

The skeptic, then, is objecting not just to prayer but to the basic rules of creation. God made space, in the process granting the favored human species the "dignity of causation" (Pascal's phrase). God created matter in such a way that we can manipulate it, by cutting down trees to build houses and damming rivers to form reservoirs. He granted such an expanse of human freedom that we can oppress each other, rebel against our Creator, even murder God's own Son. When Jesus walked the earth he "could not do any miracles" in his home town because of the residents' lack of faith, an example of God's power disabled by unbelief.

Lewis suggests that we best imagine the world not as a state governed by a potentate but as a work of art, something like a play, in the process of being created. The playwright allows his characters to affect the play itself, then incorporates all their actions into the final result. Lewis explains, "For God forgives sins. He would not do so if we committed none … In that sense the Divine action is consequent upon, conditioned by, elicited by, our behavior." And if God takes our sins into account, why not our prayers?

Lewis sums up the drama of human history as one "in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise. It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method." Prayer is a designated instrument of God's power, as real and as "natural" as the power of gravitation or electromagnetic force.

That God "relies on" prayer (if I may use such language) to accomplish his work seems, in this view, no stranger than any other actions God uses. Go into all nations and preach the Gospel, Jesus told his disciples, thus launching the missionary movement with its harrowing history; would not a large banner in the sky have served God's purpose just as well? Heal the sick, visit the prisoners, feed the hungry, house the strangers—Jesus also commanded these activities, delegating them into our hands rather than enlarging his own Galilean ministry to a global scale. Consistently, God seems to choose the course of action in which human beings can contribute most, and which the potential for abuse of freedom makes most perilous.

Karl Barth, the 20th-century theologian who pounded home the theme of God's sovereignty, saw no contradiction at all in a God who chooses to let prayers affect him. "He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God's action, even upon his existence. That is what the word 'answer' means." Barth continues, "The fact that God yields to man's petitions, changing his intentions in response to man's prayer, is not a sign of weakness. He himself, in the glory of his majesty and power, has so willed it."

I envy, truly I envy, those people who pray in simple faith without worrying about how prayer works and how God governs this planet. Alas, for some reason I cannot avoid pondering these imponderables. At the same time, a little reading in modern physics and cosmology has convinced me that creatures bound by time and space may never gain more than an inkling of the rule upholding the universe.

Long ago Saint Augustine marveled over the mystery of time: a past that has ceased to exist, a future that does not yet exist, and a present that has no duration. Physicist Stephen Hawking cites with approval Augustine's notion that any God must exist outside of time. We humans are confined to a space-time universe that began at a moment of time, but God is not. In talking about God, we really need a tense-less language: something like "Jesus born" conveys reality more accurately than "Jesus will be born" or "Jesus was born," because from eternity's vantage the event in Bethlehem was perceived before the foundations of the world and its effects carry forward forever.

To muddle matters even further, experiments on relativity have proved that, strange as it seems, time itself is no constant. The more a person's speed approaches the speed of light, the more time "slows down" for that person, so that an astronaut launched at high speed into space will return measurably younger than her twin brother left at home. Cosmologists seriously speculate about a reverse arrow of time that might allow us to travel backwards in time; popular movies like The Time Machine and Back to the Future depict adventures the traveler might encounter, tempted to change the details of history even before they occur.

How does God's timelessness affect prayer? C. S. Lewis decided it altogether reasonable to pray at noon for an event, such as a medical consultation, that might have been decided at ten o'clock, as long as we do not know the final result before we pray. "The event certainly has been decided—in a sense it was decided 'before all worlds.' But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering." Lewis adds that such a notion would be less shocking to some scientists than to popular thought.

To take another example, older models of physics established a clear trail of cause and effect. One billiard ball strikes another, energy gets transferred, and both balls move along a predictable and determined path. New models, though, deal with complexity theory and information theory. In an organized system—such as a single cell in the human body, much less an entire body, much less a community comprising many persons all of whom exercise free will—simple rules of cause-and-effect do not apply. Each level of consciousness, from matter to mind to many minds, introduces staggering new levels of complexity. We need a model far more sophisticated and, yes, mysterious, than anything Isaac Newton might have dreamed up to figure out why things happen.

Scientists insist that measuring the spin of one particle may affect the spin of another particle billions of miles away. Some even suggest, in a theory called the Butterfly Effect, that the flapping of a single insect's wings may contribute to the great causal chain that eventuates in a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico or a tornado in Texas. Who can say with confidence what caused any individual event, in nature or in a human being? If a teenager decides to get drunk one weekend, what role did genes, brain chemistry, parental nurturing, and stubborn free will play in the decision? Scientific journals reprise the old debates about Calvinistic determinism, but this time with awareness of the odds against pinning down any ultimate cause.

Increasingly, the conversations of modern cosmologists bring to mind arcane discussions from the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, in an attempt to reconcile sovereignty and free will, the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina proposed a "middle knowledge" possessed by God: the ability to project in advance what every possible creature would do as well as how those free choices might affect each possible world. Stephen Hawking and several Nobel laureates endorse a many-worlds theory in which any choice I make may have an effect in some alternate universe, although I only perceive the one present to my consciousness.

Scientists and theologians alike can safely say that at one level the universe runs by faithful, consistent laws. The sun always appears first in the east, low pressure systems bring storms, species give birth to their own kind, the planets follow dependable orbits. Because of its very predictability, the world allows us to manipulate it. We plant corn in Iowa, not Saudi Arabia. We store water in raised towers, so that in houses water will in effect run uphill. We monitor fetal health as the time for birth approaches. We design airplane wings and engines strong enough to lift the plane's weight skyward. Yet every one of those activities introduces the potential of error. Sometimes drought dries up reservoirs and parches corn even in Iowa. Sometimes, despite the best care, babies die in childbirth. Sometimes planes crash for no easily discernible reason.

What "caused" the hurricanes that ravaged Florida in 2004? What role does God play in natural events like weather anomalies and birth defects? Does prayer ever influence those events? Why must people suffer natural calamities? Why are pain and pleasure distributed so randomly, and unfairly? When the Old Testament character Job posed his anguished, personal version of such questions, God erupted with a science lesson of his own. Poor Job repented in dust and ashes, shamed into silence by his ignorance in the face of God's own "complexity theory."

At various times, according to the biblical record, God did indeed play a direct role in manipulating natural events: causing a drought or a plague of locusts, reversing the course of disease and disability, even restoring life to a corpse. Apart from these rare events called miracles, however, the Bible emphasizes an ongoing providence, of God's will being done through the common course of nature and ordinary human activity: rain falling and seeds sprouting, farmers planting and harvesting, the strong caring for the weak, the bountiful giving to the needy, the healthy ministering to the sick. Theologians tend to place the activity of God in a different category from natural or human activity; the Bible tends to draw them together.

Prayer, especially, brings together Creator and creature, eternity and time, in all the fathomless mystery implied by that convergence. I can view prayer as a way of asking a timeless God to intervene more directly in our time-bound life on earth. (Indeed, I do so all the time, praying for the sick, for the victims of tragedy, for the safety of the persecuted church.) In a process I am only learning, I can also view prayer from the other direction, as a way of entering into the rhythms of eternity and aligning myself with God's point of view, a way to desire while on earth what God has willed for all eternity, to harmonize my own purposes with the purposes of God. In prayer I ask for and gradually gain confidence in God's justice and mercy and holiness, despite contemporary events that might call those traits into question. I immerse myself in the changeless qualities of God, and then return to do my part in acting out those qualities on earth: "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

So many times I turn to prayer feeling besieged. The latest news from CNN has reminded me of poverty and injustice, of human cruelty and terrorism and nuclear threats and a hundred things that cause anxiety. Awareness of disturbed creation spirals inward as I think of family, friends, and neighbors, so many of them battling illness, divorce, financial burdens, children in trouble. To my shame, petty interruptions in my own life often crowd out these concerns: a balky computer, a series of car and home repairs, a to-do list that never gets done. I confess to God my sins, and realize they are the same sins I confessed yesterday, and last week, and the week before. Will nothing ever change? Will I never?

Go into your closet and shut the door, Jesus advised, and I envision doing just that, entering a closet with my pressing, time-bound burdens, and asking God to renew, to refresh, to remind, to pour some eternity into me. I try to get my mind off myself, to empty it. I think of Mother Teresa's nuns kneeling in their chapel long before daybreak, asking for the energy and the purity to go forth that day and help Calcutta's destitute toward a merciful death. I think of hospice chaplains and Army chaplains and so many of God's servants who daily face mountains before which my own concerns shrink into molehills. I think of Jesus himself, facing the darkest day in human history, pausing to pray the longest prayer recorded in the Gospels, the prayer of John 17.

The image of Jesus huddled in a locked room with a dozen friends, one of them a traitor, while outside temple guards and Roman legionnaires buckle on their swords and whips and torture devices, preparing for another dreary night's work, stands as a kind of tableau of human history. A hushed moment of calm, a heartfelt prayer, a quiet connection with eternity, while just outside invisible forces mobilize in opposition.

Anticipating his departure, Jesus prayed to the Father for his disciples: "I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world … they are not of the world any more than I am of the world." Emphasizing the point, he repeats himself: "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it." He, too, must have seen the group gathered around the table as a tableau, a preview of the conflict he was setting loose in the world.

For 33 years Jesus had stripped himself of the prerogatives of God, including omniscience and a timeless point of view that sees all history in a flash. He once admitted he did not know the time of final judgment and healing of the earth, though the Father did. In this prayer, however, he enters into communion with the Father, recalling for a moment the stunning reality of his life in eternity before surrendering himself one more time as a victim on this violent planet.

"And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began," Jesus prays. He is reminiscing about life before planet Earth, eternity before time. In this lengthy, luminous prayer he gives the answer to the ultimate "Why?" questions. Why creation? Why free will? Why human history and the onslaught of time? From the beginning, before the beginning, God willed to share with other creatures the love and fellowship—the life—enjoyed in the godhead before creation, now, and forever.

In a few other places the New Testament gives hints of God choosing us "before the creation of the world." God's grace, claims Paul, "was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time," with Jesus "chosen before the creation of the world but revealed in these last times for your sake." Our eternal life was promised "before the beginning of time." Thus the essentials of theology—God's love, election, grace, atonement, resurrection—the Bible specifically grounds outside of time and creation. Long before Einstein's theory of the relativity of time and space, long before any notion of a Big Bang origin of the universe, the New Testament writers established these truths as, quite literally, timeless.

Our sun, now middle-aged, will burn itself out in four or five billion years. Eventually the universe itself may collapse. Yet in the words of the Creator we have assurance that we will join him, and see his glory, and share in it for eternity. The universe is not such a sad, lonely place after all, for God's love extends beyond time.

Of all the things Jesus said that night in the secret room in the warrens of Jerusalem, one must have puzzled the disciples more than any. Jesus knew the melancholy effect of his words about impending death. "Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief," he observed. Then, as if to cheer up the disciples, he added, "But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away."

Those words, I admit, puzzle me as well. I cannot help thinking of all the ways God could have accomplished his will in the world: by providing supplies of manna for each person to solve the world's hunger; by eradicating each new strain of virus and bacteria as it mutates into dangerous form; by closing in the margins of human freedom to eliminate tyrants like Hitler and Pol Pot. Instead, God sent his Son to live in a remote corner of the earth for a few years. He delivered in person the message he wanted to convey, and then he left, claiming it to be somehow for our good.

Why prayer? Of all the means God could have used, prayer seems the weakest, slipperiest, and easiest to ignore. So it is, unless Jesus was right in that most baffling claim. He went away for our sakes, as a form of power-sharing, to invite us into direct communion with God and into the struggle against the forces of evil.

Why pray? Richard Foster gives the simple, straightforward answer that God likes to be asked. God certainly does not need our wisdom or our knowledge, nor even the information contained in our prayers ("your Father knows what you need before you ask him"). God is love, said the apostle John. God does not merely have love, or feel love. God is love, and cannot not love. As such, God desires relationship with the creatures made in his image. "That God's will is the possible makes me able to pray; if there is nothing but necessity, man is essentially as inarticulate as the animals," said Kierkegaard. Unlike the animals, we are not inarticulate. We can pray.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God," Paul instructs. The King James Version speaks of "making known" our requests. How can we make known a request to a God who already knows? Relationship is the key. Occasionally in the mail I get a request for help from a stranger, often a prisoner or someone in a foreign country. Sometimes I give in response, sometimes I check the facts with a local person, sometimes I refrain from getting involved in fear of encouraging a flood of similar requests. When my neighbor has a need though, or my nephew or someone known to me, I do everything I can to meet the need. Relationship ups the urgency of any information—the difference between watching news about a tragedy overseas and watching the news when your son or your daughter is there.

As C. S. Lewis reminds us, confessing sins before God tells God something God already knows better than we do. Yet somehow the act of confession, and forgiveness, binds the relationship and allows a communion that could not otherwise exist. The same intimacy happens when (all too rarely) I apologize to my wife for something we both know about; I do not bring her information, I bring her my heart, my humbled self.

By using prayer rather than other, more direct means, God once again chooses the most freedom-enhancing style of acting in the world. God waits to be asked, in some mysterious way making God's activity on earth contingent on us. Does the kingdom advance slower because of that choice? Lewis writes,

For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication.

Lewis adds in another book, "Creation seems to be delegation through and through. He will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures. I suppose this is because He is a giver."

Yes, in the same way parents slow their pace when the youngest child is learning to walk. Their mission is to equip someone else, not themselves.

"It is for your good that I am going away," Jesus insisted. Do we believe him?

Philip Yancey is the author most recently of Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing? (Zondervan). This essay is from a forthcoming book on prayer, to be published by Zondervan in 2006.

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