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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 ...

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