Can Prayer Change God’s Mind?

This question was put to me recently: can you pray hard enough to change God’s plan? I think this is a very probative and important question. Let me explore it.

I begin by noting that there are several SIMILAR questions to the one above which focus around the same puzzle. Here is one example – if God loves other people perfectly, say, like, the homeless person on the street, won’t he take care of them regardless of if I help them or not? Or here is another – if everything that happens is a part of God’s plan, won’t he achieve whatever means he is after regardless of what I do? If God INTENDS the homeless man to be fed, won’t he get fed anyway?

The kernel of these questions is essentially this. If God already has the game in hand, what’s the point in our playing? If he is going to arrive at checkmate NO MATTER WHAT, then how do our moves really matter?

The first thing to notice about this question is this. It assumes a kind of competitive relationship between God and the world. It assumes, for example, that we and God are existing alongside each other and that he is coming along behind us and reacting to what we do. If we fail to feed the homeless man and God still intends the man to eat, then God can influence the next passerby, perhaps irresistibly, to offer him dinner. And in the very last resort, since God can perform miracles, he could (if he wanted) simply miraculously provide the homeless man food. He could send an angel who appeared as a human or could simply create a subway sandwich out of nothing and have it lying in the homeless man’s path on his way to the park.

But if God is outside of time in some higher dimension that CONTAINS all moments of time, this picture of God and the world is misleading. Rather than there being an us-verses-God situation, or a situation in which we exist over and against God as two people do or two physical objects, we have a more difficult and mysterious situation. The reality is that God is always, everywhere, at all times working in and through all created people and things. He is not OVER and AGAINST creation, rather IN him creation “lives, moves, and has its being.” So there is really no such thing as God constantly TINKERING with what is going on in the world in order to achieve his plan. He is not sitting back and deciding moment to moment whether or not to answer a particular prayer. Rather, since he exists in all times “at once” (in some higher mode we cannot imagine), he eternally grants (or refuses) some prayer he sees at time 1 in order to bring about some good he sees at time 2.

So the question of us “changing” God’s mind really assumes that our prayers are reaching God as he is moving along the timeline with us. On this view God is sort of like a human parent who is trying to raise his children into good people. He has a particular, predetermined end in view. Say for instance he wants to teach his child bravery and independence. So too that he sends the child off to a week at camp by himself. But suppose the child, on arriving at camp, is very scared. Suppose he is so upset that he calls home and begs and cries that daddy will come get him. Now the question is, does God “change” his plan in order to accommodate for the child’s action?

Here is what I want to say. I do not think God “changes” his plan. That would imply that God’s mind changes, or that God doesn’t know what is best for us from moment to moment. In fact it would make God just as clueless as we are in how best to providentially govern the world. But even though I do not think God’s plan changes I do think God’s plan TAKES INTO ACCOUNT these very free actions that we do. God’s plan always eternally involves the child’s cries at camp and our prayers of request. Since he is outside of time he does not have to “wait and see” what we will do. He is always seeing it and always responding.

I think of it like this. God’s plan already includes all free choices. It takes into account all the actions of creatures and in doing so permits some and stops others. If I imagine all of time as a line, and God as the page on which it is drawn, then it seems reasonable to me to say that God allows certain things at earlier points in the line because of goods he will bring about at later points in the line. He allows, say, the child at camp to suffer from homesickness because he sees that after going through this experience it will make him a stronger person. Indeed he sees how it is this very experience – this apparently minor triumph of the pre-teenage life – that the child, now a man, summons up for courage later in life when he asks the woman who will be his wife to marry him.

When I say she “will be” his wife I am not, by the way, implying that the man is unfree in his asking, or that he was “pre-determined” from some outside source “beforehand” to do so. On this view the only reason it is true that he “will” ask is because, in the future (and from God’s eternal perspective) he IS asking. I know it sounds really weird to say that the future in some sense already exists in some higher dimension, but one can come up with that explanation from plain physics without invoking a theory of GOD at all.

Now of course the imagination will come up with all sorts of “what if” questions regarding God’s eternal plan and our free actions. If I had not have prayed at time 1, would it still have been the case that such and such occurred at time 2? If, for example, the granddaughter had not prayed for her sick grandmother, would she have died from cancer rather than recover? One need not here even invoke prayer. Any simple physical act will do – if I had not woke up late for work, would I have still have spilled coffee on my pants? These questions, while fun to think about, are I think ultimately helpless for us in answering any deep question about how we relate to God. For one, we are never told any answer to any “what if.” What if sin never existed, or if the elements of the universe were entirely different, or if God had become incarnate in a man born in 5000 AD? We simply don’t know and cannot ever know, aside from divine revelation. And secondly, it may well be that “what if” questions are downright meaningless. After all, what possible state of affairs could you ever point to to answer your question? Are not all such state of affairs NON-EXISTENT? There is no universe in which God has willed to prevent sin from entering (though there may be planets and galaxies and so on without sin – “universe” simply means “the whole thing God has made.”) So how could you have any true knowledge of what WOULD happen since such a place in no sense exists to be known?

Anyway, to sum up, here is what I’ll say. I believe that i) God’s eternal plan takes into account all our free acts and perfectly adapts to them; ii) God is able to do this because he is outside of time in some BIGGER mode of reality than ours and so not fully comprehensible to us; nevertheless this mode allows him to work IN and THROUGH all smaller modes (i.e. times) “at once”; and iii) “what if” questions are necessarily speculative and cannot give us any real answers.

Now all that may be wrong, but I think it is at least the beginnings of a POSSIBLE answer to the question of “Can prayer change God’s mind?”

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