Vol. 11 No. 6 June 2009
T. Pierce Brown
Since we continue to hear this question discussed, it seems fitting to write an article setting forth in more minute detail some of the prerequisites to answering that, or any other question, and some of the implications that are involved in the idea that prayer can change the mind of an unchanging God.
First, let me point out an important principle: Before any question can be answered intelligently, one must have an understanding of the meaning of the terms used in the question. Too often, preachers and writers try to answer questions before they determine what is being asked. If you were asked “Does x = y?” you would realize that other information must be forthcoming before you can answer properly. The same is true with the question under consideration.
The two terms that may have the most ambiguity in the question under consideration are “hear” and “sinner.” Note some of the possible meanings of each.
It should be evident to any discerning person that a simple answer of “yes” or “no” to the question at the heading of this article is not sufficient. Note some possible answers:
God does not hear4 the prayer of sinners 1, 3 (Proverbs 28:9, John 9:31). There is no promise in the Bible of which we know that God will hear4 the prayer of sinner2.
We could analyze in like fashion the question, “Is there any value in a sinner praying?” For about 35 years or more, I have preached about it like this: For what can a sinner legitimately pray? If he prays for light, then he should know, “The entrance of thy word giveth light” (Psalm 119:130). If he prays for sins to be removed, he should know Acts 22:16, “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins calling on the name of the Lord.” Most preachers of the Gospel, no doubt, have extended the list to provide at least 30 minutes of profound comments. I still preach that, but it has nothing to do with the answer to the question, “Is there any value in a sinner’s praying?” There may be no objective value, inasmuch as he is not promised light, salvation, etc. by praying for it. However, there still may be much subjective value in it. The attitude of prayer (whatever that is) and the act of prayer may do many things to the person who is doing it that will put him in a frame of mind to be receptive to God’s will. Furthermore, God has psychological laws relative to the psychosomatic effects of a person earnestly desiring things, which desire may be increased and clarified by prayer. The flow of adrenaline, and the release of other bodily fluids that have an effect on a person’s life and responses, are related to this.
Another question that has caused some difficulty is, “How can prayer change the mind of an unchanging God? Will God do, in answer to prayer, what He would not have done had the prayer not been made? If so, do we not have a picture of a puny, insignificant man changing the will of an omnipotent God? If not, why not?”
In the strictest sense, it is not a matter of God changing His mind, but of a changed set of circumstances or relationships that makes a relative change apparent. For example, God is always displeased with sin, and pleased with repentance. No prayer changes, or can change His mind or will about that, but prayer can change the relationship between the person and God, and when the circumstances are changed, God’s action will change. If we wanted to state it in a paradoxical way, we might say, “God changes toward man because He is unchanging!
To put it another way: God is always the same as regards character, basic attitudes, principles, etc., but this necessitates a change of relationship, feeling, attitude or response when a person or circumstance has changed. God can never fail to be loving and gracious, but He can also never fail to be just. So when the Bible says, “God repented” [as in the case of Nineveh, and a few other places], it refers to a change with regard to a relationship that had changed. When it says, “God cannot repent” it refers to the impossibility of a change in His nature.
It might be worth a great deal to all of us in our prayers if we could keep in mind that the primary purpose in prayer is not to change God, but to change us and our circumstances so that God, in His unchanging nature, can do for us what He always wants to do for us — bless us and make us happy and productive.