This morning, I was posed with the question, “Can we change God’s mind when we pray?” Prayer has been a topic of thought and conversation over the past few months as I walked through the experience of almost losing my foster-daughter, Maria. Prayer has been a stabilizing force, a faith builder, and a source of hope and deepening trust in God. Did prayer cause God to act? Did it cause him to act differently than he was planning on doing? These questions raise a bigger issue. What is the purpose of prayer? Is it mainly for me or is it for God? Perhaps some time answering this will give me the right perspective and lead me to the answer of the first question.
My approach to pondering prayer is based on two non-negotiables. First, it comes down to the question, “Who is God, and is he good?” What do I know about God, and how do I know it? To answer that, I go directly to God’s Word. God revealed himself to Moses – this is perhaps the first self-declaration that God made about his character. Up to this point Moses only knew God as ‘I Am.’ While that says a lot about his sovereign and eternal power, it didn’t reveal his heart. Moses pleaded with God, “Show me your glory,” and God did by declaring this to him.
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Ex. 34:5-7, NIV)
Therefore, my first non-negotiable is that God is who he says he is, and he is good. David exemplifies this approach many times in the Psalms. He is brutally honest in his prayers, confessing doubts, heated anger, feelings of abandonment and even accusations that God is not hearing him. But he almost always begins and/or ends with a statement that grounds the prayer in the righteous character of God. In doing so, he finds truth and hope – he finds God. A good example is Psalm 73 where David laments the fact that often times the evil seems to win and the righteous lose. He begins with a statement of faith.
“Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. 2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.”
This is a confession paraphrased, “This is the way God is, but I nearly forgot because of what I was seeing and feeling.” After talking about his perception of things, he makes an important choice. He comes to the end of his understanding, and takes the problem to God himself.
“When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.”
How often do we arrogantly try to set ourselves and our understanding above God’s? I think of the proverb that declares, “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart, lean not on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5) When we lean on our own understanding is when things go south. For David, this resulted in oppression. And so it does for us. Therefore, I come to prayer humbly seeking God, trusting that he is good and faithful and loving.
This leads me to the second non-negotiable. God is sovereign. Psalm 33:4 says, “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” (Psa. 33:11-12, NIV) In the middle of Isaiah, God declares many wonderful and terrifying things about himself. Terrifying, that is, to our erroneous thinking that life is about us – our needs, control, comfort, safety, and understanding. This is what God to say:
“I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” (Is. 45:6-7, NIV)
Later on, we read,
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” (Is. 46:9-10, NIV)
How do I reconcile these statements of God’s sovereignty with intercessory prayer? The very word, intercede, implies that change is a possibility. Moses intervened on behalf of the Israelites when God threatened to kill them off and create a new people through Moses’ offspring. Now did God change his mind, or was he just testing Moses to see if he really knew Him? Moses’ response was to declare what God had previously revealed about himself.
“Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” (Num. 14:17-19, NIV)
It is interesting that Moses didn’t just argue against the action itself, but instead used God’s very own words stating that the action didn’t seem to be consistent with who God said he was and how he had acted accordingly in the past. Pleased with Moses’ response, God relented, but still chose a steep punishment by making them wander in the desert for 40 years. Moses also referred to God’s reputation and glory, and that leads me to my next discovery.
When looking to the Scriptures, and when I consider my own experience, prayer seems to be mainly for us – the dependent child crying out to his faithful Father. But in the bigger scope of things, it is all about God and him receiving the greatest glory. At this point I can certainly testify to what I know personally about prayer by coming through these last months with Maria. Did I think that my prayer and the prayers of hundreds of our family, friends and church family would change God’s mind? No, I was certain that God’s purposes for Maria had been set before she was ever conceived. God, because he is all-knowing knew exactly what action he was going to take. However, I do believe that prayer moves the hand of God simply because he wants to reveal his glory and in turn be glorified. The more we pray and the more we invite and receive the prayers of our loved ones, the more we are looking to God in unity for the answer, be it ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The wrong approach would be to sit around defeated because God is sovereign and will do what he whatever he wants. Passivity reveals a lack of faith and trust. For example, after much prayer for the situation, we began to receive advice from trusted friends that we should look into the law. While this brought about great fear, and the question as to whether or not this was ‘waiting in hope on the Lord,’ I decided to act upon that advice as if the advice itself was part of the answer to our prayers. Indeed it was, and I believe that Maria would not be with us today had we not stepped out in faith upon this answer to prayer. God receives the most glory when our faith is active. We pray, we wait, we hope, we receive wise counsel, we pray again, and then we move in faith asking God to redirect if we’re moving in error. Then we wait again. In our situation, we had our most turmoil during the week we pursued the law with research, phone calls, and appointments. Nothing apparently changed, and having done all we could, we waited and we continued to pray. Then the strangest thing happened. I was driving home about a week before the terrible transaction was to take place realizing that I had done all I could do and it didn’t look like the answer was going to be ‘yes,’ but I had peace. Peace that surpasses all understanding was guarding my heart and mind in Christ Jesus. I also had hope – not hope that it was going to turn out my way, but hope that God was faithful and was really with me and would remain with me even if I had to hand Maria over to her great-aunt. And I had joy, joy because at the end of my own resources I was discovering how wonderful it is to be totally dependent upon God, and dependent upon people who were bearing the burden with us, weeping with us, encouraging us and praying for us. I also had joy because I had never experienced this depth of intimacy before with God, with family and friends, and with Julie. She and I would often say, “These are good times,” even in light of the reality of loosing Maria. We never lost any sleep over the issue. We never lost faith that God could move in a miraculous way, just like he did when he spoke and the waves of the stormy sea were immediately stilled and all was calm. We never lost hope that God was good and that his way was the best way. I attribute all of this reality as answers to prayer and I proclaim praise to the Lord for it all.
I would like to end with a simple question. “Why did Jesus pray?” He was always setting out to a quiet place early in the morning to pray. He was, after all, God-in-the-flesh possessing all of the attributes of the Almighty, being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise. What did Jesus pray about? Perhaps he followed his own model of prayer giving God praise, asking to be in the center of his will, voicing his needs and perhaps frustrations, praying that the evil one would not triumph, and lifting the needs of his disciples and the lost multitudes before his Father. Only one of these prayers is recorded in the Scriptures. Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane just hours before the ordeal was about to go down, crying tears of blood and sweat as he contemplated the horror of the cross and separation from his Father as he bore the sins of the world. He was begging that God would work out salvation another way. Yet he ended with, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” I think the main reason he prayed, was because he was totally dependent upon his Father and submissive to his Father’s sovereign will. And that is why we pray. We don’t ultimately pray to get our way or to change God’s mind. We pray in order to draw closer to our Father in faith that he is good, and to submit to his will in our lives as the very best place to be. We pray because it gives God all the glory when he acts on our behalf.