Have you ever heard the old adage, “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes the one who prays”? Think about that statement for a moment. Is it true, and if so, what exactly does it mean?
I recently encountered a believer who was deeply troubled in their heart by a Sunday School teacher’s assertion that prayer is something we do because we are commanded to do it, but it doesn’t change the outcome of a situation. In other words, God’s will is God’s will, and our prayer has no influence.
I completely disagree with this theology.
The main problem is that it doesn’t take into account the foreknowledge (omniscience) of God. Because we live an earthly, temporal existence, we tend to think of God “reacting” to our prayers after the fact. But before the inception of the universe, God knew how every single detail of the lives of His free creatures would play out. This includes a complete knowledge of every prayer that would ever be uttered! With this knowledge, He was able to fabricate an entire universe with all of its circumstances throughout history customized to that knowledge, according to His will. Does this mean prayers change God? No. It means that because God is all-knowing and is a benevolent God, prayers are taken into account when it comes to His collective, eternal will. While His divine action occurs IN time, His will and His all-encompassing knowledge are INDEPENDENT of time.
Does this mean that when our requests are denied that we didn’t pray hard enough or long enough? Absolutely not. What it means is that God’s big-picture plan is ultimately superior to ours. I could give so many examples from my own life where (as Garth Brooks sang) “I thank God for unanswered prayers,” because I can look back months or years later and see how much better God’s plan was than any plan I could have devised. In fact, some things I’ve prayed for in the past would have had disastrous consequences had I actually received them, although I was ignorant of the fact at the time. It wasn’t that God didn’t answer my prayer; His answer was simply not what I wanted for myself based on my very limited perspective!
Now, what about praying for the salvation of an unbeliever? In the aforementioned Sunday School teacher’s view, praying for the salvation of an unbelieving relative would not have any influence on whether or not that relative ever placed their faith in Christ. Again, I strongly disagree (and as you can probably guess, I am not a Calvinist). I believe God arranges circumstances that encourage each human being to choose Him, and that these circumstances may be enhanced based on the prayers of concerned believers. What God does NOT do is interfere with FREE WILL. He knew from the beginning who would choose Him and who would not, but that DOES NOT mean that he hand-picked who He wanted to enter Heaven (He desires that ALL of us choose Him!), and it does not mean our prayers for the unsaved are pointless. God has sovereignly chosen to save all those who trust in Christ Jesus for salvation. Romans 10:13 is very clear that God saves WHOEVER calls on the name of the Lord in faith. Prayers for encouraging circumstances to surround the unbeliever are honored, but there is never direct manipulation of an individual.
Ultimately, that old adage is right. Does prayer change God? No. Are our prayers relevant to God’s will? Absolutely! Does prayer change us? There is no doubt about it.