Does Prayer Change God’s Will?

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.

16 thoughts on “Does Prayer Change God’s Will?

  1. Because of exposure to Reformed theology, many tend to read Romans 9 as Paul narrowing down the scope of God’s election to a small selection, and those who aren’t “chosen” can’t complain if God in His sovereignty doesn’t select them. I think this is an erroneous reading of the chapter, because it doesn’t jive with the actual context of Paul’s letter. The issue Paul is dealing with is the question of how God’s chosen people, Jews, could fail to obtain salvation while the “unclean” Gentiles could obtain it. Paul’s answer is that God is sovereign and can save who He wants to save–and Paul then specifies that God saves all those who call upon him in faith, be they Jew OR Gentile. So, rather than narrowing the scope of election, Paul is actually broadening it beyond ethnic boundaries.

  2. That sounds like W. L. Craig’s argument. I was sitting in the audience when he gave that argument at a conference. However, a Reformed position does not require a small number of saved people. Some Reformed Christians would place the number quite high. A Reformed Christian would also agree that God saves all who genuinely believe and trust in Him via Christ. Reformed and Arminian Christians disagree, however, on the respective involvement of God and man. In Romans Paul does include both Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant, but I would still argue that a Reformed interpretation of Rom. 9 still fits the flow of thought from the preceding context, but that is a full discussion in itself. Anyway, I was just curious. I am not trying to start an argument about this issue. I have seen people on both sides of this debate act like jerks, and that is not helpful. Just so I am clear, I am not implicating you in that last sentence. You were very polite. 🙂

  3. If I had to choose one area, it would be scientific apologetics, because that’s my education and career background. I’m working on a specialized apologetics degree right now, a Master’s in Science and Religion. It encompasses the philosophy of science, cosmology, biology, theology, and apologetics.

    I also love studying the defense of New Testament historicity and reliability. I can’t wait to have time to read Michael Licona’s new book.

  4. I wrote my dissertation on Mormon soteriology, but lately I have focused more on atheism and worldview issues. I recently posted two responses to “The Grand Design” by Hawking and Mlodinow.

    1. http://thoughtsonapologetics.blogspot.com/2010/10/grand-design-and-free-will.html

      http://thoughtsonapologetics.blogspot.com/2010/11/god-vs-science-in-grand-design.html

      I suspect many responses to “The Grand Design” will focus on first cause arguments. While that can be helpful, I think it is a secondary issue. The presuppositions which a person brings to this issue are more fundamental because they affect how a person will evaluate all evidence and all arguments, and they relate to the very basis on which a person even attempts his argument. Ultimately only a biblical worldview can make sense of reality (Ps. 19, Prov.1:7, Acts 17, Rom.1).

  5. I just found this blog and I’ll most likely continue to visit. I am a Calvinist (a 5 pointer actually!) and while I, like you, don’t think our prayers change God’s will in any way, I do think our prayers are used to bring about His will, if that is the method He chooses.

    I also think we can pray for God to regenerate the hearts of unbelievers. I think I would give that Sunday School teacher the label “Hyper-Calvinist.” Often times, people use the world Calvinist when it should be Hyper/Extreme-Calvinist.

    1. Thanks for visiting and for your comments, Seth. I agree with your sentiments about “hyper-Calvinism.” While I am not a Calvinist, I really appreciate Greg Koukl’s perspective on Reformed theology (he’s a self-described 5-pointer).

  6. I just found your blog from a post by Holly Ordway over at Tom Gilson’s Thinking Christian blog. I’m thankful to have found your blog and enjoy your thought-provoking articles.

    If I may, I’d like to point out something in your article here that I think goes to what Seth was saying. You write “Does this mean that when our requests are denied that we didn’t pray hard enough or long enough? Absolutely not.” “Absolutely” is very definitive. I’m not sure the Bible is that definitive. There are examples in scripture that persistence in prayer results in the act of God hearing and acting on them. I think it’s in Daniel that mentions that there are “principalities and powers” that are petitioning God against us to not answer our prayers or cause circumstances around us to change. Job is another example of this. Unless I’m mistaken, persistence in prayer SOMETIMES allowed for the answering of prayer.

    1. Hi Craig, thanks for your comments and for visiting my blog! I understand your point here. I should have been a bit more specific about what I was getting at with “answered prayer.” I’m totally with you on the persistence in prayer concept. I would say that because of God’s foreknowledge of our prayer activity, all answers to prayer are pre-ordained, whether the answer is “yes,” “no,” or “not yet.” Bottom line is, whatever God’s answer is to any petition we make, He is sovereign and always acts in perfect love towards his children. In other words, he has our best interest at heart.

  7. I would agree with your understanding of prayer. I had a pastor who explained it in this way. Through prayer, God allows us to participate in his plan.

    (BTW, I also come here through Thinking Christian. Nice to find this site.)

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