“If God knows everything, does he really need our prayers? Do they have any effect? Do they in any way change his mind?"
These are questions I think every Christian has asked at some point (and probably many non-Christians as well!). And they are in fact very logical and valid questions to ask.
If there exists and omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God who is totally sovereign over all things, why does it matter whether or not we pray to him? Isn’t his will going to occur regardless? Doesn’t he already know what we need before we ask it? And if that’s the case, why do we even need to ask?
Such questions are exacerbated by places in Scripture where God is said to actually capitulate to people’s prayers and even “change his mind” or “repent from” or "be sorry for" doing things that he previously said he would do!
Here is the most foundational example in all of Scripture…and one that raises questions the above questions in the minds of many, many readers:
"The LORD spoke to Moses: "Go down at once! For your people you brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly.They have quickly turned from the way I commanded them; they have made for themselves an image of a calf. They have bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and said, 'Israel, this is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.'"
The LORD also said to Moses: "I have seen this people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone, so that My anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation."
But Moses interceded with the LORD his God: "LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people You brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'He brought them out with an evil intent to kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from Your great anger and change Your mind about this disaster planned for Your people.
Remember that You swore to Your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel by Yourself and declared to them, 'I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever.'"
So the LORD changed His mind about the disaster He said He would bring on His people."
(Exodus 32:7-14 HCSB)
After reading such a passage, a number of questions likely hang heavy in the minds of the theologically-astute reader:
If the omniscient sovereign God had already determined to act in such a way, why did Moses’ prayer of intercession lead God to “change his mind”? Doesn’t God know more than Moses?
Questions like these often assume a number of things which come from philosophical/theological assumptions that people bring to the text.
Most readers have an idea of what any true God “should” act like…and then they evaluate Scripture in light of this idea.
Therefore, when we come to passages like this which seem to not fit with our preconceived understanding of divinity, there is a tendency to try to get around what the text is actually saying, or reinterpret it in a way that is more easily understood and fits better with our particular systematic or theological tradition.
So, in this case of Moses 'changing God's mind', one might hear the following explanation:
“Well, God didn’t REALLY change his mind; this is just a figure of speech used to help anthropomorphize God so that humans can better relate. In actuality, nothing about God REALLY ‘changes’ because, being God, he is by definition ‘perfect’…and perfection does not allow for any change.”
(The notion that God does not change in any true manner is known as the Doctrine of Divine Immutability or Divine Impassibility and has been popular among scholastic theologians since the middle ages).
Such a response would likely be followed by an appeal to passages like:
"God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind. Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill?" (Numbers 23:19)
“Furthermore, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind, for He is not man who changes his mind." (1Samuel 15:29)
The problem with such a response is twofold:
1) Scripture itself never presents God’s nature in such axiomatic or formulaic ways
2) the 1Samuel passage concludes by explicitly stating that "the LORD regretted He had made Saul king over Israel" (1Sam. 15:35)! If God doesn’t ever change, how can he experience “regret”??
There are many ways Jews and Christians have attempted to solve this seeming-dilemma and iron out all the wrinkles such passages create in their theological systems (and of course a full discussion of such attempts is FAR beyond the scope of the present article!).
But I can’t help think that God has authored Scripture in such a way that just when we think we have all our theological ducks in a row, we come across a passage that seems to throw something out of whack. In fact, I believe this is intentional on God’s part.
ANY attempt at systematically presenting the very nature of God and his various dealings with humanity throughout history will ALWAYS end up distorting some aspect of God’s character.
God cannot be reduced to a formulaic presentation. God can’t be confined to any of our theological boxes, no matter how well-constructed they may be or how many councils and confessions have led to them. The God of Scripture is not a philosophical idea we can wrap our minds around.
He is PERSONAL.
He is UNPREDICTABLE.
He is RELATIONAL.
And of course, as Mr. Beaver said to Lucy in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” about Aslan (the Christ figure), while he’s definitely not 'safe'… "HE IS GOOD."
And it seems this good God has chosen to create a world in which he GENUINELY responds to the persons he has created.
He is not an impassionate, distant deity who has an unalterable, mechanistic blueprint of human history that has been decreed from all eternity apart from any input from his creation (though there are indeed many things that he HAS decreed from all eternity, according to what we see in Scripture).
Rather, he is a God of relationship. A God who instilled the capacity for personal interaction and genuinely free moral agency into creation from the very beginning—while somehow, in some way that is far beyond our ability to fathom—still retaining ultimate sovereignty over this creation so that his ultimate desire for it will indeed come to fruition…in spite of, or rather THROUGH, the decisions and actions of those he has created in His image and likeness (Make sure to allow the previous sentence to fully sink in, as it represents one of the most profound truths in all of theology, I believe!).
So does God “need” our prayers?
That is like asking whether a husband “needs” his wife to converse with him.
Or whether a parent “needs” their child to talk to them.
These are specific images that God uses throughout Scripture to describe his relationship to His people…and I don’t believe that is any accident.
Prayer is relational. We often confuse it with petition.
And while it can include petition (which Jesus specifically encourages us to include—“give us this day our daily bread”), it is so much more.
It is communion. It is sharing. It is opening one’s heart, soul and mind to the Spirit of God and allowing him to shape us…while believing that in some way, some utterly inexplicable way, God allows our relationship to play a part in determining how he will relate and respond to his creation.
The temptation will always be to theologize the concept of prayer to the point where we end up not doing it because we assume that God knows best and already knows what should be done in any situation we face.
But this, I believe, is a subtle, insidious twisting of truth—which has been the Enemy’s specialty from the beginning of humanity—that ends up leading us in the complete opposite direction from the heart of God.