Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?

After the Israelites responded to God’s faithfulness in delivering them from Egypt by making a golden statue to worship and having an all-night orgy around it (not a good response), God confronted Moses on Mt. Sinai and told him that God’s wrath would “burn hot against them and consume them” (Exodus 32:10).

“But Moses implored the LORD his God and said …. ‘Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.”’”

And then, the most amazing verse:

“And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people”
(Exodus 32:11-14 ESV).

What is going on here? Does Moses’ prayer convince God to change his mind by reminding God of something he had said, something that he had apparently forgotten about? Was God just having an off day? Had he forgotten to do his quiet time that morning?

Did Moses really change God’s mind?

Let me make it even more confusing for you: Moses, the same author who recorded this story, says clearly in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.”

What should we do with this? Engineers and accountants and other type-A people (like myself) will struggle with this, but God is too big to contain in neat, tidy formulas. We should approach these issues not as contradictions to be resolved but as three truths to be held in tension:

1. God’s purposes are unchanging.

Verses like Numbers 23:19 are clear: God is not a man. He never learns anything new. He doesn’t wise up with experience or change his mind.

The prophet Isaiah concurs: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning … saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9-10).

And the apostle Paul: “In him we have … been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

Moses, Isaiah, and Paul are three of the most significant authors of Scripture, and they all say the same thing. So, it seems clear that God’s purposes are unchanging, but, like I said, we have to hold this in tension with another truth.

2. God’s plans are unfolding.

The text of Exodus says that God changed his course of action based on Moses’ prayer. And here’s the irony of the story: God is the one who tells Moses to go down and see the situation (v. 7). Moses didn’t know the people had corrupted themselves. God showed this to him.

Furthermore, the very thing that Moses uses to “change God’s mind” is God’s own promise. (And God, of course, hadn’t forgotten his promises.)

Do you see what’s happening? God had put Moses into a situation so that he would see the problem God already knew about, remember God’s promises, and petition God to change his course of action. Moses’ prayer itself is a result of God’s plan.

God wants Moses to ask this, so he sovereignly puts him in a situation where he will ask for it.

3. Our prayers are instrumental.

The text is clear: Without this prayer, God would have destroyed Israel. The prayer was instrumental in getting God to change his course of action. And that’s consistent with the pattern of prayer throughout Scripture. As I’ve heard it said, “Prayer moves the arm that moves the world.”

Now, many people might ask at this point, “Well, what if Moses had refused to pray? Would that mean that they would not have been saved, and would that mean that it was not God’s will to save them after all? And what does that mean if I fail to pray for something God wants me to pray for? Does that mean that the thing that I didn’t pray about wasn’t God’s will after all? Or would God have just gotten someone else to pray it?”

You may begin to feel your head aching. It’s understandable.

Those kinds of questions are the wrong ones to ask about these situations. Scripture never teaches us to think about the will of God that way.

The 19th century Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge put it this way (my paraphrase): “Does God know the day you’ll die? Yes. Has he appointed that day? Yes. Can you do anything to change that day? No. Then why do you eat? To live. What happens if you don’t eat? You die. Then if you don’t eat, and die, then would that be the day that God had appointed for you to die?

Quit asking stupid questions and just eat. Eating is the pre-ordained way God has appointed for living.”

I imagine Hodge would say something similar to us today: Quit asking stupid questions and just pray.

You see, however impossible it is for our puny minds to understand, God has sovereignly placed us in certain situations for the express purpose of praying his promises and “changing his plans,” so to speak. He wants us to employ divine power to create a different destiny than the one everyone is heading to.

Your situation—the problems you are observing and the divinely appointed opportunities in them—are invitations to call God’s promises into effect.

Like Moses, God has “sent you down” into a family, a group of friends, a neighborhood. Some of you have looked around at your family and thought, “Why did God make me part of this family?” If nothing else, he put you there to pray.

You are placed where he wants you to be so you can obey and pray for the things he wants to do, to perceive the problem and believe the promise and release his power into the situation.

In light of that, there are two things that you need to be absolutely full of if you are going to be an effective pray-er: the Word and the Spirit. Because those are the two means God has given you to perceive the kingdom of God and the will of God.

God’s Word is not just a textbook to be learned but a book of promises to be claimed. Like Moses, we are supposed to say, “God, remember you said …” Don’t just read your way through Scripture. Pray your way through it.

And trust in the Spirit of God to guide you as you pray, to show you where and how to extend God’s kingdom. He is willing and waiting and wanting to answer!