“If God already knows what I’m going to say, why does it matter if I pray?”
“If God already has planned everything that is going to happen and God is ‘unchangeable,’ what’s the point of praying?”
As a pastor, I hear these questions quite regularly . . . and for good reason. If prayer is such an essential part of the Christian life, these are important considerations that are worthy of our time and effort. If we are going to argue that prayer is a vital part of our faith formation, we also need to be clear about why this is the case.
Let me begin by putting all my cards on the table. I believe that prayer actually does change things. I believe that one of the benefits of prayer is that it changes us – reorienting our lives around the life of God and God’s work in the world. However, I truly believe that prayer has the power to change God as well. Throughout scripture, we see evidence of this. Consider the following:
God and Moses
After the “Golden Calf” incident of Exodus 32, the anger of the Lord was burning hot against the Israelites. Moses goes to the Lord to intercede on the people’s behalf. Recorded in the book of Exodus, we find this prayer:
“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”
After this prayer, we read in verse 14, “And the Lord changed his mind…” Another translation of this phrase reads, “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of…” Still another reads, “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Now, that third translation (from the King James Version) is enough to make many of us a bit uncomfortable. We’ve grown up with a theology that assures us, God cannot (and will not) do what is evil. God’s character prevents this from even being a possibility. And yet . . . here it is, recorded for us in our sacred text.
I don’t propose to unravel the mystery of God’s “repentance” here. I do not believe that God ever commits evil. I believe that this is antithetical to the character of God revealed to us most clearly in the person of Jesus. Rather, I want to emphasize the glaring reality that Moses’ prayer had an effect on God. As a result of Moses’ intercession, God’s action seems to have changed directions. In other words, prayer matters. It changes things.
There are numerous other examples of this in the Bible. For example, the same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 6:6 when God sees the wickedness of humanity and is sorry that he created them (God repented of creating humanity). We see it again in Jonah 3:10; 2 Samuel 24:16; Amos 7:1-6; and Psalm 106:44-45. If nothing else, notice that these examples of “relenting” are often in response to the cries of the people. In other words, because they repented, God changed the outcome of their lives. Because they prayed, God responded and intervened in their circumstances.
If nothing else, this tells me that prayer is effective. It tells me that prayer actually changes things in the world. Prayer does not exists merely to change my heart and my life (though it does that as well). Prayer actually matters and can cause God to intervene in our world in ways that alter outcomes and change lives. I don’t know about you, but for me, that helps me to understand why prayer is so important, so vital to a life of faith.
To be continued…