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I need hardly tell you that the vital concern is not whether our prayers can change the will of God but that our prayers (as an expression of our lives) come into line with his will. We’re to be less concerned with changing God’s mind than changing our own. This we’re well aware of but in times of stress some vital truths take a back seat.
But the question about our prayers changing the will of God is only part of a larger issue which is this: should we see our relationship with God as dynamic, one in which he wishes us to make “creative” decisions and proposals? Should we view our lives with and under God as pre-played chess games where, however “free” we think our moves are, we’re simply doing what God had predetermined will be done? Should we vision human life as already mapped out in every detail, no matter how miniscule and that every nanosecond has already been written in God’s great book of our lives independent of anything we will? Should we conclude that everything—without exception—is what God wills that we will so that in the end it isn’t we who are living but God living his will through us; should we conclude that we have no more freedom than a single-celled amoeba?
If we were to conclude that that’s how life is then all talk about what God thinks of our requests, protests, proposals, praise and even our sins is empty rhetoric because all those are what he has eternally determined we will request, protest, propose, praise and even sin. To hold the above is to insist that what is is because God would have it so and therefore he pulls the strings according to his exhaustive blueprint from which there can be no deviation. [That is consistent Calvinism but it doesn’t begin to look like the biblical witness.]
Does prayer ever change the will of God? I’m sure the answer’s yes and no, depending on the perspective from which we speak.
There are some things that neither human or demon, nation or individual, prayer or protest will change and one of them is this: God has committed himself to his creation—to bring it to glory in and under Jesus Christ!
But God’s commitment to redeem and glorify his creation includes a moral relationship with the human family and that in turn includes the free moral response of humans.
In Jeremiah 18:1-12 God himself insists that the behaviour of a nation can change his purpose toward that nation.
Of course we need to bear in mind that God’s will in such a setting is linked to human behaviour; it isn’t a “still picture” of what God is going to bring about. If he purposes to bless or chastise he purposes to do it based on the human situation relative to himself and his overarching purpose for the human family.
He doesn’t pretend that he’s purposing to bless and he doesn’t pretend that he’s purposing to discipline and he doesn’t pretend he has turned from that purpose when the nation turns from its evil.
So to say human behaviour “changes” God’s purpose is only true in a sense. The option of “change” is already built into God’s way of working with us in light of his holy character and his overarching purpose. In light of Jeremiah 18:1-12 we might ask, “Does God change his mind?” In truth, the answer’s no, even though he changes his purpose and action depending on the human response.
Nevertheless, it leads to all kinds of confusion to think of the will of God in terms of his having laid out a completely exhaustive and changeless blueprint for everything he does in relation to us and that blueprint is written entirely independent of our response to him and our requests of him.
Whether God blesses us or redemptively curses us is not based on rules of engagement that we have laid down for him to pay attention to. No, God works with us in light of his own character and purposes which undergird our very existence.
Nevertheless, God did say (and with a double-barrelled announcement to stress he would not recover) that Hezekiah was to die of his illness and when the king begged for a longer life God altered his declaration and gave him fifteen more years. The text leaves no doubt that God responding to Hezekiah’s prayer (see Isaiah 38:1-5). Here then, is an individual case where God announced his will in the form of Hezekiah’s sure death and moments later announced his will in the form of Hezekiah’s sure recovery and it occurred in response to the man’s plea. Clearly, then, a human plea can change the will of God—that is, change God’s specific purpose.
But the matter isn’t as simple as it appears (though consistent Calvinism turns texts like this into empty chatter). There is nothing in the text that suggests that God specifically purposed as a matter between him and the king to take Hezekiah’s life! The man was dying of what we’re inclined to call “natural causes” and God honours him with the announcement that he will indeed die.
“Natural causes” here are nothing more than the outworking of God’s original curse in Genesis 3 which culminated in death so we’re not to think of “natural causes” as something other than the will of God. For convenience sake “Natural causes” are what we might call the “general” will of God. God has purposed illness and death for humans but how he works it out doesn’t require an individual decision for every individual. If you’re a human you have been appointed to die (Hebrews 9:27 and Genesis 3:19) but not necessarily because God made a specific judgment about you—you die because he has made a general judgment that covers the human family. [Just the same, this is the decisive will of God. The death of any human comes under the heading of God’s Genesis 3 decision. God doesn’t awake each morning, so to speak, and decide how many he will kill today.]
My guess is that Hezekiah was dying because he was a member of the human family that is under God’s redemptive curse rather than that God specifically determined that Hezekiah die for some individually determined reason. Hezekiah pleads for an extension and God chooses to offset the death sentence the king was under.
It’s important, then, I’m certain, to differentiate between the various aspects of God’s will and the levels in which they function in relation to us.
It remains true, however, that God may choose specifically to destroy a man or a nation in light of his/its moral behaviour and change his plan if the man or nation changes in moral behaviour. If moral behaviour can change God’s specific purpose we can be sure that prayer may do the same.
But it seems clear in the case of Hezekiah (though the details are difficult to trace) that God had more than the Judean king’s welfare in mind. Hezekiah purposed to be God’s helper (though flawed) by continuing to live to God’s glory and God took that into account in the face of Assyria and the wider purposes of redemptive history. He may well have wanted Hezekiah to publicly renew his commitment to him and the nation’s place in salvation history. There is more in this text than a man asking God for help and getting it and there’s more in this text than a man’s prayer changing God’s specific purpose.