The common Christian understanding of God is that he is unchanging in nature, immutable. Omniscient, so his plans can have no flaws. He even states that he is not like a man in that he should change his mind; however, the Bible also contains several examples of God seemingly changing his mind based on human intervention. How can we reconcile this disparity?
It is my assertion that, from a merely human point of view, it appears as if we can change God’s mind and affect the forms of his plans through prayer.
See article: “Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?”
From an Arminian perspective, God allows his plans to be influenced by our free will because of his love for us and desire to please us, as a good father. From a Calvinist perspective, God sovereignly wills his true will to be done through our flawed human interactions, desires, and appeals.
I think it’s also super important to make a distinction here between God’s unconditional will and his conditional will. One example of God’s unconditional will would be Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.
Acts 4:27-28 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
Additionally, the entire Old Testament is full of prophecy about Jesus, most notably Isaiah 53’s prophecy on the chosen servant of God’s death and resurrection.
Isaiah 53:10-11 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
We can clearly see God sovereignly willed the sacrifice of Jesus. According to this passage from Isaiah, Jesus’s life becomes a sin offering, which is a symbol set up previously in the Old Testament by animal sacrifices. An Israelite, in order to have his sins forgiven by God, could sacrifice an animal to God at the temple altar. In this ceremony, the sins of the person are transferred onto the animal, and the animal is punished by death in the person’s place. Likewise, Jesus has become this sacrificial lamb of God, “bearing their iniquities” (meaning wickedness), so that the punishment for our sins falls on him instead, “justifying many” (meaning making many people free from shame and offense before God). Additionally, Jesus will “prolong his days” and “see the light of life,” meaning that he will rise from the dead.
All of this, being God’s divine rescue plan for our fatal human condition, is extremely important. It’s to the utmost importance that this rescue mission, Jesus being crucified on a Roman Cross by Pontius Pilate around 30 AD, goes exactly as planned and isn’t messed up by flawed human interference. This would be an example of God’s unconditional will: God sovereignly predestines it to happen, regardless of human choice.
Additionally, since God is the only being in this universe with knowledge of all possible outcomes and relationships and with the supreme goodness to know the perfect option, he doesn’t allow anyone to talk him out of his unconditional will. We see an example of this when Peter, appalled at Jesus’s impending death as the messianic king, rebukes Jesus for this rescue plan, only to be rebuked in turn by Jesus.
Matthew 16:21-23 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Peter, from his point of view, can only see this: he sees Jesus as the hope of Israel, the rebel king who will overthrow their Roman oppressors and set up an everlasting kingdom on earth, displaying God’s glory for all time. His hope is that Jesus defeats both the Romans and the Jewish authorities, establishing their nation of Israel as a kingdom once again, with God as its true King.
From Peter’s point of view, Jesus’s words are preposterous and appalling. They subvert and crush his future hope. Jesus, God himself and the future King of Israel, suffering and dying at the hands of these petty authorities is not even something he can comprehend; therefore, he reacts with indignation, rebuking Jesus.
However, from Jesus’s point of view, which encompasses all possible courses of action, all possible variables, and all possible outcomes, he has sovereignly determined that this rescue plan, him suffering and dying at the hands of the Romans, is the will of God and the necessary course of action for the benefit of all humanity.
While Peter only has human concerns in mind, Jesus has in mind the concerns of God. This is an example of God’s unconditional will – God has predetermined a course of action as best for all time and we’d do best to not try to change his mind.
Now, before I go on, I want to say this about Peter – Peter, I’m sure, in large part, does this out of love for Jesus. According to his best knowledge and wisdom, he decides that Jesus’s plan isn’t the best for the advancement of God’s kingdom. He uses correct logic and his heart’s in the right place, he just doesn’t have the necessary perspective to be able to say that Jesus, God himself on earth, is wrong. It’s my opinion that a large part of the harshness of Jesus’s retort comes from a knowing response to Peter’s heart – Peter demands that Jesus do things his way, and Jesus isn’t having any of that. Peter has to know that Jesus is the sovereign King who has the right to do things however he wishes. If Peter is to try to appeal to Jesus for a different course of action, the appropriate heart is with submission and respect.
We see an successful example of this in Abraham’s appeal to God against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This additionally doubles as an example of God’s conditional will.
From Genesis 18: Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more.What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
One thing that’s so clear from this passage is Abraham’s complete submission to God, yet relentlessness for the sake of the cities.
He appeals to God repeatedly, yet his words speak volumes of his submission and humility. He knows that he’s talking to his maker, the one righteous, wise creator of all things. He knows his place: “…I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes…”
Words that would describe this: beseech, implore, entreat, beg.
I think that this is the example laid out for us in the scriptures with which to present our concerns and requests before God, and I can often struggle with this. My struggle is that I will present a logical argument to God of an method or outcome I think is objectively best, but I will do it with arrogance, as if my argument is infallible.
One aside about logic: the way logic works is that it follows a pattern: You begin with assumptions and use those to construct an argument. These assumptions must be true, and the connections between each point must be logical. As long as you have done this process correctly, your conclusion is solid. Otherwise, your argument becomes inconclusive, proving nothing.
However, the most stealthy pitfall of logic is this – perspective. In order for your argument to hold water, it must have the correct perspective. Usually, the bigger the perspective, the better.
Can you imagine playing a game of chess where your pieces have free will and can only see three squares in front of them? Your trusty knight lays his eyes on the opposing queen, knowing that he has the opportunity to capture and destroy it. The queen is the most capable and valuable piece on the board, so to do so would be quite the opportunity. However, he doesn’t see that the opponent has cleverly placed his queen in a position to be sacrificed in order to win the game – his rook is poised and at the ready to end the game should the bait be taken.
You shout at your knight that to take the queen would be to lose the game, but he just can’t see it; the rook is 4 squares away, a mere space out of his field of view. Additionally, the thought of the glory of destroying the enemy’s most powerful offensive officer is just too tantalizing to resist. Disobeying his commander and acting according to his own judgment, the knight takes the queen and costs you the game.
This is a metaphor for how having an incomplete perspective can often lead one to make illogical decisions. These scenarios are commonly seen where someone gets tunnel vision over a car or a girl or an opportunity they just can’t not have. However, the scenarios can also occur when one simply does not have a crucial piece of information. If the knight had been able to see the rook 4 spaces away, he would have realized that the decision he wanted to make would not have been the most logical one. Likewise, if Peter could have seen that Jesus being killed by the Romans would pave the way for the salvation of all humanity, I think he would haven’t have rebuked Jesus the way he did.
I think the metaphor also works in that, just like the pieces in the game, we have a limited perspective and vision compared to God’s, who can see the entire game as a whole. (Not only that, but every possible combination the chessboard could have according to every possible move – thousands and thousands of possibilities from which he can choose the best one). The knight disobeyed his commander because his commander’s instructions seemed illogical to him; however, we must all remember that God has a perspective so much larger than ours. We literally do not have the perspective to pronounce judgment on him, or to disobey him to make our own decisions. Instead, we should aspire to trust in God’s omniscience, intelligence, wisdom, and power to find rest in seemingly hopeless circumstances and to have faith in his callings.
However, there is a tension to be found here. While Jesus has asked us to trust God in all our circumstances for our needs (Matthew 6), he also taught us to cry out to him over and over in prayer – to pray persistently.
Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Jesus’s main argument in this parable is that “If even an unjust judge will give justice to a persistent person, how much more will God bring justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night.” Jesus tells a similar story when his disciples ask him how they should pray in Luke 11, instead referencing a friend who only grants a request because of persistence and sheer audacity. Once again, he appeals to God’s higher nature – if we can successfully appeal to flawed humans, who are evil, through persistence, how much more will God love to give good gifts to his children!
We see an example of Jesus carrying out this teaching when he cries out to God again and again in Gethsemane. Burdened by the anxiety and dread of facing not only his imminent death on a Roman torture device, but also the coming agony of becoming guilty of the sins of the whole world and consequently being separated from his Father, Jesus prays earnestly for deliverance – for another possible way, any other way.
Matthew 26:36-46 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Let’s talk a little about the remarkable things we can see from this scripture. First, Jesus isn’t afraid to tell his disciples how he’s really feeling – he says that he is overwhelmed and sorrowful to the point of death. Second, Jesus falls onto his face in the garden, begging God to provide a different way. Third, he does this three times!!
We’re talking about the Savior of the entire world here, God himself in the flesh, Jesus Christ, the creator of all things – the holy, righteous one who lives for the Father’s will, not even saying a single thing that’s not from the Father. Jesus, perfect in every way, concerning the upcoming greatest event in human history, God’s perfect rescue plan for the reconciliation of all mankind, is BEGGING GOD TO MAKE ANOTHER WAY.
If Jesus Christ, the perfect one, is begging his father to make another way than the Cross, God’s perfect plan of rescue, planned before the foundations of the earth, we can most certainly have license to, in submission, question God’s plans and beg him for an alternative. Maintaining that humility we saw Abraham beseech God with and the submission to the Father’s will we see Jesus maintain here, we can most certainly present our requests before a loving, kind, yet infinitely wise Father.
Finally, John’s eyewitness account records Jesus, during his final hours before being captured by the Jewish authorities and put on trial, telling his disciples SIX times within probably 30 minutes or less (John 14-17) that if they ask for anything in His name, the Father will give it to them.
From John 15: If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you…whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
Because of the sacrifice of Jesus to cleanse us from all sin, we are finally able to present our requests to God, cashing our prayer checks in Jesus’s name. He has bought us the breathlessly awe-inspiring privilege of communicating with the Alpha and the Omega, the creator of all things. The one who is so incomparably holy that sinful human beings instantly die just by merely being in his presence. Because of Jesus’s sacrifice, becoming our sin on the cross and being punished in our place, we stand before God completely and fully blameless and holy – holy, righteous beings imbued with the perfect moral record of Jesus Christ himself and adopted by his blood.
Through this position of sonship, given entirely by grace, we are able to prostrate ourselves before the King and yet to appeal to our loving and doting Father. It’s a beautiful mystery of duality.
Alright, let’s recap:
God’s will can be distinguished as unconditional or conditional. God’s unconditional will represents things that he has sovereignly determined as being the best outcome. God’s conditional will represents things that we are seemingly able to change by appealing to our loving Father. I believe that we can’t know whether something is God’s conditional or unconditional will without asking. Remember that even Jesus advocated for us to humbly yet persistently self-advocate in prayer, bringing our requests before God repeatedly.
According to Jesus, as our good father in heaven, God loves to give good gifts to those who ask him. If even earthly fathers, who are evil in comparison, will give good gifts to their children, how much more will God give good gifts to those who ask him? Additionally, Jesus himself told us that whatever we ask him in his name, he will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
However, let us remember to maintain humility in submission to and awareness of God’s wisdom and greater perspective, especially if God does not choose to grant our request the first time we ask. Let us ask again in submission, like Abraham, remembering that we are truly nothing but dust, and that we are speaking to the one by whom every atom in our body holds together – the omniscient, perfectly wise one whose plans we can fully and completely trust. However, let us also remember that, because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we could never deserve, we are positionally sons and daughters of the Most High King and therefore ask for what we wish with confidence and persistence in Jesus’s name, with the confidence of a child who knows that he is securely loved by his own father.
Hebrews 4:16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.