Does God Change His Mind When We Pray?

God himself does not change, but God wills change in his creation — and he wills to bring it about through our prayers.

Josef August Untersberger (1864-1933), “Christ on the Mount of Olives”
Josef August Untersberger (1864-1933), “Christ on the Mount of Olives” (photo: Public Domain)

Q. Since God is in the eternal present, and is all-knowing, he knows the destination of everyone and he knows the result of every situation. How, then, do our petitionary prayers have any effect on what God already knows is in the future? — Anonymous Truth Seeker

A. I will take you through St. Thomas Aquinas’ answer to this puzzling question. Aquinas says that prayer is not about changing God’s mind, but about changing us to conform with God’s plan. We pray that we may obtain by intercession that which God has disposed from the beginning to be fulfilled by our prayers. 

Since God is outside of time, he knows from all eternity that for which we will pray. From all eternity, too, he has decided which of our prayers he will answer as prayed and which he won’t. When he does what we ask, he does it because it is for our good. Sometimes he answers by not doing what we ask. This, too, is for our good. His answers to our prayers are part of his providential plan for our good from the beginning. 

St. Gregory the Great says it like this: By asking, we deserve to receive what the Almighty God from all eternity has disposed to give.

So from the beginning of time, God has known you would pray for something — say, a sunny day for your son’s birthday. He wills to answer the prayer as prayed, so he plans the course of weather since the beginning of time for there to be sun on your son’s birthday. From all eternity, God knows we will pray; he moves us to pray in time; he answers our prayers in eternity, but they are not actualized in time until we pray. 

It is important to see that our prayer is not merely incidental to God’s answer. Our prayer is actually causal of the state of affairs that God wants to bring about through our prayers. Aquinas calls us “secondary causes” under God. God doesn’t just want sun on your son’s birthday — he wants a sunny birthday for your son brought about through your prayers.

You might reply: But I could always choose at the last minute not to pray. Yes, and because God is omniscient, he knows beforehand that you would decide not to pray. Thus no prayer is prayed and no prayer is answered. 

Providence has answered every prayer that’s ever been prayed and ever will be prayed. We receive the fulfillment of God’s answer in time. So it looks as if God changes his mind. But it’s not that God changes — it’s that God wills change. And he wills to bring about this change through our agency as secondary causes.

The Old Testament has stories that show God apparently changing his mind. When Abraham questions God’s will to destroy Sodom, his intercession seems to move God to concede to his petitions to spare the city first for 50, then 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous men. 

But since God is pure act, he doesn’t change his mind. From the beginning he set in motion the course of events that when fulfilled resulted in the playing out of his judgment on the men of Sodom. 

So, was God merely playing with Abraham?

No, not playing. Teaching. The encounter was part of the Divine pedagogy. God was teaching Abraham — and through him all subsequent believers — that we should boldly petition God for what we believe is good. God willed that Abraham should pray for what God in his Providence willed from the beginning to make actual — and in praying, Abraham became worthy to receive what God beforehand had willed to give.