Prayer and the unchangeable mind of God

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Many events recorded in salvation history indicate that God changed His mind in answer to the prayer of His people. This observation leads to a rather puzzling issue for it is also recorded in the revelation that unchangeableness and immutability are attributes of God’s essence. The present paper seeks to clarify these two seemingly contradictory observations.

The paper is divided in three sections: (1) It seems that prayer changes God’s mind, (2) God’s mind is absolutely unchangeable, and (3) Can the powerful force of prayer be reconciled with the unchangeableness and immutability of God’s mind? The article ends with a brief summary.

It seems that prayer changes God’s mind

That prayer pleases the heart of God is one of the clearest messages conveyed in salvation history. From the examples that can be chosen to illustrate this, I shall briefly mention the prayers of the Ninevites, the prayer of Moses, and the prayer of the prophet Elijah.

When, through the prophet Jonah, the inhabitants of Nineveh learned that God was about to discharge punishment and destroy their city because of their evil actions, the Ninevites began to pray. The threat of punishment and destruction awakened their faith so that even the king of Nineveh began to observe penance and pray earnestly to God. As they prayed to ask God not to do what He had announced He was going to do to them, the Ninevites converted from their evil ways. And “when God saw what they had done, God repented of the evil which He said He would do to them; and He did not do it” (Jon 3:10).

Similarly, when God saw that the chosen people of Israel had made for themselves an idol of gold to worship and deviated from the right path, He said to Moses “now, therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Ex 32:10). But Moses prayed to God on behalf of the chosen people: “O Lord, turn from your fierce wrath, and repent from this evil against your people” (Ex 32:12). Moses reminded God of the great things He had done so far for His people and beseeched Him to bring to completion the good work He had begun with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In his prayer, Moses pleaded with God to remember His mercy for it was He who brought them out of the land of Egypt “with great power and with a mighty hand” (Ex 32:11). And God “repented of the evil which He thought to do to His people” (Ex 32:14).

The prophet Elijah is praised as a righteous man whose prayer had great power before God. His life on earth ended by being taken up to heaven, and 850 years later, together with Moses, Elijah appeared in the mystery of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Elijah was a prophet in Israel during the reign of King Ahab who “did more to anger the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kgs 16:33). Elijah prayed earnestly to God to send no rain in Samaria and the surrounding territories where King Ahab had settled, and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And then again, from the top of Mount Carmel, the prophet Elijah prayed to God to send rain “and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (Jas 5:17-18).

In the New Testament, God commands prayer. “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mt 26:41). “Pray without ceasing for this is the will of God for you” (1 Thes 5:17-18). “Whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Mt 21:22). “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Mt 7:7-8). “Pray always” (Lk 18:1). “Watch, then, praying at all times” (Lk 21:36).

There is no question that God wants us to pray. The events and words of salvation history are recorded for a purpose, and the lesson is clear: Prayer is a powerful force on which we are asked to rely. But do we really change God’s mind when we pray?

God’s mind is absolutely unchangeable

It is a truth of faith that God’s being, mind, will, and purpose are absolutely immutable and unchangeable. There is nothing more characteristic of God than unchangeableness and immutability. The fonts of revelation and reason ascribe these attributes to God alone.

One of the most quoted passages from Sacred Scripture on the unchangeableness and immutability of God is from the book of Malachi, “For I the Lord do not change” (Mal 3:6). The doctrine, however, is also explicit in several other passages from the Old Testament. The book of Numbers, for example, states that “God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind” (Nm 23:19). And in the first book of Samuel, one reads again that “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change His mind” (1 Sm 15:29).

Commenting on these passages Saint Thomas Aquinas says that they clearly express the infallible truth of the unchangeableness and immutability of God. (See Aquinas, “Summa Contra Gentiles,” book 3, chapter 95.)

The Psalms too are a constant proclamation of this truth. In Psalm 102, for example, the wise man sings to the Lord: “Of old, you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end” (Ps 102:25-27). And Psalm 33 proclaims, “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Ps 33:11).

The New Testament is clear as well. The New Testament reveals that Jesus Christ is God and that He “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8). A text from the Epistle of James asserts that all change is to be excluded from God: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas 1:17). And the Epistle to the Hebrews reports that “When God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things [the promise and the oath], in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Heb 6:17-18).

It is worth noting here that the unchangeableness and immutability of God is also a conclusion of metaphysical inquiry. Centuries before Christ, with the sole natural light of reason, great minds had concluded that, even if the visible world was a beginningless eternal world, there had to be a first principle which was the absolute cause of being of the world. It is well known that, with the rigor of metaphysical language, this first principle can only be described as the unchangeable and immutable uncaused cause; and this is God.

There is no question that God’s mind is eternally unchangeable and immutable. This is a fundamental principle that has always been at work in the world. God is not a God who changes His mind.

Can the powerful force of prayer be reconciled with the unchangeableness and immutability of God’s mind?

The answer to this question is in the affirmative, and the explanation is given in terms of divine mercy and divine justice.

From the above, it is clear that the unchangeable and immutable mind of God has established from all eternity that human beings should pray. The purpose of prayer evidently cannot be to change the unchangeable and immutable mind of God. All things happen as they have been foreseen by God. Does it make sense then to pray for anything at all, since, after all, all have been arranged and fixed by God?

The answer is yes, it makes sense to pray. In His infinite wisdom, God has established that there should be a connection between prayer and the bringing about of some events. What has been foreseen to be obtained by prayer is obtained by prayer. What has been established to happen in connection with prayer can only come to fulfillment through prayer.

It is instructive to observe here that the initial intervention of God in the world is through divine mercy. There is no room for justice in the act of creation. The passing from non-being into being, the very beginning of the world, is an act of mercy. It is true that the world was in the mind of God from all eternity, but its coming into existence was a gratuitous act of the sovereign will of God. The bringing about of the world into existence was not an act commanded by the obligation of justice.

At the center of creation is the human being. God made human beings the object of divine mercy on two counts. In addition to creating them gratuitously, God also gratuitously adorned the first two human beings with a token of divine friendship. In the original state, Adam and Eve possessed the gift of grace in the form of several supernatural privileges. Among other things, through grace, God strengthened Adam and Eve interiorly in the life of the spirit so that they had perfect dominion over their passions. Also through grace, God made Adam and Eve capable of overcoming easily all the obstacles that they would encounter on their way to their final destination of everlasting happiness.

Through the supernatural gift of grace, God attracts human beings to Himself like a magnet that attracts magnetic particles that participate in the property of magnetism.

But even with this advantage in grace, God allowed Adam and Eve to misuse their freedom. On their own decision, Adam and Eve disobeyed the indications given to them by God, and justice entered into the picture. God had to punish what He was not the author of, namely, the sin of our first parents. The token of divine friendship was immediately withdrawn from Adam and Eve, and, after this original sin, all human beings are equally born into the world under the domain of justice, that is to say, “expelled from paradise.”

Did God know all of this? The answer again is yes. God knew all about this and much more. Above all, God knew about the greater glorification of human nature in the mystery of His own incarnation. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). God instantiated His own and only divine being in a human soul and in a human body. God Himself became an instantiation of human nature to counteract the rigor of His justice with which He had to punish the evil of sin committed by our first parents. God had anticipated another manifestation of His infinite mercy towards human beings, namely, His incarnation and the glorification of those of His own choosing. God only allows evil to happen for the sake of a greater good.

And here is why we should pray

Only an act of mercy can bring us back from our state of expulsion from paradise. There is nothing in our power that we could do to merit such a reward. However, here on earth, through the magnet of grace, God continues to attract us human beings to Himself. Through His Most Holy Humanity, God speaks to every one of us in our own language saying: “It is impossible for you to come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me attracts you to me” (Jn 6:44; “Nemo potest venire ad me nisi Pater qui misit me traxerit eum”).

The question then is the following: Since all human beings are equally born under the expulsion from paradise, are all human beings equally blessed with the magnet of grace?

Commenting on this phrase, “Nemo potest venire ad me nisi Pater qui misit me traxerit eum,” Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas explain the dynamism of the rescue from the expulsion from paradise as follows:

“In the state of expulsion from paradise, all human beings are equally held back from this attraction by the obstacle of sin; and so, all human beings need to be attracted.

“God, in so far as it depends on Him, extends His hand to everyone, to attract everyone; and what is more, He not only attracts those who receive Him by the hand, but even converts those who are turned away from Him.

“Therefore, since God is ready to give grace to all, and attract them to Himself, it is not due to Him if someone does not accept; rather, it is due to the person who does not accept.

“A general reason can be given why God does not attract all who are turned away from Him, but certain ones, even though all are equally turned away. The reason is so that the order of divine justice may appear and shine forth in those who are not attracted, while the immensity of the divine mercy may appear and shine in those who are attracted.

“But as to why in particular He attracts this person and does not attract that person, there is no reason except the good pleasure of the gracious will of God: ‘I will be gracious to whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please me’ (Ex 33:19).

“So Augustine says: ‘Whom He attracts and whom He does not attract, why He attracts one and does not attract another, do not desire to judge if you do not wish to err. But accept and understand: If you are not yet attracted, then pray that you may be attracted.’

“So God attracts certain ones in order that His mercy may appear in them, and others He does not attract in order that His justice may be shown in them.

“But that He attracts these and does not attract those, depends on the good pleasure of His sovereign will” (Aquinas, “Commentary of the Gospel of Saint John,” chapter 6, lecture 5).

In the logic of divine providence, what has been established to happen in connection with prayer will happen only in connection with prayer. Participation in the magnet of grace is granted by God to those whom He draws from the state of expulsion from paradise. And God has established that the granting of this participation in the magnet of grace is to happen in connection with prayer.

What most matters to us, whether spiritual or material, is already present in the immutably determined mind of God. Some of these good things – spiritual and material – we have received already; others are still present in the immutable mind of God.

It should be mentioned here that God’s mercy often builds upon the dynamism of “cognitio per ignorantiam.” This means that we do not know and that we simultaneously do know: There is in us an awareness that God has great good things in store for us in His mind. But there is also in us an awareness that we do not know exactly what specific things they are, nor when they will come to us, nor the order in which they will come, nor how they will come.

Through this “ambiguity” of simultaneously knowing and not knowing, God stirs within us a desire for the things He has saintlily prepared for us. The presence of this holy desire in our souls is also part of God’s mercy. And it is this desire what prompts us to pray. In the here and now, prayer itself is ultimately one of the great good things God has prepared for us in His mercy.

So Saint Augustine says, “If God does not remove your prayer you can be sure He hasn’t removed His mercy from you” (“Exposition of Psalm 65”). If prayer is present, it is because the magnet of grace is present.

From all eternity, God has established that there be prayerful souls. We pray not to change God’s mind but that we may confirm our whole being to what His mind is for us.

We must pray, because only through our prayers will those good things that God in His wisdom has connected to our prayers come to happen. And thus it makes sense to pray, even if our prayers do not change in the least the immutable and unchangeable mind of God.

From all eternity, God’s unchangeable and immutable mind anticipated the practice of prayer as one of the secondary causes to be attached to certain effects that He wanted to bring about this way.

We do not pray to change the mind of God; on the contrary, we pray because we want what God wants. What has always been in the mind of God from all eternity, including our prayers, is what is always fulfilled. The power of prayer is infallible when we pray for that which God has established that we should pray for. God does not change His mind. God wants us to pray.

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