A college student recently posed this question:
Lately, I've been thinking about prayer and its power/purpose in our lives and just wanted to know, do you think that our prayers can change God's mind? For example, in Exodus 32:7-14 it seems that after Moses prayed, that God changed His mind and decided to withhold his anger. But also Numbers 23:19 states that God is not like us and does not change his mind. Since God knows everything, does this mean that He accounts for our prayers so that it only seems like He is changing His mind, when really it was all part of the plan? With those I've talked with, I haven't been able to come up with a solid answer so I am interested to hear your thoughts. Thank you!
I offered this response:
Always great to hear from you. So here we go! Great question...
First, to Numbers 23:19-20 "God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind. Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill? Indeed I have received a command to bless; since He (God) has blessed, I cannot change it."
You remember that this is the word of Balaam, a Middle Eastern "seer" who was hired by King Balak to curse Israel, as Israel made its way to enter the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for almost 40 years. Balaam is unable to curse God's chosen people because God has determined that they are to be blessed as they position themselves to enter the land. And so Balaam is telling Balak that God's purpose in providing this blessing is firm, because God is not going to change his mind about this.
The problem with citing this verse as the "determining verse" which answers the question "Can or does God change his mind when we pray?" is simply this. Clearly in this incident and in this situation, God is not going to change his mind. He has determined that Israel will be blessed as they seek to enter the land that God is giving them. Citing this verse as the interpretive grid for all other situations is, in my view, an overreach. There are other situations presented in Scripture where it is clear that God does change what he threatened to do, or answer a prayer which -- had it not been requested -- would not have been answered.
Second (and perhaps you're discovering this), Christians have varying views about the overall answer to your question.
Some argue that since God knows everything that is going to happen before it happens, God's "knowledge" is determinative; that is, God's omniscience means that any "apparent" changing of God's mind is merely our limited way of processing the events of history, but in "actuality" there is no real change. In short, everything is more or less determined. So prayer, then, becomes a way for us, if you will, to "get on the same page as God;" that is, to come in alignment with what He already has determined will happen.
My problem with this approach is simply this -- such an understanding is not what Scripture (i.e., God's own word) presents! That is to say, while it is a logical deduction from an understanding of God's omniscience, it is not how Scripture presents God and us together interacting in the experience of human history.
What we see in Scripture is God himself saying to us, "Pray....seek, ask, knock...and then it will be given." And, conversely, if one doesn't seek, ask, and knock...it is not given. This must mean, in my understanding, that God has built freedom into the "system" in which he has created us to live, and that our actions, our prayers, our either praying or not praying actually do make a difference with God. Our responsible, or irresponsible, actions help bring about things...and that there are times (within this system of freedom and choices and consequences) when God does act because we have prayed, or does not act because we have not prayed. This is the picture you see exhibited time and time again in Scripture.
To be sure, God is "sovereign," which means He has purposes to which He has pledged His will that shall be accomplished, and His will is not ultimately dependent upon us. But some emphasize God's sovereignty so much (more than I believe Scripture does) that there is no choice-and-consequence in any real sense, no "contingency." My objection to that is Scripture consistently presents a different picture when it describes the interactions with God and men.
SO...bottom line, I would argue that because God has built real freedom into the "system" and the unfolding of history, God has invited us to urge His hand to move in new ways, and is willing to reverse course (and do new things) in response to the prayers has urged us to offer His throne.