Hey, Father! Can God change his mind, especially when we pray?
When I was first asked to answer this question, I wanted to run away and hide, pretending that I had not seen it! Why, you may ask? This is a difficult question to ask, and one for which I did not have a quick answer. Thankfully, I remembered this topic being addressed in a recent podcast episode from Bishop Robert Barron on The Metaphysics of Prayer. I went back to that episode to refresh my memory on how he brought some clarity to this otherwise complex theological question.
In answering the question about whether God’s mind can change, it is helpful to first make sure we have a good grasp on God. In Catholic theology, we use a lot of technical words when speaking about God. One of those words is that he is immutable. If you break down the word to its Latin roots, it basically means unchangeable. There are other words we use to describe God, but for the purposes of answering this question, let me just point out this important characteristic.
With this point in mind, we can apply it to what we know and believe about prayer. Bishop Barron references a short definition of prayer by St. John Damascene which says: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” In other words, prayer is about what is happening to us, not to God. By praying, we cannot manipulate God to where he changes his mind about something. Nor are we going to tell him anything in prayer that he does not already know. Prayer opens us up to be more receptive to the gifts that he wants to give to us, gifts that come from his unchanging, perfect providential plan for us and for all of creation.
A logical question might be: “Why should we pray at all? If God knows what he is going to do, and he cannot be changed, isn’t prayer just a waste of time?” Jesus himself tells us in Matthew’s Gospel to “ask … seek … and knock.” (Matthew 7:7) Clearly, he wants us to pray for those things we desire, but always trusting that what God will give us will be the best for us, even if that is not made clear to us until we get to heaven.
I came across a great one-liner that a priest said in response to one who might raise the above objection. He said, “We continue to pray because what we ask for in prayer may be part of God’s will for us.”
If you are still confused, I do not blame you! This is a hard question to answer, but I hope these points have helped a little. So, keep on praying, but with every request, humbly conclude with the words of Jesus himself in the Garden: “Not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Father Brian Alford is vocations director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois and pastor at St. Jude Parish in Rochester.