Does God Move When We Pray?

Christians have long believed that God is immutable, meaning he cannot change, and Christians have long believed that God is impassible, meaning he cannot suffer, empathize or feel in response to creation.  If that is true then does God move when we pray?

As Christianity spread from a mostly Jewish context into a mostly Hellenized context, early Church theologians sought to translate the gospel into Greek thought forms to make the Jewish story more comprehensible.  Early Christians reached back into the tool bag of antiquity and discovered several intellectual resources for reshaping the story of Israel into the structure of Hellenized Christian thought.  The most frequently used tools were Plato and Aristotle.

Long before the incarnation, some Greeks believed in a singular supreme divine force.  They thought of this divine force as the most perfect being, Aristotle’s Uncaused Cause.  As the most perfect being, it had several logically necessary metaphysical characteristics: existence, immutability, impassibility, eternality, etc.  The early Church picked up this concept of being, and they used it to describe the God of Israel to a Hellenized culture.  This translation project helped the Greeks understand God in their own language and thought form, and, as a result, the Christian concept of God shifted from being the God of Israel’s story to the God that was immutable and impassible.  This is the God of classic Christian theism, so whether you are Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant this is the notion of God you inherit.

Therefore, since we believe that God is immutable and impassible, we must also believe that God does not change in his essence or nature and that he is not moved or affected by creation.  For God to be the perfect being he must be fully actualized without any potentiality.   To have potential is to be something less than what one can become, requiring change in order to become.  A being with potential is less than a perfect being, so God must be fully actualized and not subject to change (immutable) in order to be God.

Also, for God to be the most perfect being, he must be unmoved, unaffected and unable to suffer in relation to creation.  In order for God to feel, suffer or have empathy with creation he must be surprised, at some level, by a response in creation that alters his emotional state.  To suffer or have empathy with creation would suggest that his being is in some fashion dependent upon creation, violating divine aseity.  God, if he is the most perfect being, must not suffer, emote or empathize with creation (impassible).

In light of our Western tradition regarding the nature of God, the practical question is  whether God responds, changes or empathizes with us in our prayers?  Put another way, can we move God?

Our Christian piety impulsively demands that we answer the question, YES!  Recall the way we talk about prayer and our experience of prayer.  We often say, “God answered my prayer.”  We often hear preachers suggest, “God always answers our prayer with yes, no or not yet.”

Moreover, many stories from scripture seem to suggest God is affected by creation, and he changes in response to our prayers.  In Genesis God regrets creating humankind.  He seems willing to alter his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorra as he bargains with Abraham.  In Exodus he accommodates his plan for Moses when Moses demands that Aaron accompany him before Pharaoh.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of examples of what appear to be God’s mutability and passibility.

So then, must we reject impassibility and immutability based upon our experience and scripture? 

Are the characteristics immutability and impassibility merely barnacles from Greek culture sticking to the underbelly of the ship of faith? 

Is God moved by our pleas, or does he alter course and take action based upon our prayers?

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13 Responses to Does God Move When We Pray?

  1. C. Curtis says:

    Since God is omniscient, I don’t see how he could possibly alter course and take action based upon our prayers. Wouldn’t that mean that we somehow gave him information that he had not considered and so he thought our idea better than his original plan? I think that God somehow works through our prayers always carrying out his own plans that were never dependent upon our prayers to begin with. I am thinking of “providence”. Just my thoughts to kick things off.

    Great post!

    • rnieman says:

      “Providence” yes, but biblical providence doesn’t involve meticulous exhaustive determinism.

      • rnieman,

        So, what do you mean by providence if you are rejecting the classical theistic notion of divine determinism? Are you coming from an Arminian approach or an Open Theistic approach?

        • rnieman says:

          Hi Ryan,
          I’m coming from a classical arminian approach. By biblical providence we mean that God is governing His creation but not in such a way as to meticulously determine every little thing and thus end up the author of sin and evil as with exhaustive determinism.

          • Nice. It sounded like that was your framework. Stay tuned because this post is a spring broad for talking out the options on this quandary. Gimme a hand, if you will on the free will theist position later this week.

            Have you studied theology?

        • rnieman says:

          Hi Ryan,
          “Gimme a hand, if you will on the free will theist position later this week.”
          FYI true Arminians hold to both TD and TI, but define man’s deadness in sin as a spiritual one. Faith preceeds regeneration. I certainly can try help you in defining the arminian view.
          Have you studied theology? not in school.

          bless you

    • C. Curtis,

      Your reply is very similar to the answer classical theism offers. Your notion that God works “through” or prayers is quite similar to the classical theistic response that God appoints the events (divine determinism) and appoints the means to those ends (our prayer). Still, this answer feels a little mechanical, and it does not correlate perfectly with biblical descriptions.

  2. Chris Cartney says:

    It is an awe striking mystery to think about WHY the Lord allows us to ask/talk to Him about things so that He is ‘moved’. I understand that He is immutable, but He is also immutably-mutable: He is impassible (perfect being without want or need) but He is also passionate (jealous, loving) without violating His being impassible. Just like He is holy, yet gracious and merciful. Overall, He is transcendent … and not bound to immutability or impassivity.
    My learning curve in prayer involves fighting my science background and personality as I’m likely to pray (struggle) with an emphasis on results and process instead of the Person.

  3. Diane Schiller says:

    I never learned God was impassible. In my mind that contradicts the translations I have read.

    • Diane,

      Do you happen to attend a church that emphasizes an Arminian understanding of divine providence? It could be that you have not heard of God’s impassibility because your church does not teach theology or possibly that they teach something other than the classical theistic approach.

  4. Rich Bennema says:

    We should certainly reject impassibility based on Scripture. According to Hebrews, the key is the incarnate member of the triune God who became dependent upon creation and yet remained perfect within creation. What’s more, the writer’s explicit purpose in pointing this out is so that we pray confident that we can move God.

    Hebrews 4:14-16 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

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