When I taught at college ministries years ago, I liked to talk with students about prayer and its purpose. It always seemed that one of the major reasons to pray is to change God’s mind. This concept usually rubbed people the wrong way, but there is ample biblical precedent. My favorite is Moses, who spoke to God face to face as “one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). When Moses was told that God was about to destroy the Israelites because of idolatry at Sinai, he argued that this would cause the surrounding peoples to mock God and cause shame to the divine name. Moses prevailed and God relented (Exodus 32:7-14). This week’s lectionary is full of stories of God changing God’s mind in response to people.
For me, the most stunning story of prophetic performance in the Bible is that of Hosea and Gomer. After too many incidences of Israel prostituting itself through idolatry, God commanded Hosea to enter into a relationship with someone he knew would be unfaithful to him. Hosea chose Gomer, whose agency in the prophetic performance isn’t mentioned. This isn’t a love story, but a performance of relational catastrophe.
Gomer bore Hosea a son, and then two other children who aren’t linked to the prophet in the text. These children were given names like “Not-loved” and “Not-my-people.” This human tragedy of children going through lives with these names was to reflect the shame and injury of the Israelites who would be rejected by God. But, immediately after these words, God relented and said, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’ ” (Hosea 1:10). God promises to change God’s mind and rename those who were formerly disowned as beloved children.
God has granted us the supreme honor of recognizing us as dearly beloved children, who then are able to approach God with confidence when we pray
This week’s Gospel text includes a discussion on how to pray. Jesus tells the story of a man who is ensconced in his home, with his door locked and everyone settled in the family bed. Someone comes in the middle of the night, asking to borrow food for a guest who has just arrived. At first the man refuses. As someone with young children who have a difficult time going to sleep at night, I applaud the man for not getting up, and I want to shake some sense into the person who knocks on the door late at night. But the point of the illustration is that the man seeking to borrow bread is so persistent that the man gets up and gives him the food. Jesus underlines the point to make sure we all understand it, saying the request is granted not because of friendship or intimacy between the two, but solely because of persistence (Luke 11:8).
Jesus is telling us how prayer works. In this story, God is the one who is reluctant to be roused and deliver what is desired, and we humans are to be like the persistent neighbor, not letting God rest until we get some bread.
This is an uncomfortable lesson for me. I grew up mostly as a mainline Protestant in the Midwest. We ask nicely once and then, if refused, we make do. Jesus furthers his point, though, and tells us that if even human parents know to give good gifts and not bad ones to their children when asked, our heavenly Parent will do even better “if we ask [God]” (Luke 11:13). It is our repeated asking that spurs God to action on our behalf.
I love reading the Psalms as the communal attempt to change God’s mind. Psalm 85:4-7 says:
Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
Jesus spent some of his last hours before his execution praying for God to change God’s mind about what was about to happen (Matthew 26:39). Even though the crucifixion still happened, Jesus’ prayer wasn’t a waste of time. Instead, it shows us that even concerning the salvific event in the history of the universe, the messiah still thought it was worth spending his last few hours of freedom begging God for a change of mind. How much more should we seek to have God intervene for God’s people in our daily lives.