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Does God Change His Mind?

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June 3, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
Does God Change His Mind?

Today's entry was written by Paul Lange. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.


I am a urologic cancer surgeon, a Christian, and I am passionate about learning and teaching the interface between science and religion. As such, I am continually challenged by what I call the “Christian physician’s dilemma”. Specifically, from Monday through Saturday we physicians treat the human body as a “machine” whose “workings” are revealed through reductionist processes. On Sundays those of us who are believers squirm in our pews while the congregation prays for healing.

Several years ago, we operated on a man with prostate cancer (we will call him Mr. Jones) that had very bad preoperative parameters, I feared that there would be many positive pelvic lymph nodes, and I would have to simply close him without taking out the prostate. However when I explored him, it wasn’t that bad and I was able to do a prostatectomy. That evening during rounds, I told Mr. Jones the good news and he replied: “Doctor, I knew it because I had a thousand people paying for me.” As often occurs in these situations, behind me I heard a few snickers and saw some of the residents and students roll their eyes much as they would do if a patient had extolled the benefits of some mysterious potion obtained in Mexico. Later outside the room we crowded around for a little round teaching and suddenly one of the residents who was an “evolving” Christian asked: “Dr. Lange, do you really believe that?”

I responded that what he was really asking was NOT the fact that because this man knew he had many people praying for him (including himself), that knowledge probably could help him face his crisis and possibly, though mechanisms that we still don’t understand, make the physiological response to his illness better. While we still are struggling to reliably measure this effect scientifically, most of us believe that believers (from any religious tradition) do better mentally and probably physically in handling disease. In that sense, prayer does work and most of us believe that.

No; what that resident really wanted to know was whether I believed that because Mr. Jones and his friends prayed for a good outcome, God directly intervened and the disease in his body suddenly changed for the better. In other words, metaphorically speaking: DOES GOD CHANGE HIS MIND? What follows are my continually evolving thoughts on this issue sharpened by my memory of that event.

My Thoughts on Prayer

Before I talk specifically about God changing his mind, let me comment on two aspects of prayer that are related. First I believe in prayer and do pray regularly because God’s Word tells us to pray. That is not a cop-out or the mindless obedience of a ritualistic believer. Rather it is at the center of this issue: I believe in God and in the ‘testimony” of the scriptures as a relatively accurate (and testable) approximation of His character and will. This belief is based on what is often called faith, which is often a central issue in any science/religion debate. For now let me here merely paraphrase St. Augustine who said that we believe in order to understand rather than understand in order to believe.

Another aspect of prayer outside the main point here is that we mostly pray not to ask God to do what we want, but to help us place ourselves in His hands—believing (as He promised) that all will work out for “the best”. The benefit of that attitude (believing in some ‘higher purpose”) is obvious and, as previously stated, almost certainly has some physiological “advantage” which someday will be scientifically measured and understood. But it is much deeper and involved. Using prayer to move away from an egocentric view toward a more selfless state produces a peace that is a mystery (which truly “surpasses all understanding”) that many wise men (especially the mystics of many religious) have described in very believable but profound terms.

Divine Action

But now to the main point: My thoughts about God’s mind and does it change when I pray. Incidentally what we’re talking about when we use the expression God’s mind are the fundamental laws of nature and in general what we’re talking about when we consider God’s involvement in our world is “divine action” (DA). Of course I don’t know but it seems to me that God’s mind (or the fundamental laws of nature) does not change, though our understanding does. Certainly so far whenever strange things are observed (in and out of medicine), things that heretofore and even now are called miracles, always, scientific scrutiny, when capable of comment, has found that these things follow natural laws or at least widely agreed upon “descriptions”. For example medical “descriptions” of seemingly fatal cancers have a wide range of possibilities ranging from extremely virulent to somewhat protracted courses, even (rarely) spontaneous cures which we euphemistically call “the freak rate” to dismiss our ignorance of what is going on. But always we have the confidence that eventually these “freak” occurrences will be understood; we never really consider them miracles; that is, phenomena that truly violate the fundamental laws of nature. In that sense, I certainly have not seen a miracle in my medical career (now spanning over 30 years) and know of no physician who has. Yet that viewpoint, in my opinion, does not rule out a belief in God’s continued involvement in our world, in divine action.

As a scientist it is much easier to believe in DA than it was when the worldview was so-called static; that is, the view that the world was created in toto, once and for all, and governed by infallible consistent “laws.” Now we “see” a much different universe; one that started with the big bang, has a history and geography that positions our world and a humankind (that evolved over eons of time) into a very small place and time; black holes; dark matter; time travel; string theory with unfathomably dimensions exceeding six; maybe multiple universes making other intelligent life in the cosmos probable; and so forth. Taken together this “ real” world is now much more unfathomable than Eve from a rib, water into wine, or a resurrection. No wonder physicists concerned with matters related to cosmology are now so filled with wonder that they appear spiritual.

So where does DA fit into this strange world? I don’t know exactly, but the point is it can fit and much better than in our former scientific worldview. For example, time is now known to be relative, and a God unconstrained by time seems now very plausible. As such, what looks like a miracle within the constraints of time, outside of time seems much more understandable. Thus Mr. Jones’s ‘freak rate’ cancer and the prayers for and by him could make rational sense when there is no before and after.

Another example is our realization that the world (especially the quantum world) is “open-ended”, evolving, emerging in ways that may not be totally predictable even by God. This easily “allows” God to be “inside” rather than “outside”. Thus a God that is involved in our lives is much easier to imagine.

My point is that the more one learns about the very sophisticated interface between science and religious concerns including DA, the more one realizes that much of what religious faith involves is approachable rationally. Thus the more I examine and experience, the stronger my conviction that the ‘leap” toward faith is just as legitimate to those who live and function in the world of science as it is for those a leap away from it. Also a God that can appear to institute miracles, answer prayer and love us and, yet not ‘break” the “ laws” He set up is a much more awesome God than one that is constantly rearranging the universe based on this or that (often contradictory) entreaty.

Mr. Jones continues to do well; he still thinks God changed His mind…I don’t. Yet we both continue to fold our hands to the same God; in awe at His creation, in humility at His love, in thankfulness and hope for His grace, and in Jesus’ name.

Suggested Readings

  1. Russell RJ, Murphy NC, Isham CJ: Editors: Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 1997.

  2. Russell RJ, Stoeger WR, Ayala FJ, Editors: Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 1999.

  3. Russell RJ, Murphy N, Peacocke AR: Editors: Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 1996.

  4. Russell RJ, Murphy N, Meyering TC, Arbib MA, Editors: Neurosciences and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 2000.

  5. Russell, RJ, Clayton P, Wegter-McNelly K, Polkinghorne J: Editors: Quantum Mechanics: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 2002.

  6. Haught, JF, Is Physics Fundamental? Russell on Devine Action, Zygon 45:213-220, 2010.

  7. Russell RJ, Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: Response to Reviews, Zygon 45:237-250, 2010.
Paul H. Lange, M.D., is the Pritt Chair in Prostate Cancer Research and a professor in the Department of Urology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Dr. Lange is also director of the Institute of Prostate Cancer Research and the UW and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

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Paul Bruggink - #16330

June 3rd 2010

Re John Polkinghorne’s lecture “Can a Scientist Pray?”, that is also the title of Chapter 5 in his book “Quarks, Chaos & Christianity, Revised and Updated Edition” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), pp.79-96, which is one of the best essays (if not the best) on the interface of science and prayer that I have ever read.

Gregory - #16333

June 3rd 2010

Of course, if ‘evolution’ is a synonym of ‘change’, e.g. some retrograde dictionaries claim that ‘evolution’ simply means ‘change-over-time’ (and we *know* that ‘natural evolution’ happens ‘over time’), then it would make sense that the title of this thread could also be called: “Does God Evolve His Mind?”

But we would then, considering such a paradoxical usage of a ‘scientific theory,’ see more clearly how ridiculous the semantic ideology of *universal evolutionism* is.

Paul Bruggink - #16345

June 4th 2010

Having just listened to John Polkinghorne’s excellent lecture mentioned in posts #16210 and #16225, I found that chapter 5 (“Can a Scientist Pray?”) of his book “Quarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, Revised and Updated Edition” can serve very well as a transcript of the lecture.

Bilbo - #16370

June 4th 2010

How about asking Polkinghorne to write something up for Biologos on petitionary prayer and science?

Gregory - #16379

June 4th 2010

Yes, suggestion of Bilbo seconded.

Polkinghorne defending BioLogos. On science and prayer or science and the Logos. Or…?

Biology of a (rare today) non-ideological variety. Theology that is not merely ‘liberal’ (i.e. non-BioLogos), as the example of A. Peacocke’s re-writing of Genesis. This would be excellent!

Os Guiness is important. But he is not a scientist. There are few clergy alive today more important than Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne for mediating science, philosophy and theology dialogue.

But please God let him also meditate here on the human-social sciences (e.g anthropology and altruism) as well.

Bilbo - #16406

June 4th 2010

I recommend Gregory for writing something up on anthropology and altruism.

Paul Bruggink - #16407

June 4th 2010

Bilbo (#16370) and Gregory (#16370),

Virtually everything mentioned by John Polkinghorne in his lecture is in Chapter 5 (“Can a Scientist Pray?”) of his book “Quarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, Revised and Updated Edition” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), pp.79-96, in virtually the same order.

It might be easier for BioLogos to get permission from John Polkinghorne to post the text of that chapter. That’s probably what BioLogos would get anyway if they asked him to write something up on petitionary prayer and science?  The chapter is very good.

J Green - #16408

June 4th 2010

Two foundational problems I see with this article:

1.  The concept prayer as something which merely has an positive mental effect on the person who is praying, but has nothing to do with a God who hears the cries of his people.  This flies in the face of everything in the Old and New Testaments.

2.  The defining of the mind of God as “the fundamental laws of nature.”  On what basis does the author make such a definition?  I’m not sure what belief system underlies such thinking - deism?  panentheism?  Pantheism.

This has to be one of the most unhelpful articles I have read at Biologos, because of the attitude it betrays and the author’s seemingly unfamiliarity with the way God is consistenly presented throughout the Bible as one who hears and responds.

Dunemeister - #16409

June 4th 2010

Why think of miracles as God changing his mind? The perspective is weird. It’s as if we’re thinking God wanted this guy to have apparently severe prostate cancer in the first place, but then after hearing the (predictable) prayers and laments of the sufferers and his cohorts, God changed his intentions toward this man. Would YOU pray to a god you honestly thought intended for you to have cancer in the first place, in the vague hope he’d change his mind if you prayed? What kind of god is that? What kind of believer?

Rather, I prefer the view that the world was set up according to fixed laws, that it has a certain autonomy yet falls under God’s overall sovereignty. Thus God doesn’t want anyone to have cancer (or at least, we can’t presume he does). Should someone develop it, prayer is a viable option because you are not trying to overcome one of God’s previous decisions/expressions of divine will. Rather, God, the sufferer par excellence (through Jesus) is willing to hear.

dopderbeck - #16426

June 4th 2010

Something we don’t often reflect on in conversations like this about prayer is that prayer is not ever something we do alone.  We do it in the community of the saints past and present, and also with the community of the Triune God Himself.   

Romans 8 says:

And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weaknesses; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

In the context of this conversation, what does it mean that God the Spirit “intercedes for us . . . according to the will of God” with God the Father, and that we “do not know how to pray as we should?”  I think it means “our” prayers are not something that “change God’s mind.”  Our prayers are a way of participating in God’s redemptive work.  God is always the primary actor—but somehow it is important that we participate.

Gregory - #16447

June 4th 2010

Hi Bilbo,

Funny you should mention it.

On transport in recent weeks I´ve been re-reading a book that I first read 17 years ago.
Just today covered this part:
Rearden asks to Danneskjold: “Aren´t you one of those damn altruists who spends his time on a non-profit venture and risks his life merely to serve others?”

Danneskjold had said:  “I´m after a man whom I want to destroy…Robin Hood…of all symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible.”

Many of you will know the name of this book. Its author, along with R. Dawkins, is a promoter of ´selfishness´ and-or ´egoism,´ and is strongly [one might even say viciously] opposed to altruism.

As it turns out, I´ve started a paper on altruism and the human-social sciences. Your comment encourages me to get back to it sooner than later.

Thanks for the endorsement. I shall try. Appreciate your prayers.
- Gregory

Bilbo - #16463

June 4th 2010

With all do respect to Dr. Lange (I’m trying to be polite this time), I second the concerns of J. Green.

And go for it, Gregory.  (I haven’t a clue who the author is.)

Marcio - #16500

June 4th 2010

I think that, for God to “change his mind”, He would need to be inside the time frame. But at least in Catholic theology, God is outside the time frame, which allows omniscience. I don’t know who said (CS Lewis?) that, while we see a film, frame after frame, God sees it all at once, as if all frames were together.

As a Catholic, I do believe in divine intervention (but also believe it’s way less frequent than my Charismatic friends think it happens), but I don’t think it happens like “I got ill and God decided to act only after people started to pray for me”. Again, that would put God inside the time frame. Father Leo Trese, in “Faith Explained”, has a nice description on how God “works” with the prayer answering stuff, even considering questions like “what if I give up praying at the moment I was supposed to pray?”

Greetings from Brazil!

Russell - #16504

June 4th 2010

“Another example is our realization that the world (especially the quantum world) is “open-ended”, evolving, emerging in ways that may not be totally predictable even by God.”

Maybe I am misunderstanding the point here but I am greatly bothered by something that may not be totally predictable by God. If the world as described by quantum is the way it is, then God would have designed it that way thus be able to predict it and actually be in complete control over it.

Philip R - #16510

June 5th 2010

God can decide to or not to change his mind. He can do whatever he wants from our perspective. Maybe within his “nature” (i.e. supernature) he has limitations and searches for new understanding about certain things in his creation, but that has nothing to do with us! We can’t even begin to fathom his greatness - how can we begin to fathom his limitations? I think God’s character can be seen as a mixture of artistic and scientific: creates, observes/listens, discovers and improves. Pray is our sign of allegiance, faith and dependence on him. When he hears our prayers (e.g. in times of sickness) he can decide if answering them will improve the state of his creation and bring Him glory. He doesn’t have to. I also like the suggestion by the author that pray brings our minds into a state of peace such that we are more receptive to God’s will.

CM - #16573

June 5th 2010

This reminds me of some discussions I had as an early and cautious Christian. Prayer seemed a pretty strange thing to me. I mean, God’s going to do what He’s going to do, and he knows what I want before I do, so why do I need to pray about things? The answer I came up with in talking to Christian friends along my journey: (1) It shows our submission to His will (as others have pointed out), and (2) It provides opportunities to *witness* a “miracle”. By praying for things that seem really improbable, we help create an opportunity for God to demonstrate His faithfulness and mightyness. As with a comment above, maybe God had planned to alleviate the cancer situation all along and called people to pray not to change the outcome, but so that when the unlikely occured His followers would see it as a sign of His work.

Of course, this is all something to think about because how else are we to think of all the Godly people whose prayers are *not* answered as we would like them to be (i.e. being saved from fatal cancer)? Are they not praying hard enough? It’s isn’t a spiritual tug of war with God, afterall, where enough prayers will tip the scale. Just some additional food for though. Thanks for the post!

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #16872

June 7th 2010

God can’t change His mind (in His Divine nature) anymore than He can make 2+2=5 or make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it.  We can only know God analogously not unequivocally.  God is not a man.  God however can will conditionally which might give the appearance of “changing” his mind.

Joe - #16924

June 7th 2010

“Another example is our realization that the world (especially the quantum world) is “open-ended”, evolving, emerging in ways that may not be totally predictable even by God. This easily “allows” God to be “inside” rather than “outside”. Thus a God that is involved in our lives is much easier to imagine.”

I don’t quite understand what is being said here.  Is this saying that God has created a universe that he does not understand?  That seems very nonsensical.  If God is unable to know what is going on in the universe, then the evidence we see for God’s existence (such as the fine-tuning or intelligibility of the universe) shouldn’t exist.

Rev. Scott Mapes - #17023

June 8th 2010

Some of our different views on God’s sovereignty and God’s freedom may simply go back to whether one’s theological perspective tends towards Calvinism or Arminianism.  Where do I stand?  While I do admit that Calvinism provides a beautiful theological system appealing to our reason and engineering instincts, I believe that Arminianism serves us better in accounting for the raw data and narrative of scripture.  Can a sovereign God set aside His apparent sovereignty within the context of His sovereignty?  I believe so.

JC - #17116

June 9th 2010

all I know is that I am to pray for the sick. But Paul also tells timothy to take some wine for his stomach.

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