Is God Moved by our Petitions?

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Do our petitions move God?

Let my cry come to you.

Do our petitions move God? This is one of the questions covered in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, a series of letters written by C.S. Lewis to an imaginary correspondent, Malcolm, who is portrayed as an intelligent layman who falls into common misconceptions.

At stake in the conversation presented in letters 9 and 10 (we only have Lewis’s side of the correspondence) is a picture of God promoted in the church since the early fathers, namely, that God is not subject to passions (God’s nature is impassible). Therefore, he doesn’t change and is not subject to suffering change from without. And if that’s true, then how can he be pleased or displeased to change his course by our prayers?

Is God moved by his creation, or is he the unmoved mover?

Early apologists wanted to differentiate the Christian God from those of Mount Olympus, who might have a bad day and, on purpose or inadvertently, destroy a city or have a fight with another god, and losing, take their frustrations out on the other’s favorite humans. Plato’s philosophy on ideal versions of things like emotions influenced these defenders of the faith, where the sentiment would be abstracted into the pure and perfect essence of that emotion, stripped of any external influences, contextual factors, or fluctuations. More importantly, these apologists were paying attention to Scripture that points to God as a stable and reliable sovereign, a vast improvement over the deposed divine tyrants: 

“Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” Psalm 102:25-27 (ESV)

This passage from Psalms emphasizes God’s unchanging nature and eternal existence, supporting the idea that God is not subject to the temporal changes that affect creation.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17 (ESV)

James affirms that God is unchanging, without variation or shadow due to change, reinforcing the concept of divine impassibility.

“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” Numbers 23:19 (ESV)

God is unchanging, without variation or shadow due to change, reinforcing the concept of divine impassibility.

This passage underscores God’s faithfulness and reliability, emphasizing that God does not change His mind.

“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” 1 Samuel 15:29 (ESV)

This verse highlights the contrast between God and humanity, asserting that God does not have regret or change His mind like human beings.

“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Malachi 3:6 (ESV)

This verse, similar to the one in James, underscores the unchanging nature of God, providing a foundation for the concept of divine impassibility.

“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” Isaiah 46:9-10 (ESV):

Isaiah emphasizes God’s unique ability to lay out and accomplish His purposes.

But Scripture also presents God as having an emotional life.

While God is the best of Kings, keeps his word, and is not victimized by His humors as all merely human kings have been, “… scripture doesn’t take the slightest pains to guard the doctrine of Divine Impassibility. We are constantly represented as exciting the Divine wrath or pity – even as ‘grieving God.’” (Lewis, 51) 

“And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Genesis 6:6 (ESV)

“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:5-6 (ESV)

“The Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Jeremiah 31:3 (ESV)

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 103:8 (ESV)

And if the Psalms, in general, are any indication of the emotional life of God, and they are, our emotions are a dim reflection. Admittedly, God’s passions must be as high above ours as his eternal existence is above our finitude. If you look at the idea of impassibility and find a stone god, you are not paying attention to the whole counsel of Scripture.

Lewis’s response to the tension between the eternal and our prayers.

Take the pictures of Scripture over the abstractions of theology and use those well-formed abstractions as guardrails to avoid gross errors. Scripture describes prayer as a place with God where we are considered; it is not a power play where we get God to do things. It is a dear child coming to their Father—which we are by our Baptism. Relying on theological principles solely, even when derived from the scriptures, will only get you into trouble:

“The situation of the penitent before God isn’t, but is somehow like, that of one appearing before a justly angered sovereign, lover, Father, master, or teacher. But what more can we know about it than just this likeness? Trying to get in behind the analogy, you go further and fare worse. You suggest that what is traditionally regarded as our experience of God’s anger would be more helpfully regarded as what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power. As you say, “The live wire doesn’t feel angry with us, but if we blunder against it we get a shock.

My dear Malcolm, what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? You have shut us all up in despair; for the angry can forgive, and electricity can’t.” (Lewis, p 96)

A good king who, in love, goes to the greatest lengths to forgive and save his people.

We have a God who hears our prayers as our Father and desires the best for us and all his children from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-14). Jesus, God in the flesh, prayed to his Father and taught us to do the same. Being one in essence with the Father, the Son, in his humanity, experienced the full measure of what it means to be dependent and subject to emotions. As our advocate and intercessor, Jesus knows the frustration we go through when we receive silence from heaven, and in his resurrection, he strengthens us with the knowledge that silence is not the last word, and through the Spirit, he prays with us.


* Lewis, C.S., Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Harvest, 1964.

** All scriptural passages are quoted from the ESV.

*** Thanks to Rick Ritche for directing me back to Letters to Malcolm while I was spinning my wheels on this topic.