This question can be best answered by breaking it into two questions: 1) Does prayer change God’s mind? and 2) Does prayer change things? The answer to the first is, no, God does not change His mind. The answer to the second is, yes, prayer changes things. So how can prayer change circumstances without changing God’s mind?
First of all, in order for God to change His mind, He would have to improve upon Himself in some way. In other words, if God changed His mind, that action would suggest that His first way of thinking was deficient, but, because we prayed, He improved His plan concerning our situation. We change our minds when we see a better way to do something. We thought A but realized B was better, so we change our mind. But, since God knows all things, the beginning from the end (Revelation 22:13; Ephesians 1:4), it is not possible for Him to improve upon any plan that He has made. His plans are already perfect (2 Samuel 22:31), and He has stated that His plans will prevail (Isaiah 46:9–11).
What about passages like Exodus 32:14 that seem to imply that God “repented of” His action? The Hebrew word nacham, often translated “repent” or “change one’s mind,” can also mean “sorrow” or “to bring comfort.” Genesis 6:6 is the first occurrence of this word in reference to the Lord: “The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” This appears to mean that God had second thoughts about His decision to create human beings. But, since God’s ways are perfect, we need to look for an alternate understanding. If we apply the secondary definitions of the word translated “regretted,” we can understand this verse to mean that the wickedness of man brought great sorrow to God’s heart, especially in light of what He must do to restore them.
Jonah 3:10 is another example of the Hebrew word nacham: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” In other words, God took comfort in the fact that He did not have to destroy the Ninevites as He had said He would. He did not change His mind; He already knew they would repent. His actions are always a part of His bigger plan that was formed before He created the world. Jeremiah 18:8 helps explain this concept: “And if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” God is not changing His mind; He is taking comfort in the truth that man’s repentance will curb the consequences that He, in His righteousness, has already established.
So if prayer does not change God’s mind, why do we pray? Does prayer change our circumstances? Yes. God delights in changing our circumstances in response to our prayers of faith. Jesus instructed us to “always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). First John 5:14–15 also reminds us that, when we pray according to God’s will, He hears and answers. The key phrase is “according to His will.” That will also includes His timing.
We can think of it this way: a father plans to give his daughter a car when she turns 16. He knows by that time she will have a job, be active in church and school activities, and be able to pay for her own insurance. But he also plans to wait to give it until she asks for it, because he wants her to value such a gift. But at age 11, she begins to beg for a car. She pleads, bargains, and gets angry when on her 12th, 13th, and 14th birthdays there is still no car. She matures a bit and stops asking, but then at 16 she approaches her father in a more thoughtful way, explains her need for a car, and expresses her confidence that her dad will take care of this need. In a very short time, he joyfully hands her the keys. Did he change his mind? No, he had always planned to give it to her. Did she need to ask? Yes, that was part of his decision.
In a similar way, our heavenly Father invites us to ask Him for everything we need. He delights to give it to us when it is within His plan. He knows we don’t always understand His timing, but He expects us to trust and not doubt (James 1:5–6; Matthew 6:8). Our prayers help to align our hearts with His heart until His will is our highest goal (Luke 22:42). He promises to listen and grant the desires of our hearts when our hearts are wholly His (Psalm 37:4; 2 Chronicles 16:9).