Changing God's Mind

August 8th, 2011

One of the most puzzling passages in the Bible to me is the account of the encounter Jesus has with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. Here are the basic details of the situation: A very bold non-Jewish woman is desperate to have her daughter delivered from demonization, so she directly asks Jesus to do it. When he appears to ignore her, she keeps pushing. Finally the disciples ask Jesus to make her go away. The woman specifically asks Jesus to help her. He tells her that he has been sent only to the Jewish people, and then adds this jaw-dropper:

“It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

So what has God said to you lately?

Seriously, how would you respond to something like that? While his statement is clearly metaphorical, it’s hard to get around the idea that he called the woman, her family and all Gentiles… well... dogs. The woman was likely used to hearing this sort of thing, as it was how Gentiles were referred to by Jews in that culture. Perhaps Jesus used that harsh language to make a big point, and by his actions that followed, he actually planted a seed for a change of Jewish attitudes that would be further realized when Peter had his vision of the animals on the sheet later in Acts 10. Don’t misunderstand—Jesus was still sent to the Jews first—but God appears to have used this episode to give a sneak preview of his plan to save all people groups through Christ.

The bigger issue in play here is the woman’s boldness, and her apparent success at changing Jesus’ mind. What’s that? You think Jesus was testing her all along and knew he would end up healing her daughter? Perhaps, but that’s assuming the Holy Spirit had revealed that much information to Jesus up to this point. (Remember, as a human being Jesus had set aside certain attributes of his deity and was operating under the power of the Holy Spirit.) The great scandal of this passage is Jesus’ apparent reluctance in the beginning to do something to help the Gentile daughter. Can you imagine what cable news channels would have done with this story if they had existed back in the day?

The ultimate takeaway for this passage is that Jesus responded to the woman’s faith, and that faith seemed to somehow override his original intention. This is good news for us, because faith is where the ball is really in our court. Someone once said that faith is the currency of heaven. I think they were on to something.

God is approachable (only because of the blood of Jesus) and he still responds to faith today. I believe there are times when he changes his mind (or at least the course of events) in response to our prayers. Anyone who downplays this notion risks making prayer nothing more than a spiritual formation exercise for personal growth—nice thought, but no thanks. We should want to grow closer to God, but ultimately, we when we pray, we want his kingdom to come and his will to be done. That’s not always automatic, so our prayers play a big part.

Sometimes God delays an answer to prayer to see what kind of faith we really have. That’s what was essentially going on in the encounter with the Canaanite woman. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She wasn’t thinking about spirituality on some deep level, she was trying to get help for her daughter who was vexed by a demon. She was willing to buck protocol and risk humiliating herself to get Jesus to help her. She was desperate, and in her desperation she found the faith she needed to approach Jesus, and Jesus responded to it.

When we’re desperate enough to refuse to take no for an answer, that’s when God will sometimes change his mind. Just ask the Canaanite woman. Or Abraham.


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