One popular question many Christians ask is, “Does God answer the prayers of unbelievers?” Sincere men and women of all religions attempt to communicate with their god in one way or another. We may readily affirm that God does not let these people into heaven because they follow idols, but does He at least lend them a hand? The Bible has the answer to these and similar questions, but it may not be the answer we’d like.
God certainly hears the prayers of unbelievers in the sense that He is omniscient and knows every man’s thoughts. God certainly provides food and water even to nations where Christianity is practically non-existent. God certainly intervenes at times in the affairs of unbelievers to protect them from harm. However, when one bows their head in devotion to a different god, is God just as attentive to their prayer as He is to that of Christians? Does God, like a good Father, give good gifts to His children when they are not actually His children? Does God hear their prayer in the sense that He promises to answer? To these questions, the Bible answers with a hearty, “No.”
To understand this it is helpful to keep in mind how the Bible describes a person before they become a Christian. Before we believe in Jesus, the Bible describes us as helpless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God (Rom. 5:6-10); we were “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3); we were “alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (Col. 1:21); and unable to do anything good, for Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Before we get into the bulk of our lesson, may I say that I am not denying in any way that God denies a penitent sinner who comes to Him for mercy! Typically when I answer the question, “Does God hear the prayer of unbelievers?” in the negative, some retort that He hears the sinner’s prayer. That is correct, but simply because they are saved at that point! They are approaching God for the first time by faith, with Christ as their Mediator. Jesus will in no wise turn away those who come to Him (John 6:37).
The Prayer of the Wicked is an Abomination
- The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight. (Prov. 15:8)
This verse contrasts the worship of the saved and unsaved. When a wicked man prays, it is “an abomination.” Basically, it is disgusting to, and hated by, God.
- The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous. (Prov. 15:29)
If one is wicked and does not know Jesus, then God is far away. We see this too when we read the contrast of God’s attitude toward the righteous in the second half. God does hear the prayer of the righteous. This verse is therefore in addition implying that the Lord does not hear the prayer of the wicked.
- The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, how much more when he brings it with evil intent! (Prov. 21:27)
The first half of this verse is the same as we saw before. Here though, the author gives a different ending. It should be obvious that wicked men, and even Christians at times, pray with wrong motives. In James chapter 4 the apostle describes that strife and jealousy arises because men prayed for personal gain. But this proverb goes even deeper. We learn that it is disgusting to God not only when the wicked pray with bad motives, but also when they pray with good motives!
Even when an unbeliever is hurting and lifts their eyes to heaven for help, God is still “far from” that person. From a human perspective that seems cruel. That is simply because we have an insufficient grasp on just how depraved humanity is. To illustrate, it is just as if an adulterous wife came to her husband’s house for the first time in years, asks for drug money, and then went on back to her new partner. Consider a couple examples of this in Isaiah 29:15 and 40:27. God is basically saying “You turn your back on Me to run off with idols because they make you happy, and now that your life is hard you’re returning to Me?! Go let your idols save you if they’re so strong and faithful!”
- He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, even his prayer is an abomination. (Prov. 28:9)
The bad actions of the wicked are obviously bad in God‘s eyes. Here however, from the phrase, “even his prayer” we learn that the good actions of the wicked are also disgusting to God. To make sense of this, consider in Romans 8:8. It says that those who walk according to the flesh cannot obey God’s commands. Sure, many non-Christians are honest, moral people, but still their every act is rebellion. Deep down, if left to ourselves, none of us want God. We are hostile toward Him (Rom. 8:7; Col. 1:21).
God’s Attitude Toward Unbelievers Doesn’t Invite Prayer
Now sure, God loves helping people, but let us remember a few important facts before jumping to dangerous conclusions:
- God only promises to come to the aid of His children,
- God is not obligated to help anybody, good or bad—He has the free will to act or not,
- God is not like a waiter or a genie—we shouldn’t take Him for granted, and He cannot be bossed around,
- God’s purpose in helping us is that He may be glorified–the prayer of the wicked is always for their own fame rather than God’s fame.
- Also, it is not the attitude of God to bless unbelievers. When a man turns from God to idols, God moves Himself further away from that person; He doesn’t scootch in closer! It is as if He says, “You don’t want me? Fine! You can’t have me!” Consider how God hands people over to their sins in Romans 1, Psalm 69:27, and Psalm 81:11-12.
Unbelievers Pray Without a Mediator
The Bible says, “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). The Bible says elsewhere, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, if anybody does not have Christ as their Mediator, that person cannot enter into God’s presence. It is like in the Old Testament where everything needed to be sprinkled with blood, washed, or ceremonially clean. God is holy and cannot fellowship with unholy beings.
When sin entered the world through his rebellion, Adam and his wife hid from God’s presence (Gen. 3:8), and they were kicked out of the garden (Gen. 3:23-24). Our sins cause a separation between us and God (Isa. 59:2). In order to restore our relationship with God, the obstacle of sin must be removed. That is where Christ comes in. He, as a High Priest died in the place of all who believe, bearing the punishment they deserve. He shed His perfect blood and sprinkled it on the heavenly altar. Now, when God looks at a Christian He no longer sees their sins, but sees Jesus’ 33 years of perfect obedience to every commandment.
God Does Hear Prayer In Christ
There are many different forms of prayer. For example, thanksgiving, confession of sin, supplication and intercession, and rejoicing. In the New Testament we see that for a believer to pray in these ways, Christ is the Mediator.
- It is in the name of Jesus that we offer thanksgiving to God. In Ephesians 5:20, Paul says, “Always give thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God.” And again in Colossians 3:17 it is written, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
- It is in the name of Jesus that we confess our sins. First John 1:9 teaches that if we confess our sins God will forgive us. This forgiveness comes because “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (v. 7) There is no other grounds by which a person can be forgiven of sins. Also, in the next chapter, the first verse (2:1) we are told “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Again, Jesus Christ and His shed blood is the only source of a relationship with God. Nobody who does not believe in the Son will receive forgiveness.
- It is in the name of Jesus that we intercede for others. In John 13-17, Jesus is about to leave His disciples and die. To comfort them, He assures them that He is going to the right hand of God. From there He will speak to God on our behalf! He promises them:
John 14:13- “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do…”
John 15:16- “…whatever you ask of the Father in My name He will give to you.”
John 16:23- “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.”
- It is in the name of Jesus that we rejoice. As Paul says in Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” You and I have both met people of all religions who are joyful people. Remember though that joy is not merely having a good time, or feeling good today. A child is happy when he gets an ice cream cone, but he can have joy even when it falls on the sidewalk. In this letter, Paul describes his imprisonment and sees his imminent death. There is no other source of such a powerful joy, one that looks beyond temporal, physical comfort than the hope we have in Jesus Christ. We cannot say “Rejoice in a better presidency,” or “Rejoice in your good career,” for if we were in Paul’s situation those things would mean nothing to us! But wherever a believer is, their Hope is still alive, seated at the right hand of God. An unbeliever has no such hope, and therefore cannot truly rejoice.
So there is the testimony of Scripture: God does not hear the prayer of unbelievers. God only promises to answer prayers made through the Mediator Jesus. What sort of application can we draw from this? Most importantly, if you are not a Christian, get right with God! You do not have a father-son relationship with God, but are two parties at enmity with one another. If you are a Christian, remind yourself of the several promises in Scripture that God will hear and answer your prayers. For parents, make sure that you teach your children the gospel alongside the discipline of prayer. We don’t want them simply going through the motions without a true relationship with God in their hearts.