Does God Answer the Prayers of Unbelievers?
By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
My friend is a Ukrainian refugee living in Germany. He is also a pastor who is using this as an opportunity to share the gospel with several of his countrymen. He is telling me that there is now not only a “door to the gospel” but a wide-open gate.
It’s not difficult in such a season to talk about prayer and then to transition into a conversation about the gospel. He frequently tells people, even if they are unbelievers, to pray for Ukraine. “Ask God to help us,” he tells them.
On January 2nd, 2023, while millions were watching, the Buffalo Bills safety, Damar Hamlin, collapsed on the field. The game was eventually canceled. Players were visibly shaken, and the world waited to hear reports. It was clear that CPR was administered on the field. While we waited, many encouraged the world to pray for Damar.
But this begs the question, does God answer the prayer of unbelievers? Does he even hear them?
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He Only Hears the Prayer of Repentance?
This is a popular question and one that I have received often. A quick Google search will return many answers to this question. And the general consensus is that God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers except for the prayer of repentance. Matt Slick at Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry says this:
Generally speaking, God does not answer the prayers of unbelievers because they are not sanctified in Christ. The requests and demands that they might make in prayer are not through the sanctifying work of the sacrifice on the cross, nor are they being humbly subject to the will of God. Therefore, God does not answer the prayers of unbelievers.
A few verses in Scripture seem to agree with this perspective. In John 9:31, a man that Jesus healed argues that “God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will.” His argument is that God wouldn’t have answered the prayer of Jesus if Jesus was the unrighteous man they claimed Him to be.
In Isaiah 59:2, we read, “but your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” In this context, the sin of Israel has caused a relational fracture. The implication is that God will not hear their prayer while they remain in unrepentant sin.
One may also be able to argue from James 4:3 that unbelievers only ask with wrong motives, thus their sin will not be answered. John MacArthur attempted to answer this question by outlining fifteen types of prayers that God does not answer. Though he acknowledges that a “strict yes or no answer is difficult without qualifying the answer” he concludes with Slick, “in general, God does not answer the prayers of an unbeliever.”
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Consider Jesus’ Relationship to Unbelievers
I’m not entirely convinced, though. John 9:31 may be no more than a reflection of the prevailing view of Jesus’ day. Scripture does not necessarily give a stamp of approval or disapproval upon this man’s statement.
Likewise, many of the texts, like Isaiah 59:2, deal more with relational fractures. It has to do with the dynamic of a relationship more than a settled principle. Are all of those Scriptures that MacArthur uses teaching that God under no circumstance will answer the prayer of someone who has sin in their life? Will he never answer the prayer of someone who is violent? Will he always turn a deaf ear to the cry of the poor?
Or are these more like Proverbs—general principles about what kind of heart we should have, and what kind of lifestyle puts one in a beneficial relationship with God? I tend to believe they are not meant to be read in such a rigid fashion so as to come to the conclusion that if you are an unbeliever, God is deaf to your cries.
Consider the way that Jesus interacted with unbelievers. How does he respond to the Gentile woman in Mark 7:24-30? How does he respond to the pleas of Jairus? Did he only feed the 5,000 when they expressed belief?
Consider the story of the ten lepers. In Luke 17, ten men with leprosy approached him and “lifted up their voices” (that’s the language of prayer) and asked Jesus to have mercy upon them. But they do not mean this in a salvific sense, it is clear from the context. They are begging Jesus to relieve them of the temporal suffering of leprosy.
What does Jesus do? He hears their cry. He heals all ten of them. Only one of them, a foreigner, returns to give thanks. But the text does not lead us to believe that suddenly the others were struck by leprosy again. No, he heals even unbelievers.
This does not, however, mean that God always hears the prayer of unbelievers with a view to answering them. I only mention this to remind us of God's loving and gracious disposition. I’m not sure we gain much apologetically by telling unbelievers that God is deaf to the cry for mercy.
Is it not better to say that God is merciful, good, and gracious? But to also remind an unbeliever (or even a believer) that God is never obligated to answer our prayers and do what we ask. And to use this as a bridge to consider the more pressing question of whether or not we are in a right relationship with God.
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Is This Even the Right Question?
In my mind, though, we aren’t asking the right question. The real question isn’t whether God will give a person what they ask for if they are an unbeliever. That is not the nature of prayer. God is sovereign, and he may or may not answer our requests. The real issue is whether or not an unbeliever has relational access to God apart from Christ. And that is a resounding “no,” according to the Scriptures.
I appreciate John Piper’s words on this:
As far as unbelievers are concerned, there is one prayer that we know God answers for them, the earnest plea to Christ for salvation. Whether God answers any other prayers of those who reject Christ is irrelevant. It is irrelevant whether persons who throw away eternal life and insist on going to hell are given a few earthly pleasures along the way. The only thing such pleasures will do for them, if they persist in their unbelief, is to make their guilt and their torment all the worse because they don’t use them as an occasion for repentance. So it is no great boon even if God does answer some of their prayers. (Source)
I’m inclined to say that the Scriptures teach that apart from union with Christ, which comes by grace alone through faith alone, an unbeliever does not have relational access to God. That does not mean that God is incapable of hearing, nor that he is deaf to pleas for mercy. But it does mean that apart from the mediatorial work of Christ being applied to someone, they are not on good terms with God.
God is not a Santa Claus who dispenses gifts to good little boys and girls. He is a consuming fire who graciously relates to sinners through His Son. Does God answer the prayers of unbelievers? Maybe. We know he answers the prayer of repentance. But the better question, the eternally meaningful question, is whether or not unbelievers have relational access to God apart from Christ. That only comes through Jesus.
The good news of the gospel is that through Jesus Christ, we have unhindered access to the throne room of God. The veil is torn. Let us, through Christ, plead with God for those who do not have the access we have.
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What Does It Mean If You Do Have a Relationship with Christ?
What if you do have a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ? The author of Hebrews gives a powerful argument about the access that we have to God.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Those three verses are stocked full of theology. But if we can try to not get lost in the weeds of theological speculation, we will find something beautiful in this about prayer. Verse 14 is a call to hold firmly to Jesus because he alone has given us access to the Father. Verse 15 reminds us that Jesus is not a distant high priest but one who understands our weaknesses. And verse 16 is the conclusion— “let us approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.”
Jesus Christ gives us unfettered access to God. We are exhorted here to pray. Jesus opens up for us the way to God. This is a precious encouragement to boldly enter into the presence of the Lord to receive the grace that has been purchased for us. Christ is like an immovable doorstop into the throne room of heaven. Grace is always ours.
I do not believe we ought to give assurance to an unbeliever that God hears their prayer with an aim to answer. There is a relational fracture there. As such, apart from Christ, we do not have unfettered access to God. Yes, God is gracious and merciful. He very well might answer the prayer of an unbeliever. He might use that to reveal more of Himself to you (as he did with Cornelius in Acts 10).
Why, though, are you asking? Why do you want God to answer your prayers but you are balking at a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ? Do you not desire unfettered relational access to the God of the Universe? That only comes through Jesus. And when we do have a relationship with Jesus, we can be confident that because of His finished work, we always have access.
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