Have you ever wondered if God listens to everyone’s prayers? If a person is a sinner, when that person prays, does God hear their prayer, or even decide to answer the prayer? How can an the prayer of an unbeliever reach God?
These, and other related questions can come up in our minds or in small group discussions, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes. We may look up a couple of verses that pop up in a quick search query online and come to the conclusion that God does not hear or answer prayers of sinners and unbelievers.
But, what about the other Bible stories we may recall where an unbeliever prayed and God heard and God answered? And, if we really consider it for long enough, if we are now followers of Jesus Christ, weren’t we once sinners and unbelievers? Doesn’t that mean that God heard our prayers at some point?
So, does God hear or answer the prayers of sinners and unbelievers?
In a word, yes. God hears the prayers of sinners and unbelievers because if he didn’t no one would be saved, after all, we have all sinned. God also can answer unbelievers’ prayers for much the same reason.
You’ll want to explore further in this article and grow in your understanding of God, as well as of yourself and we’ll explain this answer in much deeper detail.
Does God Hear Prayers from Sinners?
Yes, he does, otherwise how would he hear your prayers? In understanding why God would hear the prayer of a sinner, we have to understand that each person has fallen short of God’s requirement of righteousness. This means that each of us is a sinner. As well, we have to acknowledge that nothing is hidden from God, including words in prayers by people.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4.12-13, NIV).
So, we can see that we are all sinners, and nothing can be kept secret from God. Then it follows that God would hear your prayer and my prayer since we are sinners. And because he heard our prayer, we were made right with God through Jesus Christ.
Other than this plain and clear example, there are other instances where a sinner prays, or is urged to pray to God. Peter urges Simon to pray in the midst of his wickedness. Saul, who was persecuting Christians, was found to be praying by Ananias. Cornelius, a Roman centurion who feared God, but would have been considered unclean or a sinner, was also heard by God, and visited by an angel. Because of this, Peter learns that God does not show favoritism. Peter also told the elders in Jerusalem that God did not discriminate between Jews and Gentiles, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And perhaps the best example of God hearing the prayer of a sinner comes toward the end of Jesus’ ministry here on earth. The context is the crucifixion, with Jesus dying on the cross, placed between to criminals.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23.39.43, NIV, emphasis mine).
If a thief dying a horrible death on a cross can pray to God, be heard by God, and have his request answered by God, who are we to question this?
Does God Answer Prayers from Unbelievers?
Yes, he does, otherwise, how would an unbeliever ever get saved? But this is also a bit of a deeper question than the one above. “Unbeliever” has the connotation of a person who has no regard for God, not just one who disobeys God (a sinner).
A most powerful story of God answering the prayers of unbelievers is found in Jonah. The people of Nineveh were extremely bad, the worst of the worst. Which is why God commanded Jonah to go there and preach and prophesy. Jonah eventually did as he was told and to his great surprise, the people of Nineveh prayed to God. And God answered their prayers!
In a more general way, we see the Psalmist declaring that God knows our words before we even speak:
“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely” (Psalm 139.1-4).
We also see God using a pagan king (unbeliever), Cyrus, to conquer Babylon and free the Hebrew people from captivity. So, we can get a sense that God hears from unbelievers and answers prayers, always in accordance with his will and purposes.
Perhaps, though, the answer we’re seeking is rests more with a better defined term. Perhaps, instead of “unbeliever” we are asking if God answers the prayers of someone who is evil. Without delving into the massive discussion on the problem of evil, I think we can come to some clarity in regards to prayer.
In Psalm 34.15-16, we see, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to blot out their name from the earth” (NIV). The words here in the Hebrew language refers to a malignant harm, ethically bad, with an understanding of viciousness to what they do.
As another example, in 1 Peter 3.12 we read a restating of the psalmist, so as to underscore its importance, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (NIV).
Those who do evil is referring to people who are evil in the widest sense of the word. They are full of malice, and their inner being seeks to do harm. They are morally rotten, like in a rotten piece of wood. In short, an “evildoer” is utterly rebellious against God, not just unbelieving, but completely disobedient.
Given this understanding, it would make sense that God would not answer the prayer of someone truly evil. This is different than someone who simply doesn’t believe in God, or doesn’t believe in God, yet. For the most part, then we can safely say that God does hear and answer the prayers of unbelievers.
Proof Texting to Prove a Point About Prayer
Ben Witherington, one of the foremost Biblical scholars in the world, has often said, “A text without a context is a proof-text for anything you want to say.” Proof texting is when we take a scripture, or a portion of scripture out of its context in the Bible and then use it as “proof” of what we are discussing.
The problem with this common habit is that it’s wrong and it’s, well, not biblical. Understanding what the Bible says very much depends on what else the scripture says around the particular verse we’re using. Who is saying it? Under what circumstances is it being said? Is this the only place this phrase or word is used in that book of the Bible, or in the whole Bible?
You see, context is everything when it comes to reading and understanding scripture, especially in our discussion of whether the prayers of sinners are heard or answered, wouldn’t you agree?
Let me give you an example from a negative view and I believe you’ll see the point.
I can say that the Bible says there is no God. “What?! There’s no way the Bible says there is no God,” you may reply. It does, right there in Psalm 14.1. If you just clicked the link and read the scripture, you see the reality. The verse does say there is no God, but I purposely left out the rest of the verse, didn’t I? The whole verse says, “The fool says in his heart there is no God” (NIV). Not giving you the whole verse is an example of proof texting.
See, the context gives the meaning of the phrase I used (in this case misused!). The context tells the full story. The context gives you the whole picture.
So, what does this little mini-lesson in biblical understanding mean for us? Two particular scriptures have commonly been used as examples of saying that God does not hear or answer the prayers of sinners or unbelievers. The problem is that these two scriptures have been used as proof texts. Let’s take a look at each.
1. The Proof Text Problem of John 9.31
John 9.31 (NIV) says, “We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will.“ Taken at face value, we easily see why this is a popular verse to use. It states quite clearly: God. Does. Not. Listen. To. Sinners. How much more clear can it be? How much more proof do you need to know that the prayers of sinners and unbelievers are not heard by God?!
But, who is saying this? Is it God? Is it Jesus? Who is making this statement and why is the person saying this? We’d need to look at the verses before and after this specific verse wouldn’t we? Don’t we want to know the environment and circumstances that surround this kind of absolute phrase?
Of course we do! Because we are after truth and understanding and deepening our relationship with God and broadening our compassion for people, aren’t we?
I won’t list out the whole story found in the the Gospel of John, chapter nine. But you can, and should, read it for yourself so you know the full context. The story is of a man who has been blind since birth. Many thought back in the time of Jesus that if you were blind then it was because you had done something bad, or your parents did.
Fast-forward in the story and Jesus heals the man but the religious leaders raise a big uproar about it–they don’t believe the healing at all. In response, the formerly blind man, now healed and fully seeing, says, “We know that God does not listen to sinners.”
Do you see the context now? The formerly blind man was simply making a statement in response to the Pharisees. He was not stating an absolute truth that is foundational to our biblical and theological understanding of God and prayer. See how easy it is to just use a verse or phrase to mean something it actually does not mean?
2. The Proof Text Problem of Isaiah 59.2
Isaiah 59.2(NIV) reads, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” Again, this scripture states clearly that God will not hear from people who have sinned because their sins have separated them from God.
But, as we noted above, sinners clearly are heard by God, otherwise no sinner would ever be saved by praying to God for salvation (and that includes you and me). So what’s going on in this chapter of Isaiah and why does this verse get used as a proof text?
Well, to answer the last question first, this verse is proof texted often because it’s just so easy to find and it says God doesn’t hear sinners. Case closed and we can move on.
Except the context tells a very different story of Isaiah 59. Please read the whole chapter and do not just take my word for it. When you do, you’ll find that the Hebrew people have greatly sinned against God (first part of the chapter), but then they also confess and repent for what they’ve done (middle part of the chapter, v. 12 onward), and then there is redemption (v. 15 onward).
The chapter ends with God saying:
“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord” (Isaiah 59.21, NIV).
So, in context, verse 2 is not really about God not hearing sinners’ prayers, but is in the larger context of how God does hear and offers redemption to sinners and unbelievers. Isn’t that more in keeping with the nature and character of God?
This needed and pertinent discussion of proof texting and prayer really leads us to a larger question.
Why Are We Concerned As To Whether God Answers the Prayers of Unbelievers or Sinners?
Are we going to be upset to find out he does? Do we want to feel special and exclusionary? As in, “my prayers will get answered because I go to church every Sunday.” Or, “I feel so much better knowing that my prayers are answered because I’m a follower of Jesus and I have pity on those sinners and unbelievers who won’t have their prayers answered.”
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1.8, NIV).
There’s a word to describe this type of mindset and belief. It’s the word Pharisee. Sometimes as Christians we can get so caught up in our own selves that we forget that Jesus came to save everyone and as a result everyone deserves to be prayed for. We forget that the compassion of Christ reached us and therefore it is extended to people who need his grace and mercy, just like we did, and just like we still need now. We would do well to love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12.3, NIV).
We need not be too discouraged if we are challenged by these scriptures. Even the first disciple of Jesus, who walked with him and talked with him and saw him do great healing and miracles had trouble handling ambition and pride.
Who are we to think we are any better than anyone else, especially when it comes to prayer? We are not God. We do not sit and act as the great Judge. Jesus specifically cautioned against this kind of judgmental mindset.
Further, Jesus spoke directly to people (Pharisees) who acted as if they were the ones who determined who was a sinner and who was not.
Trying to play God and think like God and judge like God and make decisions like God are all activities that are beyond our finite mind, emotions and abilities. Wouldn’t it be a more enjoyable existence if we simply refreshed ourselves in prayer with God each day and delighted in his presence? How much less burdened we would feel if we let go and let God be God.
Why Not Let God Decide What Prayers to Answer and How?
One foundational truth that is always true is that God is God and we are not. What God thinks and how he thinks is not like they way we compose thoughts. The way God does things is beyond our understanding.
God’s way is the way of love. And, when we decide to follow Jesus, we are agreeing to drop everything in our lives (including our self-importance, our judgmental mindsets, and our pride) and follow after him.
Nothing positive will come from us trying to fit other people into categories of our own making when it comes to salvation status and how that affects prayers. We’d be better off investing our time in doing what Jesus asked of us. I quote this at length to let us fully soak in the challenge of what Jesus says:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25.31-45, NIV).
God hears our prayers and answers those prayers in the manner God determines. That includes the prayers of sinners and unbelievers and unsaved people. For the simple reason that you and I were both at one time a sinner or unbeliever or an unsaved person, we know that God heard our prayers, and that God answered our prayers, most notably our prayer for salvation and redemption.
Aren’t we grateful that we can rest in, and claim the truth of, what the psalmist declares, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86.15, NIV). Amen!