Does God answer unbelievers’ prayers?

Question: I’m teaching this week on the subject of prayer (sr. high students). One topic will be “does God hear all prayers.” In the past I’ve taught that unless one is saved, God will not hear your prayer. I recently heard a very respected preacher (may have been James Dobson, but I can’t remember) state that he “would not presume to say that God does not hear the prayers of the unsaved.” What do say you on this matter?

Answer: There are at least four unbelievers in the Bible whose prayers God heard. The first one, Jacob, is controversial, I suppose, because most people seem to assume that he was saved when he saw the vision of the stairway at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22). However, his vow tells me that he was more thinking of God as someone he could use than as a Savior. Balaam, the false prophet whom Balak hired to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24) received prophecies from the Lord that he did not want to utter because he wanted to be paid for cursing Israel and had to bless Israel instead.  Naaman was a Syrian who asked God to heal him from leprosy and he did (2 Kings 5).  2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11 indicate that he was not a believer. Cornelius, the centurion who had converted to Judaism and to whom the Lord sent Peter to preach the gospel, might be another example, though in a sense he had responded in faith to the revelation that had been given up until that time (Acts 10:1-6).

Anecdotal evidence seems to exist that unbelievers have had prayers answered by God. Why wouldn’t God at times show an unbeliever His love, mercy and power to draw them to faith (Romans 2:4)? David said, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer (Psalm 66:18,19). Does this mean that all unbelievers, because they are cherishing sin in their hearts, cannot get an answer to prayer from God? If the biblical examples above are any indication, this statement by David is probably more directed toward believers and even to a specific time in his life when he knew that if he had approached God wrongly in his prayer he would not have been answered.

Judges 2:10-19 paints a discouraging picture of Israel after Joshua. The nation as a whole reverted to worship of idols. God would send enemies to punish them because of His great anger at their heinous sin. But the author of Judges also points out that the Lord “had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them” (verse 18). Even when unbelievers are avowedly against the truth of who God is He still treats them with compassion when they call on Him.

Randall Johnson

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6 thoughts on “Does God answer unbelievers’ prayers?

  1. ” Even when unbelievers are avowedly against the truth of who God is He still treats them with compassion when they call on Him.”

    - I’m not against the truth of who God is as an unbeliever. I just don’t believe he exists. In the same way that I presume you’re not against who believers thought Zeus and Apollo were. You just would say they were deluded. As I believe Christians are insufferably deluded.

    • I know this sounds like I’m splitting hairs a bit, but if you believe God does not exist and if He in fact does exist, then you would be guilty of being against who He is. I understand that you don’t believe He exists but is there really not any evidence in your mind that makes it at all rational to believe that He exists? Does someone who believes God exists really have to be delusional? Some of the most brilliant minds the world has ever known have found rational evidence for the existence of God. There are many issues that, in my opinion, have no explanation other than the existence of God.

      I would say those who believed in Zeus and Apollo were deluded (the dictionary definition includes the idea of being deceived) in some respects. They were not deceived into believing that there is a God, again, in my opinion, but were deceived as to His identity. If I am deluded as to the existence or identity of God, it would have to be a personal delusion. I would have to be willing to deceive myself as to the rational evidence for His existence.

  2. God is sovereign and can choose to answer any prayer He sees fit. But Scripture clearly indicates that God does not listen to or answer every prayer. In fact, Scripture gives at least fifteen reasons for unanswered prayer. God does not answer the prayer of those:

    1) Who have personal and selfish motives.

    You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures (James 4:3).

    2) Who regard iniquity in their hearts.

    If I regard iniquity in my heart, The Lord will not hear (Psalm 66:18).

    3) Who remain in sin.

    But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear (Isaiah 59:2). Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him (John 9:31).

    4) Who offer unworthy service to God.

    “You are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’ In that you say, ‘The table of the LORD is to be despised.’ But when you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?” says the LORD of hosts. “But now will you not entreat God’s favor, that He may be gracious to us? With such an offering on your part, will He receive any of you kindly?” says the LORD of hosts.

    5) Who forsake God.

    Thus says the Lord to this people: “Thus they have loved to wander; They have not restrained their feet. Therefore the Lord does not accept them; He will remember their iniquity now, And punish their sins.” Then the Lord said to me, “Do not pray for this people, for their good. When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence (Jeremiah 14:10-12).

    6) Who reject God’s call.

    Because I [Wisdom] have called and you refused, I have stretched out my hand and no one regarded, Because you disdained all my counsel, And would have none of my rebuke…. Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me (Proverbs 1:24-25, 28).

    7) Who will not heed God’s law.

    One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination (Proverbs 28:9). “But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear. Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets. Thus great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. Therefore it happened, that just as He proclaimed and they would not hear, so they called out and I would not listen,” says the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 7:11-13).

    8) Who turn a deaf ear to the cry of the poor.

    Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, Will also cry himself and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13).

    9) Who are violent.

    When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood (Isaiah 1:15; see also 59:2-3).

    10) Who worship idols.

    Therefore thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will surely bring calamity on them which they will not be able to escape; and though they cry out to Me, I will not listen to them. Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry out to the gods to whom they offer incense, but they will not save them at all in the time of their trouble. For according to the number of your cities were your gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem you have set up altars to that shameful thing, altars to burn incense to Baal. So do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not hear them in the time that they cry out to Me because of their trouble.” (Jeremiah 11:11-14; see also Ezekiel 8:15-18).

    11) Who have no faith.

    But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-7).

    12) Who are living in hypocrisy.

    Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).

    13) Who are proud of heart.

    God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).

    14) Who are self-righteous.

    The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:11-14).

    15) Who mistreat God’s people.

    You have also given me the necks of my enemies, So that I destroyed those who hated me. They cried out, but there was none to save; Even to the Lord, but He did not answer them (Psalm 18:40-41).You who hate good and love evil; Who strip the skin from My people, And the flesh from their bones; Who also eat the flesh of My people, Flay their skin from them, Break their bones, And chop them in pieces, Like meat for the pot, Like flesh in the caldron. Then they will cry to the Lord, But He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, Because they have been evil in their deeds (Micah 3:2-4).

    So, does God answer the prayers of unbelievers? A strict yes or no answer is difficult without qualifying the answer in various ways. However, it is noteworthy that the above mentioned principles represent some of the key characteristics of an unbeliever. Thus we can safely say that, in general, God does not answer the prayers of an unbeliever.

  3. This was an article from GTY.ORG (John MacArthur’s website)

    Although God can answer a prayer of an unbeliever because it was in His will to do so, not necessarily because they asked.

  4. I believe that God can answer whom ever He chooses to because He’s God. When you say unbeliever and praying to God in the same sentence it doesn’t make sense. An unbeliever wouldn’t pray to God because he/she doesn’t BELIEVE; until there is something that happens where the unbeliever has a change of heart. Or is in a position where there is no one else to turn to and decides to try the God that he/she has heard so much about. I believe in that very moment they are no longer an unbeliever but an UNSURE believer. They have moved from there is no God to maybe there is a God or if there is a God let me try Him now because I don’t have any where else to turn. That’s when God can prove himself to that person and then the unbeliever can now become a believer. I also wanted to comment on the 15 examples that JF listed as reason God doesn’t answer prayers. There are believers who may fall under 1 or more of those 15 things that causes their prayers not to be answered – not just unbelievers.

  5. Ive struggled with this question, trying to balance my personal experience with the doctrine revealed in the bible. I have seen time and time again what appears to be unbelievers receiving answers to prayer. Even this week a friend of mine affiliated with the Unification Church (Moonie) was at a desperate crossroad financially, and the Lord provided work at the 11th hour. Was it her prayer? Was it my prayer? Who knows.

    Ive seen a dear friend that does not even understand the gospel have very similar experiences in prayer to my own.

    As far as God not answering prayer of an unbeliever. Hebrews strongly states the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for all sin. I don’t think there is any sin that can make God turn a deaf ear to one that is his child.

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