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.