Does God Answer the Prayers of Unbelievers?
This question was asked in one of the Facebook fora that I’m a part of. Since I’m very interested in anything about prayer, I’ve shared some of my thoughts on this question. Here are a few of those thoughts.
First, the simple answer may be found in the Gospel of John: "We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him" (John 9:31).
Second, when one surveys the Biblical passages on prayer, the overwhelming evidence tells us that God answers the prayers of His people if it is according to His will. However there are instances in the Old Testament that even foreigners, non-Israelites, are heard by the Lord when they come to Him in faith, as 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 says, "“Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for the sake of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm, when he comes and prays toward this house, hear from heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name." That explains the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that "… without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."
Third, there are times of course that God does not hear the prayers of His people, that is, when they remain in their sin. "O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure” (Psalm 80:4-5). Psalm 66:18 also adds, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Confession of sin and repentance from sin are necessary before the Lord could hear His people's prayer.
This is consistent with what James is saying in 4:13-16: "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." The Lord hears the prayers of His people who recognize and confess their sins before Him.
So it seems that the overwhelming answer of the Scripture to the question, “Does God answer the prayer of unbelievers?” is "No!"
Fourth, as one who subscribes to a Reformed confession, I think the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) gives us a very important thought on why Christians ought to pray and what kind of prayer that pleases God and moves Him to answer. In Lord’s Day 45, Question and Answer 116, the Catechism asks, “Why do Christians need to pray?” The answer goes, “Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us (Ps. 50:14-15; 116:12-19; 1 Thess. 5:16-18). And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking God for them (2 Matt. 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-13).
The Catechism continues to ask in Question and Answer 117, “What is the kind of prayer that pleases God and that he listens to?” Here is the Catechism’s answer, “First, we must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, revealed to us in his Word, asking for everything God has commanded us to ask for (Ps. 145:18-20; John 4:22-24; Rom. 8:26-27; James 1:5; 1 John 5:14-15). Second, we must fully recognize our need and misery, so that we humble ourselves in God’s majestic presence (2 Chron. 7:14; Ps. 2:11; 34:18; 62:8; Isa. 66:2; Rev. 4). Third, we must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord. That is what God promised us in his Word (Dan. 9:17-19; Matt. 7:8; John 14:13-14; 16:23; Rom. 10:13; James 1:6).
Finally, a friend raised the issue that there are occasions when it seems that God answers the prayer of unbelievers and because of the answer to that prayer these unbelievers got converted to Christianity. One of the examples she mentioned is the former Russian church persecutor Sergie Kourdakov who wrote a book, "Forgive Me, Natasha", and related in that book that when he prayed, "God, if you exist please show me Yourself," and God showed him, and he became a Christian after he defected and jumped ship in Canada.
She also mentioned another example. She related a "student exchange from China who has never heard of the name of God and did not know that Jesus is God. She never saw a Bible. She came to an international Bible study with the motive to practice speaking English. One day, her bag was caught in between the doors of a New York City Subway train. A week before that, she read about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and answering Mary's prayer. So she said, ‘I heard the God of Christians answers prayer. I am not a Christian but I want to pray to the God of the Christians to help return my bag.’ (Inside her bag were her passport, $400 cash, her student's class cards for New York University). She called the staff of International Students to pray with her and for her. She also called on the God of the Christian to show Himself to her. The Staff of ISI are under fire because it is impossible to retrieve a bag with cash in NYC. One week after, her bag was returned at the NYU Lost and Found section, everything was intact, and the cash was untouched! The unbeliever student from China said ‘I see that the God of Christians answers prayers indeed!' She became a Christian.”
I responded that these examples presuppose what the Scripture really teaches that before these unbelievers called upon the Lord they must have heard something about God and Jesus Christ first. Then through providential circumstances they were brought into a situation to call upon God. And as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, those who draw near Him must believe that He exists, even if that faith is but like a mustard seed.
I can't help thinking of two Gentile women who became true Israelites because of what they've heard about the God of Israel. Rahab, for example, must have heard about the God of Israel through the miracles He performed in Egypt and in the wilderness before she changed allegiance from the god of Jericho or the god of his people to the God of Israel (Judges 2:8-13). Likewise, before Ruth the Moabitess made that timeless confession to her mother-in-law, “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God,” she must have heard about the God of Israel, probably through her husband Mahlon and her in-laws.
This is quite relevant because in the case of the Chinese student exchange, before she prayed to the God of the Christians she must have read or heard about Jesus. This is the same situation even in the case of Sergei Kourdakov. Before he prayed to God, he must have heard a lot of things about God whom he denied and whose children he persecuted. Both of them might have believed God (in the sense that they have knowledge or heard about God) before they started praying to the Lord, but it seems clear that by the time they prayed to God, when they begin asking something from God, God has already started to work faith in them, otherwise how can they call upon Him?
So the Holy Scripture clearly teaches that God hears and answers the prayer of His children when they pray according to His will and purpose and when they ask Him humbly, fully aware of their undeserved status before Him who is holy and just, loving and merciful. Experience as well proves that. Just think of how many times we have failed to obey God’s will and yet when we draw near Him, humbling ourselves and confessing our sins, He hears us and grants us His blessings. Even those unbelievers whom He draws to Himself are given the faith to believe Him and to turn to Him and to call upon Him. This is all by His amazing grace and abundant mercy to undeserving sinners like you and me.