Does God hear the prayers of the lost? This is a very interesting question. As I recall, a well-known Southern Baptist preacher created a stir a number of years ago by stating on a national radio broadcast that God did not hear the prayers of Jews. Let me make a few statements about this.
- God is known as a God who hears prayer. Psalm 65:2 states, "O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come." One of His basic distinctions is that He hears prayer. All doctrine about whose prayers He hears should not minimize His prayer-hearing nature.
- In the most basic sense, God hears all prayers made by everyone. That is, He understands and is knowledgeable of the prayers of all. We know that He knows all things, so this must be the case. I understand that by hearing of prayers we are usually referring to His response to prayer and not His recognition that a prayer has been made. However, I do not think everyone understands this, so it is our first point.
- Wickedness can cause God to refuse to hear prayer. Proverbs 28:9 states, "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination." However, this closing of the ears of the Lord is not limited to the lost. The psalmist said, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Psalm 66:18). This psalmist obviously knows the Lord but recognizes the hindrance that sin can make in receiving answers to prayer. A couple of verses later, the psalmist blesses God, "which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me" (Psalm 66:20). God is certainly not required to hear the prayers of those who reject His way.
- The saved and the righteous have special promises of God's response to their prayers. Proverbs 15:29 states, "The LORD is far from the wicked: but he heareth the prayer of the righteous." Here, we see that the Lord especially hears the prayer of the righteous. Jesus made this promise to the disciples, "And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13). Many such promises are made to the saints in the Bible. Today, we have the boldness to walk into God's throne room and ask of the Lord in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). What a blessing this is to believers!
- But are the prayers of the lost automatically rejected? I do not think so. I know of no scripture that says so and I see examples in the Bible to the opposite--places where God has heard the prayer of the lost when they cry out to Him in earnest. Here are some examples:
- You have already mentioned Cornelius. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, "Cornelius, thy prayer is heard" (Acts 10:31). Then, the angel sent him to Peter, "Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:14). It is true that he was seeking the Lord, but there is no doubt that the prayers of a man who was not yet saved were heard.
- Luke 7:1-10 tells of a centurion who requested of Jesus the healing of a servant. He is a good man, but was probably not saved. The Lord Jesus heard his prayer and healed the servant. This would be the case of numerous miracles by the Lord.
- However, to me, one of the most powerful examples of God hearing the lost is in the case of King Ahab. We all remember how wicked Ahab was. 1 Kings 21:25 states, "But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the LORD, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up." He obviously lived in wickedness and would fall under those who would not be heard by God. However, when Ahab heard of the judgment that had been assigned to him and his household, "he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly" (1 Kings 21:27).
As a result of this, God told Elijah, "Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son's days will I bring the evil upon his house" (1 Kings 21:29). When Ahab humbled himself and sought reprieve from judgment, the Lord heard him. Does this mean that Ahab became a righteous man? No. There is no hint that his repentance stuck. He is later killed in battle according to the judgment of God and his name continued to be associated with evil. He did not become a righteous man, but the Lord heard his sincere prayer for deliverance. King Manasseh gives a similar example, but we will not go there now.
So, how do we apply this for today? We need to understand that God sees Himself as a God who hears prayer. That is who He is. Though sin and wickedness can cut off answers from God, they are the exceptions and not the rule. Only the saved who live for God dwell in the midst of God's hearing and have exceptional promises of answered prayer. Yet, God will also answer the prayers of the lost on occasion simply because He is such a merciful and loving God. Recently, the news has reported the tragedy in the Gulf States because of Hurricane Katrina. Many people have testified on television that they are alive only because God heard their prayers for deliverance. Yet many of these people have surely never been saved. Did God hear their prayers? Of course He did. The devil had no desire to save them. For some reason, God decided to deliver them from the tragedy. They cried out to HIm and He heard their cry. There is no reason to doubt this. That is just how our God is. And what a God He is!