I have heard the question, “does God hear the prayer of a sinner” several times in my life (including just a couple of days ago).
I think we are curious about this for a few reasons. One reason might be because we are concerned for a lost friend or family member, and we hope that God is attentive to them and their prayers. Another reason might be that we are trying to make sense of the blessings that a non-Christian seems to be enjoying.
A third potential reason we ask this question is because we are trying to make sense of how someone who is living in obvious sin has the blessings (and apparently answered prayers) that they do. Whatever your reason for asking, it is a common question.
While the complete answer may be a little difficult to come up with, there are a few pieces of the puzzle that we can put together first to help lead us to a good response.
1. God Hears All Things
We need to know that God does actually hear the prayers of a sinner in the sense that he hears all things and sees all things.
The same God who sees the sparrow fall to the ground (Matthew 10:29), who feels the praises emitted by the rocks (Luke 19:40), who heard the cry of Abraham’s concubine (Genesis 16:1-14), and who smells the sacrifice of his worshipers (Genesis 8:21), has “ears” able to hear all things (“ears” are metaphorical since God is a Spirit).
The prophet Isaiah declared that “the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear” (Isaiah 59:1).
So, can God hear the prayer of a sinner (meaning, does he have the ability to hear)? Yes. But if you have ever been involved in a conversation with someone (which all of us have), you know that there is a grand difference between just hearing what someone says and actually listening to what they say.
This is a common issue that I have with my son. This leads to a second point that will hopefully bring clarity to the issue: it is the wrong question.
2. It Is the Wrong Question
To come up with the correct answer to a question, we have to make sure we are asking it correctly. I see three errors in the original question of “Can God hear the prayer of a sinner” that we need to fix so we can whittle it down to something that is more to the point.
Firstly, as I just mentioned, hearing and listening are two different ideas. What we really are wanting to know with this question is whether God is listening. Secondly, even if God is listening, to be more precise, we probably really want to know whether God will answer the prayer!
Thirdly, to ask about “sinners” is too broad because (if we are honest) we are actually all sinners. Either you are a sinner who has been justified (or declared righteous) by the grace of God and who is being sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit, or you are a sinner who is dead in your sins and blinded to the truth.
So, I would suggest that the most descriptive question to ask here is: “will God answer the prayers of a lost person”?
Phrasing it this way, however, brings up another small piece of the puzzle that needs to be looked at: does God answer our prayers?
3. God Answers Prayers
Some people understand God as more of a distant deity that set things in motion long ago and chose not to get involved with human affairs. This would be called Deism.
Others might agree that God gets involved in our lives, even on a personal level, but that what he wants to happen will happen no matter what we want or ask him to do. This would be a more extreme angle on Calvinism or a certain kind of Reformed doctrine.
Interestingly, both camps of people would probably say something like “if it’s meant to be, then it will happen.” Someone that says that seems to believe that whether we pray or not or what we pray for doesn’t really matter.
However, even a shallow study of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) will show otherwise. For example, Genesis 18 shows us that the Lord was willing to hold off judgment based on Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah.
Years later, after the Israelites worshiped a false idol, Moses prayed for God to “turn from [his] burning anger and relent from… disaster against [his] people.” As a result, Scripture explains that “the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:9-14).
Another famous passage illustrating the truth that God does, indeed, answer prayers is in Jeremiah 33. God promises his people through his prophet: “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known” (Jeremiah 33:3).
The life and prayers of Jesus display this truth in the New Testament as well. For example, Jesus taught in Luke 11:5-13 that God can be understood as a “friend” who will gladly give us (his friends) what we need even more than our earthly friends.
He also describes God as a loving Father who will “much more” give good gifts to his children if they ask. In this same passage, Jesus makes this bold imperative with a promise: “…ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
4. God’s Response to the Lost
So, God hears, listens to, and answers the prayers of his children. This is wonderful news! But what about the lost? Does God choose to ignore and not answer the prayers of those who are not his children?
Throughout Scripture, we see statements that present the other side of the ones we just mentioned.
For example, God said that if people would not listen to his voice and obey him that he would ignore or choose not to smell the “sweet odors” of their offerings (Leviticus 26:27, 31). Also, Isaiah 59:2 reads, “…but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
This strong language makes it clear that God’s response to people with unrepentant sin (or the unrighteous in his sight) is much different than his response to the righteous.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter wrote that while “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer,” at the same time, his face is “against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12).
We also read in Matthew 13:53-58 that when Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in his hometown, many people who were familiar with his upbringing and his earthly family did not believe him.
Instead, they took “offense at him,” and Scripture tells us that Jesus “did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”
Considering these verses, it is clear that God, who hears all things, will hear the prayers of an unrighteous person, but because he knows their hearts will choose not to listen to it or answer it unless it is a prayer of faith.
This is because none of our prayers get God’s attention on their own anyway. We always need a mediator. Thankfully we have one in Jesus Christ! (1 Timothy 2:5).
Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6 helps shed light on this. In this key passage, since Jesus said to start off our prayer with “Our Father…”, we already know that he is teaching his followers (not the lost) how to pray.
A pastor named Gary George says that only a believer who has “received the spirit of adoption” can call God their father “honestly, sincerely, and genuinely.” Jesus also said to pray that God’s will would be done.
If a lost person prays for God’s will to be done in their life, and that prayer is a prayer of surrender of their own will (which we sometimes call the “sinner’s prayer,” then God will hear that prayer.
One example of a faith-filled prayer is what John describes in 1 John 1:9 when he writes: “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
At the same time, just because someone is a Christian still doesn’t mean that their prayer will be listened to or answered. Jesus taught in that same model prayer that if we pray hypocritically, we will not receive a “reward” from God (the reward would be whatever we prayed for).
He also said that empty phrases and “vain repetition” would not help us be heard either. Instead, As Gary George also said, “That’s not to say that even the prayers of Christians are always heard… because God can supersede what we think and trump it the way he wants to….”
James expresses this idea in his book, too, when he wrote: “you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions [or lusts]” (James 4:3). The Psalmist even recognized: “if I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18).
As another author wrote, God does not answer the prayers of people whose “requests and demands… are not through the sanctifying work of the sacrifice on the cross, nor are they being humbly subject to the will of God.”
5. God’s Promise to His Children
I would like to focus not on the times that God does not listen to our prayers but on the times that he does. After the flood, Noah’s sacrifice in faith was a “sweet” smell to God’s nostrils (Genesis 8:21).
“Sweet-smelling” means that it is an attractive and pleasant aroma. God promises that our offerings of worship and prayer can be the same if they are offered in faith as well.
Not only that, but God also promises that our prayers can be answered and what we pray for can be accomplished. James 5:16 says, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
God loves when his children come to him in prayer. He loves listening to us, and he loves answering us. He even knows what we need before we ask for it! So do not hold back and do not hesitate to go to Jesus in prayer. If we will “draw near” to Him, then “he will draw near to you (James 4:8).
For further reading:
What Is Sin? Bible Meaning and How to Overcome
Is ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ Biblical?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/FG Trade Latin
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.