It is often said from pulpits that the first prayer God hears from a person is their prayer of salvation. Is this true? Does God hear the prayers of the lost? In one sense, the obvious answer is yes. God is omniscient and omnipresent. It is not as if God is unaware of what non-Christians are saying or doing. Of course He hears their prayers. But when people ask the question, they seem more to have in mind the question of whether or not God honors the prayers of the lost.
There are several aspects that need to be considered. First, it seems that God does not particularly honor the unbeliever’s prayers. Isa. 45:20b says, “They have no knowledge, who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save.” If nothing else, this definitely shows that prayers to anyone except the True God are worthless. Yet at the same time, Jesus says in Matt. 5:45 that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Thus, although God may not specifically honor prayers to false gods, that does not keep Him from showing His kindness to everyone. In other words, God doesn’t make a person’s life miserable just because they refuse to worship Him. Instead, He allows them the same graces He provides humanity in general (even though humanity in general rejects Him).
Two other passages offer more details on this issue. First, in Rom. 10:9-10, Paul says that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. We have already discussed why this isn’t referring to salvation from Hell in another post, so we will limit our remarks now to recognizing the fact that it is those who believe in Jesus and call upon Him who are delivered from danger. This implies that one must be a believer if his prayers for deliverance are to be heard. And yet in Jonah 3:6-10, Nineveh, after hearing Jonah’s prophecy of doom, repented of their sins and were spared. Many have taken this as a reference to their individual salvation, but the text says nothing about that one way or the other. Actually, the entire point of the story of Jonah is that God wants to have mercy on all mankind, whether they follow Him or not. How do we square these two passages?
The answer tells us a great deal about the way God answers prayer generally. The context of Rom. 10:9-10 is Paul’s discussion of Israel and their rejection of Christ. They were about to be destroyed as a nation if they did not turn to Jesus (as it happened, they were destroyed a few years later in AD 70). It is important to note that while Israel may have been unbelievers, unlike the Gentiles, they still had (and have!) a special relationship with God. Their destruction was punishment for a particular sin: the rejection and crucifixion of their King. Nineveh, on the other hand, averted their destruction by doing what Israel would not, namely, turning for their sin.
It seems, then, that while God does not honor the prayers of the lost generally, He certainly judges all men according to the common sense of right and wrong inherent in us all (cf. Rom. 2:14-15). Unbelievers are just as capable of turning from their sin, and thus from their judgment, as believers are.
Yet this does not mean that just because a person is a believer that God is going to honor their prayer, either! Two examples should be enough to demonstrate this point. Isa. 1:10-20 is startling in its sharpness. God was extremely angry with Israel, and during His warnings, He says specifically, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:15, NIV). God clearly refused to hear the prayers of a sinful Israel. And yet a similar warning is repeated in a very specific application in the NT. Peter warned husbands against mistreating their wives “so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7). The fact that sin hinders prayers is consistent with what we read in Isaiah. God honors not the prayers of the believer, but the prayers of the righteous, which is to say, those who walk before Him. James says this explicitly in James 5:16b, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” He said that after five chapters of explaining what it means in practical terms to be righteous.
So does God hear the prayers of the lost? A more appropriate question is whether or not God hears the prayers of the unrepentant heart. God may hear all, and He may cause His grace to fall on all in general terms, but those who are living in sin can expect to be essentially put on ignore by Heaven. This includes both believers and unbelievers. Only those who walk daily in faith and righteousness can expect God to honor them so that if they ask they will receive, if they seek they will find, and if they knock the door will be opened (Matt. 7:7).