The blind man states in John 9:31 – “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” (all Scripture ESV). During the sermon, a few things were established with the help of a few other passages of Scripture:
1) Many verses in Scripture indicate that God does not listen to a sinner’s prayer in the same way that He listens to the prayer of a believer.
2) “Listen” is another way of saying, “Hearing and responding favorably.”
3) There are some passages in Scripture that do show God listening and responding to the prayer of a sinner.
The purpose of this post is to examine in more detail a few biblical examples that support each of these points (especially points #1 and 3).
The first point is that there are many verses in Scripture that indicate God doesn’t listen to a sinner’s prayer in the same way He listens to the prayer of a believer. A number of passages can be provided to illustrate this:
Psalm 66:18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
Isaiah 1:15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Isaiah 59:1-2 Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; 2 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.
Proverbs 21:13 Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.
Proverbs 28:9 If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.
James 1:6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;
It is admittedly difficult to determine in some of these passages whether the one in sin whose prayers go unheard is genuinely a believer or not. What is clear is that sin hinders the effectiveness of our prayer life. Or, to put it in the opposite terms, righteousness can boost the effectiveness of our prayer life (James 5:16).
All of these passages (as well as many others in Scripture) illustrate the effect sin has on prayer’s effectiveness. If sin is cherished in one’s heart, God won’t listen to prayer (Ps 66:18). The violence of the people causes God not to listen in Isaiah 1:15. Isaiah makes the point later on that it’s not that God can’t save or hear, but that sin puts a separation between the sinner and God. James says that doubting God’s ability to answer prayer will also stop that person from receiving an answer.
The two passages from Proverbs illustrate something similar. Both involve “turning” or “closing” the ear (i.e., not listening): one ignoring the poor, the other ignoring God’s Word. The effect is that God does not listen to his prayer. Helping the poor is a command of Scripture; therefore the two passages are really getting at the same thing: ignore God, and He will ignore you.
So it is clear that in some sense, God answers the prayers of the righteous much more effectively than the prayers of those in sin. But this point must be balanced with the third: there are passages in Scripture that show God answering a sinner’s prayer.
I mentioned Cornelius in Acts 10 during the sermon. There, we see that Cornelius is a devout man, God-fearing, who prays regularly. But the point must be emphasized that Cornelius has not heard the Gospel. He is not saved. But God answers his prayers by sending Peter to him, who proceeds to share the Gospel. If God does not hear the sinner in an absolute sense, then how can it be that Cornelius’ prayers were then answered?
In 1 Kings 21, Elijah meets the wicked king Ahab to tell him that disaster is about to come to him and his entire household, cutting off the royal line entirely (21:17-24). Ahab responds by humbly mourning and fasting (which implies prayer), to which the Lord responds by relenting from the impending disaster upon Ahab’s family. Certainly no one would describe Ahab as a godly character, and there is plenty of evidence even in the very next chapter that Ahab is far from a true worshiper of Yahweh. Yet God hears and responds to his prayers.
Jonah 3 tells the story of the wicked Ninevites. Jonah prophesied disaster upon them, yet when they call upon God, He relents and does not destroy them. This could be the case of a people group coming to salvation, but either way the point is the same: God hears the prayers of sinners and answers.
Some say that God does not hear the prayer of the sinner until repentance. This seems to fit with the examples above, with the exception of Cornelius. Because God only answers prayers in accordance with His will (John 14:13, 1 John 5:14-15), we might say that He answered Cornelius’ prayer because God desired for Cornelius to come to salvation. We should also notice that many of the above passages indicate that sin hinders prayer’s effectiveness even for believers.
Instead of saying, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of unbelievers,” we should say, “God doesn’t positively respond to prayers outside His will.” This would fit for both believer and unbeliever, as well as the blind man’s statement in John 9:31. In that context, the blind man is making the point that Jesus could not have used God’s power to heal him if Jesus was a sinner. In other words, if Jesus hadn’t been acting according to God’s will, God the Father would not have answered Jesus’ prayer to heal the man.
At the very least, this brief study encourages us to check our hearts and come to God with clean hands, a clean spirit and good motives. The more righteous we are, the more effective our prayers will be, since they will be in accord with God’s will.