Does God Hear the Prayers of Sinners?
Printed in House To House/Heart To Heart
Prayer is often on the minds of many. Humanity prays for life’s blessings, healing from illness, forgiveness from sins, growth in maturity, care for sorrow and comfort in loneliness, even guidance, direction and strength. Thanksgiving is offered for blessings received and prayers answered. But in John 9:31, a man healed of his blindness stated, “We know that God does not listen to sinners,” which causes one to ponder this statement’s true meaning.
On the one hand, the Bible records several conditions under which God will tune out certain prayers. For instance, God will neither hear prayers from people of violence (Isaiah 1:15) and who are godless (Job 27:9; 1 Peter 3:12), nor will he hear appeals from those who cherish sin in their heart (Psalms 66:18; Isaiah 59:2) and disregard the poor (Proverbs 21:3). Furthermore, God will not answer requests from wicked individuals (Proverbs 1:28) and from husbands who mistreat theirs wives (1 Peter 3:7). But more sternly written is the abominable prayer of one who no longer listens to God’s law (Proverbs 28:9), for whom John warns prayer should not even be offered (1 John 5:16) since God does not override one’s choice of willful sin.
On the other hand, Scripture reveals how attuned God is to humanity’s needs and requests. God heard Hagar’s desperate cry in the wilderness of Shur, a fact verified in the meaning of the names of her son Ishmael, God, and the well where Hagar was1 (Genesis 16:11-14). In Judges 16, God answered Samson’s prayer for strength. Whereas God had formerly departed from Samson (Judges 16:20), this final act of faith caused him to be numbered with the faithful (Hebrews 11:32). Later in Israel’s history, God promised to hear, forgive and heal Israel’s wicked ways if they would pray, seek and turn (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Motivation, however, must be considered. Jesus said that all who ask will receive (Matthew 7:8), but James pointed to some who had asked selfishly and did not receive (James 4:3). John said that if petitions were made according to his plan God would hear and grant forgiveness (1 John 5:14-15). Jesus instructed the disciples to focus on God’s kingdom and that God would provide for their needs (Matthew 6:33).
God listens and answers sinners’ requests as they seek his will. Cornelius was a Gentile whose heart and motivation must have been right. He was a devout man who feared God, generously gave to the people and prayed to God always (Acts 10:2), but he was still in sin as Peter had not yet spoken words whereby he would be saved (Acts 11:14). By contrast, Simon the Sorcerer became a Christian (Acts 8:13) but was instructed to repent and pray because he was in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity (Acts 8:22-23). Both Cornelius, whom some call the alien sinner, and Simon—the Christian who sinned—found God’s ear open to their prayer.
The passage in John 9:31 can easily be understood in light of the aforementioned verses. The Pharisees equated their customs to God’s law, which yielded their faulty premise that anyone who observed their traditions must have been sent from God (John 9:16). In this light, they called Jesus a sinner (John 9:16, 24) because he broke their Sabbath regulation. The blind man, however, did not consider Jesus a sinner in the true sense of the word because he had not broken any of God’s laws. In fact, he stated the obvious, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33), which was the truth.
The blind man revealed several truths about God and prayer that the Pharisees had missed. First, God’s reception to the prayers of sinners is based upon the motivation and actions of the sinner. For example, will the sinner repent, obey and worship God? Second, anyone who lives righteously and does good works is from God. In Jesus’ case, he healed the beggar of his blindness; therefore, he must be from God (John 9:31-33). Third, there is hope for both the alien and Christian sinner to pray successfully, but sinfulness must be abandoned. The alien sinner must hear God’s word (Romans 10:17), confess their belief in Jesus (Romans 10:9-10), repent of sin (Luke 13:3) and be baptized into Christ (Galatians 3:27) to experience the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. The Christian who has returned to wickedness must repent and pray (Acts 8:22). God hears prayer, but humanity must prepare the heart.