QUESTION: What is your view on whether God answers prayer by believers for those who are not yet believers, about things other than their salvation (such as illness, or difficulty of some kind). And does God answer the prayers of unbelievers?
ANSWER: These are good questions. Prayer is both the responsibility and the great privilege of believers (Lk. 18:1; Col. 4:2; I Thess. 5:17). Christians are on what we might call “praying ground,” because of our standing in Christ. Through faith in Christ we are born again of the Spirit, become part of the family of God (Jn. 1:12-13), and are even heirs of the King, through Christ (Gal. 4:7).
Because of this standing, we have the right to “come boldly” (with cheerful confidence) before the throne of God, and not only worship and praise Him, but make our petitions to Him (Phil. 4:6-7; Heb. 4:15-16). “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry” (Ps. 34:15). We do need to keep in mind, however, that sometimes the answer of an all-wise God is “No” (II Cor. 12:7-10). That is an answer too, as is, “Wait. Not yet.”
1) Among those petitions will be our prayers for the salvation of those who are still outside of Christ (Rom. 10:1). The Lord will not answer such prayers by saving them against their will. As William MacDonald put it, “He is not going to populate heaven with people who don’t want to be there.”
However, the Spirit of God may deal specifically with the individual in answer to prayer, perhaps by bringing new conviction of sin, or by sending someone into their lives who will witness to them, or by leading them to watch a Christian television program. The decision to trust in the Saviour or reject Him is theirs. But I believe the Lord will work in their lives in answer to prayer.
2) Now, what about us praying for unsaved people for things other than salvation? Yes, of course we can. We, who are on praying ground, can pray for the blessing of God on the lives of others. We are simply praying that the Lord will act in their lives in such a way as to bring glory to Himself, and bring whatever help is needed for them. God blessed heathen Potiphar for godly Joseph’s sake (Gen. 39:5).
The Lord is a merciful and compassionate God. “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). And if He can, within His sovereign will (I Jn. 5:14), lift the burdens or ease the pain of that unsaved person in answer to our prayers, He will do it.
As Paul puts it, “I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men [a generic term including all women]” (I Tim. 2:1). When a person tells me their troubles (whether saved or unsaved) I offer to pray for them–sometimes on the spot. I have never been turned down yet–though my wife was, once. It can actually be a means of witnessing.
A personal illustration. In a town near us is a wonderful Chinese restaurant. When the waitress was expecting their second child, I said I’d like to pray for the safe delivery of the baby, there at our table. She looked terrified, as though I had threatened to shoot her! But she stood there as I prayed, and God answered prayer.
There is also the providence of God to factor in (His pro-video, His before-seeing). God works in all the circumstances of our lives for our future good and blessing (Rom. 8:28), and one of the instruments He uses in that process is believing prayer.
In the passage in First Timothy, Paul goes on to give a specific example: we are to prayer for our leaders (“for kings and all who are in authority,” vs. 2). Are all our politicians Christians? Hardly! But we are to pray for them, because wise decisions in their leadership will do good for our country and our community, and it can maintain our freedom to worship God and share the gospel (vs. 3-4).
3) Finally, does God answer the prayers offered by unbelievers themselves. This is a different matter. “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him” (Jn. 9:31). This is emphasized again and again, in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament (cf. Job 27:8-9; Ps. 18:41; Prov. 15:29; 28:9; Mic. 3:4; Zech. 7:13).
Unbelievers are not on praying ground. Even as believers, if we harbour unconfessed sin in our hearts, we have no right to expect God to answer (Ps. 66:18; Isa. 59:2). It would be like holding out one hand to receive a blessing, while waving a fist in God’s face with the other! We need to deal with our sin (I Jn. 1:9).
I would not go so far as to say, though, that the Lord never, under any circumstances, will answer the prayers of the unsaved (other than a Spirit-empowered prayer for salvation). God would be perfectly within His rights to ignore such prayers. But He is a gracious, loving God. He loves the unsaved and is concerned about them.
Even an unbelieving murderer named Cain got a gracious response to his whining complaint against God (Gen. 4:13-15). And God, through Elijah predicted the doom of a wicked, Baal-worshiping king named Ahab (I Kgs. 21:17-26). But when the king humbly appealed for mercy, God withheld judgment for a time (vs. 27-29).
We know, concerning the natural man, there is not in him an understanding of God, or a desire to seek Him (Rom. 3:11; I Cor. 2:14). Therefore, even a weak and superstition-laden prayer for help by the unregenerate would, I believe, be an evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
There may be, in God’s answer to that prayer, what theologians would call a salvific intent–that He seeks to get the individual’s attention, to the end that he or she will turn to Him for salvation. It’s as though He said to the sinner, “See, I have helped you with this. Now, won’t you trust me with the destiny of your eternal soul?”
Or, it may be that the Lord will answer such prayers providentially, because of their positive effects on others connected with the situation. Let’s say an unsaved father prays, in desperation, for the healing of his critically ill son. Perhaps the Lord will answer that prayer, and the witness of that believing son, years later, will lead to the salvation of his father. Such things have happened.