Does God hear prayers from just anyone?

ROBERT ASKS: Do you think God hears, listens to, prayers of anyone?

THE GUY RESPONDS: Nobody should care what a mere journalist like The Guy thinks on matters like this beyond his spiritual pay grade that are better left to pastors or theologians. However, the topic is important so here are a few notes. This assumes we’re talking about “petitionary” prayer that asks for things, not prayers of adoration or thanksgiving.

As part of this, the questioner asks whether God hears only prayers from Christians. The Guy recalls the famous prayer fuss in 1980 when Oklahoma pastor Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, made this off-the-cuff comment: “It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemy.”

Predictable uproar ensued. Ronald Reagan, campaigning for his first term as U.S. president and seeking conservative Christian votes, spoke at the same event as Smith. Asked later about this remark, he disagreed: “Since both the Christian and Judaic religions are based on the same God, the God of Moses, I’m quite sure those prayers are heard.” Noted Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell said God “does not hear the prayers of unredeemed Gentiles or Jews,” but then requested a meeting with the American Jewish Committee and refined his stance to say God “loves everyone alike. He hears the heart cry of any sincere person who calls on him.”

Apart from religious affiliation, we have the problem of this question’s “listen” and “hear.” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all believe that the one and only God is all-knowing (“omniscient”) so by definition would be aware of any prayer from anyone. However, that’s not to say God heeds all prayers, which is the real issue. The “word of faith” movement (a.k.a. “prosperity gospel” or “name it and claim it”) teaches that a supplicant who prays in pure faith will be rewarded. Christian critics of that sort of theology insist life is not so simple and cite examples of sincere believers who pray yet receive no relief from sufferings — tough stuff that’s as old as the biblical books of Job and the Psalms. The apostle Paul “pleaded with God” to be freed from a “thorn in the flesh” (whatever that might have been) from Satan, but said he learned not only to accept but “boast” of this burden and rest content in God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). More dramatically, even Jesus Christ prayed before he was crucified, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). Mysteries abound.

What are the conditions under which God might heed or not heed a prayer? Both the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament address this. The person who prays is told not to cherish sin (Psalm 66:18, Isaiah 59:2, Jeremiah 14:10-12), not to disobey God’s teachings (Proverbs 28:9), not to have unworthy motives (Matthew 6:5-6, Luke 18:11-14), not to be captive to worldliness (James 4:3-4), and — yes, prosperity preachers — also to have complete faith in God (James 1:6, Hebrews 11:6).

Even so, why wouldn’t God grant wishes that from a limited human standpoint seem just, moral, or compassionate? That was tackled by Professor C.S. Lewis, the lay Christian author of the popular “Narnia” children’s novels (who died the same day as John F. Kennedy). He wrote in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer that anyone can see that “in our ignorance we ask what is not good for us, or for others, or not even intrinsically possible. Or again, to grant one man’s prayer involves refusing another’s. There is much here which it is hard for our will to accept, but nothing that is hard for our intellect to understand.” He also said this in a 1959 Atlantic magazine essay reprinted in the anthology The World’s Last Night: “If an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them.”

Comments, anyone?

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Matt

    I would quarrel with the answer’s emphasis on whether God “heeds” any person’s prayer. Yes, God listens to us and cares for us, but as the Lewis quote makes clear, he makes decisions based on what he knows to be best for our salvation, not our preference or our comfort. The point of prayer is not to get God to do what you want. Rather, the point is to discern what God is doing and to align yourself with his good purposes, asking for his enabling as you do so.

    At least that’s my view, coming from a Reformed perspective.

    • AuthenticBioethics

      That’s basically true from the Catholic perspective also. Scripture is full of places where God says, basically, “talk to the hand ’cause the face ain’t listening.”
      Aquinas makes the distinction of God hearing/seeing/knowing all (and thus hears all prayers) and “hearing” as a prayer the petition of an unrepentant sinner. (As Steve Beren pointed out, we’re all sinners and not worthy of God hearing us, yet He does.) Consider for instance an unapologetic adulterer whose lover is deathly ill and who prays for the lover’s return to health. Praying for a sick person is good. But in this case, it is almost blasphemy – it is a petition to God to facilitate his persistence in sin. Per the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911, “His prayer could offend God
      only if it were hypocritical, or presumptuous, as if he should ask God to
      suffer him to continue in his evil course.” From popular entertainment, I think of Spiderman 3, were Eddie goes into a church to pray that Peter Parker be killed and ends up becoming Venom.

  • wmrharris

    This is rather inside (theological) baseball. Were one to ask the Muslim, does God hear her prayers? She may well answer, “of course.” Or to put a name to it, when Abraham Heschel prayed, did he believe he was answered? To read him is to answer in the affirmative. I would suggest that journalism starts with this experiential side, not the theological.

  • http://www.andrewhidas.com/ Andrew Hidas

    I’m curious why you would characterize Bailey Smith’s comments as “off the cuff.” Seems to me he elaborated a duly considered and quite definitive theological view. Was it your intention to imply that too much was made of it, that those who objected in the “predictable” terms you describe were being overly sensitive?

  • Semaj Nottus

    Since God is operating all in accord with the counsel of His own will, and since all is out of Him, by Him, and for Him, if any pray according to His will, He “hears” their prayer. For example, God-inspired scripture records that Paul prays ” that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may be giving you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the realization of Him, the eyes of your heart having been enlightened, for you to perceive what is the expectation of His calling, and what the riches of the glory of the enjoyment of His allotment among the saints,”. Anyone could pray like that and look forward to a positive answer because it is recorded as being God’s will.

  • Steve Beren

    About eight years ago, at a Bible study one Sunday afternoon, one of the participants asked whether God heard and answered the prayers of sinners. Another participant answered, “sure – who else is there?” We’re all sinners, and we all woefully fall short in every way that matters. Nobody has “enough” faith (or “enough” of anything else) to “qualify” to be heard by God. It is God’s love, power, mercy, and grace that give Him the ability and inclination to listen to, hear, and know the hearts of all of us sinners.

  • avalpert

    “Nobody should care what a mere journalist like The Guy thinks on matters like this beyond his spiritual pay grade that are better left to pastors or theologians.”

    Should have stopped there…


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