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?

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.


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