Because I teach and write about spirituality, occasionally I’m asked to comment on scientific studies about the efficacy of prayer. The research always seems to include the assumption that one person’s prayers are essentially as acceptable as another’s. One of the flaws with such studies is that they do not associate prayer with the gospel. No one can begin to understand prayer until he grasps what the gospel teaches us about prayer.
The Bible, rather than assuring everyone that God hears their prayers, slams heaven’s door against all who think God will hear them despite their sins: “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” (Isa. 59:2). In one sense, of course, God hears everything. But in this text we’re told that God does not hear with a view to answering those who sin against Him. And, of course, since every person except Jesus has sinned against God, the hopes are dashed of everyone who thinks all it takes for God to hear is for them to pray.
In fact, the Bible is even more shockingly counterintuitive in Proverbs 15:8: “The sacrifice [which includes the prayer] of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.” Many people seem to think, “It’s true, I’m not a dedicated Christian; but if I get into a difficult situation and humble myself to pray, and I’m really sincere, surely God will accept my prayer.” Or they believe, “Even though I’m not really a follower of Jesus, if God is merciful and loving, He will look favorably on the prayers of those who come to Him when they’re in real need and pray hard enough.”
But this text tells us that, instead of being impressed, the Lord actually abominates these prayers. Why? Because such people believe God should hear their prayers based upon their temporary humility and piety. In other words, they believe their own righteousness — in this case, expressed in a short-lived acknowledgement that they need God’s help — obligates God to answer.
Instead of being honored to receive the momentary sincerity of those who want something from Him, God is insulted by their prayers, for they imply that the work of Jesus wasn’t necessary. It’s as though they’re saying, “The life and death of Your Son weren’t needed in my case; it was all a big mistake. I believe You should hear me based upon what I have done — especially in these prayers — and I don’t need what Jesus did in order to be heard by You.” Could anything be more offensive to God?
When it comes to knowing God and being heard by Him, Jesus was unequivocal: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Confidence that our prayers are heard cannot come from our sincerity, humility, or need; rather, “we have confidence to enter the holy places [the presence of God] by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). Until people come in repentance to God through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ — who alone can remove the sin that separates us from God — their prayers will not be answered.
Does God ever answer the prayer of a non-Christian? Many stories claim that He does. In reality, are these “answered prayers” simply God doing in His providence what He was going to do regardless of the prayers? The clearest ground biblically is this: except for those prayers leading to salvation, we can give no assurance to anyone outside of Christ that God will answer his prayer. It is only through the gospel that we truly begin to pray, for only then — after Jesus has made us and our prayers acceptable to the Father — do the promises of prayer in the Bible apply to us.
Once we respond to the gospel in repentance and faith and are adopted into God’s family, our newly begun relationship with our heavenly Father becomes markedly prayerful. No longer is prayer just an obligation or a hoop to jump through to get what we want, for the gospel makes prayer a desire and not a mere duty. Through the gospel we receive the Spirit who causes us to cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6) with a new heavenward, Fatherward orientation. In other words, the Spirit of God causes us to want to talk to God.
Prayer should still remain a discipline, for even with the God-given desire to pray, it’s easy to be distracted from habits of prayer by the crush of responsibilities. But thanks to the grace of God in the gospel, our prayers are always welcome.