When God is the Last Option

Are the prayers of those who ignore God answered?

So what happens when you live your entire life as if God does not exist, but then you get into a real jam? You do not believe in God, you want nothing to do with God, and you actually dislike the very idea of God existing and interfering with your selfish lifestyle. But then crunch time comes.

Folks like this can very quickly change their tune and start praying fast and furiously. As the old saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. When all hell breaks out, when some massive crisis comes along, then all of a sudden plenty of Joe and Josephine Pagans will burst out into prayer – as if there actually is a God who is there.

So what are we to make of such prayers? Does God in fact hear them? Does he answer them? Let me seek to flesh out some thoughts on this. These questions arise from a few brief things I happened to see on the television the other night. Both involved those who seemed to clearly be non-Christians who were speaking about God and prayer.

One was all rather trivial, while the other was quite serious. As to the former, some gal on a food cooking contest program said something about praying to God that the food comes out OK. But just moments prior she had uttered a string of swear words because of problems she had in her cooking. I immediately thought, ‘Hmm, and what God is this that she is praying to?’

These superficial and usually meaningless prayers are of course heard all the time: ‘God, please let the judges like my food.’ ‘God, help me get that parking spot.’ (Christians often pray that one too!) ‘God, help me get that dress that is on sale.’ Sam and Samantha Secular can pray prayers like this all the time. They may not even believe in God, but they are happy to now and then throw up prayers nonetheless to get something they want or crave.

Contrary to the beliefs of many people – pagans and Christians alike – God is not a divine Santa Claus whose only purpose for existing is to give us goodies and nice things whenever and wherever we seek them. He does not exist to serve us. We exist to serve, love and obey him.

But the second TV example was indeed much more important. A show about missing persons featured a 4-year-old girl who went missing in remote Tasmania. When I heard what the panicked mother said, I actually wrote it down: “I never prayed in my life, but I am now.” Hmm…

Thankfully the girl was found on the third day. And then the mum spoke of what ‘a blessing it was that she was found.’ Hmm again. To speak about “blessings” means there must be someone who gives out such blessings. Nature does not bless us in this sense – but a personal God can and does.

Now, does God care about children in strife, and does he care about grieving and panicking parents? Yes, but the point remains: can such adults who have rejected God all their life expect him to just instantly rush to their aid when something goes wrong? It seems at best that this is being all rather presumptuous, even if we do have a merciful and compassionate God.

As to God HEARING prayer, well yes, he hears all prayers because he hears all things – he knows all things. He is omniscient. But the question that needs answering here is does God ANSWER the prayer of the unbeliever? We know that for the Christian there are three main divine answers to prayer: no, yes, and wait.

But we also know that God has said he will not listen to the prayer of the wicked. Some generic passages on this would include Isaiah 59:1-2:

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
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.

We also have the blind man healed by Jesus answering the accusing Pharisees in John 9:3 this way: “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” That at least was the common consensus of the day.

And these words found in James 4:3-4 (ESV) need to be kept in mind: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

Or as the NIV puts it: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?

And some specific texts on this would include the following:

Psalm 18:41 They cried for help, but there was none to save;
    they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them.

Micah 3:4 Then they will cry out to the Lord, but he will not answer them. At that time he will hide his face from them because of the evil they have done.

In fact, God even tells some people not to even bother praying for certain other people. Consider two words given to Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 7:16 So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you. 

Jeremiah 14:11 Then the Lord said to me, ‘Do not pray for the well-being of this people’.

But believers too can find their prayers not being answered at times. Here are just two examples:

Psalm 66:18-20 If I had cherished sin in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened
    and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God,
    who has not rejected my prayer
    or withheld his love from me!

1 Peter 3:7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Getting back to my original question: does a non-Christian have any of his prayers answered? Given the above biblical data, we can conclude that in general God does not – at least not in the same way he answers the prayers of his people.

However, we can say that God does answer the prayers of those who are coming to the end of their rope and are seeing how lost and messed up they are, and then cry out to God for mercy and salvation. Prayers of repentance and desperation in other words will usually be heard – and answered.

And as we know, God often allows pagans to hit rock bottom before they finally start turning to him. That was true of me back in my pagan days. God can use really tough times to get our attention, to wake us from our slumber, and get us to re-prioritise things.

As such, it is hoped that the mother with the missing daughter allowed this tragic experience to finally wake her up, and start getting her to think about the God she had never previously acknowledged or prayed to. We can pray to that end at least.

So at best we can conclude that God indeed HEARS all prayers of all people just as he knows all things, but he only ANSWERS prayers according to his own will, and that is mainly the prayers of those who seek to do his will.

[1321 words]

One Reply to “When God is the Last Option”

  1. Thank you so much for this excellent post, Bill. Prayer was my anchor when I was saying goodbye to my late husband Ernest- although, I was wondering. Catholics have strong traditions of contemplative prayer and prayer exercises to keep that side of our Christian life going- the Carmelites and St. Ignatius of Loyola have certainly helped me over the years, particularly recently. So, I wonder, would it be possible for you to return to this subject in the near future and provide a list of useful Christian resources for a strong prayer life as you do so well with so many other subjects?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *