May 17: “Does God Listen to the Prayers of Unbelievers”

10 Minute Read

Today’s Bible Reading:

1 Samuel 20:1–21:15
John 9:1-41
Psalms 113:1–114:8
Proverbs 15:15-17

Today’s Bible Verse(s):

John 9:31 (NLT): “We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will.”

Reflections on Today’s Bible Verse(s):

The verse I have chosen for today may seem like an unusual choice, especially since it is presented as a truth-claim … that isn’t true.

Now that I’ve got your attention …

As students of the Bible, there is something significant that we must learn. In seminary, it’s called hermeneutics. In the real world, it’s just the ability to understand the different ways that Scripture is presented (poetry, narrative, apocalyptic, etc.) and how to interpret those various types of literature.

For instance, the book of Proverbs is written as wisdom literature. Along with the wise musings of the writer, it is a compilation of short wisdom nuggets. In this type of literature (genre), we must realize that the truths are presented as general truths, not absolute truths that are true all of the time. It will take wisdom to determine which principle(s) applies. (Just read Proverbs 26:4-5. These verses would clearly contradict each other unless what I have just said is true – that this book of the Bible is filled with general truths, and it takes wisdom to know how and when to apply each verse.)

In our verse for today, we understand that it appears not in wisdom literature but in narrative literature. The Gospels are written as stories. So, this type of literature carries its own set of rules in how it is to be read and interpreted. 

One of the rules of reading the narrative portions of Scripture is that the words are presented the way they were said. But, the claims of the one doing the talking are not necessarily true. We must investigate to determine whether the one speaking is actually saying something that aligns with the rest of Scripture.

For instance, when Jesus speaks, His words are always true. We don’t have to worry about determining if what He said is true. It is true and is the standard against which all other truth claims must align.

But, what about the man in John 9:31 who made the truth claim about God not hearing the prayers of sinners? The Bible is without error in that it tells us what the man said. But, is what the man said actually true? Realizing the this is written as a narrative, we cannot assume that it is true. We must investigate (at which point we realize that the man’s statement was NOT true).

First, we realize that the man wasn’t even a believer in Jesus when he made this claim. He wasn’t saved until verses 35-38. So, he uttered these words when he was an unbeliever. If we use John 9:31 as a proof-text for saying that God doesn’t listen to sinners, we are appealing to the words of an unbeliever as proof.

Further, we realize that while there are specific principles that must be complied with if our prayers are to be heard and answered, and while it is true that unbelievers are incapable of complying with some of them, it is also true that our God can do whatever He pleases. Sometimes, in His mercy and grace, He listens to the prayers of sinners:

For instance, God listened to the pagans who threw Jonah overboard:

Jonah 1:14-15 (NLT): “Then they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. ‘O Lord,’ they pleaded, ‘don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. O Lord, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.’ Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once!”

God listened to the prayer of a sinful tax-collector:

Luke 18:13-14 (NLT): “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God…”

There are a few others instances in Scripture that I could point out, but you get the point. There have been times when God, because He is filled with grace and mercy, has listened to the prayer of sinners.

Now, understands that these instances are the exception to the rule. It is only because of God’s grace and mercy that He listens to anyone. And it is only through the blood of Jesus that God can simultaneously express His love and justice by listening to and answering prayers. 

My point is not who God listens to … but that we need to be very intentional when reading God’s Word. We need to understand what kind of literary style God is using to present His Word to us and then use the necessary literary rules to properly understand what God is saying.

(I may have raised more questions than answers. If you’ve got some questions, you can e-mail me at mattellis1997@gmail.com and I will gladly provide further elaboration on this topic.)


Matt Ellis is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Polk City, Florida (fbcpolkcity.com). His latest book is God’s Grace in the Real World. Connect with him on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Ruben Hutabarat on Unsplash

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I have an incredible wife that God gave to me on May 10, 1997. Since then, the Lord has blessed us with three wonderful boys. I am also the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Polk City, Florida.

4 thoughts on “May 17: “Does God Listen to the Prayers of Unbelievers”

    1. I like invitations and believe that they are appropriate most of the time. However, we aren’t told in the New Testament of any church that had a formal invitation at the end of the service. It is something that has really only been part of the church for about 150 years or so. So, I believe that God can bless a church that doesn’t have a formal invitation so long as people are regularly encouraged to respond to the truth of God’s Word, wherever and however they do that.

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