I was posed with a question the other day, the answer of which struck me like a knife. Does God listen to the prayers of those who do not honor him? Does he? God knows all things, and he loves everyone, surely he answers the prayers of people whose lives are not honoring him. For years, I did not know Jesus, and I was living a detestable life of sin. I hated myself, and I hated the secret life of sin that separated me from friends and family. I believed in God, and although my life did not reflect that, I would pray to God to be freed from this. And I believed that God was listening.
I also believed that God did not want to hear my prayers, that he did not want to forgive my sin in the moment, because the prayer was not sincere and I needed to feel the guilt of my shame. I was even questioning my salvation, as I had never been baptized before, and how could someone in so much sin as me possibly get into heaven. I knew the way I was living was wrong, and yet I never once turned to Jesus to be healed; I was praying to a God that I was told was Jesus, but was not at all the Jesus of the Bible.
So were my prayers from then being heard by God? Until I was faced with this question, I would have said yes, because I believed all my prayer brought me to the point where I finally decided to follow Jesus with my whole life upon entering college. But now, I realize that this wasn't quite the case. Psalm 66:18-19 very clearly tells us otherwise: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened, but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer.” David, “a man after God’s own heart,” knows that he would have had his prayer rejected if he cherished sin, but he is confident that God is listening to his prayer, because his life is surrendered to God’s will. 1 Peter 3:12, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
Looking back at my life before Jesus, I see there were some serious flaws in my theology, but also some truths that I previously held to be lies. The flaw was that God didn’t want to forgive me; God loves me with a love that I will fully grasp, and he wants nothing more than to forgive every child for this sin so that they may be adopted into his Kingdom. I was detestable in my sin, and there was no reason why God should have wanted to save me, and yet out of love for me He did. He knows that we cannot save ourselves from our sin, and so he decided to make a way so that we don’t have to. He sent Jesus, his own son, born of a virgin, to live a sinless life that is impossible for man, and he took our shame upon himself as he died on a cross for our sins. It was my sin that nailed Jesus to the cross, but it was the love and grace of God that raised him from the dead three days later, because death is the punishment for sin, and there was no sin in Jesus. Angels in heaven rejoice more over a single sinner repenting for his sins and following Jesus than for a hundred who have already done so. So for me to believe that God did not want this for me was straight Satan.
But I also believed that God did not want to hear my prayers, something I held to be false until now, at which point I realized that it actually was true. I was living a life that was not honoring God, and so his ears were not attentive to my prayers. Sure God heard them, in the way that I might hear the conversations of people walking past me: I hear the words being spoken, but I know they are not talking to me, and so I have no reason to talk to them. So now I understand that my prayers were not making a difference because I wasn’t yet willing to change to talk to the one true, Living God. The first prayer that I know was heard by God was my prayer to repentance, when I decided I wanted to fully know God the day I first opened my Bible to find truth in Him.
This was a thought that really disturbed me that night, because of something I had told a nonbeliever earlier that day. It was a man who we have been meeting with here in Russia, and after watching Courageous he said that he had a lot to think about, largely about his father, but also curious about God: his dad devoutly follows the Russian Orthodox religion, and he was interested to know more of why. I then told him that we are saved by trusting Jesus alone, not by any of our own actions, and that if he wanted to know more, he should pray to know more, and God would reveal it to him. So when the realization hit me that his prayer to know more would never be answered, I was devastated, I could have just pushed this man farther away from God because he would not get the answers I had promised he would get.
So what are you going to do about it?
At that moment, I felt God tell me that he would not listen to this man’s prayer. And yet, God reminded me that he listens to mine. And that’s when I felt God say, Pray for him. And I don’t mean this like, “I’m praying for you,” just that I am giving a prayer to God asking things for you. But God was saying, Pray FOR him.
Pray the prayer that this man is praying FOR him. Take his prayer upon myself, and take his requests to God FOR him, because that is the only way that it will be heard. Prayer is called intercession for a reason, we are stepping into someone else’s life and praying their prayers for them, because theirs are not being heard.
And this is exactly what Jesus does for us. He lives to intercede for us, as we are told in Hebrews 7:25. Jesus stepped into our lives to tell the Father that we should be spared the consequence of death. And the Father agreed.