Praying for Unbelievers

Have you ever been told something like this?

You pray for those prodigal children! You pray for that unbelieving husband, or spouse, or family member! You know God is going to answer those prayers. It’s his will that everyone be saved, so you pray—and God is going to raise them up!

Yeah, me too. There are plenty of verses about how God answers prayer. Most have some sort of condition, for example (italics mine):

  • Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:24)
  • If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)
  • And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:13)
  • Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:19)

You get the idea. Some of our prayers probably don’t meet God’s criteria for “yes” answers, but surely praying for someone’s salvation is in accordance with his will!

So why don’t all the people we pray for become believers?

As a new Christian, I remember praying fervently for my parents. Both were professed atheists, as was I before my conversion. I figured that if God could get my attention, nothing was impossible for him! So I prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

My mother died in 1998. As far as I know, she was still an atheist. In fact, on my last visit to her I asked her to reconsider God one more time. In spite of her advanced dementia, she took offense and responded lucidly and in anger. My dad is now 91, and in spite of our continued prayers (4o years’ worth!) and attempts at a significant conversation, he remains as opposed to the idea of a personal God as he ever was.

Yet, 2 Peter 3:9 clearly states, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (italics mine)

Something isn’t adding up.

It appears that God doesn’t always get what he wants. Yes, he wants everyone to repent and submit to his loving will. But even more, he grants us free will. And that freedom to decide for ourselves appears to trump his willingness to force us into relationship with him.

Darn.

It would be so much easier if we could pray for those we love (and those we don’t) and see them suddenly open their eyes to God’s goodness and perfect will. Sometimes that happens, as it did with me. And sometimes we can pray for 40 years or more and never see the answer we so ardently hope for.

Does that mean we can stop praying for people? Of course not. We can pray that God removes Satan’s deception, allowing a person to make a fair decision. We can pray that God will send believers into their life. I may ask God to put someone into circumstances that reveal their need for him. (That one is pretty scary!) There is a lot we can pray for.

In the example with my dad, God has answered by bringing a number of retired pastors to the senior home where he lives. They “somehow” end up at his table at lunch, and he has become friends with several of them.

When my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006, we all assumed it would be terminal. According to the experts, his chance of beating this cancer was around 3%. Yet, God healed him, even after he chose to discontinue chemo after only half the prescribed treatments. Does he know we prayed and God healed? Yes. Does he believe in this God who healed him? No. No one ever said we have to be logical!

Like most Christians, we have several family members and close friends who are not interested in knowing God. And like most Christians, we pray for them. It just helps to remember that when it seems God isn’t answering our prayers, it may not be his fault.

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