Last Sunday in a class someone asked this, “If the prayers of a righteous man avail much, does that mean that God doesn’t listen to the prayers of an unrighteous man?” I think it’s a fair question. We should be able to ask these things and we should be willing to look to find the answers.
It is a concerning idea, that one person’s prayers might get higher priority because they behave better than someone else. It is just one of the confusing points on prayer, for me anyway.
Another confusing point that I think you will see goes along with this question is we find in Mark 11, where Jesus tells us, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” and the assurance from Matthew 7 “Ask and it shall be given to you, Seek and you shall find.” But how does that line up next to James 4 where we read, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
So which is it, when I ask, will I receive or not? If I was more righteous would I receive the same things that someone who is less righteous wouldn’t? Who judges how righteous I have to be before I receive the things I want?
It is tempting to write this off as one of the contradictions that someone determined to disprove Christianity would use to shake about and declare that we can’t get our story straight. If we just discount the James passage and go with the easier to swallow “Ask and you shall receive” bit then we can tell people who want a promotion or a new car or for people to get along at work or even less selfishly the health of a loved one, that they just need to ask.
But who among us has been on the receiving end of pouring out your heart to someone and having them look you in the eye and ask “Have you prayed about it?” and thought “Really? Of course I prayed about it, but I’m struggling to hear an answer and so I’m asking you.” How do you not walk away from those times with this worry that you’re not being righteous enough to rank or that God just might not be listening?
In order to understand these verse, we have to begin right in the hardest spot. Righteousness. Does God listen to a righteous person more than an unrighteous one? Well, sure, but not righteousness like we try to define it by human striving. Because think about this. Who is righteous when they approach the Lord and confess their need that first time, when they see that they are a sinner and accept Jesus’s sacrifice to atone for their sins? Nobody! Nobody walks into that situation with anything to offer in return for the best gift they can receive. No one can say “Lord, I have volunteered and I don’t punch my sister and I usually swear only when it’s really necessary and my mom is really proud of how I’m turning out. I will trade you this stuff for eternity.” No, all they can say is “Lord, I am without. I am a broken mess who needs what you have to offer.”
No one would EVER suggest that God would not hear that prayer even though it is offered by an unrighteous person for what could be seen as a pretty selfish gain that cannot be repaid. If there is anything that we can all agree on, it is that that prayer will be answered, and thank God for that! If so assuredly a prayer by an unrighteous person is answered, every time, then what?
The answer to all of this we see in what the Bible has to say about righteousness. Philippians 3: 8-9 says “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
Righteousness is not based on our works, on how well we practice our faith, but rather it is the Spirit which allows us the strength to have faith and respond to Him. We know that the Spirit goes ahead to the lost and draws them into Him, into repentance, and so in that moment, when a person is trusting solely on His sacrifice being moved and emboldened by His Spirit there is, perhaps, never such a righteous word uttered, because in that moment they are the farthest from depending on their own works and the closest to leaning on and accepting the righteousness the comes from God.
It is no confusing thing then, once we understand that a righteous man is no well behaved man, but rather a reliant one, one trusting in the righteousness of God, that someone tucked so sweetly in the arm of His Father would be close enough to turn their head and whisper into the ear of our Lord.
Can you look at your prayers and believe that you can be broad or specific in your request, you can be humble and bold, that you can ask for something as real as new shoes or as wild as a mountain to pick up and move, and trust that God will come through just as sweetly as you did when you first asked God to rescue you? Because what could be more crazy than someone giving up their own child to be crushed by your wrongs so that you can go free….and if God will do that for us, then how can you not believe He will do things beyond our wildest dreams for the rest of our lives?
God has even provided a way for us to pray when we can’t come up with the words, in Romans 8: 26-27 we read, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” And those prayers I think must avail the most, delivered through righteousness to righteousness without our interference. Can you get out of the Spirit’s way enough, less of you and more of Him and allow Him to speak for you?
If you haven’t come to that point where you’ve turned to God, admitting your brokenness and trusting in His righteousness, that’s the right place to start. If you already have, take a minute and remember that time that you had no doubt that you were unrighteous, and allowed yourself to take in His righteousness to cover you, and were in return granted an immediate and complete and perfect response to your prayer. Return to that sweet submission and relying on His righteousness, tuck yourself into His embrace and whisper your requests into His listening ear and long for His answer which will give Him the most glory and that will be for your good.