Bad catechesis, ‘pop’ theology, and Bible verses taken out of context have led some to believe the notion that God does not hear the prayers of those in major sin. Is that really true? The answer, as it turns out, is more nuanced.
“We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him.” – John 9:31
The episode of Christ healing the born-blind Celidonius has the general theme that God’s attention is tuned towards the prayers of those who follow Him, and less so towards the prayers of those who are against Him. If taken literally, it would mean God never hears our prayers, as we are all sinners.
The statement “God does not hear the prayers of those in sin” is a kind of straw man. A more apt phrasing would be to say “God does not hear the prayers of those in sin, except when made in repentance or when it will it lead to repentance.”
“The LORD is far from the wicked, but hears the prayer of the just.” – Proverbs 15:29
The crux of the argument is that your prayers are futile if you repent with a conscience full of evil. If you are not receptive to penance you’re not “of the just,” and your prayers – while heard by God – would not be efficacious for obtaining grace and salvation as they are not made in perfect contrition. This is a sentiment seen from the earliest days of the Church. In the Didache it is written as:
“In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience.”
The Catechism of the Council of Trent succinctly explains the nuances between the prayer of the impenitent and the prayer of sinners:
The Prayer of the Impenitent
“The last degree is that of those who not only do not repent of their sins and enormities, but, adding crime to crime, dare frequently to ask pardon of God for those sins, in which they are resolved to continue. With such dispositions they would not presume to ask pardon from their fellow-man. The prayer of such sinners is not heard by God. It is recorded of Antiochus: Then this wicked man prayed to the Lord, of whom he was not to obtain mercy. Whoever lives in this deplorable condition should be vehemently exhorted to wean himself from all affection to sin, and to return to God in good earnest and from the heart.”
The Prayer of Sinners
“Another degree of prayer is that of those who are weighed down by the guilt of mortal sin, but who strive, with what is called dead faith, to raise themselves from their condition and to ascend to God. But, in consequence of their languid state and the extreme weakness of their faith, they cannot raise themselves from the earth. Recognising their crimes and stung with remorse of conscience, they bow themselves down with humility, and, far as they are removed from God, implore of Him with penitential sorrow, the pardon of their sins and the peace of reconciliation. The prayers of such persons are not rejected by God, but are heard by Him. Nay, in His mercy, He generously invites such as these to have recourse to Him, saying: Come to me, all you that labour, and are heavily laden, and I will refresh you, of this class was the publican, who, though he did not dare to raise his eyes towards heaven, left the Temple, as (our Lord) declares, more justified than the Pharisee.”
In his Summa, Thomas Aquinas explains the distinction that although prayers from sinners are not meritorius – not deserving of being heard as they are made by sinners, they are impetrative because a state of grace is not required for God to answer persistent, pious prayers to impetrate the things necessary for salvation.
“Accordingly when a sinner prays for something as sinner, i.e. in accordance with a sinful desire, God hears him not through mercy. On the other hand God hears the sinner’s prayer if it proceed from a good natural desire, not out of justice, because the sinner does not merit to be heard, but out of pure mercy, provided however he fulfil the four conditions given above, namely, that he beseech for himself things necessary for salvation, piously and perseveringly.” – Summa Theologiae, q. 83, a. 16.