You’ve started up an evangelistic Bible study at your work, held an hour before all the guys are supposed to clock in for the day, in the break room with the broken arcade hoop set-up. You make up for the shame of bringing foul Dunkin Donuts coffee by taking everyone through Romans, verse by verse. Only one other guy is a Christian. He actually is a member at your church. But everyone else ranges from mere nominal Christianity, to Catholic, to worthy-of-condescension atheist.
The guy who goes to your church pulls you aside one morning to suggest you ask the others to take turns thanking God for various things in the passage, at the end of the study. He wants them to know that God can be approached, that the reading of Scripture is not like reading some wooden, peer-reviewed textbook, and for them to get in a habit of prayer, a habit that can continue if and when they become Christians.
Your brother’s excitement, if not his Scriptural discernment, is commendable; and in it he raises a good question. Is it right and profitable to encourage unbelievers to pray?
If we are to answer this correctly, we must be clear on what prayer is. In the following brief consideration of prayer, we will use the Baptist Catechism.
Question: What is Prayer?
Answer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (1 John 5:14).
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6).
O YAHWEH, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear (Psalm 10:17).
He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him; He will also hear their cry and will save them (Psalm 145:19).
Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son (John 14:13, 14).
Maybe in the reading of the catechism answer and Scripture verses, you have figured out the answer, which is a “no”.
No, it is not right and profitable to encourage unbelievers to pray. Sin has brought about a chasm of enmity between sinners and their Creator. God hates evildoers; and evildoers hate God. In his great holiness, he receives not rebels into his presence. In sinners’ great wretchedness, they cannot please God, nor desire that which pleases God. They cannot come before him in fear and trembling to plead for the hallowing of his name and the accomplishment of his will on earth as it is in heaven. At best, the unbeliever can pray for a good thing for the wrong reasons, idolatrous, vile, Satanic reasons. And though God is not hard of hearing, he refuses to give ear to such prayer.
It should not amaze us that the Holy One hears not the prayers of many, but that he should be pleased to hear the prayers of any. And he is. For God Almighty, the Eternal Son, took to himself a human nature, died on the cross as a propitiation by his blood through faith, was buried, rose again in death-crushing resurrection glory, and has ascended to his throne, where now he sits to ever intercede for those whom he loves. Men, sinful, damnable men, may approach the Holy One through Jesus Christ. God unites sinners to the Messiah through the new birth, grants them repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Lord, declares them right with him, and daily changes their new hearts to more and more desire that which he desires. This is what God has done for Christians. He has granted them eternal access to the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. And any who repent and believe upon Jesus may enjoy forever this great access with all the saints.
Because of and covenantally united to Jesus, Christians come to God in prayer. They offer up their new desires to God, those desires given to them by their Father, those desires birthed from new, living hearts. Christians come to God in prayer, knowing they are sinners deserving damnation, but speak to him standing in pure mercy and grace.
Christians, and only Christians, do this.
Unbelievers are unable to pray as they ought. In our evangelistic efforts, it would be right and profitable to avoid giving those under God’s wrath any false idea of being able to walk in a relationship to God apart from coming to him through the cross of Christ. We can and should pray for them, on their behalf, in their hearing. But they, before undertaking any other religious duty, ought to call upon the Lord for salvation.