Question: If unbelievers do not have the Holy Spirit, how do they get answers from God? Are they not separated from God, as Romans says? How do they go to the throne of grace with their petitions? Please explain, because I had always learned that the only prayer an unsaved person could make was one related to salvation, yet in 1 Kings:8:39, God is talking to Israel and to pagans as well.
Response: Unbelievers have no access to God to have their "petitions" fulfilled by Him. Furthermore, rarely would they turn to Him (in whom they don't believe) unless they were in a life or death situation in which only a miracle would help them. As you point out, the only prayer the unsaved can make is a prayer of repentance. Man is separated from God by his sin, it is not surprising that some pray to Mary, the "saints," or other deities. Even the religious counselors of King Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged, "There is not a man upon the earth that can shew the king's matter: therefore there is no king, lord, nor ruler, that asked such things at any magician, or astrologer, or Chaldean. And it is a rare thing that the king requireth, and there is none other that can shew it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh" (Dn 2:10-11).
On the other hand, God does intervene in the life of an unbeliever for His own sovereign purpose, to draw someone whom He knows will repent and come to Him, and in answer to the intercessory prayers of believers praying specifically for the salvation of unbelievers. In Scripture we see examples of individuals such as Hagar, weeping over her inability to protect the life of her son Ishmael (Gn 21:14-19), though previously God had already heard and responded to her "affliction" (Gn 16:11). God had not only protected him (21:19-21), but God blessed Ishmael exceedingly (Gn 16:10-11).
The people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah with the hope that Nineveh might be spared (Jon 3:5-10). God, in his mercy, did not destroy the city of Nineveh as He had threatened. The people of Nineveh may not have approached God as the Scriptures demanded, but they did know what repentance was.
In 1 Kings:8:38-39 we read, "What prayer and supplication soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house: then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men)."
Solomon is interceding for Israel and acknowledges the necessity of "knowing the affliction of his own heart...." Consequently, we see examples such as Cornelius the Roman centurion who met the Lord in Acts:10:4: "And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God."
In 1 Peter:3:12, Peter writes, "For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil."
Again, the testimony in Scripture is clear, as in Psalm:34:17-18: "The righteous cry, and the Lordheareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit."
The mercy of God is such that in Psalm:51:17, we also see, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."