Tim Tebow represents America's two great religions: Christianity and Football. But the way the young Denver Broncos' quarterback intertwines the two has made some followers of each faith uncomfortable. His post-game interviews always begin with "I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," and he frequently drops to one knee on the field and bows his head in prayer--a posture now called Tebowing. (Check out the website featuring photos of others Tebowing in public places.)
But Tim Tebow's behavior on the field does raise important questions about prayer and how Christians ought to practice it. Andrew Sullivan criticized Tim Tebow saying his public prayers violate Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where he taught his followers to pray in private:
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)
Referencing Tebow's habit of praying during NFL games before millions of spectators, Sullivan asks "Why does a Christian publicly repudiate the God he worships?" Is Sullivan right? Is Tim Tebow actually violating the teachings of Christ with his behavior on the field? The answer is more complicated than critics of publicly practiced religion may prefer.
Strictly speaking Jesus did not prohibit public prayer. In fact he prayed publicly on numerous occasions including before meals (Mark 6:41) and among a crowd prior to raising Lazarus from the grave (John 11:41-42). He also prayed where his followers could see and hear him. As a result they asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray," (Luke 11:1).
What Jesus does reject in his Sermon on the Mount is hypocritical prayer. The word hypocrite is derived from the Greek meaning actor. It is literally one who pretends; one who fakes it. This is what Jesus sees among many outwardly religious people. They are pretending to be devoted to God so that they may win the approval of people. Remember, ancient Judea was a culture that highly valued religiosity. Such communities, past and present, put great emphasis on external evidence of religious devotion, and this tends to fuel hypocrisy.
At the core of Jesus' teaching then is not the mechanics of prayer (how, when, where), but rather the motivation for prayer (why). Are we praying out of genuine devotion to God, or merely to win favor with people? I do not know what powers of perception Andrew Sullivan has, but I am incapable of peering into Tim Tebow's soul to determine his motivation for praying on the field. If he is praying to win the accolades of the spectators, then Jesus says he has his reward. Unlike Sullivan, I choose to give Tebow the benefit of the doubt and assume his motives are pure.
Still, Jesus does offer practical advise for avoiding the pitfall of hypocrisy we can all stumble into. He tells us to pray in private. Privacy makes hypocrisy impossible. One cannot act without an audience. But does this call to pray behind closed doors still apply in our increasingly secular setting? Unlike 1st century Judea, 15th century Europe, or 18th century New England, our culture does not reward public religiosity. Today those who stand on street corners to preach or pray tend to be maligned rather than magnified. In our context praying "to be seen by others" is a less potent temptation.
Or is it?
I think a case could be made that the emergence of digital communication and online social media has made religious hypocrisy a more dangerous temptation today than we often recognize. Lee Siegel in his book Against the Machine, discusses how we hide behind false, "phantom" identities on the internet. It's a medium we think fosters immediacy and authenticity, but in truth it breeds shallowness. It allows us to easily build and present a facade to the world; an image of who we wish to be rather than who we really are. And in the case of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, intimate relationships that peer behind our facades are nearly impossible to foster (despite what so many 16-year-old girls wish to believe). In other words, on the web hypocrisy is not only easy, it is mandatory.
When Christians live and display their religious lives online it can lead to precisely the danger Jesus warns about--seeking the approval of people rather than intimacy with God. I once heard a relationship counselor say, "There can be no intimacy without privacy." She went on to describe this as the real danger of constant social media activity. If everything is on display, nothing remains to bind two people together. There is no secret knowledge or activity upon which their communion can be rooted. People who put everything on display, including their religious lives, for mass consumption seek to win the approval of others by being transparent. But in the process they lose the ability to nourish their souls in true intimacy with God and others.
So why are we so tempted to put our life, including our life with God, on display online? In the 2004 film Shall We Dance, one character had a really insightful bit of dialogue:
"We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness'."
We all want our lives to matter, and we believe they only matter if they are noticed by someone. I wonder if this desire for a witness isn't what fuels a lot of blogs, Facebook, and especially Twitter. We want someone, anyone, to take notice, to care about us, to watch us and by their attention communicate, "You matter. Your life counts." If this is one of the hidden motivations behind engaging social media, and I think it is, we're really talking about a spiritual hunger--one that cannot ultimately be satisfied online. This kind of hunger for intimacy can only be satisfied in hidden, private communion with our Creator. As the psalmist says:
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.
I believe in God's economy there is not a single thought, feeling, or moment that is lost. There is nothing that is unseen or unrecorded. But in our culture of digital voyeurism, we are tempted to believe things only become real when they are external...on paper, published, posted, tweeted, or displayed. All the more reason why we need to recapture the discipline of secrecy in order to foster our trust that God is indeed with us and witnessing every thought and reflection. In the privacy of prayer I discover that my life really does matter--not because someone read it, heard it, or saw it, but because God is my witness.
Follow Skye Jethani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/skye_jethani