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?
Stay tuned for Part 2 where Skye discusses the impact of social media and why the loss of privacy is a great threat to our intimacy with God.