Is Tim Tebow a Hypocrite?

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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 generic viagra price 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.

  • Kier Strejcek

    In Luke 18:10-14, Jesus witnesses two men praying at the temple, one exalting himself and the other humbling himself. The latter is justified according to Jesus. So it’s not just that we shouldn’t pray publicly. We are also given the Great Commission and told not to hide our light under a bushel. In our churches, we are encouraged to witness to non-believers; to share our faith. Many Christians are frustrated that God and Christianity are largely absent from our entertainment/culture, and delight to see anyone claiming our faith. In Tebow’s position, the main risk is that non-believing fans will judge his faith on his performance, regardless of how he presents it (praise Jesus whether winning or losing). To many non-believers, failing as a QB is probably as bad as a fall into sin and scandal. On the other hand, I doubt that many seekers will be turned away from the faith by his actions – but if one is led to faith thereby, I would say it’s a good thing.

  • robert greer

    Insightful read. My wife and I like to discuss the finer points about Tebow.
    I love football but didn’t care if Tebow won or lost.
    However, the media circus surrounding Tebow has been very entertaining.
    I found myself rooting for him out of spite for main stream sports announcers.

  • Matt

    I suspect, too, that Tim would bow and pray throughout the game, regardless of whether cameras or spectators were present. And that’s an indication his actions and motives are more Christ-driven than not. He was recorded via microphone during the Broncos game against the Chicago Bears; throughout the audio, he’s consistently praying and singing praises, even when those around him probably don’t realize it (the link below contains two parts):

    http://www.9news.com/news/article/235985/339/WATCH-Tebow-micd-up-during-Bears-game

  • Barb

    There’s an old saying “Christians are the only army that likes to bury their wounded”.

  • Michael Bond

    Two things concern me about the Tebow phenomenon: (1) most people see him as publicly praying to win football games, which is surely not acceptable; and (2) Tebow is making millions of dollars off his new-found public presence (sales of his book have soared, sales of his jersey have soared, and I’m sure he is getting endorsement deals), which is not acceptable if based on his public proclamation of faith. What I find particularly intriguing is that Tebow’s recent poor performance has dimmed his luster considerably, implying he is only a big deal if he is winning. If he loses this weekend, and particularly if he plays as poorly as he has the past three games, he will disappear from public view and may even be done as an NFL player.

  • Carmela

    Barb, thanks for the quote! Well said!

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  • Dave

    Is Tebow kneeling in order to draw glory to himself or to deflect such self-glory? Most big time athletes intentionally dance or spike balls to deliberately advance their own glory. If this is a subtle but cynical attempt to gain personal attention, Tebow disproves the dumb-jock assumption and could be a marketing genius.

  • Keri

    From what I understand..he was doing this Before he was in the NFL.Having grown children who are strong in their faith,I can understand why he would do this.Not to show off but to give Glory to the Lord and to be not afraid to thank him publicaly.

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  • Donnie

    While his Florida teammates were partying on Spring Break, Tebow was in the Philippines building hospitals for the poor. Yes, only God can see Tebow’s heart, but if that isn’t Christ-like, what is? May God continue to bless and use Tim to do His work.

  • MJ

    Accounts from those who have followed him since high school say that he honors God with a prayer regardless of wins or losses, and he is simply doing what he always did even before the media was there.

    Like Daniel prayed publicly before, and after, the king’s decree which made Daniel look bad.

    If you notice, he is simply bowing in a quiet, momentary prayer – look at the clips, the photographers are running like madmen to get it on camera. Tebow neither rushes his prayer to hide it, nor lengthens it to show off. Like Daniel, he throws open the windows and prays as before.

    Like the two in Luke 18, only Jesus knows their hearts, but one can see that the public praying of the humble man, which was pleasing to the Lord, is a more accurate description of Tim Tebow’s public prayers.

    As for money – does anyone downgrade Joseph or Daniel for living in the opulence of the pharoah’s./kings houses on money gotten from the enemy and even from God’s People? Your gifts will make room for you in King’s houses. How wonderful that he is using his money for missions, and going on missions trips himself to build schools and help the poor!

    There will always be the detractors, and sadly, many of them come as hypocrites who aren’t doing much of anything for the Lord, but complain about those who are.

  • Rick Cruse

    I find it ironic and interesting that this article ends with “Popularity: 5% [?].”

  • Donnie

    Also, I’d ask, Skye, do you think secrecy should extend to church? If you want people’s Christianity to be a big secret, shouldn’t they stay home on Sunday and not attend your services? Just wondering…

  • David Wireback

    Why dont admit you don’t like Tebow . You said a whole lot of nothing . You question his motives . If you had ounce of discernment you could tell Tebow is genuine .You liberal Christians just love to spout off your so called knowledge . The next time you quote the bible passages , quote them in their context .

  • Bruce

    Quit coming down on Tim. He is a fresh air lift to a stale old pompous, pius community. I heard John 3:16 read and discussed on Don Inmus this morning due to Tim.

    People have forgotten how to witness or they have too much pride for it. I think it is their pride not wanting unsaved people thinking that they are odd. Who cares.

    For every hipocrite article some namecalling blogger writes it is an act of biblical disobedience by not going to Tim personally.

    I suspect that peter on pentecost and Paul on Mars Hills would be called names too by this crowd.

    Tim speaks the name of Jesus and at the sound of that name every knee will bow.

    I heard people say (usually as an excuse for their pride) that open witnessing is harmful and just turns people off. Hint – They are already turned off and going to hell. We are told to preach it in season and out of season.

    Get out of the way, stick to your safe internet sanctuaries and let Tim be. What if he is called and ordained by God. Would that take away from your admonishing & discerment ministries.

    Pray for Tim that God would send others into the field. Especially if you refuse to get out of these safe web pages.

  • GW

    Matt at 5: 11…….And you know tim knew that he had micro phones hooked to himself…….So what did you expect him to say or do while he knows he is hooked up for the public to hear…..lol…..Even debating this is stupid………….lol

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  • Donnie

    Hmmm,

    Matt 5:11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

    So even when “progressive” Christians try to tear Tebow down, God is blessing him and building him up. We do worship a great God!

  • CL

    Oh the holy crowd…you disparage someone for being open in their faith and you disparage people for not being open in their faith, a guy can’t win —is there ever an end to self righteous Christian bantering-finger pointing, tearing down this one or that on any issue under the sun-doctrine arguing, my church is more correct then your etc….you people chase people away from the kingdom of God with you attitudes. When will you all digest that Jesus is interested in kindness and love….

  • CL

    Oh gee-moderated comments—only people who agree with you get posted ? dissent will not be tolerated no doubt…

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