(Disclaimer: I sense the objection coming that by talking about this individual, I am betraying my own words. Please understand that I have kept the name, situation, and overall content of the discussion anonymous for that reason. My attempt here is not to talk about the person but, rather, to talk about a larger issue in the context of a recent conversation.”)
I recently was involved in a brief dialogue with a popular Christian figure. I usually refrain from getting involved in Facebook dialogues these days, for some obvious personal reasons, but largely also because I sometimes wonder whether the most that’s accomplished is the perpetuation of two talking heads, each one speaking past the other. But for some reason, I felt compelled to issue my response on behalf of the posted content.
Here was the situation. This author (we’ll call him Mr. X) posted an extremely controversial piece on homosexuality. Okay, fine. I have some issues with the article but I digress and certainly think that free public speech entitles us to having an opinion on the issue and discuss it freely as long as people are kept from harm. What I had a major issue over, though, was how the author later took one of the dissenting comments (which was admittedly a good bit crass) from a reader and published it on his personal Facebook, the individual’s name and all, with the instruction to “Pray for him” and a note about how his real issue is his rejection of God.
What followed was a stream of comments of which the following is only a sample (there were also just a whole lot of ‘Wow’s and scripture citations about how when we preach truth we’re hated, how we have authority to trample on serpents, etc.):
- “Sounds like an accuser”…
- “He sure needs Jesus”…
- “I did not know how ignorant one can be”…
- “What a liberal dope…”
- “Your critics are lost…”
- “Chop the infidel’s head off” (though, in light of my response, that person fully apologized, realizing the insensitivity of it.
Of course, there were some that posted some prayers, and I sensed genuineness in them. There was also a great amount of flattery sent towards the Christian figure who posted the comment: “Wow, Mr. X, you are sure speaking the truth” and “Good for you, standing against the onslaught.”
So, I got a little bit annoyed and a little sad actually that this was happening. Now, I don’t doubt the efficacy of prayer. I’ve known it personally and asked for it recently, of which I’m grateful that I can trust many people are (btw, I also appreciate the comments by my fellow atheist friends that while they can’t pray, I’m getting their “good mojo”). But the truth is–and this is really what I want to get at–our prayers look a hell of a lot like gossip too much of the time!
Going to a Christian high school growing up I realized this. Prayer requests were generally taken before every class and routinely (at least, often enough!) one would hear things like: “Pray for me today. I’m going to buy a new car” or “Pray for me. I’m going on a ski trip with the youth group.” These weren’t prayer requests. They were announcements. Likewise, we do a whole lot of gossiping in the church in the form of “prayer.” This FB thread was a prime example, in which a non-believer was brought front and center, not as a person, but as a topic of discussion. After my response that I wasn’t sure that outing somebody like this was a fine thing to do, I was instructed that he had made a “public comment” and, thus, he can be put front and center as a “request.” But since when has a “public” meant that we (especially Christians) have a right to use something like this wherever and however? Just because somebody walked into the spotlight doesn’t entitle us to flip on the whole auditorium lights.
This individual–by name–was unknowingly put before a group of this author’s supporters as an example of what it looks like to reject God (actually, I have a sense that this was more about a rejection of the author’s own views on homosexuality). What resulted was a whole lot of comment and discussion about this individual behind closed doors (Mr. X’s FB page) and without the knowledge of the person being talked about. And the thing that I think got me the most is this: just because we attach “in love” to something doesn’t entitle us to talk about someone freely. Gossip is gossip and in the church we tend to try and excuse it way too much as “ministry” or “prayer” or “concern.” Let’s just face it…most of the time we just want to talk about somebody else because doing so makes us feel better.
Most non-Christians actually hate it when people walk up, sympathetic eyes and all, and say ‘We’ve been praying for you.’ But I think it goes another step further to make an announcement about somebody, whether from a pulpit or a FB wall. I was told to “presume the best in people” by the author. And while I tend to, what the post sounded like and what the further comments reeked like, was rather like the Pharisee’s public prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like the other people…” (Lk 18.11). I cannot judge the authors intentions–he may have, actually, sincerely desired prayer for this individual and thought this was a proper avenue. But the fact is, I can make the call that something looks quite unChristian when it does. When what results is privately outing an individual to your supporters, making him a topic of discussion, allowing name calling to go on, and allowing the flattery of you in contrast to him, I have to genuinely wonder whether the intent of your post was not “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…”. Making prayer a showcase is exactly what Jesus was against.
“Mt 6.5-6: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.
As a general rule of thumb, our prayers for people do not belong on the forums. They belong in the closet.