“It’s good to give, pray and fast, but don’t be taking selfies while you do these things.”
I had a conversation with a friend recently during which I made a confession.
“It scares me,” I said to my friend, “to think that people are looking at my life and forming opinions about God based on what they see.” (You need to know that my friend does not identify himself as a deist, let alone a Christian. But when we talk about my faith, or about life in general, we have incredibly honest and deeply satisfying conversations. I love him.)
But back to my confession. I’d been telling my friend about what I’d read that morning on Flipboard, a curated newsfeed that pops into my inbox at least once a day. The story was from The Washington Post, and the headline read: “Photo surfaces of evangelical pastors laying hands on Trump in the Oval Office.”1 After I did my best to explain what was meant by “laying hands” on the president of the United States, I went on to tell him what had disturbed me most about what I’d read. After I’d finished reading The Washington Post story, I did what I seldom do. I scrolled down the page and began reading the comments.
I have my opinions about the current POTUS, as I’m sure you do. It’s pretty hard not to have an opinion, whatever side you are on. My confession, however, was not motivated by my political opinions. It was a response to the comments people had made in reaction to the photo that sparked the story. The overwhelming tenor of the comments was negative. They ranged from harsh critiques to profanity-laden rants. Very few dared to defend the photo and what it portrayed, and those who did received some pretty nasty pushback. It was, to say the least, a very polarizing picture.
There is a lot I do not know about the circumstances surrounding this story. First of all, I do not know why that group of people were in the Oval Office that day. Did President Trump specifically invite them to come and pray for him? Were they there to discuss religious issues with him and his administration? Who decided on the guest list? My cynical side smells a politically motivated photo op. My more generous side tries to sniff the scene for a whiff of hope.
Secondly, I do not know the substance of the prayers they prayed that day. Who was included in their petitions? What did they ask from God on behalf of their president? What did they ask from God on behalf of their nation? Did the plight of the vulnerable—the poor, the orphan, the widow or the alien—gain standing in their prayers? I hope so. But I do not know.
What I do know is that a number of pictures of these evangelical pastors praying for the president in the Oval Office “surfaced”—and in a sense, the photos became the story.
I’ve seen several photos in addition to the one that prompted The Washington Post story. Among the photos I’ve seen are a few “selfies” taken by some of the pastors present that day. In typical selfie style, the photographers are holding their cellphones high, at arm’s length, so as to capture their own face and the Oval Office scene behind them. Judging by the looks on their faces—and by the fact that they posted the photos to social media—I think it’s safe to say that the pastors were pleased to be there, praying for the man who occupies the world’s most powerful office.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this story, and especially about those selfies. I’ve wondered what those pastors were thinking when they pulled their cellphones out to take a picture. What were they trying to say by posting their Oval Office selfies on social media? It’s called a selfie for good reason. Self is front and centre. A selfie says, “Look at me! Look where I am and who I’m with! Look at what I’m doing!”
My wondering landed me, eventually, in the words of Jesus—never a bad place to land, although the landing can be uncomfortable sometimes.
“Be careful,” Jesus warned His disciples, “not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Jesus then goes on to identify three specific acts of piety—giving, praying and fasting—that His followers should practise in private so as not to draw attention to themselves. Daring to paraphrase Jesus: “It’s good to give, pray and fast, but don’t be taking selfies while you do these things.”
I can think of at least two good reasons why I need to heed Jesus’ warning.
First, I don’t trust myself. I like to be well-thought-of. I don’t even mind people seeing how spiritual I can be, especially if I can feign humility at the same time. But I’m too susceptible to hypocrisy, and hypocrites don’t come out smelling very good in Jesus’ teachings. The leading charge levelled against evangelical Christians in the comments following The Washington Post story was hypocrisy. If we are going to display our piety, we had better be prepared for the scrutiny that will follow.
The second reason is connected to the first, and it brings me back to my confession. The comments attached to The Washington Post story were a sobering reminder that people are judging the invisible God by the visible lives of those who say they serve Him. As I read what people thought of Christians, and by extension what they thought of God, I thought of all the goodness of Christ in my life. And my heart ached.
It is scary to think that people are looking at us and forming opinions about God based on what they see. But I needed the reminder.
- Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Photo surfaces of evangelical pastors laying hands on Trump in the Oval Office,” July 12, 2017, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/07/12/photo-surfaces-of-evangelical-pastors-laying-hands-on-trump-in-the-oval-office/?utm_term=.22d4e16deed5.
This editorial appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.