Tim Tebow prays before every game, writes John 3:16 on his eye black, and manages to mention Jesus in every interview. Tim Tebow’s Christianity is on public display in greater detail than perhaps any other evangelical athlete. His rise to stardom at Denver has been the most talked about story in professional sports this year. And while Tebow has garnered a lot of support from Christians praising him for his faithfulness to Christ in the public square, I am not sure his outward piety teaches us much about what it means to be a Christian.
Tebow has been so firmly planted in the lime light that he has inspired a new trend: “Tebowing,” a practice similar to “planking” that pokes fun at Tebow’s iconic pregame prayers. Other Christian athletes have weighed in on Tebow’s public displays of faith as well. Former Super Bowl Champion Kurt Warner recently encouraged Tebow to tone down his religious rhetoric. While Tebow certainly carries himself with a wide-eyed sincerity and an infectious work ethic, Warner’s comments bring up important questions about Christian witness. I appreciate Tebow’s outward expressions of faith, but I think Warner may have a point. Public displays of religious acts don’t actually tell anyone anything about our faith. Is it possible that many Christians are admiring Tebow for the wrong reasons?
The prophet Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Israel for public displays of religion devoid of spiritual substance: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isa. 29:13). Jesus further warned us of the dangers of public acts of supplication, “beware of practicing your righteousness before men in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1).
These passages do not illuminate the motives of Tim Tebow. We cannot possibly know his heart. It could be that Tebow selfishly prays each week for God to smite his evil opponents. It is far more likely, however, that he asks God to help him play honorably and thanks Him for the opportunity to play the game he loves. Christian charity requires that we assume the latter.
I once heard Tebow give his testimony at a pastor’s conference in Jacksonville, Florida. Tebow had just won a national championship and finished his freshman year at the University of Florida. He wasn’t the best public speaker but his testimony came across as sincere and he clearly relished the opportunity to praise God for all of his success. I am not a Gator fan, nor do I follow the NFL, but I walked away from that experience interested in how his career would unfold. I prayed that he would be faithful to Christ with the platform God had given him. Some five years have passed since I prayed that prayer and I am happy to say that I think Tebow has carried himself admirably.
Tebow refused to attend the yearly Heisman party at the Playboy mansion both times he was nominated for the award, his teammates consistently praise his work ethic, and when he is criticized, Tebow never retaliates. In response to criticism from Jake Plummer (former Broncos Quarterback) about his constant references to Jesus, Tebow said:
“If you’re married and you have a wife and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife ‘I love her’ the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and every opportunity? That’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The Bible never condemns public prayer but it often warns us of its inherent dangers—-namely a religion motivated by the praise of men. This has me wondering what Tebow’s bold religious gestures are actually accomplishing. Certainly he has won the praise of many church going football fans but what about the unbeliever watching at home? What about Tebow’s teammates?
While I cannot possibly know the answers to those questions, I appreciate Warner’s challenge to Tebow: “The greatest impact you can have on people is never what you say, but how you live…. You set the standard with your actions. The words can come later.” From what I can see of Tebow, I would like to say he is living a life fitting of his many shout-outs to Jesus. The real truth, however, is that I don’t know Tim Tebow.
Biblically speaking, public piety tells us very little about someone’s faith. Prayer is a religious act and John 3:16 is a verse—neither actually tells us all that much about Tebow’s character and whether it’s worthy of applause. While I appreciate Tebow’s public piety, I find myself wanting to gently warn the millions of Christians following his story that his public displays of faith are not necessarily indicative of what it means to follow Jesus.
We are commanded to be Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8) and to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17)–but the particulars of living out those commands must be worked out in context of our daily lives. Assuming that public expressions of faith–in Tebow’s case, pre-game prayers and writing Bible verses on one’s eye black–serve as an essential part of our witness is naive and potentially misleading. It’s highly unlikely that any of us will gain the kind of platform Tebow has, but our witness is equally valuable. Tim Tebow is worthy of my admiration, but not because of his public piety.
I am impressed with Tebow, not because he prays before football games and thanks Jesus in every interview, but because he plays hard and has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches (1 Tim. 3:7). It’s strange to me that Christians so often neglect to applaud these types of achievements and instead gravitate to patting people on the back for “bolder” acts like praying in public and thanking God in interviews. The praise Tebow receives for being a hard worker, a dedicated player, and a team leader says more about his faith than his pregame prayers. If we fail to recognize that, we undervalue our own witness and the importance of our individual lives as platforms from which to preach the gospel.