There are several positive and proactive aspects of prayer I want to explore in this journey, but I don’t want to deny or ignore some of the bad habits and false ideas that sometimes come with prayer.
One of the reasons I am writing this blog (see Prayer is a Pursuit) is to answer some of the critics and detractors of prayer. Many of these critics are responding to what they see of and about prayer on FB or Twitter, on blogs like this, or on spiritually-minded websites. If all I knew of prayer came from reading dashed-off posts and prayer memes accompanied by soothing photos, I would have a false and shallow idea of prayer, and one that invites criticism.
The Bible describes, and the Church practices, many different kinds of prayer. Prayer can be intensely personal and private. It can be communal or corporate in nature. There are prayer partners, prayer groups, prayer chains, and congregational prayers. But prayer is not primarily or ideally a social activity, and its essence is not suited to be broadcast or posted.
Social media can be a very helpful tool TOWARD prayer– requests, needs, and answered prayer can be shared; prayer can be urged and encouraged; prayer can be discussed (as in this post); prayers can be made public as examples. And people can be greatly encouraged by the knowledge that their needs are being lifted up by family, friends, even strangers across town, across the country, and even around the world.
But prayer on social media also presents real problems, and I’ve gotten caught up in some, so I’m sharing some of what I have learned. These areas have been stumbling blocks for me– that does not mean that they are “bad” practices in general, or that my questions or criticisms will apply to others. But if someone else struggles with these thoughts or issues, I hope my journey might help.
- Social media tends to promote the “tyranny of the urgent”– posts pop up screaming for attention NOW. I feel pressure to respond immediately with something encouraging. To say that I am “praying” or “I will keep you in my prayers” is encouraging–but is it true? A couple of years ago, I realized that, in my desire to comfort and uplift, I had started stretching the truth. I meant to pray for the person/situation/need…sometimes I sent a hasty and half-hearted thought heavenward before scrolling on. But I wasn’t really opening my heart to God OR to the person in the post. As one critic put it– I was making myself feel better. My words may have given momentary comfort or encouragement, but they were basically empty and hollow. I made a vow going forward to do one of three things:
- If I can, I will stop what I am doing and take the time to really pray about the situation BEFORE I respond, comment, share, etc.
- If I can’t take the time right now, but I have my prayer journal handy, note the concern on today’s page (or tomorrow’s) to make sure I include it in my daily devotional time, so I can pray thoughtfully and whole-heartedly. Sometimes I will comment after the note is written, or after the prayer has been said.
- If I can’t stop, add it to my prayer journal, or make a note– I don’t comment or respond. The other person may not know the difference, but I will. I don’t want to give a false impression.
- Social media thrives on drama, algorithms, and visibility. Recently, I received two similar prayer requests within a day of each other. Two friends shared about two different men in life-threatening situations needing prayer. One of my friends’ posts went viral, with people setting up fundraisers for the family, a website, and daily updates. The other post simply said, “Please share.” It got a few responses, and one update to say that the man had died of his injuries. These men were both precious in the sight of God. They were both badly injured in the line of duty, and both had families who loved them and were in crisis. They were both equally in need, but not equally visible. I prayed for both, but I wondered at the difference in visibility, and how it might be changing our prayer focus. I am tempted, as I spend time on social media, to be concerned about those things that are most visible. But who is hurting in my neighborhood, among my friends, among those people I interact with daily– their needs invisible to me because I’m only focused on what I see online?
- Social media is both social and self-oriented. How many people “like” or “follow” me? How big is the circle of people I can reach? What impression do others have of me? But prayer is not about me. I have a bad habit (shared by many others–especially Americans, I think) of wanting to be seen as independent and self-sufficient. I want to be the one offering support–the “prayer” and not the “pray-ee”. But if I’m going to put myself “out there” in either capacity, social media tempts me to measure and compare myself with others. I am tempted not to ask for prayer for little ordinary things, tempted to exaggerate some pains and downplay others, and tempted to respond to others in ways that make me look “good.” That’s just human nature, but it’s also sin, especially when selfish concerns and petty thoughts crowd out the natural compassion I should have for others and the honesty I should have about my own weaknesses and strengths.
- Social media is a “glass house.” What you post in haste, in jest, or for your “besties” is out there for everyone to see– and judge. We are told not to judge, lest we be judged (from Matthew 7:1). There are several groups who love to quote the first part of that verse, but it’s the second part that relates equally to social media. If I post beautiful words about prayer and encouragement for my Christian friends, and hateful rhetoric about my political foes, I had better be willing to own up to having a double standard. The same goes for the random offensive, suggestive jokes, the rants about my noisy neighbor and my unsaved relatives. Sitting in front of a silent screen tempts us to “let rip” with sarcasm, frustration, self-righteous indignation, and self-congratulation. All of us have probably posted things we later regretted because we think better of our words, or because someone “took them wrong” . I want to become better at prayer, better at communicating about it, defending it from attack, and promoting it. But that comes with a responsibility to learn, be honest about my failures, and open about the struggles I face.
I hope to do just that as I journey forward– on- and off-line!