By now nearly everyone has heard about, read about, or seen the provocative performance by Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus at last weekend’s MTV Video Music Awards—probably more than you ever wanted to. The intensely sexual show sparked a flood of responses from both Christians and non-Christians alike, bemoaning the lost innocence of Cyrus, the poor parenting of Billy Ray Cyrus (her dad), her misguided attempt to distance herself from her childhood, and so on. But one of the responses I saw the most was the preponderance of Facebook posts and tweets calling on people to “pray for Miley.” Even a hashtag was created to link them: #prayformiley.
Most people who posted about praying for Miley Cyrus likely did so with good motives and hearts of compassion, but something seems amiss about this public display of conversations with God. My mind gravitates to Jesus’ command to take our prayers to a private place and not to “pray publicly on street corners” as the hypocrites do (Matthew 6:5). Have we simply traded street corners for social media? Such billboarding of our private talks with God comes off as much as a display of self-righteousness as it does an exhibition of mercy or care for others. Praying for people, like Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke, is good, but to proclaim that we’re doing so borders on hypocrisy.
A distinction ought to be made between prayer for a cause or crisis and prayer for a person’s moral or spiritual well-being. When we think back on the Boston bombing or the Sandy Hook school shooting, the joint prayer and displays of support were what we could do to show care and encouragement. They lifted up people in need. Such prayer was a bond with the hurting communities and a joint cry to God for help and mercy. But when the subject of prayer is an individual’s personal choices and moral direction, does it really offer the same sort of support? In such instances, public prayer looks far more judgmental and pompous.
People who don’t know Jesus or are purposely rebelling against Him often don’t even want prayer. This doesn’t mean we don’t pray for them, but it does mean we should not put it boldly in their—or anyone else’s—face. In this age of social media, a single post contributing to a wave of them can be like an assault on the subject of the posts. I try to imagine what Miley Cyrus would feel upon seeing all those #prayformiley posts. Would she feel loved and supported? Would she want to know this God to whom everyone is praying, or would she feel judged and stained?
I don’t know the answers, and neither do most of the people who put up these posts. Such considerations, though, should serve as a caution for us. Are our prayers lifting others up or just ourselves? Even if our motives are pure, will they be recognized as such? And are we falling into the allure of the street corner prayer?