Thousands of people have prayed for Sarah Walton. Most of whom she has never met.
In the past ten years, Walton, the best-selling coauthor of Hope When It Hurts, has suffered through chronic illness, multiple surgeries for a debilitating foot injury, financial stress stemming from her husband’s job loss, and a cross-country move with four children who also have significant health conditions and special needs.
Every day, her social media channels ping with notifications that her friends are interceding for her.
“When I log on to Facebook or Instagram, I see people from around the country saying they are praying,” she told me. “They leave praying hands emojis. They send DMs with specific things they’ve prayed that morning.”
Walton’s praying friends are not all her friends in the traditional sense—she has never shared a coffee or a face-to-face conversation with many of them—but they are fellow Christians who care enough to ask God for Walton’s healing.
In an online age—and especially during a pandemic that has moved many interactions to virtual platforms—Walton’s experience is not unfamiliar. Most of us have seen a social media prayer request for someone, and many of us have taken a moment to pray.
Interceding on Instagram may seem like a uniquely 21st-century phenomenon, but people were already praying at a distance in the first century. As his letters testify, the apostle Paul made a regular practice of praying for people he wasn’t with—and sometimes even for people he had never met.
Social media is an imperfect tool for prayer; its superficial and ephemeral interactions don’t readily lend themselves to the hard work of spiritual wrestling. But Paul’s prayerful example challenges us in several ways—teaching us how it can be possible to use even TikTok for spiritual good.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus (Luke 10:29), and it’s an important question for our age too. On social media, updates from people in our local church appear next to requests from people we’ve never met. We genuinely want to love our neighbor, but the boundaries of the online neighborhood stretch around the globe. And everyone could use prayer.
Rosaria Butterfield, the author of The Gospel Comes with a House Key, isn’t on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. She doesn’t post to a YouTube channel or hang out in Clubhouse. Instead, she’s committed herself to loving her neighbors—her literal next-door and down-the-street neighbors.
Butterfield exclusively uses a neighborhood-based social media platform called Nextdoor. “I check Nextdoor in the morning to see how I can pray for my neighbors, but also how I can help them,” she told me. “A daily dose of walking someone else’s dog, taking out someone else’s garbage, and making room for someone else’s child at my home-school table is good for the soul. It’s also good for the whole business of loving God and loving neighbor.” For Butterfield, the work of praying for others is best joined to the tangible work of lending a neighborly hand. And she can only do that when she prioritizes proximity.
Paul, too, prized prayer relationships rooted in face-to-face interactions. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul praises Epaphras, the pastor at Colossae. Epaphras wrestled in prayer for people in his congregation—people who had shared meals and shouldered ministry with him—and he continued to pray for them when he was physically distant (4:12–13). Although social media gives us countless opportunities to pray for almost anyone, Paul teaches us to begin with the people in our church or right down the street.