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.

Proximity

“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.

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Mutuality

The people in our local churches and communities are also most likely to pray for us. Prayer requests posted on social media are often a one-way transaction—but prayer relationships flourish best when they are mutual. As many times as Paul prayed for the churches, he also asked them to pray for him (1 Cor. 1:4–9; 2 Cor. 1:11). He didn’t just comment with a praying hands emoji; he invited the churches into a relationship.

For the past year, Alex and Maggie Halbert have been raising support to move to the mission field in Honduras. They regularly email prayer needs and requests for financial assistance to churches throughout the United States. But, one day, their inbox held a surprise. “One of our supporting churches had sent prayer requests to us,” Alex said. “It encouraged us and gave us a deeper sense of what it means to partner together for the sake of the gospel. We felt like we could be participants and not just be recipients.”

Invisibility

Recently, Facebook has been testing a “prayer post” feature to allow people to share and respond to requests. With a click, users are able to notify the poster—and the rest of the world—that they are praying for the request.

These visible symbols of prayer could be encouraging to a friend in need, but they also create spiritual danger for the person who is praying. The challenge, Butterfield said, is that “most forms of social media privilege virtue-signaling over virtue.” Jesus himself reminds us that the work of prayer is best done in secret (Matt. 6:6), where no one can be impressed by our piety.

Of course, the attraction of social media is often based on what is visible. For users of platforms like Instagram and Facebook, the experience is about the ability to share a picture or video—to allow friends and followers to see something. Prayer, by contrast, is a spiritual tool wielded in secret places for spiritual ends. And those ends are often invisible.

When Paul prayed for fellow Christians, his prayers focused on invisible, spiritual goals. He prayed for them to have wisdom, knowledge of Christ, hope, spiritual riches, confidence in God’s power, and love for the church (Eph. 1:17–23). You can’t post a photo of any of these things.

While it’s certainly good and right to pray for tangible answers to prayer—physical healing (James 5:13–18) and daily bread (Matt. 6:11) are both things we are commanded to pray for—we can’t allow the visual nature of online interactions to limit our petitions (or to feed our pride). Just because there’s no photograph doesn’t mean the Lord isn’t at work.

Tenacity

“Prayer changes things,” Walton said, “but prayer also changes the people who pray.” She recounts the ways God has changed her own heart over the course of her years- long trials. While she used to pray for specific acts of healing, she now often prays that God would show her more of himself.

“If people only prayed for me once or twice, they didn’t get a chance to see how my own prayers and heart have matured over the course of this journey,” she said. It’s the people who have stuck around—whether in real life or online—who get to see what God is doing in Walton’s life.One of the most striking features of Paul’s intercessions was his tenacity. He reported to the churches that he prayed “night and day” (1 Thess. 3:10) over a long period of time for them. Christ, too, encouraged his followers to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). In a world of online stories that disappear in 24 hours, the Lord delights in longevity.

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The truth is, it’s not wrong to pray once for someone, but then we may never see any of the results. Answers to prayer often come over a long period of time. It’s the people who stick around, keep praying, and expect both temporal mercies and spiritual growth who get to see what God is doing.

Social media’s infinite scroll and instant gratification may not be ideal for cultivating a rich prayer life, but the situation isn’t hopeless. Paul’s example of proximity, mutuality, invisiblity, and tenacity can shape our prayer habits. His purposeful pen-and-ink prayers changed the world. Perhaps, by following his example, our Instagram intercessions will do the same.

Megan Hill is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the author of several books, including Praying Together and Partners in the Gospel.

[ This article is also available in español and Português. ]

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