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. ...

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