Have you ever prayed for a friend experiencing a deep emotional or spiritual crisis through IM (Instant Messaging)? Offered spiritual direction through email? Provided genuine soul-to-soul support through a Yahoo community list? Consciously (or unconsciously) applied insights you have learned from Crabb or Townsend, etc. in these situations? Claimed significant sacred online companions?
Virtual relationships confirm once again an ancient truth: intimate sharing and connection does not require someone’s physical presence. Our triune God has known this from eternity. Christians should be more than open to the power of intimate online friendships because our God knows physicality is not a prerequisite for spiritual intimacy. If anything, online spiritual friendships reinforce something fundamentally Christian: God is spirit and knowledge of his heart is not only possible but real and life-transforming.
I suggest this core Christian reality is something that many of us need to reconsider with respect to online friendships and spiritual formation. Online community extends beyond teenagers chatting on computers and text-messaging on cell phones. It also transcends the idea that online connection encourages the isolation of lonely individuals who need to “get out and connect” with others in “real” life.
Many of us know this already. Those of us who have invested time and energy online know that authentic connection is happening at significant levels. Reciprocity, vulnerability, safety, closeness, openness, disclosure, confession, powerful encounters with God in prayer, some of us have experienced these realities through IM, chat rooms, and email.
Soul friendships. Spiritual formation. Healing connections.
These happen online every day. I was unaware of all three when I first ventured into cyberspace. My “virtual” connecting with others at a deep level began when I told my story to other members of a small private online group designed for sharing life stories. My life has never been the same. I now have a virtual testimony of community, intimacy, prayer, and ministry. I have witnessed God’s presence powerfully come upon others while I have prayed for them through IM, and I never anticipated such depth of connecting with God or others online. Why, then, is so much resistance to spiritually formative online relationships found among certain Christians?
With all this internet connecting going on, why do some Christians feel this is inferior or even detrimental to face-to-face connection? Some express a theological objection. Intimate connecting through cyberspace is, they believe, inferior to “real” relationships. It is less than fully incarnational, they insist. Because the internet prevents us from full engagement with the entire person, (i.e., the ability to see the other’s eyes, to read facial expression, to hear vocal inflections, to observe their body movements) “virtual” connection is inferior. Inferior because complete embodied presence is unavailable online.
This theological objection has even more impact when we consider the language differentiating cyberspace connections from “real” relationships. Even those of us who have what we consider to be authentic and real online friendships use qualifying language that reinforces this portrayal of inferiority. “Virtual,” at least in internet terminology, means “almost.” Meanwhile, if we are “IM-ing,” we are instant-messaging. This language suggests mere exchange of information. Unquestionably, sharing one’s physical presence and space with another opens the door to spiritual companionship. That kind of presence and availability honors the fullness of incarnational intimacy. The picture of this kind of fullness is Jesus spending time face-to-face with his disciples, away from the crowds.
Perhaps the way forward lies not in pitting one form of communicative interaction against the other, but in recognizing there are different kinds of spiritual intimacy.
Can spiritual intimacy be judged inferior if God himself is present?
My “virtual” story took on a whole new dimension and depth when an online acquaintance introduced me to Grace, a Christian woman in full-time ministry who had been sexually abused as a teenager. At the time that we began exchanging emails, she was wrestling with an ongoing, chronic disconnect with the Lord. Her first few emails were filled with self-doubt, self-hatred, and insecurity. She was hungering to taste the presence of Jesus and yet to date, had experienced only doubt and profound disappointment. She had recently been seeing a Christian therapist. The therapy was informative and helpful to her in sorting out some things, but she was still yearning to experience the sweet love of Jesus.
As we continued to exchange email back and forth, I shared with her my own story. In the midst of brokenness, flaws, warts and all, in the recent years, I had known something of the Lord’s powerful touch in my own life. I could not promise her any specific results, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to impose my experience upon her. Since we are both married, and we agreed that all of our electronic communication would be available and open to our spouses. I stressed to her that I am not a professional counselor and have had no specific formal training pertaining to her sexual abuse.
I could be mistaken, but I suspect that there are thousands, if not millions, of Christians from different religious traditions, who would be ready to bear another’s burdens online and pray passionately for that person’s acquaintances, friends, and relatives who are facing spiritual and emotional struggles. We would, by the very nature of the case, take approaches that come from our different traditions, but if we came upon a hurting wounded soul, I am confident that many of us would be able to assume the role of an online Good Samaritan, praying for and with another. We would pray and help according to our knowledge, our experience, our background, and our traditions. I will never forget the first time I prayed for Grace through instant messaging. I sensed we had to pray through a part of her memory of her sexual abuse. I felt confident that the Lord would be present, but besides that I had no idea on what to expect. Even though I knew the Lord was going to be there in some way, I was also a bit skeptical that anything significant could happen through IM. We spent some time in deep prayer before the Lord, praying over several issues.
Grace’s words, a few days later describe her encounter with the Lord in prayer through IM: “No matter how well I describe what has happened to me this week, I know I won’t come real close to the heart of it. I feel like I met Jesus this week. Sure, I’ve known Him for years…I’ve even made a career out of working for Him, but this week was special. I won’t drown you in the details, but through the help of a soul friend I was able to look into Jesus’ eyes and be accepted for who I am."
Over the next several weeks, we made an appointment to pray through instant messaging every Monday. A significant issue which had plagued Grace for so many years since the abuse was her abuser’s predatory, manipulative words and voice ringing loudly in her head. Reading the Bible did not erase it, praying on her own did not remove it, and Christian therapy had not expunged it. However, after several weeks within a prayerful, intimate relationship through IM and email, that internal voice began to lose its power over her.
My point is not to create a dichotomy between informal prayer support of a soul friend against professional therapy. It could very well be that had Grace continued in therapy that issue would have been addressed. The point is that for her, after many years of struggle, through online prayer and friendship Grace began to experience an inner freedom from that voice she had not known since the onset of the abuse. Grace additionally wrote about the spiritual intimacy she was experiencing exclusively through email and IM:
“Jesus was sooooo right in the middle of it all. I took the hurt in my heart and gave it to Jesus. It was so beautiful. I prayed for forgiveness and restoration and healing and received all of that and more . . . I hadn't connected to the counseling stuff as much because it was so clinical – it was so patient/doctor. Dan presented himself as friend and that allowed me to open my heart to him … and in a very real way, to Jesus… Very early in our friendship, Dan started praying for me and I immediately noticed something. He was praying to a God who loved him. I knew that God loved me – in a very head knowledge kind of way. It wasn't at all like what I saw in his prayers though. It made me so hungry to learn to pray like that and to learn to love God like that. I started to hunger for a relationship with God that had nothing to do with my ministry or anything else, but one that was between me and Him.”
In the past few years, I have been a significant spiritual companion/mentor for Grace. We eventually enjoyed several face-to-face meetings. At one point, she visited my family for more than a week. She’s developed a warm friendship with my wife. Although our weekly prayer times now take place over the phone, we continue to have an IM relationship. This past year, Grace’s family came to visit us. Grace’s husband said to me at one point when we were alone by ourselves, “Dan I want to tell you how much I appreciate all that you’ve done for Grace.”
It took a while before Grace felt comfortable about receiving prayer over the phone. In that situation IM provided a safe place to be wrestling with and praying over sensitive subjects. The internet gave her a significant advantage that she didn’t have in her previous face-to-face relationships. She could open her heart in self-disclosure and there she felt relatively safe. At the point of her online testimony, however, she had tasted powerful and formative intimacy unlike she had experienced in the previous fifteen years since the abuse had occurred. Our online friendship had a positive impact on her “real” friendships.
Many have the perception that online relationships negatively impact face-to-face relationships. However, the connection we had established online helped Grace to begin risking intimacy with others. Her woundedness had made her vulnerable. To the outside world, she was a productive woman. On the inside, she yearned for friendships but was fearful that in the immediate moment of person-to-person dialogue, her voice would be dismissed, ignored or she would be lectured by well meaning friends or acquaintances. That anxiety would cause her to hide her true voice and feelings in conversations. Our online relationship helped her walk through those painful and shaming experiences.
Virtual relationships and communities can, and often do, attract those who struggle with deeper emotional connections within in-the-flesh relationships. Discussion lists are good places for these individuals to share information, facts, opinions, and arguments without the cost of opening up their hearts or pursuing the hearts of others, face-to-face. They can even express some emotion through symbols like emoticons without investing too much of their emotional selves. Ironically, discussion lists and other online communities present the kind of medium that simultaneously encourages connectedness and distancing.
Virtual testimonies of significant online connections like Grace’s, however, reveal the power and depth that is possible through online spiritual friendships. This story is about an ongoing deep, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and theological conversation between two friends and God.
It is a powerful narrative about experiencing Jesus online.
It is a testimony to the depth of spiritual formation possible in the “virtual” world. It is a drama of redemption about God using real intimacy in “virtual” reality for profound inner healing—
the kind that Christian therapists and counselors dream of witnessing when they encounter wounded souls.
Grace’s testimony is just one story; a story of online friendship, healing connection and spiritual formation. There are other stories from my own personal experience and from the experiences of friends as well. As I have I have been arguing, these virtual testimonies demonstrate an ancient realism: physical presence is not a requirement for deep spiritual intimacy. In contrast to materialists who would find it a challenge to explain such spiritual intimacy in the absence of physicality, Christians affirm a fundamental reason: the eternal triune God.
Before the beginning of time, before embodied communication, there existed personal communion, personal connection, and deep personal union between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God—as a spiritual community—enjoyed spiritual intimacy prior to creation. In light of the unmistakable closeness, oneness, and openness between the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, could it be that materialist assumptions have gradually seeped into the language of the virtual world and the church? I return to the question I asked earlier: Is spiritual intimacy—however derived—inferior if God himself is present?
I suggest that in order to address the sub-incarnational concern we must first understand that the Incarnation does not comprehensively describe Christianity. The Incarnation does not exhaust God’s personal revelation of himself. In the Christian story, the Incarnation is not the exclusive means by which God has revealed himself to man.
With the exception of 33 years, mankind’s experience of spiritual closeness, oneness, and intimacy with God himself involved no “physical” human face to engage. In considering this matter, it may be more helpful to speak of a pre-incarnation intimacy and a post-incarnation intimacy. In the Christian drama of redemption, there is already a place for spiritual or “faceless” closeness: pre-incarnation and post-incarnation. Every Christian reading this article has experienced a spiritual rather than a physical face-to-face intimacy with Jesus. This spiritual intimacy involves the unique presence of the Holy Spirit. On this side of Jesus’ ascension, deep knowledge of God’s heart, of God Himself, does not require physical proximity.
Clearly, a Christian view of community and significant friendships extends beyond a materialist intimacy requiring physicality for “full” connection. Even in heaven, we will not experience an in-the-flesh intimacy with the Father and/or the Spirit. At the same time we must steer clear of a Platonic spirituality that would be satisfied within an exclusively spiritual connection. The community of the eternal Trinity is indeed the model and basis for building deep and solid friendships—face-to-face and online—throughout the world. Among other biblical examples, one is reminded of Paul’s love for the Colossians and “for all who have not seen me face to face” (Col. 1: 24).
In-the-flesh friendships and online friendships are different kinds of intimacy—both reflecting fundamental Christian values of body and spirit. Indeed, a Christian ontological view of community and friendship would unequivocally embrace spirit and matter. It does not follow that “real” friendships involve spirit and matter but “virtual” friendships come up short when they are measured by these same values. Matter is present in every IM conversation, chat, or email as it was present in Paul’s relationships which were largely based on -his hand-written letters. Think of the warmth, tenderness, and closeness communicated by Paul through letter when he wrote to the Colosssians: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit” (Col. 2:4).
Online friendships should not be forced into an artificial dichotomy of spirit versus matter. I have seen God immediately respond to prayer while I was IM-ing. I witnessed with my own eyes, the powerful effect of God’s working as the respondent typed back what they were experiencing while I was praying. There is a material connectedness in virtual friendships. God’s moving in response to a written email prayer or an immediate IM prayer delivers a resounding Yes! to both the spiritual and the material for the prayer was communicated through a concrete medium.
In a small private online community group that I moderate, I wrote a prayer for a struggling individual. Her response to it follows:
“Your prayer is well-timed (God-timed), and the impact was profoundly humbling and life-changing regarding my identity. It is difficult to post what has happened due to this prayer, because I feel vulnerable in disclosing the level of need I had reached and the intimate heart surgery God has done and is doing.”
I had no idea when I sent that prayer what her response was going to be. Oh, man of little faith! I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like that! Often the impact of my written prayers is much less dramatic—or even perceivable. However, my own faith has been strengthened again and again as I have seen the Spirit’s active and immediate presence anoint a specific email prayer or IM prayer. On many occasions, I have stepped out only in simple faith, confident that the Lord was with me and that He was present as I prayed. In other words, I did not have a specific, concrete belief or intuition that God was going to do something. He has made me a believer that intimate online prayers matter.
I can claim several online spiritual companions. The “virtual” world could be a place for “almost” friendships or superficial relationships. No doubt it is that for many people, as it is in the “real” world. But it is also a place for spiritually authentic formative friendships. In my Christian experience, I have always looked for significant friendships patterned after Jesus and his disciples. Jesus poured his life into a very limited number of individuals. He spent significant time and energy with the crowds and with many acquaintances, but His intense focus was on a handful of people. This small inner circle of friends shared his life and energy. He prayed with them and for them. He spent long hours conversing with them.
This kind of real friendship is happening in the “virtual” world. You can invest your life into one or two individuals for significant reciprocity, closeness, confession, safety, vulnerability, and accountability. Sure, you can experience disconnects. Virtual friendships are not that much different from in-the-flesh friendships. As a general rule, you will find those who have many friends in “real” life will have many online friends. Similarly, you will find those who pour their presence and life into a selected few in “real” life, will find deep satisfaction with connectedness online. The latter have many “friends” too, but they enjoy a level of intimacy that the former does not.
If you pursue spiritual friendships with any kind of depth, you will meet the same challenges and the same blessings in cyberlife as in “real” life. You will meet those who you will instantly resonate with and find much encouragement as the relationship develops. On the other hand, you may pursue a friendship with someone who keeps a certain distance from you. That could end up being a mentoring friendship that slowly softens the distancing dynamic of one who has been wounded in past relationships. The same power of connecting soul-to-soul that is available in-the-flesh, is present and available within online. The Lord may lead you to walk alongside someone else online, to pray for that one and to watch his or her growth. It may be that God leads you to mentor an online friend in prayer or relationships. You can pour your life and energy into a significant online friendship and you can also happen upon a one sided friendship where you mentor and lead. I was certainly not looking for ministry when I ventured into cyberspace. I have seen God do amazing things in my online friendships. I have witnessed genuine spiritual formation take place.
Grace recently wrote about our earliest IM prayer times: “We prayed about a lot of deep issues, including some of the issues surrounding my abuse. Those prayer times shaped my spiritual life significantly (and continue to do so).”
Those prayers were not techniques. They were born out of authentic friendship and soul care—online. God blessed our relationship through IM to shape her soul for the days and years ahead. He is not limited by the absence of physical presence. He still rewards simple faith. What makes online relationships grow in authenticity and intimacy is the real and actual presence of God coming upon those gathered in His name—in churches, in our homes, or on the internet.