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Have smartphones and social media really done anything to strengthen your most important relationships?
Your experience may not be mine (I’m sure for many it’s not), but I’m finding our recent advances in technology have not made for more meaningful communication with my family and closest friends. If anything, they have siphoned off something of the urgency and intentionality out of those relationships — out of me in those relationships.
New technologies do offer amazing potential for those with the maturity, discipline, and love to use them well. Text messages enable us to use spare seconds to exchange notes and encourage each other. FaceTime allows us to see the person we’re talking to in real time, suddenly making a phone call more personal. And of course, smartphones and social media almost immediately widen our network of relationships, allowing us to “keep up” with many more old friends while constantly introducing us to new people.
But I suspect that while new technologies have made many new things possible and many old things easier, they have not translated into deeper, more intimate relationships like we might have expected. Has all of our technology made the whole world a little closer, but left us farther than ever from the ones we love most?
All thirteen of the apostle Paul’s letters he wrote to real believers, in a real place, during a real part of history. His letters were personal — written to people he really loved, often when they were most difficult to love.
One refrain in his letters recently caught my attention as I thought about intentionality and communication in our relationships: “I long to see you.” He says something like that to the Romans, the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and to Timothy. Paul clearly believes his letters — cutting-edge technology in the first century — are limited in mediating love. In his mind, being face to face facilitates real love in a way technology cannot replace.
But haven’t our devices solved Paul’s problem — allowing us to see someone halfway around the globe with a simple Wi-Fi connection? No, I believe Paul would write (or tweet) the same thing today. While the ability to see someone in Cincinnati, Winston-Salem, or Los Angeles — or Cameroon, India, or the Philippines for that matter — is a truly remarkable gift from God, it does not and cannot replace the power of time together in the same room.
What I hear in Paul’s longing is as real in our day of iPhones as it was in his day of no phones.
Does Paul say anything specific about the power of face-to-face interaction? When he opens his letter to the Roman believers, he says, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11–12).
Why does he long to see them face to face? “ . . . that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” But isn’t that what his letter is? After all, his words were not only filled with spiritual affection and encouragement for the Romans, but they were breathed out by God himself (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul believes something will happen when he sees them that will not happen in the same way or at the same level through his letter (in this case, arguably the single greatest letter written in history).
What is that face-to-face reward in relationships? A unique spiritual gift that imparts unique spiritual strength (Romans 1:11–12).
Paul says, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift” — presumably some spiritual gift he could not give in this letter. We don’t know what, if any, spiritual gift Paul had in mind, but we do know that his presence would “strengthen” the believers in Rome, and that both Paul and his readers would be “encouraged” in a way they could not be otherwise.
Paul uses the same two Greek words together when he writes to the Thessalonians, “We sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish” (strengthen) “and exhort you” (encourage) “in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Similarly, he says, “We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10) — the supply of strength and encouragement that can’t be imparted in a letter (or text, or email, or even video call).
Physical presence allows Paul and Timothy — and you and me — to strengthen and establish, encourage and exhort in ways we cannot through media, however advanced that media may be. Paul made the extraordinary effort to be with his fellow believers because he knew the extraordinary potential of being face to face. He knew the potential joy of truly being together (2 Timothy 1:4; Philippians 2:28).
Eye contact is one of the greatest treasures of physical presence. But even if Apple made it possible to look each other directly in the eyes from miles away, the distance would still make a difference. We simply are not captive to one another in the same way when we meet virtually. We don’t “see” each other the way Paul longs to see his loved ones. As long as you and I are meeting online, I’m always a small click away from being away again, which means I’m not fully, inescapably here with you.
While eye contact is precious in any kind of intimate or important conversation, meaningful interaction is about far more than eyes. Paul says to the Philippians, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). Notice all the dimensions to their relationships — far more than mere letters could ever accomplish. It is a bond lived out in flesh and blood, space and time — a uniquely offline phenomenon of love.
We can only truly share all of ourselves — in all five senses (and probably more emotionally and spiritually) — when we put all of ourselves in the same space with someone else.
Instead of facilitating more meaningful time together, our phones and computers have often removed incentives to be together and distracted us from one another when we are together.
We all intuitively know that technology cannot replace face-to-face interaction. Would you ever propose to your girlfriend over FaceTime (or accept a proposal over FaceTime)? If you and your parents have a wonderful relationship and live ten minutes apart, would you be happy to only ever see them on Facebook? If a woman in your church lost her husband after fifty years of marriage, would you just drop her an email? No, we all know that certain conversations must, if at all possible, be face to face, eye to eye, in the same room.
When we choose to mediate moments that we could otherwise enjoy face to face, we diminish them — we surrender at least some of the gravity and joy we might have experienced. And our phones become the white flags of our physical presence.
Lay down the iPhone flags of surrender more often, and whenever possible, pursue the deeper, more meaningful joys of seeing — really seeing — the ones you love most.
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org.