Relationships in the Digital Age (II John 12)
Relationships in the Digital Age
II John 12
(One Truth: In All Things)
February 10th, 2019
I. Facebook at Fifteen
Fifteen years ago this past Monday, the social media site known as Facebook was launched. Originally called “the Facebook”, the site was intended to be online way to connect students at Harvard University (since a "face book" is a student directory featuring photos and personal information). Of course, fifteen years later, Facebook is much, much, much, much bigger than the Harvard student body. It currently has over 2 billion active users. That's more than a quarter of the people on planet Earth.
This is what founder Mark Zuckerberg said way back then about the purpose of his social media site: “The goal wasn’t to create an online community, but a mirror of what existed in real life.” So... did Facebook achieve its goal? If the idea was not to create an online community, has Facebook helped us when it comes to offline community? Have our connections via social media strengthened our connections overall?
Those questions are questions about relationships in the digital age. Have you given that topic much thought? The broader question may go something like this: do our devices help or hinder our relationships?
That's the question I'd like to explore this morning as we continue a series I'm calling “Digital Disciplines”. As I affirmed last time, your phone is a powerful tool. But again, as Peter Parker famously learned, “with great power comes great responsibility”. This is how Christian blogger Tim Challies described the issue:
Our task then is not to avoid technology but to carefully evaluate it, redeem it, and ensure that we are using it with the right motives and for the right goals.
But why are we talking about this topic on a Sunday morning at church? Well, remember how Paul instructed Timothy: he said, “train [or discipline] yourself for godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). As I mentioned last time, as those following Jesus in this day and age, in this digital day and age, I believe disciplining ourselves for godliness also means adopting and practicing digital disciplines. Why? Because the unique power of our digital device, when combined with human nature, calls for thoughtful and disciplined usage.
That's true in every of life in the digital age, including relationships. To think about this issue in light of God's word, turn over, if you would, to the tiny book of II John.
II. The Passage: "That Our Joy May Be Complete" (v. 12)
This morning we are going to camp out on one verse from this short book. Look at verse 12.
This is what the Apostle John writes to his first century readers:
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (II John 12)
So in thinking about this verse, I think if we (using some digital language... I think if we) 'double clicked' on the three different parts of this verse, we would discover ideas that connect us to many other parts of Scripture. And we would discover ideas that speak directly to our questions about our relationships in the digital age. For example, the first part of verse 12 highlights...
1. The Drawbacks of Your Device (v. 12a)
Did you notice how John talked about technology in the opening sentence of this verse? No, not twenty-first century technology. He wrote about first century technology. “Paper and ink” were the non-digital communication tools that John used to connect with his readers. But if we take the verse as a whole, it's clear John believes there are drawbacks to these communication tools. He has “much” to share with them, but as he indicates here, he'd rather not do so via “paper and ink”.
Now, “paper and ink” have their place, don't they? If John totally rejected paper and ink, his readers would not have this letter, or any other letter. That means they would not have the kind of teaching, the kind of counsel, the kind of encouragement they needed, when they needed it, specifically at those times when John could not be there in person.
In the same way, our twenty-first century technology has its place. In terms of communication and connection with others, it allows us to do amazing things: connecting with old friends or people anywhere in the world, sending baby pictures in an instant to a grandma five states away, texting a late night encouragement to a brother or sister in need, sharing a funny photo or memory with a spouse or sibling, sending valuable information to large groups of people... and the list could go on and on.
But as John recognized two thousand years ago, technology has its limits. There are drawbacks. I like how Tony Reinke describes some of the broad, relational consequences of technology in his book “Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You”...
As technology improves, machines replace people and automation replaces interaction. Street vendors gave way to vending machines. Fresh milk deliveries gave way to dairy products preserved in refrigerators. Bankers gave way to ATMs. Two hundred years ago, laborers were personally acquainted with their clients. In today’s technological society, many laborers work in remote locations, in industrial or business parks, serving faceless clients or nameless consumers from whom they are separated geographically or by a very long production chain. (Reinke)
Like all these examples, your device may be pushing you away from others, just as you are depending on it to connect you with others. Take e-mail for example. In his book, “The Tyranny of E-mail”, author John Freeman reminds us of what the Apostle John understood...
The truth is that text rarely, if ever, can equal the richness of a face to face conversation. It's static, disembodied. It does not convey hand gestures, verbal tone, inflection, or facial expressions, things we are taught from birth to encode and decode.
In addition to this, even without meaning to, how we use our device around others can reveal the priority we give to that relationship. Reinke writes, “We are quick to believe the lie that we can simultaneously live a divided existence, engaging our phones while neglecting others.”
But beyond these drawbacks, think about all they ways our devices simply magnify our sinful tendencies when it comes to relationships. The Bible confirms over and over what all of us know by experience: people are difficult and relationships are hard. Therefore, it's no surprise when we use our devices to make things 'easier' in light of those challenging realities.
What do I mean? For example, we use our devices to hide out or hide our flaws, but at the same time, to present to others a curated version of ourselves. Or we use our devices to avoid conflict with others, but at the same time, stir up conflict from the supposed safety of our virtual towers. Breaking up with a girlfriend? Yikes! That's no fun. I'll just send a text. Need to confront a friend about a sensitive subject. Yikes! That would be awkward. I'll just send an e-mail. Eager to express your pent-up political frustrations? Yikes! That might upset your lunch bunch. I'll just post a careless, insensitive, knee-jerk rant on social media.
Here's another example of using our devices to circumvent the challenges of real-time relationships. We often feel people are difficult and relationships are hard because people don't 'get us'; because people don't appreciate us or like what we like. But guess what? Our devices allow us to seek out people who like what we like, and therefore, should appreciate us for who we are; people who do 'get us'. And so we often seek connection, we often seek to meet our relational needs in that 'easier' online world.
These are just some of the ways our devices tempt us, as sinners in the digital age, to deal with the age-old challenges of living with and love others. This is why John goes where he goes in the next part of the verse. If we continue into verse 12, we read about...
2. The Power of Your Presence (v. 12b)
John writes... Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face...
John's priority is his presence with them. In his mind, “face to face” always trumps the technological alternatives. And this is not an isolated sentiment...
I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. (III John 14) [And John's not alone...]
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face... (I Thess. 2:17)
...we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (I Thessalonians 3:10)
Paul also expresses the same desire, confirming the same priority, with other words:
...so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. (Romans 15:32)
As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. (2 Timothy 1:4)
Even though people are difficult and relationships are hard, there is no substitute for real-time relationships in the real world. There is a power when you are physically present with another person or group of people. All of us know this. All of us crave this. And deep down, we know technologically mediated relationships and communication cannot replicate this.
We know an Amazon-ordered bike, an e-book on bike riding, and several text messages or a Skype call full of encouraging words cannot replace a physically present dad, running alongside of that little boy or little girl who is cruising forward, for the first time, without training wheels.
We know a love letter via direct message is no substitute for the embrace of devoted spouse.
We know a post offering condolences is no substitute for a strong shoulder to cry on.
Are people difficult? Yes. Are relationships hard? Yes. But they are worth every effort and every tear. Why? Because that's how God made us. Therefore, that's how God leads us in his word, as we've seen in all these “face to face” verses.
Therefore, given the priority of your real-time presence, how should that affect the way you understand and use your device? I believe it means we always need to see our devices as tools to extend and enhance, first and foremost, our everyday, embodied relationships. (2x)
When we are unhooked from that anchor, we get hurt and other people get hurt. For example, global interconnected-ness is a wonderful thing. But when we are more enamored with 'there' than we are with 'here', our community suffers. And when our community suffers, we suffer. Or if our idea of family time is everyone being online in the same room, our lack of interaction, of communication, of connection will eventually hurt every member.
Tony Reinke observes, “we tend to overprioritize the relatively easy interactions in the disembodied online world and undervalue the embodied nature of the Christian faith.” And that leads us to a final idea. In that last part of verse 12, God, through John, points us to...
3. The Fullness of Our Fellowship (v. 12c)
Again, John writes... Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
Up to this point, we haven't talked much about the broader context of this teeny-tiny letter. Well, even though we could explore what John says about love or about false teachers, I think the main thing we need to know is that John is writing from a church to a church.
This can be a little confusing because in verse 1 we read “The elder to the elect lady and her children”. But if we move from the first verse to the final verse we read, “The children of your elect sister greet you.” John is not speaking to women with children. He is speaking to churches with disciples.
Why is this an important point? Because the completed “joy” John writes about in verse 12 is the joy of everyday, embodied life together in the family of God. I think it's accurate to say that, in general, our longings for human connection were ultimately designed to be met by our brothers and sisters in the family of God. Remember, the church is the only eternal family; the only eternal community.
What does this mean in the digital age? Well, it means precisely what it's always meant: the family of God should be a top priority in our lives; genuine, vital fellowship should be foundational, fundamental to your everyday, embodied existence. Are you committed to God's people in real, meaningful ways? Practically, in the digital age, this commitment could take many forms. We do need to be careful about the digital sins mentioned earlier. But listen to a few ideas proactive ideas from William Smith in his little booklet, “Obsessed with Your Phone?”. He writes... [read from top of p. 21, “Instead of...]
III. Inspired by Immanuel
Brothers and sisters, friends, while human connection, in general, is ultimately fulfilled in the redeemed community of the church, our deepest longings for human connection are wonderfully fulfilled, not by many, but by one. Listen to how one of our praise songs helps us:
King of heaven now the Friend of sinners, Humble servant in the Father's hands,
Filled with power and the Holy Spirit, Filled with mercy for the broken man
Yes. He walked my road and He felt my pain, Joys and sorrows that I know so well;
Yet His righteous steps give me hope again—I will follow my Immanuel!
Immanuel may be a Christmas term for most of us, but remember what it means. It is Hebrew for... “God with us”. Remember what our human rebellion led to. Once God walked with us “in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). But our sin separated us from that everyday, embodied existence. After that, for millennia, God's communication with us was mediated: thunder from a mountain, instructions from a fire, warnings through a prophet's voice, a still small voice.
But when Christ came, he came in the flesh. He didn't 'phone in' your redemption. He didn't send “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) via text. He didn't post about his sacrificial love. No. He stepped into your everyday, embodied existence as an everyday, embodied person. Jesus was and is “God with us” in the fullest possible sense. Did you know that the new life He offers is only possible because of his Incarnation? He had to become like us, so that he could take our place. He had to become like us, so we could become like him. May we also walk in that same incarnational love; that same incarnational mindset.
And may we do so, looking ahead to the relational satisfaction, strengthened by the relational satisfaction that will be ours when our deepest longings for connection are met in the God-man, when he returns. I Cor. 13:12... For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
More in Digital Disciplines
February 24, 2019Knowledge in the Digital Age (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)
February 17, 2019Affirmation in the Digital Age (John 5:44)
February 3, 2019Attention in the Digital Age (II Thessalonians 3:6-13)