Digital Fortresses and Face-to-Face Love

Talking face to face isn’t always possible, but it is usually preferable — and often essential. It’s a basic human truth worth revisiting in our day, and perhaps increasingly so in the days ahead, with more and more communication technology.

For much of history, most humans engaged in very little, if any, remote relationships. Then came the written letter, that world-changing technological flourish. Fairly recent history saw the advent of the telephone. And now, in just the last generation, we have witnessed an explosion of devices and innovations for communicating from a distance — from cellphones, to email, to text messages, to video through Skype and FaceTime.

And don’t forget the multiplying avenues of remote interaction we call “social media,” whether it’s public postings, direct messages, or even live video.

We are inundated with (good) options for staying in touch with more people from far away — people we rarely, if ever, interact with face to face in real time and space.

Remote Opportunities

I find it easy to celebrate the gains. I enjoy scrolling through updates from old friends hundreds of miles away, and our kids love seeing Grandma and Grandpa on FaceTime from “down in South Carolina” — as well as Auntie on the other side of the world in China. We all agree that remote communication with someone you love clearly beats no communication at all.

“Talking face to face isn’t always possible, but it is usually preferable — and often essential.”

Our distance tools yield vocational benefits as well. Emails, phone calls, and video chats make levels of collaboration possible when face-to-face meetings are cost-prohibitive. Becoming a curmudgeon about the inauthenticities of mediated interaction is not the answer. These new tools are gifts and opportunities. Used rightly, they enhance our lives, relationships, work, and ministry.

Out of Range

However, enthusiasm for the clear gains of technological advance can blind us to the drawbacks. It’s all too easy to go all-in without balance and self-control — and little awareness of the limitations and dangers. Christians not only have guides in common sense and conventional wisdom, but remarkably we have a word from God on this issue.

The apostle John speaks poignantly into our dilemma — and not just once, but twice. He writes at the end of his second letter, “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” (2 John 12). John is not angling to erode our appreciation for paper and ink (or pixels), but he is celebrating the priority and vitality of relating face to face.

In case we miss it there, or think it’s a throwaway statement, God gave more of Scripture’s real estate to the same reminder in John’s third letter: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 13–14).

What raises the stakes in these words from John is that he’s talking about remote communication from an apostle of the risen Christ. John was penning God-breathed Scripture with each dip of his pen and stroke on the page, and yet he abbreviates the potential writing of the Bible in view of the priority of getting face to face.

Good Words and Better

John is not alone. Another apostle also celebrated the priority of face to face. Paul was not satisfied to write the Thessalonians multiple letters from a distance, but he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thessalonians 2:17). He could communicate remotely — and he did — to correct errors and strengthen souls, but still he prayed “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).

For Paul, writing letters presented an opportunity for fruitful ministry, and seeing his people face to face represented even more fruitful ministry. Similarly, with the many churches he planted, he knew he could only do so much from a distance. Letters could be misunderstood, and recipients could get the wrong impression. Enemies of the gospel even tried to exploit that Paul seemed bolder in his letters than he was face to face (2 Corinthians 10:1).

Self-Control or Remote Control?

For the apostles, writing remotely meant the possibility of being misunderstood, or minimized — since they weren’t present in person to hold their hearers accountable. And being more easily misunderstood is doubtless a drawback we experience today. However, perhaps an even greater danger for us, with countless tools for remote communication at our fingertips, is how our sinful hearts love to hide our real selves behind a carefully constructed fortress of remote control.

We can carefully select our most flattering headshot, and painstakingly craft our status updates, text messages, and emails to give our “friends” the precise impression of us we want. We feel ourselves to be in greater control. Instead of responding in real time to a hard comment or awkward conversation, we respond on our timetable from our electronic bunker, when we’ve had the chance to mull it over and adeptly slide ourselves off the hot seat.

Some, of course, are impulsive and write terribly unwise, unloving, and unfiltered comments in emails and on social media, but many of us sense the social pressure and are much too crafty for that. Instead we continue to carefully construct our online image and profile. But what feels like sanctified self-control may actually be a sinful insistence on control.

God Gave Us Faces

Surely, we do find instances when remote communication is preferable, and wisely so. A carefully crafted letter can serve some difficult and long-overdue message of love, explanation, or repentance. Perhaps putting it in writing gets a conversation started that otherwise would never begin. But this is within the context of a relationship that can, and will, be face to face.

As we pour an increasing amount of our time and energy into remote friendships, we lose a corresponding amount of accountability. For Christians, it will not do to have all our communication mediated, and have all best friends at a distance, rather than embedded in our locality, in our everyday lives, able to know and engage with the real me in real time and space.

“Our sinful hearts love to hide our real selves behind a carefully constructed fortress of remote control.”

God made people to interact in person with other people. The clock is always ticking on remote relationships. They eventually grow apart, not together. Absence may make the heart grow fonder — but only for so long. Eventually, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” Face-to-face interaction amasses the relational capital we spend down in remote communication.

Perhaps the clear priority of “face to face” in the apostles John and Paul would inspire us to freshly resolve in our day to block out digital distractions as much as possible and make the most of real face-time with friends and family. And in church life: not to neglect our meeting together, as is the habit of some, but pour ourselves into real-life, face-to-face accountability, and all the more as we see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:24–25).

See Him Face to Face

In the end, the priority of face to face finds confirmation in what we long for at the end: to see Jesus face to face. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The great yearning of those who love Jesus is not to receive remote messages from him. Not finally. In the end, we ache to see him face to face. For now, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), and cherish every letter of remote communication from him through his prophets and apostles.

But a day is coming when our hearts will flood with new depths of satisfaction and fulfillment. We will see him face to face.