One Question to Ask Before You Text

I hate making phone calls. Sometimes I have to give myself an internal pep talk just to get up the courage to dial. When the phone in my office rings, I often hope it’s an unfamiliar number so that I can let it go to voicemail. Give me the choice between texting and calling, and I’ll choose texting every time. What is wrong with me?

I’m starting to see the same weird phenomenon emerge in counseling sessions. As I listen to a big argument that ruined a couple’s week, five or even ten minutes into their explanation I’ll have to pause the story and ask, “Wait, all of this was said over text?” Obviously, I’m not alone in this. This is happening in marriages, friendships, work relationships, and families everywhere. What is wrong with us?

In his book about smartphones, Tony Reinke points out, “[Our phones] are changing us; there’s no debate on that.” They are changing us; and they are revealing us. How we text can tell us a lot about ourselves.

We Text to Escape

We are fearful creatures by nature. Ever since the garden, we have preferred to hide among the bushes rather than boldly step out into the clearing. Every generation fashions its own fig leaves to protect ourselves from guilt and shame. Ours has managed to put an Apple logo on the back — an ironic reminder of that fateful fall.

“How many of our texts should have been conversations with real people in real life?”

Try this SMS apology on for size: I was wrong to yell at you at home. I really do love you. I’m sorry. Or this confessional text: I looked at something I shouldn’t have on my phone last week. Pray for me. Unfortunately, our drift towards texting in our relationships is not because all forms of communication are created equal. We text because we are afraid.

Deep down, many of us are cowering behind the safety of a glass screen. Texting helps us hide from so many things: the consequences of our mistakes, the disappointment of others, the uncomfortable feeling of personal conflicts. We can’t bear to imagine the pained expression that might look back at us. We want to avoid seeing the tears. We don’t want to have to hash everything out and further explain our sinful actions. We are afraid they might get angry or might not like what we have to say.

So we text.

Look back through your text log, and have a moment of honesty with yourself. How many of those should have been conversations with real people in real life? Rather than look someone made in the image of God in the eyes and open our mouths, fear tells us that it’s just as good to look at an inanimate rectangle and tap out a few characters, maybe an emoji.

In counseling, we call this the escape response to conflict. Many of us have no idea why our marriages are struggling, why we are drifting apart in our relationships, and why conflicts still don’t feel resolved. But I texted! People are funny. They seem to sense when someone is hiding. Nothing says, “I’m hiding from you,” quite like text messages that should have been real conversations.

We Text to Control

While texting can mean flight for some, for others it means fight. We find ourselves texting not when we are hiding, but when we are on the attack. There is something psychological about text messages; they naturally elicit a response. If you are like me, it takes discipline to ignore a text message. It takes even more discipline not to let an unsettling text message bore into my subconscious and unnerve me a whole afternoon. This pesky quality makes texting a pretty nasty tool for manipulation.

Why aren’t you answering me?
I knew you were going to hold this over me.
Why won’t you forgive me?

Buzz after buzz, we can wear others down with texts that demand immediate attention. Often motivated by guilt and shame, we go on the offensive, demanding reconciliation or forgiveness quickly. We try to cajole affection or concession. A recent smartphone commercial depicts a woman messaging her first “I love you” to her boyfriend and expectantly waiting for his return message. Messaging apps have no space for emotions, pain, follow-up questions, or silent contemplation. It demands a response. Now.

“Love will not grow in relationships where we use our phones to beat others into submission.”

We can use texting to technologically twist someone’s arm. Late in the afternoon, you shoot this one off: “Forgot to tell you. Headed to the gym after work. Sound good?” Hoping to avoid the argument, you receive the one-word response from your wife you want: “Fine.” Our smartphones are an arena where we handicap a person’s ability to express their point of view, concern, or hurt. The text notification barrage is meant to force a response that others may not be willing or ready to give.

“Love is patient and kind . . . It does not insist on its own way,” Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). When we text to manipulate, it is the opposite of love. Andy Crouch reminds us in The Tech-Wise Family that people are “body and soul together.” It is not love when we avoid flesh-and-blood engagement. When we resort to texting, we reduce others to a “brain on a stick.” We refuse to allow them to express their emotions, thoughts, and feelings through body language, eye contact, and vocal quality. We intentionally distance ourselves from their humanity.

Do a mental scroll through your texts over the past week. Are you engaging others in an arena that prevents them from changing your mind? Are your texts meant to manipulate and force others to give you what you want? Love will not grow in relationships where we use our phones to beat others into submission.

How Are You Tempted?

The next time you whip out the phone, ask yourself this simple question before you fire off a text: Why?

Why am I choosing to text instead of call? Can this conversation wait until we can speak face to face? Loving others means first growing in our ability to discern our own hearts. We have to recognize the reflection of fear staring back at us from the glass screen. We have to realize when we are using the tyranny of the urgent to twist the arms of those we love.

To those of us who tend to hide behind our smartphones, the Scriptures say, “Fear not.” Ken Sande encourages our hearts, “Conflict [is] an opportunity to glorify God, to serve other people, and to grow to be like Christ.” The next time you feel tempted to resolve a conflict, to confront someone, or to confess something via text, do not be afraid. Call. Or better yet, make time to meet with that person.

“Deep down, many of us are cowering behind the safety of a glass screen.”

To those of us who are tempted to weaponize our smartphones, the Scriptures say, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). This is the mind of Jesus Christ himself, who was willing to devote himself to real conversations: the woman at the well, Mary and Martha, Nicodemus, Peter, and hosts of others.

We learn from our Savior that communication is not a tool to get what we want from others, but a means to love and serve people — to commune with them — both body and soul.

(@chad_ashby) is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Grove City College. He teaches literature, math, and theology at Greenville Classical Academy. You can follow him at his blog After+Math.