I’m assuming, at this point, that the COVID 19 pandemic will be like 9/11: the details of living through it will be forever imprinted in our memories and the very way we do life will be altered. Obviously, our chief concern right now needs to be loving our neighbors by washing our hands, keeping physical distance from others and such, as well as running to our Lord with the anxieties that weigh on our hearts.
But I think it’s also a good moment to look down the road a bit at some likely changes to our world and let that knowledge impact the way we live today. Specifically, I suspect that our use of video communication and other forms of digital interaction, both for work and for engaging with family and friends, will never be the same. Once forced to work from home, employees will want to keep some of the benefits of the flexibility it offers (and will notice that sometimes remote work is actually more productive with no one dropping by your cubicle) and church members will want to keep the option of attending services, in bathrobes, from the couch. On the other hand, once cut off from gathering as a church, dining out with friends, and the stop-to-chat-in-the-hallway conversations with co-workers, people will appreciate just how much it really does matter to be physically face to face.
If any of that is true, I hope it will produce healthy debates about the dangers of living in an increasingly virtual world versus the opportunities to serve and love others in the name of Christ far and wide through technology, the inherent value of being in the presence of others, etc. There is, however, a very important core theme I believe we need to grapple with right now.
It’s your heart that matters most in an interaction, not the medium.
Getting our hearts in the right place today will set us up for a helpful perspective on tomorrow.
What I mean is that the physical distance afforded by digital communication, be it by text, Snapchat, or video call can be used to avoid real relationships, but it can also be used to connect with others and enrich relationships. Think, for example, about someone who would rather use a text to break up with a significant other, or someone who is civil when face to face but finds it easy to blast someone else’s politics on Facebook. Keeping space between people as a shield against the discomfort and tension in relationships is a poor and selfish use of technology. However, a quick text to check in, an email out of the blue expressing appreciation for someone, or a friend who always prays for you when she hears news about you on social media are wonderful ways to draw closer to others through technology. How many times have you heard people say that a season of geographical distance in their dating relationship actually forced them to have deep conversation and get to know each other better, soul-to-soul, than they would have if they’d been in the same town? Having done a lot of video calling both for work and with family, I can attest to how tight of a connection one can forge through a screen—something that letter writers in the 1700s would have killed for.
Technology, you see, is not the culprit. The real villain in this story is self-centeredness and the desire to wield our communication in self-serving ways. This desire can taint in-person interactions just as easily as digital ones. While the potential for profound connection from being in person is obvious, it’s also quite possible to be in the same room with someone and use small talk to keep things at a surface level. You can live in the same house but never really communicate. Even spouses can become more like roommates than one-flesh partners. In short, physical proximity is no guarantee of real fellowship.
For real fellowship, we look to the apostle Paul who models the right heart orientation for both close and far-away interactions. Paul did his most lasting and well-known ministry by distance. We read the names of specific friends and co-laborers because he cared deeply enough to write letters, sometimes even to people he had never met and never would this side of heaven (e.g. the church at Colossae, new members of churches he founded but couldn’t revisit). Paul has this delightful way of passionately holding to two extremes simultaneously. He speaks often and with obvious depth of feeling of how much he “longs to be with [them] again.” And yet, he also clearly feels a deep sense of connection with the churches simply by writing, praying for them, being involved in their affairs from afar, and by hearing good news of their deepening faith and love (e.g. 1 Thess 3).
There’s no question that Paul’s deepest desire was to be with his believing brothers and sisters in person. And indeed, we along with him look forward to a day when there will be no more geographic separation and those we’ve loved in Christ will be our “joy and our crown” in his presence (1 Thess 2:19–20). But Paul does not hesitate to seize the technology available to him—hand-written and hand-delivered letters—to press forward his love, concern, and deep affection for those with whom he is united in Christ. No doubt he’d have posted words of encouragement, prayer, and concerned warning on the Facebook page of the church in Ephesus if such options had been open to him from his cell in Rome!
The question to us then is simple: Will a season of enforced remote work and online fellowship lead us to become people who spiral down into disconnection and increasing self-focus or will it spur us to long to be with others in every way we can and do much more than small talk however we connect? Will we use text and video now to foster fellowship we might otherwise have ignored or been too busy to invest in? Will we, in short, follow Paul’s example of loving others in such a way that we grab any chance we have to know their hearts, encourage them in Christ, and receive their encouragement in return? If we do, our relationships now will deepen despite COVID 19, and the prospect of a post-pandemic world—which will likely rely all the more heavily on technology—will be less threatening.
It is an unfathomable privilege to know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. As those who would be like him, let’s aim to check our hearts and let nothing, neither distance nor technology nor busyness nor small talk, separate us from loving each other well.