How often do you check your phone throughout the day? Research suggests that the average American adult checks his or her phone every 6.5 minutes. Digital devices have become an obsession for many of us. Has anyone e-mailed us in the last six minutes? Is anyone liking my post on Facebook? Was that a text I heard come in? We’re constantly drawn to them for the latest information and entertainment. Unfortunately, this constant dependence and distraction may be having unintended consequences. It seems for some of us, our devices may be drawing us away from reality, pushing us away from our relationships, and hindering our ability to show empathy toward others. Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation, states, “Research supports what literature and philosophy have told us for a long time. The development of empathy needs face-to-face conversation. And it needs eye contact” (p. 170).
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, because we are able to understand them from their perspective. Consider the parable Christ shares with us in Matthew 18:23-35. In verse 27 we read, “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.” The master could see the man’s state: he could not pay back his debt. The servant needed his mercy, and he compassionately gave it. The servant, though, could not see from this same point of view, throwing his fellow servant into prison for a debt owed. The master has harsh words for his servant in verses 32-33, “Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” God asks that we do as He has done and recognize with compassion the frailty of the human condition.
Christ displayed this very compassion during his earthly ministry. Upon hearing that his friend Lazarus had died, Jesus went to visit with Mary and Martha. In John 11:35 we read, “Jesus wept.” Why did Jesus weep? It is apparent from Christ’s conversation with Martha, and his statements prior to their arrival (John 11:15), that Christ fully intended to raise Lazarus from the dead. We can be sure, then, that he wasn’t sad for Lazarus’s sake, or for his own loss of a friend. Verses 32-33 explain Christ’s reason for weeping:
“Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled.”
Jesus saw others weeping and was moved with compassion toward them. He wept with others because he acutely understood their human struggle with the plight of death. He understood man was not created to comprehend the finite (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and his humanity showed him the difficulty in facing finality. The Hebrew writer helps us see the great blessing in Christ’s experience as a man:
“Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).
The same tender heart He displayed toward the mourners sympathizes with us, understanding our frailty and acknowledging the difficulty of our temptations (Hebrews 4:15). With Christ as our example (Philippians 2:1-5), we must ask ourselves how well we are showing compassion toward each other.
May I suggest that our current manner of using digital devices may not allow us to show the tenderness and compassion of Christ toward each other? Perhaps you have experienced that moment when the individual you are conversing with ignores you to reach for his or her phone. Was that person fully engaged, listening with compassion? No, he or she was distracted, and it hindered the conversation. Turkle again remarks, “To converse, you don’t just have to perform turn taking, you have to listen to someone else, to read their body, their voice, their tone, and their silences. You bring your concern and experience to bear, and you expect the same…” (p. 45). How easy will it be for us to “bear one another’s burdens,” (Galatians 6:2) when our eyes are distracted by a backlit screen?
Certainly I do not mean to say that digital devices are inherently wrong. Brethren have comforted and encouraged many through these mediums. Often there are individuals that we are able to maintain contact with, when geography or other barriers might have kept us away. These are all good. It is not the devices themselves that are inherently problematic.
Rather, the problem is how the world encourages us to use them. They are to be our constant on-call, our continuous news feed, and the place we turn during a brief spare moment or the conversation dulls. It can certainly be a distraction and keep us from considering one another as we ought. Isn’t it interesting that Christ wanted us to join together in a meal each week? He knew the value each member would receive by joining in fellowship together, remembering our common bond.
Romans 12:15 states, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” May we all be encouraged not to allow our devices to shallow our relationships with one another. It is good for us to rejoice and weep together. It is good for us to pat a brother on the back, not just hit the “thumbs up” button. It is a blessing that we can join together, sharing one another’s presence, and encouraging each other in our daily walk. Don’t lessen that blessing by placing unnecessary hindrances between you and your brethren. Discipline yourself to be independent of your devices and use it for the good of others.