About eight years ago, I remember sitting in a restaurant on a date with my wife, discussing a disturbing phenomenon surrounding us. People-watching being a bad habit of ours, we had noticed around us young dating couples, husbands and wives, families with children, sitting around their respective tables, eyes fixated not on each other in normal conversation at a meal, but on their phones and devices. There was an eerie silence. And after having bowed our heads to pray before our meal, we noticed that the heads of our neighbors were also bowed still over their screens. This hindrance to good communication troubled us.
What concerned us more, however, was our observation of many in the church, consumed by the same technology and allowing the same to distract and detract from their fellowship. Young and old (though mostly young) would come to our home, sit in our living room, and chat with each other—digitally. We honestly wondered if some of them even had the ability to communicate without their phones.
What drives me most to write this article however, is this: The interruption of communication that I observed in that restaurant and among church people I am startled to find in my own home and in my personal habits! In the last five years, we have accumulated in our home two cell phones (with unlimited text and talk), a desktop, a laptop, and an iPad. And too frequently, we have caught ourselves staring at a screen rather than enjoying communion with those we love the most.
This article is not merely another general critique of technology and social media. Young people, you probably hear enough complaints from your parents about how you are always wasting time on your device through texts, calls, Facetime, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and numerous other forms of social media. You probably even hear application from the pulpit warning about the dangers that these advances in technology present to you—how devices can become an idol, how they can increase the temptation of sexual sin, how they can waste your time, etc. Listen to these many wise cautions. But this article (and the next) is not a broad critique of technology. Rather, this is about how the use of technology, which is acclaimed to help communication, can be deceptively detrimental to it instead.
Let us then examine our lives and hearts and ask this question: Is our use of technology hurting good communication and thereby also our relationships with God and fellow saints? Honest evaluation will prove that while there are many benefits of technology—even to aid in communication at times—there are also many hindrances. These negative aspects are not easily noticeable, especially because our sinful hearts are not willing to see them. Our addiction to digital devices may even be blinding us from seeing the problem. To help in the evaluation of the effects of technology, consider five basic characteristics of good communication that our use of technology endangers.
First and foremost, good communication includes logically spoken words. This is not to deny that there are other appropriate ways to communicate, but it should be common sense that the highest form of communication is the spoken word. If friends communicate in all kinds of manners, but omit or neglect speaking audibly to one another, communication is deficient. Spoken words must enter the ears of the hearer and be understood. Those words not only have to be audible; they have to make sense. The speaker must use simple enough vocabulary, sentence structure, and proper transitions to connect ideas so that the brain of the hearer can follow the meaning of the speech. Logically spoken words are part of good communication. How is our use of technology interfering with this?
The need for logical speech is not only common sense, but biblical. What is the means which God chooses primarily to use when he communicates with us? While he can use all sorts of means, he chooses the spoken word, in preaching especially. “And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14b). And yes, that word must be logical. The very meaning of “word” in the New Testament is logos, from which we derive our English word logic. God’s way of communication to us in the covenant with him is through logically spoken words. If this is God’s preferred way of communication with us, then we should realize that audible, logical speech is also the best way to communicate with him and with each other.
Second, good communication consists of a face-to-face meeting. To clarify (and this is necessary today), that means a face-to-face encounter not through a screen, but in the literal presence of one another. Again, this is not to deny that some good communication can take place in the absence of the one with whom you want to communicate. But the best communication takes place when there is a literal meeting. In this way, we can hear better, read lips, see gestures, make eye contact, sense true feelings, and even make physical contact. Such close proximity during conversation significantly increases the positive effects of communication in a relationship.
This is also God’s preferred way of communication with us. When the scripture speaks of communication with God, it frequently speaks of being in God’s presence. Literally, the Hebrew word for “presence” is “face.” Psalm 95:2 says, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving.” Here the Psalmist is calling us to come before God’s face, that we might have a face-to-face conversation with the Holy One. Though his face is invisible to human eyes, he is truly present, especially in his house of worship. Heaven’s glory will be that we will converse with him in the greatest way: face-to-face. When we communicate with God, he commands us: “Seek ye my face” (Psalm 27:8). If God speaks of this face-to-face communion as the highest way of communication, we ought also to see it as best for our relationships on this earth. Is technology interfering with this?
A third basic of good communication consists of attentive listening. Communication is impossible if no one is listening. Did you hear that? Communication is impossible if no one is listening. If a pastor preaches a powerful sermon, but everyone is either sleeping, distracted, or absent, he has communicated nothing. If a man passionately expresses his love to a woman, but her thoughts are consumed only with the last Hollywood production she has watched, he has communicated nothing. If a mother repeatedly asks, yells, and begs for her teenage son or daughter to come to dinner, but the sound is turned up on his headphones, she has communicated nothing.
Good communication requires attentive listening—not only ears that work, but minds that are active with something called an attention span. It is necessary for the mind to grasp what the other person is saying and to be engaged for a sustained period of time without boredom or interruption. In this way, he is then able to continue the flow of conversation and respond appropriately. Such attentive listening prevents the erratic jumping in conversation from one topic to another, a pattern too common today.
When we communicate with God, it should be obvious that attentive listening is crucial. We must listen to him first in order to know how to respond. Our communication with him ought to be more listening than speaking. After all, he has much more to tell us than we have to tell him. If such attentive listening is necessary in our communication with God, should it not also be true of our communication with one another? How well do we listen in this technological age?
Fourth, good communication consists of truthfulness. Fabrications and exaggerations do not build a relationship, but rather, tear it down. Deception destroys trust, and without trust, a relationship is seriously damaged. But when truth and nothing but the truth is spoken, communication thrives and friendships prosper. When friends continue speaking the truth in love (see Ephesians 4:15ff), they grow in their unity with one another.
This is obviously how God communicates with us also. His word is truth. He speaks to us the truth of Jesus Christ, that being the only way to a relationship with God (see John 14:6). It is the truth preached that causes us to grow in relationship with him. It is the Spirit of truth that invades our deceitful hearts and creates in us a desire to respond with honest confession that we are depraved and are in desperate need of his mercy. When he works truth in us, we are enabled to confess that truth back to him and before men. Truthful communication grows relationships with God and each other. How is our use of technology distorting this?
A fifth and final basic of good communication is depth of content. While it is appropriate to talk about the weather, the game last night, hobbies, and other easy topics of conversation, if that is all we ever talk about, such shallow communication will result in shallow relationships. The purpose of these lighter subjects is to set each other at ease, and then to draw one another into deeper discussions. Minds are engaged in using truth and logic, while hidden passions of the heart are revealed through intonation, gesture, and word choice. “Iron sharpeneth iron” (Prov. 27:17) as profound thoughts are shared and discussion develops. Social activity becomes a spiritual bonding through depth of content.
When God develops his relationship with his people, he is very concerned about depth. You will find proof of that by simply glancing at the content of your Bible. Skim any passage and observe that God’s communication with us is deep. The Psalmist exclaims, “O Lord, how great are thy works! And thy thoughts are very deep” (Psalm 92:5). So deep is God’s communication with us that without a mind of faith illuminated by the Spirit, we cannot understand him. But Psalm 25:14 says, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant.” In order to grow our relationship with him, he reveals these deep secrets to us. God has ordained that his relationship with us be deep, and therefore makes the content of his conversation with us the same. If depth of content is a characteristic of our conversation with God, this should be reflected in our earthly relationships as well.
Do you find yourself engaged in these basic and biblical principles of good communication? Is this how you communicate most of the time? Is this how you communicate especially with those with which you have the closest of relationships? Authentic examination will lead many of us to conclude that good communication among peers in school, in families, or in dating and marriage relationships is lacking and diminishing. This is detrimental to our relationships. But what is the real cause of this?
While there are many factors involved in the breakdown of good communication, one culprit that we must be warned about is the overuse of technology for communication. To be clear, we may not blame technology itself, for technology is a good gift of God and is not evil in and of itself. But have we allowed our use of a good tool to detract from good communication? Have we allowed technology’s mediocre forms of communication to replace the best way of communication? Have we allowed our digital way of communication to so shape us that we have distorted ideas of what good communication truly is? Are we even able to communicate well without a device nearby? Are you sure?
The communication that we have on our cell phones and over social media is not wrong of itself, but the basics of good communication—logical speech, face-to-face interaction, attentive listening, truthfulness, and depth of content—are too often missing. As many bars of Wi-Fi or cellular service as we have on our screens, communication on our devices is still an inferior form. For relationships to thrive, we must maximize the good communication as described above and limit the subpar methods on our devices. I fear that Satan is working with our sinful natures to overuse modern technology in our communication, leading to the neglect of the highest forms of communication which God gives to us. Mediocre forms of communication are forming mediocre relationships. Reduction of good conversation replaced by an increase of digital communication results in cheap relationships. With our technological style of communication, I wonder if we still have warm, spiritual connections with one another, or if we are merely joined by a cold internet connection.
*Rev. Mahtani is pastor of Cornerstone Protestant Reformed church in Dyer, IN.