Jen Pollock Michel on Loving Your Neighbor by Giving Them Your Time in the Digital Age

Jen Pollock Michel is an author and speaker living in Toronto. Her second book, Keeping Placeexplores the shared calling of home. Her third book, Surprised by Paradox, released in May. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


When a technological wave crests, I’m not usually riding it. I’m in favor of reading, not binge-watching; dinner parties, not Google hangouts. I was late to own a smartphone and join Facebook, and I still don’t use Instagram. Embarrassingly, I have to call my teenagers to turn on the TV.

Since I’m a Luddite, you might expect me to pen the familiar essay arguing for less technology use rather than more. But this is not that piece. Although a lot of people are resolving (rightly) to curb their digital addictions in this new year, many of us might need an urging in the other direction. The most virtuous among us might not be those who conspicuously publicize their return to various forms of analog life. Instead, those most like Jesus might be the ones who decide to become more digitally available, not less.

Few of us want to hear the call to more digital “dirty work,” but nonetheless, answering texts, emails, and direct-contact messages (from Slack and other apps) is one of the ways that we follow the biblical commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” These invasive messages are grueling to deal with, and though I might prefer a return to a world where the phone actually rang, that is not the world I inhabit.

As I watch public figures make choices about their digital lives, I sometimes have a cynical response when I hear them eschew the burdens of certain technologies. I wonder who carries the real weight of their monastic choices and whom their unreachability is meant to serve. I’m thinking of the megachurch pastor who answers his email once a week and whom no one, outside his family, can reach by text. I think of his administrative assistant, and even his wife, who are no doubt responsible for fielding the tsunami of emails and populating the calendar.

I’m thinking of another ministry leader who doesn’t own a cellphone and recently canceled her social media accounts. I wonder about that seeming wall of impenetrability and the bewildered, lonely people standing on the other side of it. I think, too, of the parent who, in an effort to engage in the touted practices of deep work, silences his cell during business hours and relies instead upon his wife to pick up the phone when the kids need something. Digital isolation is a privilege afforded to the few, especially when the capacity for insulating ourselves correlates directly to our ability to foist the hassle onto someone else.

Answering every single email isn’t the answer, of course, especially in a professional context. So how do we discern the difference between mindless interruptions (that serve as distractions) and meaningful ones (that serve as invitations)? How do we balance the personal need for silence with the sometimes-unwelcome needs of others?

The life of Christ gives us a model.

In the gospels, we see that Jesus was not always reachable when people needed him. He withdrew for prayer, and his frantic disciples often came looking for him, chiding him for his retreat. His example teaches us that a constantly interruptible life is not the most purposeful one.

Still, the Jesus of the gospels not only withdrew to lonely mountaintops for prayer. He also allowed himself to be hassled by helpless crowds who always seemed to arrive at the most inconvenient times: on the way to other urgent appointments, on the Sabbath day of rest, or in the middle of meals and naps. For as many desolate mornings as Jesus spent in prayer, he spent as many harried afternoons answering the clamoring demands of the blind, the lame, and the demon-possessed. His proverbial phone, in other words, was sometimes set to “Do Not Disturb”—and sometimes it constantly buzzed.

Jesus both protected his time and willingly gave it up, and in this digital age, we are called to do the same.

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Source: Christianity Today