Yesterday I set up the question: How do we apply the teaching of Jesus about confronting someone who sins against us . . . in the digital age? Since it can be much easier and safer to communicate with someone by means of cell phone, email, and other digital technologies, does this give us a new way to follow Jesus’ instruction to “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matt 18:15).
I’m sure there are times when the use of digital technologies does, in fact, allow us to be guided by the intent of Jesus’ teaching, though not it’s literal sense. For example, in our Internet-flattened, highly mobile age, there are times when it just isn’t practical to meet with someone face-to face. Suppose, for example, that a colleague wrongs you just before heading off on a long, overseas business trip. The cost in time and money of flying to wherever your colleague may be to have a direct conversation is prohibitive. So, at that point you have two choices. First, you could delay the conversation until your colleague returns. Second, you could use some from of technology (phone call, email, text) to communicate your concern. Which of these should you choose?
I don’t think there’s one answer to this question. It depends on all sorts of factors, like: the kind of offense, your emotional state, your colleague’s physical and emotional situation, the nature of your relationship with your colleague, etc. So, if the offense is relatively minor, and if your relationship with the colleague is relatively insignificant, you might decide to wait until you can be face-to-face. On the contrary, if the offense was a potent one, and if the colleague is a close friend, you might choose rather to call in order to confront and reconcile.
Notice that I said “call” and not “email.” I must confess that I’m not a fan of email confrontations, not at all. When I was Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, and email was new, I did use email to communicate with people who had wronged me. It was almost always a disaster. The personal receiving the email couldn’t sense my hurt and usually became defensive. I would often receive in response a quickly composed, rushed response that wasn’t helpful in the least. Relatively small disagreements escalated.
I witnessed this sort of thing time and again in my church. People who tried to confront others through email almost inevitably were not satisfied. Almost always their electronic efforts made matters worse. In time, I urged my staff and my elders never to use email to communicate anything negative, unless it was relatively inconsequential. “No, I can’t make the meeting” was okay. “I’m upset by what you said in the meeting” was not okay.
The cultural ethos surrounding email makes it a very bad way for dealing with disagreements or confrontations. Email communication tends to be quick, spontaneous, and unpolished. It is a poor conductor of emotion or personhood. Because email can be composed, mailed, and received while both parties are burning with anger, as opposed to letters that require delays, it often throws gasoline on the emotional fire. Moreover, it is so easy for people to forward email messages to others, or to include them among the recipients, that email tempts people to break the “when the two of you are alone” rule of Jesus. I can’t tell you how many times I, as a pastor, have been copied (sometimes blind) on confrontational emails that never should have been written, let alone shown to me. So, I would strongly encourage you not to use email to confront someone who has sinned against you, no matter how much you might be tempted to do it.
A phone call would be much better than email because it enhances the personal dimensions of the interaction. When I talk with someone on the phone, I can hear that person’s voice. I can sense emotions like hurt, sorrow, anger, and so forth. A phone conversation facilities interaction that is much more human than anything email could accomplish. (A Skype conversation, with visual images, could be even better than a phone call.)
If you are not able to meet with someone who has wronged you, and if you believe that confrontation should not be delayed until a face-to-face meeting is possible, then I would recommend a phone call. Make sure both you and the other party are in a place of privacy and have enough time to work through the issues. Don’t call someone who is rushing through an airport, and don’t call someone in earshot of your other colleagues at work.
In most cases, I do not think the use of technology concords with the teaching of Jesus about going to the other person. There is something that happens when two people are face-to-face that is essential in the process of confrontation and reconciliation. Yes, to be sure, sometimes a personal meeting does not work out as it should. But the effort to meet with someone is itself an indication of a desire for reconciliation. Therefore, I’d urge you – and me – to take Jesus at his word whenever possible, and “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
As I come to the end of this series, I want to respond to questions that were posed both in comments and in emails. They have to do with forgiveness. Basically, the questions are these: Should I forgive someone who doesn’t admit to having done anything wrong? And if so, how can I forgive such a person? I’ll address these questions in my next post in this series.