Last month Tabletalk magazine included a devotional entitled “True Friendship.” It was based on Proverbs 17:17, which reminds us that a friend loves at all times. The writer of the devotional, though, went deeper than that verse in examining what friendship really is. He started off reminding us of the tremendous irony of the day in which we live–the fact that “we live in a world that is both more connected and more disconnected than ever before. Smartphones, social media, e-mail and other technologies make it simple to stay in contact with friends and loved ones even when they live thousands of miles away. And yet, there is a dearth of true intimacy.” This is certainly true, and I have explored this phenomenon in this space before. Social media and other communications technology can be a two-edged sword, providing wonderful benefits but also tremendous problems. Some of those problems come from the comparisons that inevitably result from the almost constant viewing of Facebook status updates and tweets among our contacts. Some of the problems come from the fact that we can communicate with almost anyone instantly yet we seem to have deep, meaningful conversations less and less frequently.

Another of the problems is identified by the Tabletalk writer this way: “With the click of a mouse we can be listed as the friend of someone whom we have never met–and probably never will meet–in person.” I am sure I am not alone in restricting my social media “friends” to people I really do know, but there is a large contingent of folks who like to see how high they can get that friend number. (I also know I am not alone in having received numerous “friend requests” from people I have never heard of, perhaps only because we have one “mutual friend”). Are all of my Facebook friends intimate friends? Of course not. But at least I really do know them all. The writer also mentions the challenge these days of having a “close friend of the same gender without raising suspicions of homosexuality.” Wouldn’t it be tragic if the single-digit percentile of the American population that claims to be homosexual could have really warped our view of human interaction to the point that two men or two women cannot be close friends without being suspected of being sexually involved? Of course, the inverse has long been true, as well–there were suspicions of “something more” when a male and female were close friends. Indeed, I have heard some people suggest that a male and a female cannot be close friends without it leading to something more, whether that “more” be sexual behavior, inappropriate non-sexual intimacy or just confusion and hurt feelings.

The devotional writer states that Scripture “offers a key corrective” to the problems of human friendship by “offering us a high view of human friendship. [Proverbs 17:17] lauds the benefit of true friendship, a relationship in which we receive love from another at our best and at our worst.” I would suggest that precisely because of this, true friendships are quite finite in number. Some people have hundreds of acquaintances and scores of friends, yet when they hit a real crisis they do not know who to call because they have no true, real, lasting friends, friends who will stick with them through the hard times, come along side during adversity, believe the best and stay true through the worst. If you do have friends like that–and I hope you do–I suspect you could count them on one hand, or certainly on two. “Our friendships are harmed and often destroyed when our friends reveal their flaws,” the devotional writer states. “Sadly, this means that our friendships are often quite tenuous, prompting us to look for a friendship that is secure because it is not based on what the other person finds lovely in us. The only one who can provide this friendship is Jesus Christ.”

I would posit that the only one who can provide this friendship perfectly is Jesus Christ, but it is possible to have human friends that do not run away when we reveal flaws, when we fall flat on our faces (literally or figuratively), when we do mess up or behave like a jerk. Certainly we have all had friendships that ended suddenly when circumstances changed, whether they be grades in school, new friends coming on the scene, interests shifting, opinions conflicting or whatever. These were seldom deep, meaningful friendships in the first place. If, however, you have been blessed to have longtime friends who have remained your friends even through challenges, disagreements and screw ups then you are truly blessed, and you have experienced Proverbs 17:17 in a very personal way.

My recent hiatus from blogging was due to a family vacation. During that time I was able to visit two longtime friends, one whom I have known for probably twenty-two years now, I guess, and another whom I have known for seventeen. I do not see either of these individuals often. In fact, one I had not seen in three years and the other I had not seen in perhaps ten. One I stay in fairly regular contact with through e-mails, the other I seldom communicate with. Still, based on our longtime friendships and past experience in both instances, I believe I could confide in both of those friends and turn to each of them for help in a real crisis in my life–even if it was a crisis of my own making. I think I know both of them well enough to know that they would be honest with me if I messed up but they would also help me get out of the mess rather than walking away. Interestingly, going back to one of the points discussed above, one of these friends is male and the other is female. Both friendships have had bumps, including some caused by own stupidity at times. (It really is incredible how much harm our tongues can do, isn’t it?) Repentance and forgiveness are wonderful things though, and stupidity does not have to be a friendship-ender in true, meaningful friendships. I have hundreds of Facebook friends and untold acquaintances and contacts through personal and professional life, but I have a handful of real, deep, true friends. I am blessed and encouraged by them. Some are male, some are female. When we get out of the way of ourselves and put our own preferences and opinions aside long enough to realize that the world does not revolve around us, to recognize that the love Jesus has for us is based on absolutely nothing we could ever do to merit, deserve or sustain it, it is possible to have such friendships. It is not easy; like I said, you will probably not have many of them. Do not, though, let the fact that it is not easy deter you. Do not let possible questions of “something more” interfere with the development and maintenance of real friendships with others of the same or the opposite sex. Do not let Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and texting be your only connection with your “friends.” Do not run the other way when you find your friends are not perfect. After all, you are not, either. Neither am I.

“The point of stultification”

The August 23 issue of WORLD and the September 8-15 issue of TIME both contain commentaries on the obsession many people today seem to have with technology–particularly of the hand-held variety. I find it interesting that two completely different publications with completely different worldviews both took a similar approach to the same topic within such a small time frame.

In WORLD, Janie B. Cheaney’s column, entitled “Generation distraction,” starts off imagining what it would have been like if Pentecost had occurred only a year ago, in a culture so obsessed with digital technology. After this imagining she writes, “This corrupt generation is still corrupt–they all are. But this generation is also supremely, unprecedentedly, distracted. And that may be even worse.” Cheaney goes on to postulate on the possibility that this distraction “suspends the normal course of sin by disengaging desire.” That is an interesting idea, and one that could be fully explored. Later, she asks whether it might be possible that crime rates have fallen in the past ten years because “our many distractions consumed some of our evil desires.” More than likely, though, the reality is this assertion Cheaney makes: “If we lust after the latest in technology, it’s only so we can be distracted better. Smartphones allow us to carry our distractions everywhere we go. Google Glass, an ‘optical head-mounted display,’ allows us to wear them. Up next: live feeds embedded in the brain, a science-fiction fantasy that may not be far off.”

Ultimately, this level of distraction is not going to aid in anyone’s sanctification. Cheaney cites pornography as just one example, what she calls “the obvious example.” We have all heard the stories of the days of yesteryear when pornography was accessible only in photographs or magazines that were kept hidden in shops and hidden at home, often in a secret stash it was hoped no one would find. With the advent of videos, pornographic movies became available. Still, stores that sold or rented them generally had them in separate spaces that were not visible to the general public and were accessible only to adults. And there was still, in general, a desire to be discreet about the use such material. Then the internet made it possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to access pornography almost anytime. And that was not all that long ago; I never sent an e-mail until my freshman year of college. All of the portable devices that provide internet connectivity now, and the nearly ubiquitous availability of wireless connections, mean that anyone who wants to view pornography can access it almost anywhere.

While pornography may be the “obvious example” though, there are plenty of other things that digital technology tempt us with–even many that in and of themselves are not bad. E-mail is a wonderful communication tool, one that I use frequently and very much appreciate. However, having had a BlackBerry, I know that if I can access my e-mail anytime I am prone to do just that. Not only do I like the idea of not being accessible at every moment of every day to whoever may want me at that moment, I need to disconnect from the those demands from time to time. In other words, even if I wanted to have constant access to my e-mail, is that really healthy? Do I really need to get notified every time there is a status update on Facebook, or could it wait until next time I sign in on my computer? I’ve made the decision that I don’t need, or particularly want, that access, so I have, by choice the simplest, dumbest cell phone I can find. It doesn’t even have a camera. (Gasp!) I use it to make and receive phone calls and texts, and that’s it. I cannot even receive pictures sent by someone else. I am not suggesting that this disconnect from the digital world makes me any better than anyone else, or even that it is for everyone. I am well aware that there are some times when the ability to access the internet via my phone would be really convenient. I am simply making the point that it is entirely possible to live a full and content life without it.

That is the point that Patton Oswalt makes in his TIME column, entitled “Why I Quit Twitter–and Will Again.” He explains that on June 1 he decided to take a break from all social media, planning not to return until after Labor Day. Initially he jokes about all the incredible things he accomplished without the distraction of social media, only to come clean and say that none of those incredible things really happened. What did really happen though, was this: “A couple of times, in line at a grocery store or coffee shop, instead of taking out my phone to stiff-arm the creeping ennui, I’d look around instead. At the world. At the people around me.” Did you even realize that we arrived at a point in our culture where this kind of behavior is novel–worthy of an entire column in one of the nation’s preeminent news magazines? Oswalt may not have realized it until he was the one not checking his phone. What did he see when he resisted the phone and looked around him? “Most of them [were] looking at their phones. We now inhabit a planet where the majority of population is constantly staring downward, entranced, twiddling like carpenter ants. Do pickpockets know they’re living in a second renaissance?”

The TIME column also features to startling statistics about the current addiction to smartphones. “Millenials and Gen X-ers keep their smartphones handy 22 hours a day,” says one. “The first thing that 80% of Americans do after waking is check their smartphone,” says the other. You may think my use of the word “addiction” was too strong, but try naming any other activity someone could be involved in twenty-two hours a day or consistently do immediately upon waking and not have it be considered an addiction….

Toward the end of her column Cheaney, drawing on Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, writes, “As a society, we’re in danger of distracting ourselves to the point of stultification. Ominous events become last week’s news cycle. Enemies steal past our outer defenses while we’re looking elsewhere. Everything matters, so nothing does. Little by little, we insulate ourselves from desire, the longing at our core that makes us human, both for good and evil.”

Digital technology and social media can be wonderful tools, so long as we use them rather than letting them consume us. In Ephesians 5:18, in The Living Bible, Paul writes, “Don’t drink too much wine, for many evils lie along that path; be filled instead with the Holy Spirit and controlled by him.” I do not think it would be wrong to suggest that the exact same principle applies to digital technology. If I may so bold, “Don’t become obsessed with technology, for many evils lie along that path.”