Several years ago I called a friend to ask him a couple of questions about an event (enough years have passed so that I no longer remember the precipitating reason for the phone call). It didn’t seem to me, as I made the phone call, that it was a particularly significant issue or that it might produce any kind of conflict, but I was wrong.
We were only a few minutes into the conversation that I realized I was not communicating clearly what I was wanting to say and that my friend was responding defensively and argumentatively. I anticipated that within 2-5 more minutes of this kind of conversation and we would be in full conflict.
And so I simply asked him, “Are you at home?” “Yes — why do you ask?” “Because we need to finish this conversation eye-to-eye. This is now not the kind of conversation that should be done on the phone. I’m leaving the office and I’ll be at your house in a few minutes.” And I hung up the phone, grabbed my jacket, and went immediately to his home.
By the time I got to his front door, his tone and expression had already changed: “You didn’t have to come over…” “Yes, I did. Some things just need to be done in person and not on the phone, and this conversation is one of them.”
I wasn’t thinking of a particular passage when I made that comment, but I was applying the principle John speaks of in both 2 and 3 John —
“Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full.” (2 John 1:12)
“I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face.” (3 John 1:13–14)
We don’t know with certainty what John wanted to talk about to his readers, but there was something in his mind and heart that was of such a nature that it could not be communicated clearly, accurately, or graciously enough apart from looking the recipients in the eyes and speaking words with them and to them.
I say we don’t know with certainty what kinds of things John wanted to say, but we do have hints. In 2 John, he is writing to the woman (v. 1) and warning her about false teachers and heretics who were attempting to infiltrate the church (vv. 7-11). The reason that John wants to continue the conversation in person is that he hasn’t said everything there is to say about defending the truth and if he can come to speak to her personally, he can tell her even more and that will result in further obedience and give her a joy that is full (v. 12). Perhaps he wanted to warn her but wanted to make sure his tone was correct (fatherly warning and not harsh or angry rebuke). Or perhaps there were theological warnings that were too long to explain in a letter. Or perhaps he wanted to address the potential area of sinful response and deemed a personal conversation to be better than a letter. Whatever the case, John understood that in-person conversation is better than written communication for certain issues.
And John applies the same principle in his third letter. There Paul is not talking about heresy in the church but hospitality (care of strangers), and specifically the kind of hospitality that overflows into the care of ministers (what we would call missionaries, vv. 5-6). And again, as he summarizes his letter he says that while he has many more things to say on the topic, he wants to do them personally — face to face. In fact, he is adamant that “I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink” (v. 12). In other words, while he could write them, he is so convinced about the wisdom of not writing them that he will only speak those words personally.
Again John does not give specific reasons why he won’t write them, but he is compelled to speak face-to-face. Perhaps it is the length of the words to be spoken (he says in v. 13 that he has many things to write), or perhaps it is the kind of theological topic that needs the give and take of conversation to determine whether or not he is being understood, or perhaps he wants to be careful with his tone so that he doesn’t create offense. Or perhaps he wants to communicate the message with a smile and a hug of fellowship to affirm his love for Gaius. Whatever the reason, he values the spoken word over the written word in this situation.
We do well to follow John’s principle. At times it is easy to hide behind a pen or keyboard. Even if the words are for people we know, they feel more anonymous and less personal when we write them instead of speaking them. (Often, we are tempted to say things in written form that we would not dare to speak in person.) If that’s the temptation, then we should speak in person.
When else should we put down the pen and go to an individual? Here are some times when it is generally wise to go speak to a person, in person:
- Anytime sin is involved. If you are confronting a person about his sin, go to him (Mt. 18:15). Don’t call him or write him. Go to him in person so that you can speak the words to him in person with grace and truth and then be there to embrace when he repents.
- Anytime confession and forgiveness is being offered. While James doesn’t say specifically that when we confess sin we are to be in that person’s presence, he does say, “Confess your sins to one another” (Js. 5:16) and the clear implication is that they must be in the presence of one another to do that. It may not always be possible to be in the other person’s presence (e.g., you may live in different cities, states, or even continents), but it is wise to make the conversation as personal as possible (use Facetime instead of a phone or a phone instead of a letter, or a letter instead of a text). I say this also because the sin almost always has happened to a person in his presence; and since the sin happened in his presence, the confession and forgiveness should be offered in the same kind of context.
- When communication is difficult, though sin hasn’t occurred. Some topics are difficult to speak about and they demand a personal touch and presence. Wise parents have their initial talks about sexuality with their children in person, and not by text, email, or phone. Why? Because those conversations are difficult and need gentleness and care that can best happen in person. And other conversations are similar.
- When there are too many attendant issues to address clearly in written form. Sometimes topics are so complex that writing and reading them will take longer and be less effective than having a direct conversation about the issues of concern.
- When communication has been confused in previous conversations and there have been misunderstandings. Sin may not be an issue in this situation, but for whatever reason the message that has been communicated hasn’t been understood accurately or the intention of the message hasn’t been understood. When that happens, put down the phone or stop texting or emailing and go to the person.
- When you want to communicate love and affection and care. It takes time and effort to see someone in person. It may take a few minutes to go across town, or it may take a couple of hours to go across the Metroplex, or many hours and even hundreds of dollars to go to another city — but taking the time and effort and spending the money in itself communicates to the hearer, “I care about you and love you enough to be significantly inconvenienced to have this conversation.” Go to him.
Communication can be difficult. It’s worth the effort to communicate with grace and love. And sometimes the best way to do that is to say, “I need to see you. In person.”