How Returning Emails is a Reflection of Your Walk with Jesus

The following is a guest post by T.E. Hanna.

I’m posting this guest article for two reasons: (1) It’s excellent and sorely needed today within the Christian community, and (2) I’ve never heard or read anyone else address it.

Here’s my preface to Hanna’s article.

Have you ever emailed a fellow Christian and never gotten a response? Realizing that they may have missed your email or it went into their spam folder, you send several follow ups and there’s still no reply.

Granted, if you are writing someone flames, nasty notes, personal attacks, spam, or contentious statements, you should expect to be ignored.

But how about if you’ve been very generous to someone . . . maybe they’re even a peer of yours . . . and they simply don’t reply to you.

This is a big problem and it goes straight to the matter of being a faithful follower of Jesus. Jesus said, “treat others the same way you want to be treated” (Matthew 7:12), and that applies to responding to emails as it does to everything else.

Oh, and to hide behind, “I get too much email,” just doesn’t cut it. (That statement is coming from someone who gets around 1,000 emails a day and my assistant and I do our dead-level best to reply to all who ask for a response. Occasionally emails go into spam, so if we don’t reply, try again and we will.)

All told, if you’ve experienced the frustration of unrequited emails, read this article by T.E. Hanna and share it with all the people who haven’t responded to you after many attempts to get a simple reply.

Maybe they will see that replying to emails isn’t a trivial matter, but it’s an aspect of godliness.

How Returning Emails is a Reflection of Your Walk with Jesus

by T.E. Hanna

Empathy is a powerful thing.

There is something about looking a person in the eye that makes it difficult to wrong them.

Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 7:12 to “do to others as you would have them do to you” is far easier to abide by when one is forced to watch the results of their behavior play out in the face of the person before them. We reflect ourselves in others, connect with them, and feel with them.

In the absence of contact, however, empathy becomes strained.

It is far easier to distance ourselves from the impact of our behavior when that distance becomes literal. In an age where communication is shifting from the water cooler to the Internet, this aspect of Christian hospitality comes under fire.

For the purpose of brevity, let’s look at just one expression of Christian hospitality in an electronic age: the email inbox.

Here are three reasons hospitality is failing and how we can and must reclaim Matthew 7:12 in our digital relationships.

1. Email Has Limited Urgency

When we engage in direct conversation with another individual, there is a limited amount of time to respond to a query before we communicate disinterest. As a result, there is a certain urgency to respond to a conversation item in a timely manner.

With email, however, such urgency is lost. The sender does not know when we open their message or if we do at all.

Responding takes time, and sometimes careful thought. If we find ourselves with time in limited supply (or simply annoyance with that individual) we may easily discard the email or file it for later attention.

The problem with ignored responses is that it still communicates disinterest. And it violates love.

While we may not have to look the person in the eye when we blow them off, eventually that message is communicated anyhow. Hospitality in a digital age requires us to remain attentive to the impact our actions still have on others and to respond in kind. This may mean closing out our day by reviewing outstanding messages and taking a few moments to respond.

Solution: Be intentional in responding in a timely manner.

2. Email Can Be Overwhelming

When we engage in direct conversation, there is a certain rhythm to the discussion. Even amidst a group, there is a trade-off between speaker and listener. During those times when multiple individuals vie for our attention, it is very natural to pause one individual, conclude the current conversation, and then turn to the person waiting to speak.

In email, there is no such rhythm.

On a good day, our inboxes are easily manageable as we filter out the sales messages and engage those legitimate queries with our responses.

On a bad day, however, our inboxes can easily fill up with far too many messages to connect with in a timely manner. The problem with this is the same as with problem 1: the sender is entirely unaware of the state of your inbox, and a lack of response still communicates disinterest and a lack of love.

For many of us, this is a combination of an organizational issue and a communication issue. On the one hand, developing a system to better organize our email and assigning a set period of time to then work through the messages will often help in mitigating that sense of becoming buried.

In those instances where we are legitimately overwhelmed, a simple response acknowledging receipt of the email with a promise to follow up honors the sender and values their communication.

Solution: Acknowledge the email and follow up in a timely manner.

3. Email Lacks Accountability

Perhaps the greatest challenge to Christian hospitality in a digital age is the way it distances us from one another. There is a dehumanizing aspect to communication when the actual human experience is removed.

To complicate matters further, nobody but us knows if we actually receive an email or if it was caught in a spam filter, and nobody but us knows how regularly we check our inboxes. This not only diminishes our impetus for timely response, it provides us with ready-made excuses for why we failed to respond at all.

It is here where Christian virtue ethics truly come into play. The idea behind virtue-ethics is that our behavior not only reflects the virtues that we espouse, but it also works to cultivate these same virtues. It is this cultivation that is at the heart of Christian character: we embody our faith even when nobody else will know about it.

The directive given to us in Matthew 7:12 is a virtue as much as it is a commandment. It is because it is a virtue that it is so all-encompassing.

It is as a virtue that it sums up all the law and the prophets. When we realize what it means to embody the call of hospitality as a virtue as much as a divine commandment, then we realize that it is a part of who we are being shaped to be rather than merely a rule we are instructed to follow.

In this awareness, accountability becomes a secondary consideration; our primary consideration is what type of Christian we ultimately want to be.

Solution: Become your own accountability.

The digital age is creating new challenges in how Christians reflect hospitality and love in the relationships around them. The call to “do unto others” is a universal one, however, and it draws us to see ourselves in other people. Seeing ourselves in others is the very definition of empathy.

And empathy is a powerful thing.

T. E. Hanna is the author of Raising Ephesus: Christian Hope for a Post-Christian Age and he writes regularly on issues of faith and culture at TEHanna.com.

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Comments

  1. HJ says

    Not replying to someone’s email at all sends the message that you are not important to the person at all. Some people do go through periods of depression or extreme busyness where they may not want to have any contact with anyone because they are just simply not in the mood. I think one needs to remember that putting others before yourself is part of the Christian walk. We all fail at this miserably, but an effort should be made during the course of your life at some point to do this with the help of the Lord. I can understand people writing emails late, but to not write them at all is selfish and mean. We are living in a day and age where this type of behavior is acceptable and for some reason even Christians, who should know better, are jumping on board with the world in this. Not everyone has facebook or twitter, and some people don’t want to be on those sites. If they don’t, that doesn’t give people the license to be selectively mean and not respond to these folks emails. It seems as though some people just want to be downright nasty and cut people off at the feet. They may argue that they don’t mean to ignore you because they are busy, but everyone has at least 1 minute in a week’s time to write a one line email saying that they have been busy and will get back to you as soon as they are able. That is more polite than ignoring an email and not writing anything back ever. A person who does this doesn’t really have any respect for the person he or she is ignoring. Sorry, but people don’t want to deal in facts these days, and would rather believe lies or delude themselves, as a way to justify behavior that is not justifiable. Obviously some people cannot write emails back-like the sick, but really the rest of us don’t have an excuse.

  2. says

    I really enjoyed the article for two reasons. One, I have been on the end where my former Pastor would not and has never responded to one of my many attempts to communicate by email (He must have the same view as John). Two, it is a reminder that as busy as ministry becomes I must make every effort to respond to every letter, email, phone call,or message I receive. If I become to overwhelmed I must place limits on myself and be willing to delegate to others. I remember well how I was made to feel when my emails were never returned.

  3. says

    Great post! It is so easy to say I’ll do it later and then the email just gets buried.

    It is also a blessing in that we can communicate electronically with such ease these days. I have been able to speak with people in many countries and without email and facebook it would have been much more difficult.

  4. says

    This frustration is compounded when a person professing to be a fellow minister of the gospel refuses to return emails. When I write “refuse” I literally refer to two emails AND a Twitter direct message……..(sound of crickets)…….no response. I can take a late response as email is an indirect form of communication. I simply don’t use or rely on it for immediate results. I have a phone for that. But to be ignored? That’s the sad part. Not mattering enough to even get a response actually forms its own response. It’s that you don’t matter.

    God help me and all of us to learn from this and be more intentional in making people matter.

    Peace

    Bob

  5. David Isaac says

    I love emails n’texting!
    I send short prayers and blessings by email & texts.
    I don’t always get or expect a response, but people know I care for them.
    LUV U!

  6. says

    Coming from “old school” for example, my mom had a rule. If she WROTE a letter (which I realize sounds archaic these days) and didn’t get an answer, she’d write once more, realizing that maybe the first letter wasn’t received. If she didn’t get a response to the second letter she would write NO MORE, Why? Her philosophy was that a friendship has to be two way, not a one way event. It had always worked because she would never ever hear from the person who didn’t respond ever again, anyway.

    I do wholeheartedly agree with the author of the article, that certain hospitality, Christian or not requires a response, not complacency. Whether it be Friendship or Fellowship, the same rule should apply. Respond in a timely manner, even if you do not want to hear from that person again or not, it is common courtesy.

  7. says

    Great article. This goes for texts and calls as well. For iPhones, an email app called Mailbox is the best I’ve found for organizing and keeping up with email.

    At the same time we can also assume the best when others don’t respond and extend the same grace we would expect for ourselves. Not doing this also violates the law of love.

  8. John says

    I couldn’t disagree enough with T.E. Hanna’s 3 points. Impacts of the “Digital Age” has tremendous drawbacks for real relationship. E-mail is an example. It is impersonal. The reader cannot hear nor see the visual clues that “real” face-to-face communication entails. Plus, e-mail is so easy to create and send. It is not like a handwritten letter because of that. You might put a lot of thought into it, but more often, you don’t. T.E. Hanna’s tips for exhibiting Christian love by proper handling of e-mail, in my mind, further advances the trivialization of our communication as a society and Christian community in particular. E-mail should be considered 3rd class communication on a personal level and the sender should have minimal expectations of the recipient.
    My thinking is that if you really want to communicate with me, you will come see me or meet me somewhere. E-mail is like marijuana in the drug war. First, you do a little Mary Jane, then, you start fooling around with Linked In, then, you graduate to Facebook and believe that you are liked and loved by hundreds and your life revolves around you and every little thing you do all day.
    I am amazed that the author of Pagan Christianity would be promoting the use of e-mail.

    • says

      Hu? You have a problem with email yet you’re using a computer to write a digital comment on a digital blog.

      I think email is great and so are all other forms of electronic communication. Limited, yes. But helpful all the same.

      Why would you say you’re “amazed” that the author of PC would be promoting email?

      I can only assume you missed the point of the book entirely. The point of the book is NOT and never was that post-biblical inventions are wrong. In fact, we use the example of chairs and carpets as being good things that were invented by “pagan,” not to mention the calendar we all use.

      The point of PC is something entirely different.

    • says

      John, isn’t the New Testament a collection of letters written to people that were then read without the benefit of the author’s facial cues, gestures, tone, etc? Letters have never been face to face. Yes, email makes them more prevalent, but the concept is ancient. Face to face is usually more intimate, but letters/emails are still very valuable. I really appreciate being able to communicate quickly with people all over the world.

    • Nancy says

      John, first of all, sometimes personal contact is not practical because of distance. Thank God we have email as an alternative for communicating with our friends and relatives. Second, as it goes personally, I am not a good oral communicator and often am able to express my thoughts and plans more clearly by writing them down. Of course, everyone prefers personal contact but as I say, it’s not always possible or practical.

  9. Maureen Fryer says

    I am so very glad to see this article published and wish I had written it myself! It truly reflects my view as far as replying emails is concerned. I have found this issue to be frustrating in two major ways. In the workplace where information is requested including attendance at meetings and other necessary communications and secondly personal email where it can be more painful to address the lack (or tardiness) of reply. It can even leave the sender with a sense of guilt that they are not extending “grace’ to the recipient who is “very busy”.!
    While I have been described as someone who is strong in this area, it does take determination and fighting procrastination which is one of my areas to grow in!
    Many of us long for community and find ot difficult to achieve in this culture. The digital age is undoubtedly here to stay and for that I am thankful! After all, I can SKYPE with friends and family in other countries not to mention text and email. But for it to work in helping to build and sustain relationships, we have to DO it! Nothing can take the place of face-to-face contact but sometimes email etc. may be all we can do to communicate that individual is NOT forgotten. And as for the hand-written note or letter, I find it truly wonderful to receive either but no longer an expectation.

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