Red Numbers

“Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”” – 1 Corinthian 1:3 NIV

I was recently hanging out at a bar with a good friend. Part way through the evening he pulled out his cell phone to check on an incoming text. I used the opportunity to do the same, and seeing nothing, returned the phone to my pocket. Then I glanced to the side to see if he was done, and what I saw shocked me to my very core. His cell phone screen was littered with the red numbers that indicate unread messages.

Apple mail – 1,245 unread messages
Facebook – 534 unread posts
Calendar – 22 unaccepted invitations

We all know the type. They’re the people that scroll through the messages they care about, leaving the others to languish in purgatory, unable to fulfill their purpose in this world of delivering information to their recipient. These people “allow notifications” on every app, but almost never read the junk emails they think aren’t relevant or the Facebook posts from people they don’t like, but count as “friends.”

As I stared at his screen, my OCD alarm began blaring. I would never be able to leave a message unread and have that little red number glaring at me, taunting me with its very being. I need to have a “clean” home screen, even if it means taking the extra time to click “mark read” on an email I know is never going to actually get read.

After I noticed all the red on my friend’s phone, I began to witness the same phenomenon on phones all over the place. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to believe that is wasn’t always laziness or just not caring that lead people to leave their screens cluttered with red numbers. I think sometimes, for some people, leaving those messages on their phones is a way to let others know, or maybe even remind themselves, that they are necessary to the world. The size of the red number means other people need them, or it’s a sign of how busy they are at work, and we live in a country that too often equates busyness with importance. I made a promise to myself at that time, a few weeks after the bar incident, not to let the size of my red numbers determine my worth as a person.

I used to serve on a non-profit board with a woman who ran an incredibly successful hedge fund. Rumor around the boardroom table was that she received 1500 emails a day, an impossible number to mark every single one of them read. (Think of the red numbers she must have had!) People would be in awe. “1500 emails!” they would exclaim, “think about how important she must be to get that many emails!” And no doubt, she was incredibly important to our board for the work that she did. And certainly she was important to the people close to her, for so many other reasons. But for the number of emails that she got?

I used to fall into that trap. Some days I would be separated from my phone and come back to no new emails. I felt like a loser. And sometimes I would come back to 15 or 20, and it made me feel good. It meant I was needed, that I was wanted by someone. I would come back from a vacation to 200 new emails, “people must really have missed me!” I would think to myself.

Forget the fact that half the time it was junk mail, or some random forward or joke from a friend. It made me feel good; it made me feel important to be wanted by my phone.

But at the end of the day, this can’t be the way to measure a life. The importance of what we do in our time on earth and the effect that we have on the world around us must certainly be measured in other ways. But…how?

It’s certainly not with statues; we saw that last year. Even statues can be fleeting.

Some would say it is the good work that we do for others. I recently read a quote from Michigan Wolverines’ coach Jim Harbaugh. “When you do something for yourself, it dies with you. When you do something for someone else, it lives forever.” There is even scripture that could be used to convince someone that it is their good deeds that measure their life.

“I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah17:10 NIV)

A reward from God, does it get any better than that? Is there anything that can make us feel more important than that? I’d argue that, while important and worthwhile, it’s not the good deeds that we do for others that measure a life.

Others might say it is the relationships that we build that make our lives important. The people that love us, and the people that we love, are what give us a reason to live. They are how we are remembered through history. But even as much joy as they bring us, and as much hurt and disappointment and companionship, even those bonds can be broken when Jesus is not at the center of them. For all the David Hannah’s that come back into my life through God, each of us has hundreds of people that have come in and out of our lives but are no longer remembered.

So, if not by the number of emails we get in a day, the work that we do during our time here on earth, or the relationships that we form, then what?

David Brooks writes in his book The Road to Character; “people can understand themselves only by looking at forces that transcend themselves. Human life points beyond itself.” That transcendent force is, in my life, Jesus Christ, as I believe it should be in all of our lives. And to my mind, we should judge our lives not by the mark that we left on the world, or by how important we feel like we are to this world while we’re here, and certainly not by the size of our red number. But our lives should be judged by our ability, willingness and passion for showing the world how important Jesus is. His life, His works and His words are what each of our lives should point towards.

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