You Don’t Actually Win by Doing the Most Email

Email regularly features in biblical studies in any number of ways.1 But it has its own unique ways in which it sometimes misshapes its users interactions with it.2

Given this fact, you need to be savvy about how you work with email. To that end, there are a few general principles that seem particularly helpful as foundations for fostering a productive relationship with your email.

Among these principles, by far the most important is that biblical studies isn’t a matter of “(s)he who writes the most email wins.”

A Truth Not So Obvious in Practice

Intuitively, it’s obvious that biblical studies isn’t about email—or whatever other choice messaging tool. It’s about, preeminently, biblical texts.

But in many organizations and social circles, there’s a culture of responsiveness. An email received creates an obligation for a reply—and perhaps a near-instantaneous one at that.

In such environments, it’s quite easy for this value judgment even to become a moral one. Near-instantaneous responsiveness to email becomes a key expression of virtue in Christian knowledge work organizations.

It might be the virtue of kindness because responsiveness to email expresses attentiveness to others’ requests. Or it might be the virtue of self-discipline because it expresses the organization and fortitude needed to keep other responsibilities at bay in order to interact with email.

The Problem with Absolutizing Responsiveness

The hook in this sentiment is that virtues like kindness do indeed require responsiveness to others and to the world around us. Self-discipline does indeed involve the fortitude hold certain things in abeyance while attending to others. Virtues like these are part fully human maturity.

But the problem is that these virtues, interpreted partly as “near-instantaneous responsiveness to email,” requires an inhuman infinitude of capacity. That is, a culture of responsiveness ignores the basic fact that there’s a “no” inside every “yes.” The attention you expend on your inbox is, by definition, attention that you cannot then devote elsewhere.

To the inbox is applicable also the proverb about the leech, which “has two daughters: Give and Give” (Prov 30:15 ESV). One of these instructions to “Give” is that each message you receive requires attention. The other is that each message requires attention soon.

Lessons from the Life of Jesus

And yet in much weightier contexts, Jesus does precisely the opposite. Every time he withdraws to a place by himself, he implicitly judges this activity to be “better” activity in the scope of his larger mission than the “good” he could otherwise have been doing elsewhere (see Luke 5:15–16).

Similarly, the good that Jesus does he sometimes does on an alternative timeline. In John 11, Jesus explicitly subordinates a timely response to Mary and Martha’s request to save Lazarus to a larger purpose that involves a more extended timeline.

Of course, email is more trivial than healing the sick or raising the dead (or, indeed, keeping the sick from dying). But that’s part of the point.

Jesus’s example illustrates how the things like those noted above need to be addressed within a larger context. So, such is all the truer for something comparatively more trivial like email.


In the end, there will be an accounting for things done and things undone—and email is no exception. So, it too bears contextualization. It is neither an end in itself nor a blank check that everyone can expect you to cash in any amount.

Instead, its contents tend either to support or to detract from the larger way in which you’ve particularly been called to “seek first the kingdom” (cf. Matt 6:33). And you have the responsibility to ensure your interaction with email does the former—even when doing so might not entirely fit with default norms.

  1. Header image provided by Proton

  2. Cal Newport, A World without Email: Find Focus and Transform the Way You Work Forever (affiliate disclosure; New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2021). 

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