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Dunbar’s Number

By February 7, 2013August 30th, 2022Devotional

The last time I travelled to Dallas I was sitting in first class and noticed several magazines available for passengers that I usually don’t see when I sit in coach; but I decided to watch a video podcast from Dallas Theological Seminary rather than read anything. Most of the flight was uneventful and the guy across the aisle one row up from me must have been an avid reader because I think he finished every magazine and piece of printed material they offered on that flight.

After we were instructed to get ready to land, I put away my headphones and iPad; just sitting there preparing to arrive back home in Indy. The guy across the aisle was still reading – I glanced over and saw an article about something called Dunbar’s number. Now I kind of have an affinity for math and whenever I run across something like that, I am intent on learning more. I tried reading the page that he was on, from across the aisle – but as you can imagine, I wasn’t too successful. Next, I looked through all the magazines in the seat back ahead of me – no luck there, either. I couldn’t find the article. The more I was denied the more curious I became about Dunbar.

When I got home, I researched this most unusual phenomenon. It turns out that back in 1992 an anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, proposed that based on a number of factors, including the size of the neocortex in the brain of humans, people were only capable of maintaining a limited number of close relationships with other people. The math was based on a study of 39 different primate groups and determined that the high and low limits of human relationships ran between 100 and 230, with the average being 148 (later rounded to 150). In other words, and believe me, I don’t understand all the details behind the research, most of us can only handle maintaining relationships with about 150 other people.

Now I’m something of a social guy so at first I didn’t buy the whole idea. I have worked with thousands of people and I maintain more than 1000 contacts in my phone. I know people from all walks of life – corporate, ministry and personal. But when I really sit down and think about it, I don’t maintain close relationships with more than 150 of them – and I think that’s a stretch. Some of the people in my phone list go all the way back to grammar school, but I never dial the numbers. I use the list as a kind of repository for memories in my life. When I add a number into the list, it rarely ever comes out. So it’s not an accurate list of the people I really care about or stay in touch with. So, reluctantly, I have to agree with Dunbar. Like most people, I only have enough room in my life for about 150 close friends.

But there is one person who lived and didn’t have a Dunbar number limitation. Of course, I’m talking about Jesus. In fact, Jesus had, and has, the capability to have intimate friendships with every believer who ever lived, is living now or will ever live. And that’s in the many billions – or more… And He has an intimate relationship with every single one of them who wants to know God. When I think about our human limitations, I’m blown away by the awesome magnitude of God. I just can’t wrap my head around it.

The verse for tonight is a familiar one for people who know the voice of God. Because He calls us to enter into relationship with Him. From John 10:3-5, when Jesus is speaking about Himself as the watchman, we are told, “The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” What a powerful story – and how true it is.

My encouragement this evening is that God wants you to recognize His name. He doesn’t just want you to contact Him once in a while. He desires to be on your Dunbar list. One of your closest relationships. My prayer is that you will consider giving Him the number one spot in your life, in your heart and that you’ll make sure that Jesus is also the first number on your speed dial – and you don’t even need a phone for that! Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…

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