Touch is an incredibly powerful experience. It can crack hard hearts and heal heavy wounds. Touch is normative to our well-being and communicates life to those around us.
It should not surprise us then, that in a culture obsessed with death, touch is to be feared, held in suspicion and rejected.
Jesus had no problem with touching. He took the children in His arms (Mark 9:36), rubbed spittle mixed with dirt into the eyes of strangers (John 9:6) and laid His hands upon the infants brought to Him by their parents (Luke 18:15).
Touch is the first sense we develop in the womb and its absence in the lives of children has been a contributing cause of depression, anxiety, subnormal brain development, and even death. The term itself, “Touch Hunger” was first coined by those observing the destructive impact on orphans, many who died, for lack of touch.
We find ourselves with a similar problem today. Having sexualised just about everything we can think of, adults in the West are taught to avoid touching others – especially children, for fear of accusation.
Our culture has taught us to look on touch with deep suspicion and many well-meaning Christians have boarded the train.
Touch is powerful, and our suspicions about it are not new. In his book on child-rearing, first published in 1928, influential American psychologist John B. Watson instructed parents with the following:
Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight… In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed at the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.
Touch takes on many forms. From rough and tumble play to the instinctive and healthy cuddles between teammates, parents, educators, relatives and friends.
We were made to be held, hugged and loved by real people. We were designed to hold onto one another in times of grief and times of joy – just as we were made to benefit from times of solitude.
None of this should be read as a call to remove consent. Consent matters. But the impure heart never cared much for consent in the first place. And so, while the regulations of our current Nanny State may have the appearance of wisdom they are no match for the appetites of the flesh or the determined sin of tortured souls (Colossians 2:21-23).
Solitude is good, but isolation is cruel. Hugs are a gift, but abusing the gift is sin. Nevertheless, as Christians, we do not take our lead from those obsessed with the perversions of God’s good gift. To the pure, all things are pure.
Instead, we take our lead from the propriety of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:12), the example of Jesus and the wisdom of scripture (1 Corinthians 7:36; Ecclesiastes 3:5).
Most of us can work out – most of the time – when it’s appropriate to offer a hug or simply rest a hand on someone’s shoulder.
God-governed intuition, common sense and being in genuine relationship with those around us also goes a long way to mitigating against unwanted or inappropriate touch.
Greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16)
Jesus demonstrated the power and importance of drawing near to those he loved by becoming Man and inviting us to lay our head on His shoulder (John 13:23).
Touch is healthy, necessary and a deeply significant aspect of what it means to be human. And it’s a fundamental aspect of what it means to be loved and welcomed into the family of God.