She drew small circles on his back with her manicured nails. He sat up straighter and leaned forward. I averted my eyes and kept on singing about a God who satisfies all my deepest longings while feeling like a fraud of a worshipper: the single girl who longed for the kind of touch she saw in front of her.
What do we do about public displays of affection in the church? I faced this dilemma every week as a single woman, when it felt like the last time I’d been hugged, kissed, or back-scratched was when I visited Grandma. In church, I saw that affectionate touch knew no generational bounds, popping up among new couples, old couples, and middle-aged couples alike.
Now, I’ve always been a proponent of good hugs, muscle rubs, and kisses on the top of my head. Within dating relationships I was mostly a good Christian prude, but among all the other relationships I was the first to give out hugs. “A good hugger” will probably be my epitaph; among my circle of friends it's been called the "Lore Hug." (I could be known for worse and so I'll take it.)
For all my love of hugging, though, there was something about public affection between couples, particularly in church, that always rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not alone. A few weeks ago, I saw a friend posted her pithy observations on church PDA, and people flooded to the comments to declare “pet peeve,” “creepy,” and “get a room.” I knew where they were coming from—I’d felt that ick factor too—but I waited to respond, and another thought came to me: Shouldn't the church be the one to reclaim healthy physical touch, even public expressions of it?
I did a quick word study on the word "touch" in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word mostly refers to things the Israelites were not to handle: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, unclean animals, women on their periods, dead bodies, and more. It was as if God was guiding his bull through a china shop, "Don't touch! Don't touch! Not this! Not that either!" But a very interesting shift happens in the New Testament when Jesus walks across the threshold: He touches.
Throughout the Gospels the shocking thing about Christ is how often he touches everything in sight. The rabbi, the one who ought to be a keeper of the law, fulfills the law by saying it is finished… and touching the unclean, the dead, and the bleeding and adulterous women. Jesus demonstrates how God designed us for touch, and not in some allegorical show of "intimacy" or “do life with" sort of way. He actually asks his disciples to put their fingers through the holes in his hands—something that would be quite shocking if they hadn't already seen enough shocking things as it were.
Jesus not only normalized touching, he made it the conduit through which healing, belief, and love would flow.
Years ago John Piper spoke on the ministry of hugging and I agreed, echoing his words, "God, make me a good hugger." In a world where a woman cut herself in part because she knew she’d be touched in the emergency room, I wanted to be one who would offer a hug, a hand, a shoulder for friends and strangers. I know there are many out there for whom safe touch is not a thing; they have only known unsafe touch. But I think Jesus’ embrace would extend to them too. I know that sounds like a happy, clappy, sloppy wet kiss kind of Christ, but it's not. It's the actual Christ we're shown in flesh and blood in the Scriptures.
Touch these days has been tainted with an over-sexualized agenda, even the most innocent or pure expressions of it. That’s partly because it has become sexual. Touch has been abused by fathers and mothers toward their children, among neighborhood children toward one another, and between men and women everywhere. Consenting and non-consenting expressions of touch are everywhere around us, we can hardly believe there is innocent, or even truly and intrinsically good expressions of it.
Within the church we haven’t done much better. We affirm sex as a gift from God within the marriage bed, but eschew the foreplay of handholding, back-rubbing, and eye-catching beforehand if by chance it should be in the public. Even more than that, we file into church sanctuaries being sure to keep at least a chair-width between us and the stranger beside us. We are suspect of any adult who touches a child with even the most well-meaning intentions. We sidle in for an occasional side hug, but keep it quick, lest anyone get the wrong idea.
We—the people who purpose to emulate a Savior who drew others to himself, who closed the gap between people in all situations, and who fulfilled the hundred "Do Not Touch" laws—draw back, widen the gap, and put all sorts of restrictions on touch again.
As the church we have the opportunity to reclaim healthy touch: touch of comfort between men and women, touch of connection between parent and child, touch of hope between new couples, touch of friendship between children. We can emulate Christ in the way he inserted himself in the midst of brokenness and touched the hurting, the lonely, the confused, the fearful, the dead, and the broken.
(Understand, too, often times people are hurting, lonely, confused, fearful and feel broken because of unhealthy touch in their past. No one has ever asked them permission to put to a hand on their shoulder or come in for a hug—they have only ever felt taken from. We cannot know who these walking wounded are just by looking at them, so ask the Holy Spirit for help, and don’t feel awkward about asking. Often they’ll come in for a timid side hug and that’s it; other times they’ll give a big hug back, grateful that someone asked. Men I know sometimes say something like, “I’m a hugger. Can I hug you?” It would be fairly easy to withdraw just enough to communicate I’m not comfortable or turn my body for a side hug, or to accept their gift of physical touch for what it is—a brother wanting to express God’s love to a sister.)
Women, truly hug your friends this week. A quick hug with a light pat on the shoulder is more of a shield among women than it is a conduit of healing. Draw yourselves near to one another and squeeze extra hard for a minute. Mothers of young children especially are accustomed to needy, grabby touching—be a life-giving toucher. Hug the teenager who seems lost, alone, and also hug the teenager who seems to have it all together—both of them are still finding themselves and sometimes just need an adult to draw them near, look them in the eye, and say, “I love you, and I’m for you.”
Men, do not hug women in your church as if they were an unclean thing, an affair waiting to happen. If she will let you, hug her as a sister in Christ and so minister healing with your healthy touch. Hug your male friends. Throw your arms around them in no macho man way, but an enveloping affirmation of love and respect for them.
Husbands and wives, reach out to one another with touch that’s not just sexual but nurturing in nature. Friends, find a single man or woman this week and hug them. It is so easy in prolonged days of singleness to seek out touch in unhealthy expressions, including self-expressions. Hug them, sit near them in church, affirm their desire and need for human touch. We’re all fighting hard battles. Touching is a common grace from God who knew we would be apart from him for a very long time before eternity.
Perhaps the couple rubbing circles on one another's backs in front of you makes you squeamish just to think of it. But there could be something deeper than PDA prompting this point of connection: perhaps he lost his mother last week, or she is struggling with her faith; perhaps they're in marriage counseling and healthy, godly touch is anew for them; perhaps she is grieving a miscarriage, or he just lost his job.
We don't always know their situation, but I want to encourage us to trust that the God who makes "everything sad come untrue," sometimes works through the simple miracle of human touch.
Lore Ferguson Wilbert is a writer and thinker based in Washington, DC. You can read more of her work onhttp://sayable.net and follow her on twitter at @lorewilbert. She was recently married to the man she didn't think existed.
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