A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.
Not everyone is the same in regard to how they handle isolation. However, it is known that solitary confinement is extremely detrimental psychologically and is equivalent to torture for some. It is even worse for children deprived of healthy touch and, according to research, babies in orphanages with inadequate human interaction die at a rate of 30 to 40% and even survivors of the negligence often suffer terrible life-long consequences as a result.
We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:
Yes I am alone
But then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real
To begin with
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
And it worked
Yes it did
The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.
Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…
“All you need is Jesus”
This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.
People need more than words to thrive.
Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.
Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.
For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.
“The word became flesh…”
One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.
The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.
This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.
Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.
Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.
Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?
The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.
Not just talk, touch…
There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”
Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)
That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.
Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.
The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.
The need for non-sexual physical touch…
In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.
This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.
Consider the following:
As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27-30b NIV)
While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12-13 NIV)
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15-16 NIV)
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5-8 NIV)
And did I mention that Jesus touched?
That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.
Touch is good and right.
The need for good old-fashioned sex…
The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.
I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.
In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.
So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?
Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?
Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.
Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?
Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!
True connection is a human need…
Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.
I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.
But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.
For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)
It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.
The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.
This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.