A Time to Refrain
When I was growing up, my parents were big fans of road trips. We’d all pile into the station wagon, the van, or the red Ford Fiesta. I come from a large and tactile family; we could rarely keep our hands to ourselves. When things got out of hand, playfully or roughly, my mom would turn around and say firmly, “If you can’t keep your hands to yourself—or if you don’t know what to do with them—I’m going to make you sit on them.”
This time-out to consider the way we were touching each other was to teach us restraint, and maybe in this #metoo and #churchtoo world, we also all need a little time-out to think rightly about how to touch one another.
In the Church
There’s a pervasive belief in the church, popularized by the bestselling book series, The Five Love Languages, that we give and receive love in five ways—quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation, gift-giving, and physical touch. Author Gary Chapman’s point in the series is not merely to identify one’s own “love language,” but to teach how to serve others by showing them love in the language of love they receive best.
The book helps me understand why there are certain needs around me that I notice and meet reflexively, and why there are other needs around me that I overlook and do not meet because I feel incapable or “not wired that way.” Chapman’s work in this arena is helpful for those, like me, who are unlikely to meet needs outside their comfort zone.
The unfortunate thing, though, is many Christians use Chapman’s categories for the opposite reason he offers them in the first place. Though his goal is to help us give love to others in a language they best receive it, many use his categories to neglect the expressions of love they should be offering others. Instead of giving love in the language another would receive it best, I’ve heard many Christians say, “But that’s not my love language” as their unchallengeable excuse for refusing to offer love.
So when it comes to touch, if one doesn’t naturally want to offer physical contact in the appropriate contexts that they probably should, they can use the tidy excuse of love language. Or conversely, if someone wants to receive—or sinfully take—touch from another, they can use the love-language lingo as a manipulative bartering chip for their demands.
Many times our language and motivation around love and touch, and therefore our actions, lean most towards selfishness, self-protection, and selfish gain. Even with good tools for loving others in our hands, like Chapman’s books and others, we turn the tools inward and make everything about ourselves.
And in the Culture
Motivation for love and touch isn’t only broken in the church, it’s broken in culture too. On October 15, 2017, the #metoo hashtag was used on social media at noon. By the end of the day, it had been used 200,000 times, and by the following day, it was tweeted more than 500,000 times. When it comes to the usage on Facebook, “the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours.”1
The #metoo movement brought to light all kinds of sexual harassment and abuse by those who, in most cases, assumed their actions were either welcomed, only playful, or were owed in some way.2 Our culture stands in the landmark moment of a war that has been silently borne by women for generations.
But we are in another landmark moment as well. In the same autumn of 2017, when the #metoo hashtag took the world by storm, a movie was released and nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Call Me By Your Name is the story of a 24-year-old man who woos and wins the affections of a 17-year-old boy. The movie received rave reviews and three Academy Award nominations. While the world was raging over all kinds of inappropriate sexual acts toward employers and their employees, teachers and their students, youth pastors and kids in their youth groups, culture was also raving over this movie glorifying a relationship between an adult and a minor that, if it wasn’t fiction, would mean jail time and cultural shunning from every side.
What a confusing time in which to live.
A Caring Approach
When we don’t understand the healthy expression of something or the innate purpose of it, and when it is shrouded in mystery, we don’t know what to do but invent, pervert, or usurp it in every way. This is why we find the same people using #metoo one day, only to celebrate a film that encourages violations of laws, consent, and age the next. Our society simply doesn’t know what to do with the human body or human touch. Our culture is confused, and confusion only results in more confusion.
When we look at the polarized options for touch these days, we could easily run away from the issue altogether in fear of making a mistake in either direction. But one of the greatest errors in our moment in history will be if we let this moment pass us by without a better understanding and practice of healthy, pure, good touch.
On a national level, the topic of touch is on the table now—both in the public square and in the church. We have a unique chance to embody a godly, caring approach to this issue that neither withholds touch nor forcefully takes it. And the keyword there is caring. We need to teach how to touch with true care. Care for our own bodies and for the bodies of others, because those bodies were created by a good and caring God.
If we don’t know what to do with our hands or can’t keep them to ourselves, the answer isn’t to sit on them for all of time. It’s to learn to use them rightly.
Your friend, Lore
Meet the author: Lore Ferguson Wilbert has lived all over the United States but will always be most at home in the Northeast. She holds a degree in English from Lee University. She has been published by Christianity Today, Fathom Magazine, LifeWay Leaders, LifeWay Voices, The Gospel Coalition, Revive Our Hearts, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and more, on spiritual formation, faith, culture, and theology in life. She also teaches writing and edits on the side. You can read more of her work at Sayable.net. She and her husband live with their Wheaten, their books, their gardens, and a stocked tea box at all times.
** Excerpted with permission from Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry by Lore Ferguson Wilbert. Copyright 2020, B&H Publishing Group.
1 Wikipedia contributors, “The MeToo Movement,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_Too_movement (accessed June 17, 2019).
2 The #metoo movement has also been cited as begun by Tarana Burke, African American Civil Rights Activist, who began using the phrase in 2006.