People have varying levels of comfort with physical touch. Some are happy to receive hugs from friends—or even total strangers. Others would prefer that everyone else keep their hands to themselves. Throw in the taboos surrounding evangelical purity culture and the wider social reckoning with unwanted sexual attention, and it quickly becomes a challenge to discern, in individual cases, whether touch is a welcome gesture or a violation of personal space.
How can believers minister well in this environment? Lore Ferguson Wilbert takes up this question in Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry, which builds on her 2016 CT Women article, “Public Displays of Christian Affection.” Writer Abby Perry spoke with Wilbert about her book.
I’m careful not to impose blanket rules along the lines of “this is how you should touch” or “this is how you should hug.” These already get us into lots of trouble. Ultimately, the solution is the same for everyone: seeing the person sitting in front of us as an image-bearer of God. The most important question is how we care for the person in front of us. As I say again and again, my emphasis in Handle with Care is not on handling but on care. At its core, that changes how we touch within friendships, whether same-gender or cross-gender.
Our world is so over-sexualized. Because we are sexual beings, we can default to thinking that almost all touch is sexual in nature. Whenever I mention the book, people immediately wonder, “Do you talk about masturbation and sex?” Well, of course! But that’s not what the book is ultimately about.
Touch is much bigger than sexualized touch, but it’s also most broken around sexualized touch. We are all either legalists or a little licentious. We either want to eat the fruit or we want to add to God’s Word and say, “God said not to eat or touch.” So this isn’t just a cultural problem in the church or the wider society; it’s a problem of sinful human nature.
How did something like the “side-hug” get to be such a phenomenon in Christian circles? It’s because we’ve bought into the notion that there’s something inherently sexual about giving regular hugs. Instead of taking our bearings from cultural norms around touch, we should be asking how God’s Word bears on our physical interactions with one another.
Eve’s first sin, in the Garden, was listening to the Enemy instead of believing God’s Word was true. And we’re still doing that. We’re doing it when we sidehug because we’re afraid of the supposed sexual connotations of fronthugging. And we’re doing it when we grasp for fruit that isn’t ours to have, touching in non-consensual ways. But we’re also doing it when we follow the culture in boiling questions of touch down to questions of consent alone. That isn’t the answer either.
For people in positions of authority, like pastors, teachers, coaches, or even parents, the stakes around touch can be pretty high. How can Christians in authority know whether to keep their hands to themselves?
The short answer is, “I don’t know.” I think I would do a disservice by saying “always do this” or “never do that.” I don’t mean to take the easy way out. I only mean that all of us will stand before God and make an account of our lives, of how we cared for the person in front of us.
In an age characterized by abuse of authority, there’s a corresponding fear of false accusations. In the book, I argue that you can’t live in fear of a certain outcome. You have to be faithful to what God is asking you to do. You have to care more for the person in front of you than you care about avoiding lawsuits or protecting your own reputation. Sometimes that means giving touch, while sometimes it’s better to withhold touch. But the primary concern is never your reputation; it’s the person in front of you.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus isn’t bound by the usual concerns for reputation. Think about Mary anointing his feet with oil in the house of a Pharisee and the narrative that could have spread. But Jesus wasn’t deterred by that. He cared for the woman in front of him. We are not Jesus. But we should walk more as he walked than like the Pharisees who cared more about reputation.
In certain situations—like disability, illness, or prior abuse—people are often less comfortable being touched. How do you proceed when you don’t know someone’s whole story or their comfort level with physical contact?
One of the stories that compelled me to write this book comes from John Piper. He was engaging with a woman who was cutting herself and landing in the hospital, and he was confused as to why. When he asked her about it tenderly, she replied, “I like it when they [the doctors and nurses] touch me.”
So many things about that story break my heart. But I appreciate how he admits his confusion. So often in the church, we assume we have all the answers, or that our experience of something is the same as someone else’s. As believers, we have to learn to ask questions.
And we have to go to people who are hurting—I love how, again and again, Jesus goes to people and touches them. The “going” part is something we tend to struggle with in church; we mostly wait for people to come to us. In some ways, of course, that’s appropriate; I write about the story from the Gospels of the woman with chronic bleeding who reaches out and touches Jesus (Matt. 9:20–22). But we should also be people who engage well.
So how do we touch people when we don’t know their story? I think we don’t —certainly not before we’ve at least received permission. Pastors, for instance, should be more careful about coming at people and saying, “I’m a hugger!” Forget your “love language” or your natural inclination. Ask, “What does the person in front of me need?”
Throughout the book you address people, like yourself, who have suffered abuse—even admitting that, in some cases, this might not be the book for them. What do you hope abuse victims will take away from it?
Touch affects everyone differently, and the process of healing is so specific and so varied. No one should expect a silver bullet from this book. My prayer all along has been that it would beautifully display Christ and his healing touch for anyone who’s been hurt through touch.
If you consider yourself a “hugger,” I hope you’ll come away feeling more sober about touch. If you say “I don’t touch people” or “touch isn’t my love language,” I hope you’ll come away seeing how it’s possible to neglect people’s needs this way. If you haven’t been harmed by touch, I hope you’ll learn to see why those who have would carry that burden so heavily. And if you have been harmed, I hope you’ll come away seeing the possibility of a future where touch is not a harmful thing.