I like to hug the people I love. I like to embrace people who are hurting. I like to shake hands when I meet a stranger. I like to be near other members of the body of Christ. These are not just marks of my culture, upbringing, or personality; they are marks of my humanity.
Does it matter that we’re physically disconnected right now? Dr. Dacher Keltner, who teaches psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, describes our handshakes and hugs like this: “They are our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion. In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.”
Scientists tell us that a release of the hormone oxytocin is a positive side effect of a good hug! Oxytocin helps us connect with each other, and helps us feel better in general. Many experts suggest that it even improves our heart health (and I don’t mean that figuratively).
And history reveals a wacko 13th-century experiment in which Frederick II, the reigning German emperor, became cruelly curious about what language children would speak if they were never spoken to. So Frederick singled out newborn babies in an orphanage and instructed nurses to feed them, but not to touch them or talk to them. Every one of those babies died. Died.
We need touch. We really do. That basic need is built into us.
You and I need touch because we’re created in God’s image. Enter Jesus, stage right. When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed (Matthew 8:1-3). This unnamed man with leprosy was putting everything on the line – breaking all of those Levitical rules – because he knew in his soul that Jesus could make him “clean.” The man understood, by faith, that Jesus could heal him of his leprosy.
I contend that there is something profound going on here: in a simple touch. Jesus wasn’t scared of the leper. Of course, the Son of God didn’t have to be afraid that He would come down with leprosy. He wasn’t paranoid that He would be forever regarded as “unclean” because of His carelessness. Our Lord Jesus was able to enter into this poor man’s pain and brokenness. His touch expressed His compassion. And I would submit that we’re wired for touch because we’re wired by God.
Our Lord would become an outcast, but not over this. In fact, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus isn’t afraid of our sin and shame! He doesn’t stay six feet away from us and make us yell out a warning when we’re nearby. Quite to the contrary, Christ graciously enters into our messes and willingly takes upon Himself the full load of the brokenness of our lives. And, thankfully, He doesn’t throw stones of judgment in our direction either. So, back to the Bible, instead of just saying, “Be clean,” Jesus physically touches this man who was starved for human affection. This touch wasn’t accidental, or incidental, but it was quite intentional.
You may be familiar with one of the film versions of Ben-Hur (based on the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace). Judah Ben-Hur’s mother and sister contract leprosy while in prison. They’re exiled to a leper colony and ask that Judah never be told that they’re alive – that he only remember them as their former selves. It’s a powerful illustration of the seriousness of leprosy in Jesus’ day, and a vivid reminder of the tragic toll that leprous-like skin conditions – and other highly contagious diseases – exact on human life, relationships, and civilization. When people are deprived of human touch, they lose something of what it means to be human.
You and I were made to touch, and to be touched!
Like you, I’m most grateful for all of the technological innovations which are allowing us to communicate – and to maintain a semblance of connection – during this strange season. But, friends, we’ve lost something significant. At least for now. COVID-19 has robbed us. I think it’s acceptable to grieve.