During these strange times of COVID-19, a friend did something that initially shocked me – though it wasn’t in itself unpleasant: he hugged me. Or, to be more precise, he extended his right arm sideways (we were standing side by side) and gently patted me on the back.
Having done the same, I immediately wondered about the danger of catching coronavirus.
Later, after we’d parted, it occurred to me that, because we were both wearing innumerable layers to keep warm, it was pretty unlikely any transmission of the virus would have taken place – particularly since contact had been momentary and neither of us actually had COVID-19!
For those of us living in the UK, concerns like these appear to have receded – unless the guidance changes before you read this.
Until now, it’s been a subject that few writers have – if you’ll pardon the pun – tended to embrace. The focus has generally been on handwashing, wearing face masks, staying indoors, protecting the NHS (which I thought was there to protect us), and following the advice of SAGE – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – assuming that SAGE knew its onions, of course.
Because we live in a country that’s fairly reserved, the subject of hugging – or its year-long socially imposed absence – has hardly been touched upon.
Now that we seem to be more or less back to normal, the question of social distancing may possibly end up consigned to the dim, distant past, now that people can either hug or refrain at their own discretion.
When I began writing this, several friends were excited by the concept of a backslapping, bear-hugging, glad-handing future – and not just those who go to charismatic churches!
Others, however, said they weren’t at all tactile, and had been glad to go the distance when it came to social distancing.
During the height of lockdown, a friend who supports MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) said life had been particularly painful. He wrote: “Someone who knows me well asked how I’m coping with not being able to hug people. I replied: ‘That’s why I got a dog.’”
Humour aside, it occurs to me that, because physical contact is such an important aspect of being human, it’s probably time we considered the issue.
Babies and small children thrive on touch, which can boost the immune system and lower blood pressure. Hugging also causes our brains to release oxytocin – the ‘bonding hormone’ which stimulates the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin. These reduce stress and anxiety, lessen pain and help regulate one’s mood.
Although some people crave touch more than others, the need for some form of physical contact is nevertheless strong. It’s part of who we are, and how God created us.
So, while some covet the affectionate contact that comes from hugs and kisses, others enjoy the physical interaction provided by football, basketball, rugby, wrestling, or martial arts.
But what does the Bible say about touch, and is there anything we can learn from it? One way we can do so is to look at how Jesus interacted with others.
He reached out to the man who suffered from leprosy (Matthew 8:2-3); touched the hand of Peter’s feverish mother-in-law (8:14-15), and allowed the woman who’d been subject to bleeding to touch His prayer shawl or cloak (9:20-22). Jesus did the same with those who came to Him at Gennesaret (14:34-36).
He took the hand of the synagogue leader’s daughter and restored her to life (Matthew 9:23-25); touched the eyes of the blind and restored their sight (9:27-30, 20:30-34); cleansed the leper by reaching out His hand (Mark 1:40-42), and cured a man ‘who was deaf and could hardly talk’ by putting His fingers in his ears (Mark 7:32-35).
Finally, when Peter attacked the high priest’s servant with a sword, Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him (Luke 22:49-51). There are other examples, too.
Later, in the book of Revelation, when the author sees the Son of man in all His glory, John writes: ‘When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. Then He placed His right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid”’ (Revelation 1:17).
It’s an episode reminiscent of the one when Peter, James, and John fell to the ground on the Mount of Transfiguration, and the Lord touched them and said: “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 17:5-7).
However things pan out in terms of COVID-19, Jesus’ words and comforting presence should give us courage and hope.
As we think of the One who continues to touch countless lives, it’s good to know that God has not only placed everything in Jesus’ hands (John 3:35) but – in appointing Him head over all – has placed everything under His feet (Ephesians 1:22).
As people who are often described as Jesus’ hands and feet, let’s seek to touch the lives of others in a way that encourages them and honours Him.
Gary Clayton is married to Julie, the father of Christopher (17) and Emma (14), and works for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). To learn how MAF aircraft serve people in some of the Africa’s most isolated areas, visit www.maf-uk.org
Written by: Gary Clayton