“I could do without sex if I just had somebody to sleep with.”
The man wasn’t being facetious. He was trying to find words to tell me that he was coming to understand an important heartfelt desire that felt like a need. Peacefully committed to a life of celibacy, he found that he was yet craving something—but something entirely different than what he always thought he wanted. As we talked and prayed, asking for God’s strength, comfort and provision for him, my curiosity was peaked and I decided to do a little research on the subject of touch. That was back in 1991.
I was in line at the grocery store and read these titles on magazine covers:
The Sense that Shapes our Future in Reader’s Digest 1/92
Squeeze, Please: the amazing power of touch, in Cosmo 8/91
Preemie News: risks and benefits of handling premature babies in Infants 5/90
Wanting to give references for these articles, I searched online for links to these articles. No surprise that I didn’t find links for twenty-five years ago. But the search was worth the time. Wow! Pages of newer articles came up in my search. Given enough time, one could read for days on the need, power and benefits of touch.
The author of one such article, Touch Might Just Be the Most Important of All Five Senses, by Anne Mullens, said “The world’s leading neuroscientists agree that human contact is vital for our health, wellness and happiness.” Her article is posted on the Reader’s Digest site. Mullens quotes David J. Linden, a neuroscientist, who says “however you do it, working within cultural ideas and rules, ‘maximizing touch in your life is a good thing’—whether it is a therapeutic massage, holding hands, petting a dog, going to the hairdresser, or hugging our kids, our partners or even a stranger. ‘When we put our hands on each other,’ wrote Linden, with co-author Martha Thomas, in a recent issue of AARP The Magazine, ‘we’re tapping into deep associations between touch and emotion that are kindled at the dawn of life.’”
The reason I am spending the time making the case for the importance of touch is because it is the deprivation of legitimate needs that drives so many illegitimate behaviors. Especially in the earliest stages of taking action to meet our own needs, it is important to understand what you need and why, what you believe and why, what is the end goal and how did we decide on the path to get us there. All this matters, the reason touch matters is because it is while in pursuit of legitimate needs that we can get easily derailed by false solutions to real problems. Had we known, some of us might not have gotten so far down a road that takes us farther away rather than closer to what we really need and want—what we were designed for, I believe.
Trying to identify and understand the legitimate needs that drive behavior has been a focus of my ministry for decades. I spoke about this in a talk for WGA group members in 1991. Some of my main points summarized research I had found so far and scriptural basis that I believe support the importance of human connection. A few of those preliminary thoughts are still relevant today:
- Scientific studies have shown significant data to support that touch is a need. Books on the subject are replete with assertions that boil down to two major points:
- Touch is important, we must have it. (babies failed to thrive without it!)
- Touch is powerful ——- Be Careful!!!
- Dr Gary Collins in his book, Christian Counseling, (the edition available in 1991) had only four references to “touching” listed in the index, two of which were relevant for our discussion today. Collins said that, “resistant to touch” is a symptom of a troubled client, and that “touching a client can give “comfort and reassurance,” so it’s very important and helpful, but “it can be threatening to a client” (sexually abused for instance) and even dangerous – “when in doubt, don’t.” Dr. Collins’ comments are well supported among most mental health practitioners whether secular or Christian. So again, from a Christian perspective we have the same two points previously made: “Touch is important; we must have it!” and “Touch is powerful, be careful.”
- Dan Allender in his book, The Wounded Heart, discusses an often overlooked part of the experience of sexual abuse victims—how they, particularly those who are repeatedly abused, are more vulnerable because of deficits in legitimate human needs. On page 82, Allender affirms the need for “gentle, relational touch” that “quiets the soul and invites the recipient to relax in the warm strength of another” and experience healthy “pleasure, comfort, nourishment, and trust.” He goes on to say, “The effect of sensual contact on the child or adolescent who has lived much of his or her life without nourishing touch is equivalent to watering a flower that has been left without water for days. The drooping stem straightens and the closed bud opens; the lifeless plant brightens into the glory that it was meant to reveal. So with the heart of the hungry child: the warmth lifts her face and the nourishment brings hope to her eyes.” Thus we see how a child can often be “set-up” for the abuse by a chronic dearth of the nurture and comfort of healthy, nurturing touch.
- What does Scripture Say?
- During Jesus’ ministry – Luke 18:15: People were bringing babies for Jesus’ touch.
- Appearing after His resurrection—Luke 24:34: “Look, It is I. . . Touch me and see.” I repeat, Jesus said, “Touch me and see.”
- Elsewhere in scripture—there is an interesting series of word pictures in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” These four verses in Ecclesiastes are used to make the point that it is not good for a person to be a loner, but they do also assume the goodness of closeness, even bodily warmth, and being as closely related as three strands of one rope. These metaphors speak loudly about the importance of human connection, including physical closeness.
- Another image: John 13:23 – “One of them, the disciple Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. . . .leaning back against Jesus, John asked him “Lord, who is it?” Here we have the disciple, John, reclining at the table, as was the custom of the time, and leaning against Jesus.
And there you have it. A few of my own thoughts, points from a neuroscientist, and a few passages of scripture. Please don’t take my word as the last word. Read the scriptures, ask for the discernment and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as you study, and pray it through. And remember: Touch is important; we must have it! and Touch is powerful; be careful!
Mary is one of the founders of Where Grace Abounds and served as Executive Director from its inception on July, 1986 through March 31st, 2007. She speaks and teaches at churches and conferences across the country. She has also served on several boards of non-profit organizations, is a conference speaker on a variety of topics that include: Intimacy with God, Healthy Sexuality, and leadership development. She currently serves in leadership in her denomination. Mary’s favorite ministry roles are discipleship counseling, group facilitation, and leadership development.
Mary often characterizes herself as “a seeker of Truth” and has a long-standing fascination with human behavior and motiviation. Her education consists of lay and discipleship counseling, indepentent study about the integration of psychology and theology, counseling and human sexuality. She also holds a BS in Human Services and an MA in Psychology from Regis University.
Mary attends a Friends (Quaker) Church.
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