Our culture is undergoing necessary restrictions because of the novel coronavirus. The consequences are creeping into our behavior, influencing habits, and affecting the joys of human interaction. These changes began slowly, as our culture sought to follow the rules of social distancing with the admirable goal of protecting others as well as ourselves from becoming ill. After many months, the impact of these measures is being felt.
Whole segments of our population cannot have human touch. The most vulnerable are lying in nursing homes, without family visits and the hugs that are brought into lonely bedrooms. Those suffering in hospital wards, possibly dying, have no family member by their side. Compassionate nurses try to find time amidst their responsibilities to hold a telephone to their patient’s ear or hold a hand through gloves. Singles lack any physical interaction, not even those awkward side-hugs we see in church. Lonely people in hard marriages go weeks without positive contact. Even a hand placed on a shoulder in sympathy speaks volumes to these hurting people.
Those in healthy relationships are experiencing loss as well. We have seen videos on the internet of family members giving and receiving hugs through plastic sheeting. Some churches have begun meeting again, but without the hugs, handshakes, and hearty pats on the back that we employ to communicate love and compassion.
Counseling is not taking place in person and if so, distance is maintained. We helplessly watch a counselee weep on FaceTime, hindered from offering physical consolation or offering a tissue. The handshake of greeting and hug of farewell is missing. These habits are so ingrained that we have to remind ourselves to hold back.
What does the Bible say about relating to each other through physical touch?
The Bible addresses this subject. In Hebrew, the word dabaq means “to cling, to cleave, to keep close.”1 “Dabaq,” Strong’s Concordance. Moses gave instructions for marriage and used this word to describe the husband holding fast to his wife. This same word describes how Ruth clung to her mother-in-law rather than be separated from her. This word for kissing and embracing is seen in Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons (Genesis 48:10) and Joseph’s reaction to his father’s death (Genesis 50:1). We react emotionally as we picture these scenes.
When it speaks of philéma, the Bible is describing “a kiss to show respect or affection between friends—i.e. people sharing a deep common bond.”2 “Philēma,” Strong’s Concordance. Judas betrayed Jesus with such a kiss. The meaning of that gesture amplifies the shock of his betrayal. Only good friends should greet each other that way.
In the closing remarks in several epistles, the body of believers is exhorted to greet one another with a phlēmati hagiō, holy kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). First Peter 5:14 instructs believers to greet one another with a phlēmati agapēs, kiss of love. Many cultures incorporate a kiss on the cheek to convey friendship. A kiss on each cheek expresses affection for family members or close friends. Such a kiss requires one to be held close with a non-sexual touch. The social distancing required by COVID-19 precludes following such a command.
Jesus must have shocked his community when he “stretched out his hand” and touched a leper, an unfortunate who was banned from human touch (Matthew 8:3). These words are striking as we read them through the lens of the law. They are striking in the year 2020 as we read them during these days of avoiding disease transmission.
Three responses to the isolation brought by COVID-19:
1. We lament the loss of physical interaction.
First, we should join with others in lamenting the loss of face-to-face meetings and the hugs which often result. When we counsel, we should be sensitive to how this loss impacts our singles, grandparents separated from their grandchildren, those with hospitalized family members, and others. This trial should be recognized, even if isn’t mentioned.
2. We should seek ways to alleviate this hardship in counseling.
Because this natural physical interaction is missing, we should be creative in finding ways to help those who crave human touch. My husband recently impulsively put his hands on the shoulders of a counselee as he prayed about his friend’s difficult marriage. That might have been the only human touch that man had experienced in a long time.
3. We should take a “calculated risk” in order to minister within the body of Christ.
As in the above example, some counselors have decided to meet in person with particular counselees. My husband and I have searched for creative ways to accomplish this. One man comes over regularly to take a walk with my husband. Another couple sits with us on our backyard deck. We have gone to the homes of others and sat on their back patio. A young lady who is in the “danger zone” in her struggle with anorexia comes to our house in order to meet in person. We practice social distancing and take other precautions, but we have determined that the need to offer face-to-face contact is greater than the possible health risk.