Physical touch is really important to me; it’s one of the primary ways I experience and express love with my close friends.
Physical touch is a gift from God – a way that love can be conveyed and received in friendship. It’s a good part of his design for human relationships. But, like many of God’s gifts, it’s also something that can be misused and something that brings with it a level of risk. There’s the risk that physical touch between friends can be misinterpreted by others, that it can actually be unwanted touch, or that it can stoke sexual fantasy or stray into sexual expression.
Two common responses
There are two common responses to the reality of these risks. On the one side, there’s folly. We bury our heads in the sand, failing to be honest with ourselves about the risks, and potentially putting ourselves in situations that could end up being bad for us and for others.
On the other side, there’s the response of fear. Because physical touch in friendship carries some risks with it, we become fearful, we withdraw from it and end up avoiding almost all physical touch in our friendships.
Both of these are appealing. Both make life relatively easy. If you take the approach of folly, you don’t have to think much about what you’re doing; you can just go with the flow. Likewise, if you take the approach of fear, things are clearcut: you know what you’re doing (or rather what you’re not doing), so it’s easy.
We need to find the way of wisdom. The way of wisdom sits between folly and fear.
But both approaches are also problematic. The problem with folly is obvious – you’re leaving yourself open to the risks and there’s a good chance that at some point they’re going to cause you some problems. The problem with responding from fear is that you miss out on one of God’s good gifts and what can be a key part of close friendship. A lack of healthy physical touch can also end up fuelling sexual temptation – when legitimate needs for intimacy aren’t being met, we can easily look for intimacy from illegitimate sources.
The way of wisdom
So what’s the answer? We need to find the way of wisdom. The way of wisdom sits between folly and fear. It doesn’t ignore the risks of physical touch in friendship, but it also doesn’t exclude us from its potential blessings. The way of wisdom is honest about the risks and takes them into consideration, but it also sees the goodness of physical touch and finds the safe ways of enjoying it.
Wisdom is less clearcut than folly or fear. It doesn’t give us easy instructions to follow. Sometimes it requires us to live with the grey, rather than the black and white. But if we walk the way of wisdom, we get the best of both worlds: enjoying God’s gift while avoiding the potential pitfalls.
How do we walk this way of wisdom? Well, by its very nature, there aren’t any universal instructions that can be given, but here are two things I have found important in seeking to apply wisdom to expressions of physical touch in my friendships.
First, honesty with myself. If I’m going to seek to enjoy physical touch within my friendships but ensure that it stays healthy and God-honouring, I have to be honest with myself. I know when physical touch is causing me problems, causing me to have sexual thoughts about a friend, for example. I also know when my motivations for seeking or initiating physical touch aren’t healthy. I can ignore what I know to be the truth (the way of folly) or freak out about it and run away (the way of fear), or, I can be honest with myself, take stock and think about how I can make good decisions in response. The way of wisdom requires honesty with yourself.
The way of wisdom is tricky, but it’s also the way that best honours God and blesses us.
Second, honesty with others. My closest friends know the relationships where I need to be careful about physical touch. I recently had to tell some friends that I felt my initiating of physical touch with a particular male friend wasn’t coming from a healthy, God-honouring place. I talked through with them how I’m going to make wise choices about the time I spend with this friend, and they now know to ask me about how things are going with him. This isn’t about me being guilt-tripped into not doing something wrong (that wouldn’t be a gospel approach); it’s about my friends supporting me as I seek to faithfully follow Jesus, just as I also support them.
The way of wisdom is tricky. It takes a bit of work. We won’t always get it right. But it’s also the way that best honours God and blesses us. Let’s not fall into fear or folly. Let’s walk in the way of wisdom.