20 May 2021
To hug or not to hug?
That seems to be the question. Or at least one of the questions we’re all having to figure out. What do we do with some of the easing and loosening in guidance and restrictions? And the reality we find is that, unsurprisingly, different people have quite different views!
(Disclaimer: this is a little longer than I intended. It turns out I think there’s a lot to say! So maybe grab a cuppa at this point…)
We all have Different Views
We all fall somewhere on a spectrum from ‘Great, restrictions are lifted so we can all just move on, right now, straight away’ to ‘OK, but I don’t think we should just go back so quickly, and feel more comfortable with some social distancing being in place.’ Some still feel comfortable with masks on, while others would prefer we all burned them. Some are SO ready to hug everyone, and others really don’t want that right now.
Of course most of us are in the middle somewhere but, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to those two extremes of thought as ‘huggers’ and ‘non-huggers’. I know it’s far more complex than that, and about far more than hugging. But, in what I’m going to share, considering the extremes will help us all, wherever we sit.
This article isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m far more interested in how we get along! How, if we are just in a different place from someone else on it all, do we keep love and unity alive?
As I’ve thought about this, there’s a passage in the Bible which has really helped me. It’s Romans 14. I’d recommend reading the whole thing.
The context is that, in Rome, pretty much all of the meat you could buy at a market would previously have been offered to pagan gods and idols. So a hot topic of the day for Christians was, ‘Should we eat it?’. For some it was obvious: these so-called ‘gods’ aren’t real, so the act of offering meat to them is meaningless, so of course we can eat it. It’s a non-issue. For others, though, it was obvious: we worship Jesus alone, so should not get caught up in this practice as it waters down our faith. It’s a big issue.
And yet, the community had to get along. So how does Paul respond? Does he give his verdict and demand the whole community get on board with it? No!
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. (Rom 14:1-2)
Paul talks about people as ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’. The stronger are those whose faith is such that they can eat the meat without it causing danger of leading them astray. The weaker are those who avoid it for fear of getting caught up in bad things. He isn’t using those terms to judge, just to distinguish.
So are the ‘huggers’ or the ‘non-huggers’ the stronger ones? I don’t know. And nor do you. You might well have a perspective about it, and so might I. It might be you see the huggers as the stronger, able to put aside the restrictions more easily and live free from fear. Or maybe you see the non-huggers as stronger, able to keep on going for the common good a bit longer than others without a return to all the comforts others need.
The important thing here is that these are ‘disputable matters’, as Paul puts it. We don’t have to agree. We just have to get along. So how? Here are three ways, based on Paul’s words.
1. No Judgment
Paul doesn’t just tell people to get along nicely, please. He knows they’ll need more than that!
The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. (Rom 14:3)
If you’re in the position where you’re claiming and using more of your freedoms (the ‘huggers’), you need to watch your heart to make sure you’re not treating those who are more constrained with contempt. ‘Huggers’ are not more intelligent than ‘non-huggers’. You aren’t necessarily more enlightened, more informed or just less fearful than others.
But if your approach is more cautious and restrained (the ‘non-huggers’), you also need to watch your heart to make sure you aren’t judging those who are doing more than you feel wise. It isn’t just that others are wildly irresponsible and have no concern for you, themselves or others. No, they simply do not see harm in what they’re doing. You might disagree in your mind, but don’t judge in your heart.
No judgment. We have to watch our hearts.
2. No Obstacles
But Paul also knows it has to go further than what’s in our hearts. As non-judgmental as everyone can be in their attitudes, they still have to decide what’s for dinner! Meat, or no meat? To hug, or not to hug?
Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. (Rom 14:13-15)
Paul tells people to behave in ways that won’t cause ‘stumbling blocks’, ‘obstacles’ or ‘distress’. To do so is no longer acting in love.
Notice that Paul doesn’t shy away from giving his view: ‘I am convinced…fully persuaded…that nothing is unclean in itself.’ There it is! The meat is fine to eat. Spiritually there is no problem with it at all! The Apostle Paul says so! But being right isn’t the goal. Being loving is. Straight after ‘giving the answer’, Paul tells people that if they hold a different view then they must act according to their own convictions, not his. If you do something, thinking it’s wrong, then you’re doing something wrong.
If you are a ‘non-hugger’, you are uneasy with social distancing being relaxed, then to force yourself to do those things because others are fine with it isn’t right. And if you’re a ‘hugger’, then to pressure others into acting according to your own convictions instead of their own is not right. Paul has far stronger words for those who he views as technically correct but not loving than for those who are wrong but living consistently.
No obstacles. We have to give freedom for people to live how they need to.
3. No Selfishness
But it actually goes further still. Our actions aren’t just about letting everyone do what they think is right. Love goes further.
Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. (Rom 14:20-21)
Did you spot it? It is wrong, Paul says, to eat things that ‘causes someone else to stumble’. It isn’t just that we need to let others live as they see fit. There is also cause to give up our own freedom, even if we know we are right, for the sake of others. That is what love is.
Let’s put hugging to one side and talk about masks. Let’s say you’re in a situation where masks aren’t required, but there is someone there who feels uncomfortable not wearing one. And let’s say you do not agree. If we take these principles from Paul and apply them, then not only do we not tell them to take it off themselves, but we put one on for ourselves. We give up our own ‘rights’ in order to show love and not cause offence or struggle for someone else.
But what about my rights? Welcome to the Christian life! Jesus gave up far more than his rights for me, and calls me to follow in his ways.
No selfishness. We have to prefer others.
To Hug or Not to Hug?
So we come back to that question, and all the others questions it represents. Hugging. Masks. Travel. Distancing. Gatherings. Pubs. The whole lot!
And this blog is not designed to give an answer. But to give some principles for all of us as we seek to love more fully and completely. Watch your heart. Allow others freedom to disagree. And put others ahead of yourself.