Learning Intimacy

Last month we had an unseasonably warm day in Philadelphia. I was writing a sermon in a coffee shop around 4 pm when I learned that it was around eighty degrees outside. So I quickly packed up my bags and headed to the Wissahickon Park. As I strolled down the first large trail I was presented with several different smaller trails to choose from. I made a sharp right and soon came to a bridge that crossed a small stream. I jumped off the bridge and headed off the trail, and from there I would follow the stream into the woods as long as daylight would allow.

The first warm days of spring always excite me, and on days like this I have one thing on my mind: snakes. I have always loved reptiles, and there is a certain excitement that comes with finding snakes in the wild. Turning over logs and looking between rocks in search of snakes are among some of my earliest memories. This passion for finding snakes has stayed with me throughout my life, and it’s one of the few things I do that causes me to actually lose track of time. Believe it or not, I can literally smell certain snakes if they are close by, and on this day the scent was in the air. The warmth of this day would bring them out of hibernation and I would soon be handling some of my favorite friends in the animal kingdom.

Snakes abound

At the five-minute mark I had made pretty good distance and I stopped once more to carefully scan the scene around me. You need to know how to look for snakes or you will pass them by. Their camouflage is excellent and their stillness is unsurpassed. You’d be amazed to learn how many snakes you’ve walked past in your life without knowing it. As I stood on the stream bank, I slowly scanned the rock bed that sat across from me. Just then I felt something on my foot. I looked down and was thrilled to find a snake quickly crossing my shoe and entering the water. A minute later another snake was spotted a few steps away. She was coiled beside a bank and was staring right at me. I got on my knees and got as close as possible with my phone in hand in order to take a few pictures. She struck at me a few times, even grazing my phone with her teeth. After taking a few pictures I sat beside her for a minute and just observed, then moved on to let her be. One minute later I came across another snake, and another after that. Four snakes in ten minutes. That’s pretty good!

Hands off

By my fourth find I noticed something strange about my behavior: I wasn’t touching the snakes. This may sound strange, but picking up the snakes was always the goal, the highlight, of searching for them. But on this day I didn’t feel the compulsion to touch them. I was happy just looking at them, being near them, and admittedly, talking to them. While I still love to handle reptiles, I’ve come to a place where I no longer need physical interaction in order to enjoy them. My relationship with these creatures has matured.

A Picture of Intimacy

When you hear the word “intimacy” you probably think of sex, or at least some form of physical touch. And while there is certainly a physical component to intimacy, it is just one part of the whole. Most readers probably agree with me. We all know that intimacy isn’t purely physical. But I’ll bet many of us could more easily describe physical intimacy over non-physical. This is because we have been given an unbalanced picture of intimacy that almost entirely highlights the physical. And sadly, for Christians, I believe the culprit of this deficit has been a failed teaching in the church. As high school and college students, we saw marriage and physical intimacy placed on a pedestal, and these things became the prize, even the goal of our lives. We were implicitly taught that our lives were incomplete until we entered into a marriage, and subsequently a healthy sexual relationship. To finally be at a place where we were “allowed” to experience physical intimacy would fulfill all of our youth retreat fantasies. But this incomplete picture of intimacy has caused some serious damage. Premature weddings, unattainable sexual expectations, and an embarrassing number of divorces are just some of the effects of this hyper-physical teaching on intimacy.

Growing in Intimacy

In the same way that my relationship with snakes has changed, I’d like to think my relationship with my wife is growing as well. And while I certainly don’t relate to reptiles in the way that I relate to my wife, I do see a correlation between the two. As I said before, physical intimacy is of great value, but there is a level of intimacy that transcends physical touch. This type of intimacy comes not from nakedness of the body, but nakedness of the soul. Once we have come to terms with ourselves, we can then invite another to come to terms with us as well. To know and be known at a real level brings one to a place of intimacy to which the physical experience only alludes.

Putting our souls on display for another person is not an easy thing to do. It involves sharing real fears, telling embarrassing secrets, and reliving shameful acts. This level of vulnerability will always be accompanied by discomfort. But this is the unavoidable path of growing in non-physical intimacy.

Conclusion

Maybe you’re married, maybe you desire marriage, or maybe you feel like you’re supposed to get married. I’d like to encourage you to evaluate how you understand intimacy, and I’d like to invite you to pursue non-physical intimacy in your marriages. For those of you who are unmarried: you can experience the joy of non-physical intimacy with a brother or sister even in your singleness. Building a trusting relationship with someone of the same gender creates a safe environment where you can put your soul on display, and you will experience intimacy that is just as valuable as any physical relationship you long for.

In closing, I realize that this post only scratches the surface of the topic of intimacy. I’d like to encourage you to continue this conversation in your own circles. Let’s change the narrative by teaching a picture of intimacy that is complete, that is whole.

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