There are several physical positions associated with prayer. Last month we looked at sitting, standing, head bowed, and kneeling. Now we'll look at several more and then consider why it's important.
In our culture, prostration is appropriate for private devotions, but seldom in group prayer. Many of us have found ourselves flat on the floor crying out to the Lord in times of extreme personal hardship or spiritual warfare and I have been in a few small group prayer meetings where some participants spontaneously prostrated themselves. However, it’s not a posture of prayer you should suggest in group prayer. I don’t know of any place in scripture where someone’s instructed to prostrate themselves. It’s always spontaneous.
Raising hands toward heaven has several meanings that haven’t changed much in thousands of years. In Bible times it was used in association with vows just as it is in courts today. It was a sign of blessing much as you see the Pope raise his hand to bless crowds of worshipers. And it was a sign of praise during worship, perhaps exactly as it’s used today.
There are two fairly distinct reasons we raise our hands toward God. Hands raised in praise represent something given to God. More often, they represent a reaching out for assistance, much as a toddler reaches out and up toward a parent when hurt or wanting attention. This reaching motion is so natural and ingrained from childhood, it’s no wonder that it’s so widely used in prayer and worship.
Generally, you won’t instruct people to raise or not raise their hands during prayer. It will be left up to the individual.
Sometimes raised hands become an issue within a group. If you suspect tension, prepare a Bible study that includes a handout of pertinent scriptures. To get the attention of those who think everyone should raise their hands, you might start with the first half of the following verse:
When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood.
Isaiah 1:15 NKJV
This passage is not so much about raised hands as it is about having your heart right when you pray. And that’s what you want to communicate to your group.
For those who tend to look down their nose at the unrestrained hand raisers, you might include a review of 2 Samuel 6 in which Michal is critical of King David for his undignified worship.
It also might be helpful to have a discussion about body language and fetishes. (see last sections of this article) The point is to help them see that God sees past the position of their body to the attitude of their heart.
Most of us talk with our hands. As we speak, our hands are forming visual illustrations of the concepts we are trying to communicate. So why do we eliminate this natural part of expression by clasping our hands during prayer? You might think it's because we have our eyes closed, but I often find myself talking with my hands when I'm praying out loud and I think that's pretty common. Perhaps it has more to do with instinctive body language, because it's been around a very long time.
One of the most copied pictures of all time is The Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer of the fifteenth century AD. Legend has it that the hands are those of his brother who worked in the mines to pay for Albrecht’s education. Whatever the truth about the picture, it is known that Durer was one of the first artists to make extensive use of printed pictures and, thereby, became one of the few artists who could support himself financially. This explains how this one picture has so influenced personal prayer since the early days of the reformation. However, the practice of folding the hands together in prayer can also be dated a thousand years before the reformation to the fifth century AD and the Saxons.
Going back much farther than that, we find in Jewish tradition that the priests joined their hands in a particular way as they quoted prayers and blessings with the congregation. This goes back at least as far as ancient synagogues and probably the Old Testament temple. No doubt, this practice was slightly different from place to place and time to time, but it involved the touching together of the index fingers while interlocking the others. This symbol of praying hands became so associated with the priesthood, that it’s etched on many of their ancient tombstones.
Clasping your hands is a very natural position of prayer and a millennia old tradition, but isn’t mandated in scripture. Though a meaningful part of some liturgies, it should not be construed as something deemed necessary by God.
Closing of the eyes is not directly mentioned in scripture in relation to prayer, but can be inferred by the frequent references to bowing. On the other hand, looking someone in the face was a sign of equality and therefore not appropriate for communion with God. Consider this verse.
Who is it you have insulted and blasphemed? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel!
2 Kings 19:22 (NIV)
Praying with your head raised and your eyes open isn’t a sin, but care should be taken. The prophets of the Old Testament (Zephaniah 3:11) and Jesus in the New Testament (Luke 18:11), made it clear that the Lord has a strong distaste for pride and arrogance. Examine your motives.
Having said that, it can be beneficial to open your eyes in some prayer situations. For instance, if you’re leading a vespers in a location of great natural beauty, suggesting that the group pray with their eyes open would be appropriate. In general, any time there’s something to look at that draws attention to or glorifies God, praying with your eyes open is an option.
That's probably more than you wanted to know about the many positions of prayer, but why is it important? Who cares? Maybe God does.
Body language, as a form of communication, is often more revealing of our inner being than what we say. Think of yourself in the following situations: at home watching a favorite TV show, at your child’s sporting event, and at the funeral of a loved one; you’ll see three very distinct body languages that communicate what’s going on in your mind.
The verse above (2 Kings 19:22) applies directly to a pagan king who had blasphemed God, but reveals that God does notice body language. However, it’s the attitude of one’s heart, which the body language reveals, that really concerns the Lord.
Also He (Jesus) spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Luke 18:9-14 (NKJV)
Both of the men in this parable are standing as they pray, but the body language of the tax collector reveals a great difference in the condition of his heart. His heart was broken in remorse for his sin, while the Pharisee was so blinded by his pride that he could not see the sin of his own arrogance.
As a prayer guide; don't manipulate people into using a prayer posture of your choice. Instead, create an atmosphere of spiritual freedom and provide them with opportunities to pray in a way that expresses what they feel in their heart. Make suggestions when appropriate, but don't manipulate.
Human beings are fetish prone. We’re always looking for shortcuts, and that’s just as true in worship as anywhere else. Any of the postures of prayer can become a fetish. For instance, if a person had a particularly moving experience during a service in which they stood much of the time; standing can easily become a fetish for them. Standing during subsequent services tends to bring back those feelings and therefore helps them enter into an attitude of worship more easily.
We’re all like this. Worship fetishes can be anything from speaking in tongues to singing with your eyes closed. A particular action becomes a shortcut that produces immediate spiritual memories or feelings. The problem is that it eventually becomes little more than a habit.
I once saw a lady demonstrate this perfectly. It was during the morning worship of a conference I was attending. We were into the fourth or fifth chorus, everyone was standing, the congregation was singing beautifully, and many worshipers had their hands raised. I noticed some extra motion by a lady sitting near me and couldn’t help but glance her way. Her left hand was waving back and forth above her head, but not as a result of great spiritual motivation. It seemed that her cell phone was ringing in her purse, but she was doing her best to keep that left hand held high while rummaging around in the purse with her right hand.
There’s nothing wrong with having a particular prayer or worship posture that blesses you as long as:
As a prayer guide, your goal is to help others communicate with God. Giving them guidance in this sensitive area of prayer posture can be rewarding if done wisely and prayerfully. For instance, just getting your group on their knees because they've never done it before is not a worthy goal. On the other hand; if you're convinced that being on their knees will better express what's in their hearts during the prayer time you've prepared; that is a worthy goal. Even then, you don't manipulate them. You make any necessary preparations so that they can do it. You explain what your suggesting and why. Then you leave it up to them.
My wonderful mother-in-law passed away this month. She died peacefully with my wife Peggy at her side on Tuesday morning, May 14. She was 92.
Mama Sisson wasn't fancy or famous, but she achieved the things everyone seeks: true love that lasts a lifetime, friendship, purpose in life, significance among her peers, happiness, and even financial security. How did a 5' tall girl that grew up literally next to the tracks in the woods of south Arkansas, lived in the same house for over 60 years, was a member of the same church for over 70, and preferred a simple life - accomplish such a thing?
I'll let her tell you in her own words. "...have a Christian home and serve the Lord."
Peggy asked me to give the funeral sermon and I spent the better part of a day reading everything I could find that her mother had written. It was quite a lot. She was a note taker. Every flyleaf of every Bible she ever had was completely full of her notes and thoughts. On top of that, my daughter had given her a 'Grandmother's Journal' which she had put to good use.
After knowing her for over four decades and reading her thoughts on everything from her first kiss to the meaning of life; I can safely say that the secret of her success and the very focus of her being was... have a Christian home and serve the Lord.
I can't speak of Mama Sisson's passing without acknowledging the loving ministry of my wife Peggy in these last months. She was by her mother's side 24/7 for ten of the last thirteen weeks. She was at times exhausted and stressed as much as I've seen her in our 43 years of marriage. Mrs. Sisson is in heaven now, but her devotion to family and the Lord lives on in her daughter.
The horrific tornado in Moore, Oklahoma reminds us that prayer guides are often called on to intercede in the most tragic of circumstances. Here are some things I've learned:
Want to know more? Chapter 9 in the Prayer Guide book has many insights and practical helps on the issue of praying in tragic circumstances.
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