Friday, April 12, 2013

Bodily Postures in the Worship Service

The following is an essay I wrote over a year ago regarding the use of our bodies in worship.  I publish it here now mainly for its scriptural data on bodily posture in worship.

Why Do We Do What We Do? –Raising Hands and Kneeling

All throughout our worship service we are doing things with our bodies.  We use our ears to hear, our tongues and mouths to sing and speak, our eyes to see, our hands to pass the bread and wine, our feet to stand, etc.  Included in this list is also the use of our legs to kneel in prayer and the use of our hands as we lift them up in a raised position to sing.  I wanted to address again why we do these things in the worship service so that we can better understand the reasons we engage in worship the way that we do.

The Body: Matter Matters!

God created the world of material things and he likes it!  We have a body created by God in which to glorify him.  We need to remember that what we do with our bodies is a reflection of our souls.  C. S. Lewis in his book The Screwtape Letters has the senior devil Screwtape instructing the junior tempter Wormwood in the way of subverting the faith of a Christian.  Everything in the book is topsy-turvy (for example, the Enemy is God himself, as seen from the demonic perspective) but Lewis is a master at exposing the subtle movements of sin.  In discussing prayer Screwtape encourages Wormword with the following words:

One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray “with moving lips and bended knees” but merely “composed his spirit to love” and indulged “ a sense of supplication.”  That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, a clever and lazy patient can be taken in by it for quite a long time.  At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.[1]

We are not mere minds or disembodied spirits.  We are embodied souls whose bodies are meant to be the vehicles through which and in which God’s glory and kingdom is manifest.  When we bow our knees before God we are acknowledging with our whole being—body and soul—that we are in the presence of our sovereign God.  When we lift our hands our entire being—heart and body—is lifted up to God. 

What About the Heart?

Jesus very clearly taught (and he got this from the Scriptures) that it is possible to draw near to God with one’s tongue (words) but have one’s heart captive to another love.  Jesus said:

Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far away from me.”  Mark 7.6[2]

So it is possible to bow the knees and raise the hands in a worship service and yet have one’s heart a million miles away.  The heart is central.  We live out of our heart and we should watch over our heart with all diligence so as to keep an eye on its loves and interests (Proverbs 4.23).  But just because the heart is central is no reason to despise the body.  Our bodily movements—whether lips, knees, or hands—should reflect our hearts.  Our bodily movements in worship should all be aligned with our hearts.  Consider these words from Lamentations 3.41:

            We lift up our heart and hands toward God in heaven.

This is where I draw the language that I often use in preface to the Doxology when I say, “Let us lift our heart and hands toward God in heaven as we sing.”  Notice, both heart and hands are to be lifted up.  Both together are used to seek the Lord. 

Kneeling in the Bible

Throughout the Bible we see example after example of people kneeling in the presence of God as they are in prayer.

Ezra            But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God.  (Ezra 9.5)[3]

Solomon            When Solomon had finished praying this entire prayer and supplication to the LORD, he arose from before the altar of the LORD, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread toward heaven.  (1 Kings 8.54)

All Israel            All the sons of Israel, seeing the fire come down and glory of the LORD upon the house, bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshipped and gave praise to the LORD, saying, “Truly he is good, truly his lovingkindness is everlasting.”  (2 Chronicles 7.3)

Hezekiah            Now at the completion of the burnt offerings, the king and all who were present with him bowed down and worshipped.  (2 Chronicles 29.29)

Daniel            Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously.  (Daniel 6.10)

Stephen            Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”  Having said this, he fell asleep.  (Acts 7.60)

Peter            But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.”  And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up.  (Acts 9.40)

Paul            For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … (Ephesians 3.14)[4]

Jesus            And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and he knelt down and began to pray, …  (Luke 22.41)

When the end of all things has come there will come the time when all peoples will bow their knees before King Jesus.  Paul’s powerful words speak of this time:

For this reason also, God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2.9-11)[5]

In reflecting on these words from Philippians 2, Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror accurately state:

In these words the biblical end of mankind is stated: the goal of the incarnation is the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.  And the end of man in this regard is public confession on bended knee.

You see, the question really is not “Shall we kneel or not in our worship of God and of His Christ?”  We shall one day all kneel.  The question is, rather, “Shall we who will kneel in the future, kneel now as well?”[6]

Kneeling is a God-ordained means of expressing our devotion and allegiance to our great God and his Son, Jesus Christ.  Kneeling expresses with our bodies the deepest longings of our heart—at least it should.  In our act of kneeling we are attempting to say, “the totality of who I am belongs to you, O God, and I am in glad subjection to you.”  So it is good and right that we would express ourselves in kneeling in our corporate worship service. 

Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.  For
 he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. 
Psalm 95.6-7a

Raising Hands in the Bible

The raising of hands before the Lord is often mentioned in Scripture.  In the above passages the raising of hands was done with kneeling (Nehemiah 8.6; Ezra 9.5; 1 Kings 8.54).  Also, Lamentations 3.41 was quoted (“We lift up our heart and hands toward God in heaven.”) in which the raising of hands was mentioned.  The Psalms are full of the raising of hands to the Lord:

            So I will bless you as long I live; I will lift up my hands in your name.  Psalm 63.4

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; in the night my hand was stretched out without weariness; my soul refused to be comforted.  Psalm 77.2

My eye has wasted away because of affliction; I have called upon you every day, O LORD; I have spread out my hands to you.  Psalm 88.9

Lift up your hands to the sanctuary and bless the LORD.  Psalm 134.2

May my prayer be counted as incense before you; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.  Psalm 141.2

I stretched out my hands to you; my soul longs for you, as a parched land.  Psalm 143.6

In the New Testament 1 Timothy 2.8 states:

Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.

Here there is the recognition of the common posture in prayer—the lifting of hands—with a call for holiness in action and motive.  John Calvin, in commenting on Psalm 134.2, states the matter well:

For why do men lift their hands when they pray?  Is it not that their hearts may be raised at the same time to God?

The raising of hands is not merely expressive of our heart but the action of raising our hands can help lead our heart into the appropriate responses to God.  This function is at work not only in prayer but also in the midst of song.  John Frame in his book Worship in Spirit and Truth speaks of how

[L]ifting the hands is a way of drawing toward God as the object of worship and the source of our blessing.[7]

In the act of raising our hands we are reaching out to our Father in heaven (Matthew 6.9).  We recognize and demonstrate with our very bodies that our Father is above us and we are like dependent children before him (Psalm 103.13).

Do I have to?  What if I don’t want to?

Let’s face the truth…there are times we don’t want to raise our hands or kneel before God.  What should we do then?  First, we need to be reminded of the biblical material on these bodily postures in worship.  Sometimes people think that it “feels weird” to lift their hands.  God’s word needs to be our standard of normalcy.  We saw that everyone from every place and age will kneel before Jesus someday.  This is good and “normal” to do now.

Sometimes people struggle with the idea of “having to” raise their hands or kneel even when they don’t feel like it.  “Perhaps,” they reason, “I should only do these activities if my heart is fully in it or else I’m just a hypocrite.”  Eugene Peterson has some profound thoughts in this regard:

We are invited to bless the Lord; we are commanded to bless the Lord.  And then someone says, “But I don’t feel like it.  And I won’t be a hypocrite.  I can’t bless the Lord if I don’t feel like blessing the Lord.  It wouldn’t be honest.”

The biblical response to that is, “Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the LORD!” [Psalm 134.2]  You can lift up your hands regardless of how you feel; it is a simple motor movement.  You may not be able to command your heart, but you can command your arms.  Lift your arms in blessing, just maybe your heart will get the message and be lifted up also in praise.  We are psychosomatic beings; body and spirit are intricately interrelated.  Go through the motions of blessing God and your spirit will pick up the cue and follow along.[8]

So sometimes our heart will lead the way and we will express ourselves bodily.  Other times our hearts will lag behind and engaging our bodies in biblically prescribed ways will lift our heart to where it needs to be. 

For others the issue of not wanting to raise hands or kneel has to do with associations—raising hands seems “too charismatic” or kneeling feels “too Roman Catholic.”  In this regard Sam Storms has often mentioned that those evangelicals who hold seriously to the Bible often have an “eleventh commandment”:

            Thou shalt not do at all what others do poorly.

For various reasons these postures of raised hands and kneeling have become attached to these other traditions.  In seeking to distance ourselves from the perceived errors of these traditions we can erroneously throw out biblical practices.  That is why we stated with the biblical material on raising hands and kneeling.  If we are people committed to the Scriptures as our infallible rule of faith and practice then we must be willing to orient our practice around the word of God.  If other traditions have pursued these things in a less than ideal manner this is no excuse for us to fail to seek bring our practice into accordance with God’s word.

Form and Freedom

In our service we have implemented the corporate kneeling and the raising of hands at various spots.  When we engage the Confession of Sin we invite those who are able to kneel.  We recognize that for some there is a bodily limitation that makes it difficult to kneel (or stand back up!).  For those who cannot kneel they should feel no guilt or pressure.  God does indeed know your heart and the “bowing of heart” is what is central.  For the raising of the hands we have come to do this as an entire congregation for our singing of the Doxology after the Lord’s Table and for the second verse of the Gloria Patri to close the service.  You will also notice that some individuals raise their hands in other parts of the service.  For example, some raise their hands for the first verse of the Gloria Patri and others will raise their palms upward in a posture of “receiving” the Benediction.  Some people raise their hands in the midst of singing any of our other songs in the service.  This brings us to the issues of Form and Freedom.  By “form” we mean structure—the corporate time of raising hands.  By “freedom” we mean the freedom of the individual to raise hands as they desire.  We want to provide opportunity for both aspects—both form and freedom. 

As is often the case, there is always a tension between form and freedom.  There are those who like form—they like the corporate expression of raising hands.  For others this form seems stilted.  They feel that the raising of hands should be done only when the individual is personally moved to do so.  We value the form because it allows us to participate together in this biblical practice.  On the other hand, there are those feel that the freedom aspect isn’t quite right.  They tend to think that those who engage this way are “too individualistic.”  Sometimes a bit of judgmentalism is thrown in: “I think they’re just trying to draw attention to themselves!”  Again, we want to provide the opportunity for both form and freedom—especially in regards to the raising of hands in worship.  We would hope all would participate in the set congregational times of hand raising to our God.  We hope, as well, that we create an atmosphere of freedom so that those who wish to raise their hands as they feel led can do so in a worshipful manner.

The Sum of the Matter…

Our great God is seeking worshippers to worship him in Spirit and truth (John 4.23).  We are seeking to respond to him with our whole heart and our bodies.  The Lord has given us instruction in his Word—both by precept and example—of how to use our bodies in worshipful response to him.  Kneeling before our great God and raising our hands to our heavenly Father are good and appropriate acts of worship.  Let our focus be on him—the one to whom all our love and allegiance is due.

[1] C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters (Macmillian, 1976), pp. 33-34.
[2] Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 29.13.
[3] See also Nehemiah 8.6.
[4] See also Acts 20.36 (“he knelt down and prayed with them all”) and 21.5 (“After kneeling down on the beach and praying…”) where Paul kneels with various churches as he says farewell to them on his journey.
[5] Paul is very clearly here quoting a portion of Isaiah 45.23 which in its original context refers to Yahweh. 
[6] Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (Multnomah, 1982), p. 129.  Allen and Borror’s chapter eleven (“The Body of the Believer in Worship”) is very good at showing the scriptural teaching on the issues of kneeling and raising hands in worship.
[7] John Frame Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996), p. 131.
[8] Quoted in Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (Multnomah, 1982), p. 132.