In this season on Lent, it is helpful to consider prayer. Addressing God is not merely a matter of the heart, but of our bodies as well. The Church has emphasized this throughout its history.
It is only quite recently that Protestants and also many Roman Catholics have dispensed with the external traditional characteristics of prayer, such as: kneeling or standing as a rule, or the apostolically prescribed head-coverings for women. Do we really believe what we are supposed to be doing in prayer? The modern rule seems to be: minimal effort for a religious hobby that we are in control of. Our convenience comes first.
Many reformed Christians today will be surprised to learn that John Calvin always lifted his hands as he stood for public prayer. The great Dutch theologian and prime minister Abraham Kuyper would not dream of remaining seated at the table while praying with his family, but kneeled in prayer. Every day. These men really believed that in their prayers they were beseeching an almighty God who was actually present. Previous generations of believers were prepared to look at the Scriptures for guidance in this regard, not merely picking and choosing what was regarded helpful or convenient. Not that long ago, at Easter 1982, the Dutch Reformed pastor, the Rev. J. Maasland (Waddinxveen) wrote a careful exposition about public worship in the Reformed Weekly about the apostolic commandment for men to pray with lifted hands.
Serving God: my way or his way?
These days, it seems, we have decided that God should be pleased if we pray at all and that we serve Him in our way rather than in His. This attitude can be traced as far back as primeval times in Genesis, when Cain’s supposed that God should be satisfied if served in Cain’s way. Not surprisingly, this form of worship was rejected by God. However, rather than repenting and mending his worship ways, Cain hardened his heart and decided he had,somehow, the right to prescribe to God. Any voice that disagreed or any reminder that he was actually practicing self-willed religion, had to be silenced. Unrepentant people tend to act that way. The first fratricide human history was caused by selfrighteousness and was all about acceptable worship.
Likewise, many Christian today read Psalm 44:21, 63:5 and 141:2, or the examples set by Moses, Jesus and the Apostles. But not unlike liberal theologians, we give ourselves the right to decide it is not applicable to us. All sound exegetical principals indicate the contrary. As does a tradition of thousands of years which has only recently been discarded. We sing out loud about “my prayer while lifting hands,” but do we still use biblical postures when we approach God?
The prophet Daniel (6:11) knelt three times a day in prayer. Did you know all reformed Christians used to do the same in church? Boonstra, previously editor of Reformed Worship, described how for at least one century after the Reformation in the Netherlands congregations prayed kneeling in church. This only changed in the 17th century when the social elites wished to be recognized with elaborate pews, which did not provide sufficient space for kneeling. These local magistrates consequently stood in prayer. This example influenced the common people, perhaps out of a ‘Protestant’ spirit of equalitarianism. Otherwise, because of increased church attendance, the prayer chairs which women used were difficult to turn for prayer because of lack of space. But even then, reformed Christians continued to either kneel or stand for public prayer for another few centuries. To remain seated, was considered outrageous. No mere mortal dared to provoke a holy God in that way. Worship was God-centred.
Those familiar with the practice of other churches realize that more traditional practices prevail there, even when we do not recognize them as such. As many psalms and hymns are prayers to God, many congregations in the English-speaking world stand to sing. In traditional Anglican, Roman Catholic and eastern orthodox churches celebrants pray with lifted hands while the congregation stands or kneels.
Reformed Christians sometimes regard lifted hands in worship as a charismatic phenomenon. Far from. During the 20th century revival on the Hebrides the Presbyterian Rev James Murray MacKay and Duncan Campbell prayed while lifting their hands, or at least their right hand to heaven. Dr Andrew Woolsey wrote an edifying book about this revival. It is a logical fallacy to use a negative association to surrender a Biblical practice. If someone with a wrong theology also happens to have a Biblical practice, we should not use that as an excuse for clinging to our own short-lived traditions that have no foundation in Scripture. Shouldn’t Reformed, Catholic or any other Christians for that matter want to do what Scripture instructs? If Pentecostal Christians do at least something right, should we not rather rejoice?
Admittedly, even traditions that are not founded in Scripture can be useful. Praying with your eyes closed and hands folded, like I also learned as a child, may be an effective way to focus on God and to express both dependence and respect. Some say this practice stems from the middle ages, when serfs place their folded hands into those of their Lord. In Scripture, however, this posture for prayer is not found, but it may have developed from lifting one’s hands while kneeling and resting them at the same time.
Deposit of the faith
Our Lord lifted his eyes to the heavens while praying (John 17:1). While king David meditated about God on his bed (Psalm 63:7), both the Old and New Testament practice for prayer (addressing God with requests) was either to stand or kneel. If a saint like Moses sat, it was only eventually because his body was old and tired. In the battle of Israel against Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13) he failed to remain standing, but it was considered vital that his hands remained lifted to keep visible dependency on the heavens intact. Aaron and Hur assisted. Apparently, this lifting of hands was essential in prayer. If lowered the enemy prevailed.
As I am writing this article especially with reformed Christians in mind, let us consider John Calvin. Calvin clearly states that he considers lifting hands in prayer is as one’s duty before God when he discusses the apostolic commandment that men should pray lifting holy hands (1 Timothy 2:8: Volo igitur orare viros in omni loco, sustollentes puras manus, absque ira et disceptatione):
“Besides, this attitude has been generally used in worship during all ages; for it is a feeling which nature has implanted in us, when we ask God, to look upwards, and has always been so strong, that even idolaters themselves, although in other respects they make a god of images of wood and stone, still retained the custom of lifting up their hands to heaven. Let us therefore learn that the attitude is in accordance with true godliness, provided that it be attended by the corresponding truth which is represented by it…”
In other words, according to John Calvin, both God’s general revelation in Creation and his special revelation in Scripture, as well as the practice of the Church of all ages, make it abundantly clear that men should pray in public with their hands lifted to God.
This mirror from Scripture and the history of the Church may question some of our current practices. This can be a challenge we would wish to avoid, but it is an opportunity as well. Do we really mean it if we say the Bible is our infallible guide for life? Or only when it suits us? Is sola Scriptura in communion with the Church of all ages and places genuinely our guiding principle?
Or is the Lord’s judgement (Isaiah 29:13) also applicable to our 21st century church?
“Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”
This is a translation of my recent contribution on this subject to the Reformed Daily