When we pray, does it make any difference whether we kneel, sit, or stand? Why do we close our eyes when we pray? We usually fold our hands and bow our heads? Is this “custom” or does it mean something? All of this is included in the posture for prayer.
It is good for young people to be concerned about prayer. From time to time we have had the privilege to lead discussions on this subject. Usually young people show interest in this subject. I suspect one reason is that we are confronted so frequently with the need. to pray. It is not exceptional for us to pray up to ten times a day. Sometimes we have to partake by listening, other times by leading. Besides this, we all sense the spiritual importance of prayer, it can be such a meaningful experience and make such a difference in our lives if we pray sincerely. The opposite is also true, nothing can make us feel more guilty than when we neglect to pray or pray out of habit, it is hypocrisy and the Lord abhors hypocrites.
The question we raise in this article is this, does the posture we assume when we pray make any difference? We believe it does. Let’s see why.
THE BIBLE AND POSTURE
According to Bible encyclopedias, it is suggested that during Old Testament times the saints usually stood to pray. Quite often they would spread out their hands toward God and express themselves vocally.
Let’s look at some variations in posture.
Hannah was the God-fearing wife of Elkanah. Her sorrow of heart was that she had no children. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had many children and even decided Hannah for her barrenness. At the temple in Shiloh, Hannah separated herself from the others and prayed unto the Lord that He might give her a son, and promised to consecrate him unto the service of the Lord. Eli thought she was drunk and reprimanded her. Her posture for this prayer is indicated in I Samuel 1:26, “And she said, O my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the Lord.”
Consider King Solomon at the time of the dedication, of the newly constructed temple. According to I Kings 8:22 we read, “And Solomon P stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the congregation of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven.” In the alternate account of II Chronicles 6:12, 13 we read, “And he stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the congregation of Israel, and spread forth his hands; for Solomon had made a brazen scaffold of five cubits long and five cubits broad, and three cubits high, and had set it in the midst of the court; and upon it he stood, and kneeled down upon his knees before all the congregation of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven.” We can well picture the Ring on his knees while he is spreading out his hands toward heaven, praying to God, expressing the thanksgiving of the people for the beautiful temple and all it meant to them.
We read of a similar event in Nehemiah 8:6. At this time, Ezra the scribe stood before the people reading from the book of the law. This was a time for confession of sin and turning from them. The response of the people was, “And Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands, and they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
We are familiar with Daniel. The princes of the Medes were jealous of Daniel and moved against him to have him killed. They succeeded in passing a law that anyone who prayed to any other God than Ring Darius would be cast into the den of lions. Daniel was unmoved by their threat and he continued praying. We read, “Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before His God as he did aforetime.”
One more example of prayer under unique circumstances in Old Testament times, we find in I Kings 18:42, 43. Remember Elijah the prophet? He had prayed to God that it might not rain, James 5:17, and it did not for three and a half years. After the climatic moment at Mt. Carmel, he took his servant and, “Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees, and said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea, and he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again seven times.” Surely that posture of prayer spoke of the inner earnestness of Elijah that God would hear him.
We can also add a few references from the New Testament.
At the time of the angel’s appearance to Zacharias to announce the birth of John the Baptist, we read, “And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of. incense,” Luke 1:10. They would stand in the court and pray to God while the smell of the incense filled the temple.
Most familiar is the example of the publican and Pharisee. Of these two men we read that they went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, “stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican, I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess,” Luke 18:11, 12. Quite a different picture for the publican, “And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner,” Luke 18:12.
Jesus often spent the whole night in prayer. Most moving, however, is the description of his posture in Gethsemane, “And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
INTERPRETING THESE EXAMPLES
We may well ask at this point, what do we learn from these references? Is there anything that we can conclude from these examples? Let’s consider the following.
First, we cannot say that there is any one correct posture for prayer. There certainly was a variety of bodily positions when the Old and New Testament saints prayed. This was also true of our Lord. It is also true in our lives. There are times when we sit to pray, e.g. at the table when we are about to eat, other times we stand, as, for example, in church when we receive the blessing or at the grave during a funeral; still other times we kneel as at our bed side, or perhaps we may pray while lying on our backs in bed when we are ill in the hospital. One can hardly say there is one correct posture for us. The circumstances pretty much determine this for us.
Secondly, our posture reflects to some extent the spiritual condition of our inner selves. Consider the Old Testament saints when they stood with their faces toward heaven and stretched out their hands to God. The spiritual condition of their soul was that of praise; they sought to get as close to God as they could. They were filled with joy and thanksgiving, and through prayer they expressed this to God. Their posture reflected this. By contrast, if the saint was filled with the consciousness of sin and its consequence, he would kneel down, he would look to the earth, his heart was heavy. Consider Elijah, the publican, even Christ as our Mediator, burdened with the consciousness of our sins and the burden He was about to bear at Calvary. There is some of this in us also. Our posture reflects the attitude we take toward God. If we sit back, slump in the chair, fail to close our eyes, we certainly tell others and especially God that our soul isn’t in the right spiritual condition. It hurts me to see this happen in church during “long prayer.” People will sometimes slump down, prop up their leg with a, book, and publicly declare that they are about to take a nap. Their posture tells what the spiritual condition of the soul is. At other times you see one cast down, with ringing of hands, tears from the eyes, while a prayer flows from the lips toward God. You can tell their soul is being unburdened. The posture indicates this.
Thirdly, proper posture is an aid to prayer. This is true in everything that we do. If we are going to type effectively, we have to have a chair at the right level with a back support, and we have to sit up straight. Teachers sometimes weary of “harping” on pupils sitting up. The reason? A student can’t do his best work while sitting hammock style at his desk. The same is true for prayer. You perhaps tried to cheat a bit in your evening prayer by skipping the bit of kneeling by your bedside, but jumped instead into bed. It’s a lot cozier under the blankets. It doesn’t take long, and one soon discovers that his prayer suffers. Your mind isn’t alert, you may begin to get drowsy, and soon you may even skip praying altogether. It is an art to lead a congregation in prayer, one that a minister and elder has to work at constantly; but it takes no less discipline to stay alert as a member of the congregation during the entire congregational prayer. Posture makes a difference. If you are going to fight sleep or inattention, it makes a difference whether you are slumped down or sitting on the edge of your bench, or even standing up. Try it sometimes. And after all, if the congregational prayer is going to be of benefit to each of us, we need to do all we can to make it such. Think about your posture.
THE TRADITIONAL THREE
What about our hands being folded, the closing of our eyes, and bowing of our heads?
They are part of our posture and if we consider them as such, we will discover that they are not empty tradition, but definite aids in our prayer and should be considered such.
If we understand that the three-fold act of folding hands, closing eyes, and bowing of head symbolize something, we might appreciate them more. Take the closing of eyes, this is not practiced simply to keep us from being distracted, it is that to be sure, but it symbolizes the fact we cannot look upon God except through faith in Jesus Christ. God is holy and we are sinners. By closing our eyes, we testify that it is only through faith in Christ that we can even call God our Father. Similarly, by bowing our heads we confess that God is the Sovereign of heaven and earth and we are His servants. We cannot do anything to please Him; our works do not merit our righteousness; rather we can only plead upon the mercies of Christ. By folding our hands we confess to God that He is the provider and we are the recipients of all things. Without His blessing upon us our works are vain, we are dependent upon His guidance. We confess that it is only in Christ that God will forgive our sins and provide all our needs.
It seems to me that it is generally true that by placing one’s body in that three-fold position it will help us in prayer. I am well aware of the fact that the three-fold posture cannot make a meaningful prayer. The posture does not make the prayer. If we would imagine this, we would easily slip into the error of hypocrisy; we would conveniently go through the motions of correct posture and say our prayer and conclude that such a prayer is acceptable to God. This is not true. Rather, prayer is always a matter of the heart. The condition of one’s heart makes the prayer sincere (fervent), see James 5:16. Only when one is sincerely aware of his sins, his needs, of Jehovah’s love and mercy, can he pray meaningfully. Yet, it also remains true that we are creatures of this earth. If opening our eyes, fumbling with our hands, looking around interferes with prayer, this should be abandoned and we should adopt the posture that best aids us in bringing our needs and thanksgiving to God.
Posture is not a hard and fast rule. There is not one position that fits every circumstance. A prayer may well be breathed to God behind the wheel of a car, while walking through the halls of the hospital to visit a sick one, or any other emergency. We are rather thinking of the special moment that we set aside for prayer.
Does your posture help you in your praying?