A new convert recently brought up to me how she’s noticed that a lot of people in various churches lift their hands up high and close their eyes while singing, praying, and listening to the sermon. She asked my why they do this. I’ve asked the same question over the years to some whom I’ve observed doing this. The answer I tend to get back is because they’ve seen others do it and they think it would be a very spiritual thing to do which will make them feel closer to God.
Sometimes someone will answer, “Because it’s in the Bible,” although all but one who said this admitted they did not know where. The person who did pointed to David (Ps. 28:2). David, as well as Solomon (1 Kings 8:22) and the Israelites (Is. 1:15), raised their hands while praying. Scripture also shows people doing other things with their bodies while praying at times, such as bowing their head (Gen. 24:26), lifting up their eyes (John 17:1), not lifting up their eyes (Lk. 18:13), kneeling (1 Kings 8:54), standing (1 Sam. 1:26), or prostrating oneself on the ground (1 Kings 18:42). This tells us that God has not specifically commanded an explicit thing to do with our body while praying to him.
We must show God reverence in worship (Heb. 12:28), and it’s clear that most of what was listed above are clear outward signs of deep reverence. However, it’s also interesting to note that Hannah did nothing but stand while praying, and an observer (Eli) erroneously judged her to be drunk because she “was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard” (1 Sam. 1:12-13). Hannah was not only completely sober, but the Lord clearly recognized that she was praying reverently even in the midst of her pain, considering that he answered her prayer for a child affirmatively. All she was doing was standing while praying, but she was still reverent in her worship. Thus, true spirituality and reverence in worship is not necessarily dependent upon one’s posture. Worship pleasing to God is both according to his revealed will in Scripture and from the heart and thus sincere (cf. Matt. 15:8-9). If you sincerely feel the need to revere God by doing that which you read of others doing in Scripture to revere God like what the physical acts listed above, then do so. Do not do it because you see others doing it and you think it would be “cool” or cause them to think you to be a pious person (cf. Matt. 6:1ff). Do not do it because you think doing it is all which is required to be truly spiritual while worshiping God, because you could raise your hands or bow your head while in prayer and your heart/mind still be a thousand miles away focused on worldly matters rather than addressing your Creator in prayer (cf. Matt. 15:8-9a). Above all, make sure that all you do in worship is in keeping with all of his will revealed in Scripture (John 4:24; cf. John 17:17; Ps. 119:160a).
With this in mind, let’s examine what else Scripture has to say about raising one’s hands in worship. Deepening our study in this way will show there is more to this matter than heart-felt sincerity and reverence. Within the New Testament, the covenant which we are to obey (cf. Heb. 8:7-13; 9:15-17; Rom. 7:1-4; et al), Paul mentions “lifting up holy hands” while praying (1 Tim. 2:8). Looking at this literally, there are no such things as literal hands which are “holy,” just as it is impossible for one’s physical eyes to be “haughty” (Prov. 6:17) or one’s physical lips to be “lying” (Prov. 12:22). Oftentimes the Bible uses a figure of speech known as a synecdoche, in which a part of something is spoken of to figuratively represent the whole. Thus, “haughty eyes” (Prov. 6:17) figuratively refers to a haughty person; “lying lips” (Prov. 12:22) figuratively refers to a liar. In like manner, “lifting up holy hands” is a synecdoche used by Paul to command that Christian men who lead prayer in the worship assembly must be men who are holy and spiritual rather than worldly and sinful. Whether they literally and physically lift up their hands while in prayer is not the point being made in the verse.
However, this verse is still commonly cited as the reason anyone in church can or even should lift up their hands during any and all acts of worship. So for those who view the verse literally rather than in the figurative sense intended by Paul, let’s look closer at the passage. The context has to do with what is done in churches “in every place” when they worship (2:8-15; 3:14-15; cf. 1 Cor. 4:17). With that in mind, notice that “lifting up holy hands” is said to be done while praying, not while singing or listening to preaching as is commonly done in many churches today. Also, Paul says it is “men” who should do this, not women. (“Men” in this verse is aner in the Greek, the male gender, rather than anthropos, humanity as a whole.) Thus, unlike what is done in so many churches where both genders lift up their hands in not just prayer but also in song and during the sermon, the New Testament directs only men to lift up their hands and only during prayer.
Pointing this out has sometimes resulted in knee-jerk accusations of “Legalist!” To such charges, I would reply that simply pointing out that what 1 Timothy 2:8 actually says is quite different from what is commonly done concerning the practice of raising hands in worship is quite the opposite of the legalism Jesus condemned in the Pharisees, a legalism which put actual scriptural teaching aside in favor of their man-made traditions (cf. Matt. 15:1-6). These false charges given so quickly make me question if more than lifting our hands is needed to make us truly spiritual in worship.
The New Testament speaks of another divine directive which must be kept in mind. We must be careful to not cause our fellow man to stumble and keep ourselves from doing anything that would hinder them from being taught or edified spiritually. Think of the person who feels the need to loudly say “Amen!” or “That’s right, that’s right” every few seconds during the sermon. It’s hard to focus on what’s being taught when this happens. The reason Paul taught that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) is because Corinth was using their gifts in ways counterproductive to the edification of their brethren (14:26; cf. 14:16-17, 29-31). He wanted them to be considerate of those around them and not do anything that would distract from their learning, even if they had the freedom to do it (1 Cor. 8-10; cf. Rom. 14). The truly spiritual, mature Christian will keep this in mind when he or she considers what they do with their bodies while in public worship to God, and in doing so be like Christ (Phil. 2:1-5).