On more than one occasion I’ve been asked: “Sam, why do you lift your hands when you worship?” My answer is two-fold.
First, I raise my hands when I pray and praise because I have explicit biblical precedent for doing so. I don’t know if I’ve found all biblical instances of it, but consider this smattering of texts.
”So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands” (Psalm 63:4).
“To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit. Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary” (Psalm 28:1).
“Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you” (Psalm 88:9).
“I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:48).
“Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD!” (Psalm 134:2).
“O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” (Psalm 141:1-2).
“I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land” (Psalm 143:6).
“Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands. Solomon had made a bronze platform five cubits long, five cubits wide, and three cubits high, and had set it in the court, and he stood on it. Then he knelt on his knees in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven” (2 Chronicles 6:12-13).
“And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God” (Ezra 9:5).
“And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:6).
“Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (Lamentations 3:41).
“I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Timothy 2:8).
If someone should object and say that few of these texts speak of worship (see Pss. 63:4; 134:2), but only of prayer (as if a rigid distinction can even be made between the two; indeed, I can’t recall ever worshiping God without praying to him!), my question is simply this: Why do you assume that the appropriate place for your hands is at your side and you need an explicit biblical warrant for raising them? Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable to assume that the appropriate place for one’s hands is raised toward heaven, calling for an explicit biblical warrant (other than gravity or physical exhaustion) to keep them low?
The second answer I give to the question, “Why do you lift your hands when you worship?” is: “Because I’m not a Gnostic!” Gnosticism, both in its ancient and modern forms, disparages the body. Among other things, it endorses a hyper-spirituality that minimizes the goodness of physical reality. Gnostics focus almost exclusively on the non-material or “spiritual” dimensions of human existence and experience. The body is evil and corrupt, little more than a temporary prison for the soul that longs to escape into a pure, ethereal, altogether spiritual mode of being.
But biblical Christianity celebrates God’s creation of physical reality (after all, he did pronounce it “good” in Genesis 1). We are more than immaterial creatures. We are embodied souls, and are to worship God with our whole being. Paul couldn’t have been more to the point when he exhorted us to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” which is our “spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
By all means, we must worship with understanding. We must think rightly of God and love him with our heart and soul and mind (see Mt. 22:37). But we are not, for that reason, any less physical beings. We will have glorified bodies forever in which to honor and adore our great God. If we are commanded to dance, kneel, sing and speak when we worship, what possible reason could there be for not engaging our hands as well?
Ronald Allen is spot on in his portrayal of the significance of the human hand:
“It is the human hand which beautifully typifies the human spirit. It is distinct from the hands of the lower animals in appearance and dexterity. Observe the hands of a skilled person; no matter the field, it is an amazing exhibition of the genius of our creative Lord. Think of the fingers of the typist, the seamstress, the potter, the painter, the violinist, the mechanic, the builder; the list could be endless. The hand allows the creative to be expressive; it can do so much good or evil. The hand can be firm, as a parent’s spank or firm grasp; it can be gentle, stroking the hair or face of a child or lover” (122).
In addition, the human hand gives visible expression to so many of our beliefs, feelings, and intentions. When I taught homiletics, one of the most difficult tasks was getting young preachers to use their hands properly. Either from embarrassment or fear, they would keep them stuffed in their pockets, hidden from sight behind their backs, or nervously twiddle them in a variety of annoying ways.
Our hands speak loudly. When angry, we clinch our fists, threatening harm to others. When guilty, we hide our hands or hold incriminating evidence from view. When uneasy, we sit on them to obscure our inner selves. When worried, we wring them. When afraid, we use them to cover our face or hold tightly to someone for protection. When desperate or frustrated, we throw them wildly in the air, perhaps also in resignation or dismay. When confused, we extend them in bewilderment, as if asking for advice and direction. When hospitable, we use them to warmly receive those in our presence. When suspicious, we use them to keep someone at bay, or perhaps point an accusing finger in their direction.
Does it not seem wholly appropriate, therefore, to raise them to God when we seek him in prayer or celebrate him with praise? So again, why do I worship with hands raised?
Because like one who surrenders to a higher authority, I yield to God’s will and ways and submit to his guidance and power and purpose in my life. It is my way of saying, “God, I am yours to do with as you please.”
Because like one who expresses utter vulnerability, I say to the Lord: “I have nothing to hide. I come to you open handed, concealing nothing. My life is yours to search and sanctify. I’m holding nothing back. My heart, soul, spirit, body and will are an open book to you.”
Because like one who needs help, I confess my utter dependency on God for everything. I cry out: “O God, I entrust my life to you. If you don’t take hold and uplift me, I will surely sink into the abyss of sin and death. I rely on your strength alone. Preserve me. Sustain me. Deliver me.”
Because like one who happily and expectantly receives a gift from another, I declare to the Lord: “Father, I gratefully embrace all you want to give. I’m a spiritual beggar. I have nothing to offer other than my need of all that you are for me in Jesus. So glorify yourself by satisfying me wholly with you alone.”
Because like one who aspires to direct attention away from self to the Savior, I say: “O God, yours is the glory; yours is the power; yours is the majesty alone!”
Because as the beloved of God, I say tenderly and intimately to the Lover of my soul: “Abba, hold me. Protect me. Reveal your heart to me. I am yours! You are mine! Draw near and enable me to know and feel the affection in your heart for this one sinful soul.”
For those many years when I kept my hands rigidly at my side or safely tucked away in the pockets of my pants, I knew that none would take notice of my praise of God or my prayers of desperation. No one would dare mistake me for a fanatic! I felt in control, dignified, sophisticated, and above all else, safe. These matter no more to me.
Please understand: these are not words of condemnation but confession. I know no one’s heart but my own. I judge no one’s motives but mine. I’m not telling you how to worship, but simply sharing how I do and why. I’m at that point in life where I honestly couldn’t care less what the immovable evangelical is thinking or the crazy charismatic is feeling. What matters to me is that God have my all: my mind, will, feet, eyes, ears, tongue, heart, affections, and yes, my hands.
No, you need not raise your hands to worship God. But why wouldn’t you want to?