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The Postures of Prayercomment (0)

June 11, 2009

By Bob Terry

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a meeting with leaders of Baptist work from several parts of the world. One of the discussion topics was especially serious. Before the group finished its discussion, the leader asked group members to join together in a “season” of prayer. He said, “In my tradition, whenever there is something of special significance to be laid before the Lord in prayer, we always stand.” And he invited the group to stand during the time of intercession.

I could not help but be struck by how different that tradition is from the practice with which I identify. For most Baptists in this part of the world, a serious matter needing God’s divine intervention causes us to go to Him on our knees.

I remember lots of stories and sermon illustrations about the difference in spiritual power of a man who wears out the knees of his pants before he wears out the seat of his pants.

And in the churches where I have been privileged to serve as pastor, I always knelt by the pulpit when representing the congregation before God in the pastoral prayer. It just seems more appropriate to me.

But is one posture for prayer more appropriate than another? Is one posture more biblically correct than another?

In Mark 11:25, Jesus said to the disciples, “When you stand praying …” His emphasis was not as much on teaching the correct posture for praying as on recognizing that the common practice of that day was for prayer to be offered from a standing position. Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer (Luke 18:9–14) illustrates the point. Jesus introduced the story by saying, “The Pharisee stood up and prayed …”

Early Christians usually stood when they prayed. That was the practice inherited from the Jewish faith, and it carried over into the early church.

But standing is not the only posture for prayer described in the Bible. Those who believe prayer should be offered from a kneeling position point to the fact that Jesus knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane, according to Luke 22:41. When Stephen was stoned, Acts 7:60 says he “knelt and prayed” for his executioners. The apostle Peter knelt by Tabitha’s bedside and prayed (Acts 9:40). In Ephesians 3, the apostle Paul introduced his prayer for the Ephesian Christians by saying, “For this cause I bow the knee …”

There can be no doubt that kneeling to pray was a posture used by early Christians.

The New Testament describes a third posture, one not often used today. That position is prostration. Matthew describes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as lying prostrate on the ground as He prayed for the cup of physical and spiritual suffering to be taken from Him. Occasionally stories surface about people so caught up in prayer that all they can do is throw themselves on the floor or ground as they pour out their souls before God. But prostration remains a seldom-used posture for prayer for most people.

Some people pray with hands raised heavenward. Again this was the common practice of the Jews. Psalms 28:2 and 134:2 are just two of many verses in which the practice is mentioned.

Even the position of the palms of the hands became important. Rabbis taught that as prayer moved from adoration to petitions, the prayer was to raise the palms of the hands toward heaven, evidencing a readiness to receive the blessings of a benevolent Father.

Early Christian art depicts the church fathers praying. Even those in which the arms are not raised in prayer often show the palms of the hands cupped in front of the prayer in an expectant manner.

Should heads be bowed and eyes closed for prayer? Today our tradition says yes. It is a symbol of our adoration for the greatness and glory of God the Father. Our total dependence on Him causes us to recognize our unworthiness and bow in an act of submission.

When Jesus prayed His high priestly prayer (John 17), we are told, “He looked toward heaven” (v. 1). Some might argue that was because of the special relationship between God the Father and God the Son. But the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer indicates praying with eyes lifted skyward was a common practice. In Luke 18:13, Jesus said the tax collector would not even look up to heaven. The implication is that looking toward heaven was a common and accepted practice at the time.

Today many Christians practice what they call open-eyed prayer. The reason is that they are children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. Surely they can look toward the heavenly Father, the One they call Abba, or Daddy.

Interestingly there is no biblical reference toward sitting while one prays. Yet the stories of high moments of prayer while sitting in a special place alone with God and His Word are too numerous to count. Most of us can attest to times of communion with God from a seated posture. I know I can.

Perhaps the key is not the posture of the body in prayer as much as the posture of the heart. Prayer has been defined by one Baptist theologian as “communion of the soul with God.” Through prayer, we reach out to God in thought and desire, as well as in word. In prayer, we wait on God. We listen for God to speak. We are attentive. We are receptive. Our commitment is to be obedient.

None of that is dependent on the posture of the body. All of that is dependent on the posture of the heart. We do not go to prayer to tell God our intercessions and petitions. Prayer is not a monologue. It is always a dialogue. Ultimately our desire is for Him more than it is for His physical or material blessings. Whether we stand or kneel, sit or prostrate ourselves on the floor, bow our heads or lift our hands, none of it really matters unless the posture of our heart is open to God.

With the psalmist, we say, “The earth has nothing I desire but you” (Ps. 73:25).

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