Have you ever wondered about the right way to pray? Or whether there was a wrong way to pray?
As one surveys the world, one observes that there are a multitude of ways in which people pray, and that prayer can take a variety of outward forms. Some kneel in prayer, others stand. Some prayers are offered while laying in bed, some while sitting at a table. There are those who hold hands with others when they pray, forming a chain, and then again there are many who clasp their own hands together to pray, while still others physically lift their hands in prayer. Many pray with heads bowed, while some look upwards in prayer. Some petitioners pray out loud. Some pray silently, within their hearts
With prayer taking so many shapes, it is not completely unheard of for individuals or groups to claim that this way or that way is superior, even citing Scripture to show why their method is to be preferred.
For instance, in 1 Timothy 2:8, we read the apostle Paul telling young Timothy, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling (ESV).” Thus, there are those who think that when they pray, God wants them to lift their hands upward.
In Acts 21:5, Paul and his companions kneeled on a beach to pray, fulfilling the command of the Psalm, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker (Psalm 95:6; ESV)!” Paul likewise talked about bowing the knee in prayer to the Ephesians (cf. Ephesians 3:14). Thus, it seems right for many that they too should kneel when they pray.
Yet, when Solomon dedicated the Temple, he stood before the Altar and prayed (with outstretched hands) (cf. 1 Kings 8:22), and we know that God heard His prayer and answered, so maybe we too should stand when we pray in religious services. Then again, there was the occasion when Jesus told people to sit before He led them in a prayer. On this occasion, we are also told Jesus looked heavenward when He spoke to God (cf. Matthew 14:19), so maybe we need to be looking up when we pray, if we want to pray like Christ. On the other hand, Psalm 35:13 and numerous other passages talk about bowing the head in prayer, which makes us wonder why Jesus chose to look up instead.
The truth of the matter is, as we peruse the Bible, we can see that even within the Scriptures, prayer takes many outward forms. Those forms frequently serve to reinforce the attitude of the petitioner, as well as to meet the needs of the occasion. Kneeling shows submission to God. A bowed head might indicate sorrow or humility. While upstretched hands are indicative of pleading or praise, clutched hands on the reflect earnestness, and the holding of hands together shows a communal spirit as we approach God. When Solomon stood, it was because of the ceremony of the occasion, when Jesus had people sit to pray, it was because they were about to eat, and sitting was a practical position to be in at that moment. When the Bible speaks to the posture of prayer, it is trying to indicate something about the attitude of prayer, not necessarily giving a ceremonial position necessary to make that prayer be heard.
In the Psalms we read this petition to God: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14; ESV).” Whether our prayers are prayed out-loud, or are the internal thoughts of our hearts, directed towards God, the Psalm reminds us that what gives prayer power is the acceptance of that prayer by God. It is God who answers prayer and the power of prayer is not found in the posturing of men, but always in God who moves to act in the world according to His will.
What God has indicated He truly cares about when we pray is our faith, our understanding of what we do and why we do it, and our relationship to Him (cf. James 5:15; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Isaiah 59:1-2). The Bible says, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous (Proverbs 15:29; ESV),” and “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working (James 5:16; ESV).” If you desire God to hear your prayers, then the real question is not “what is the position the body,” but rather, “what is the condition of your heart and soul before God?”
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.