The use of hands in Worship and Prayer

Dr. Jeff VanGoethem

Some Christians raise their hands when they pray or worship. Many do it publicly during worship services. Some Christians like to clap their hands to worship music. Some do not seem to like this.  Aside from whether one has any natural rhythm or not or what our preferences might be, how are we to use our hands in prayer and worship?  What does the Bible say about this?

The raising of hands is certainly one of the biblically sanctioned postures of prayer. There are many postures that the Bible acknowledges as appropriate for prayer and worship such as sitting, kneeling, standing, lying prostrate, as well as lifting of the hands. None of them automatically make for greater prayer or worship. It is an external thing after all.  However, as the Bible shows us, these are good, human ways of inclining ourselves to the living God, as the physical posture is brought in line with the spiritual desire. Such actions can be helpful for us in our prayer lives and worship experiences. I sometimes call on the whole church to kneel for example, just as a sign of our humility and neediness before God.

Lifting the hands is just a way of reaching up to God to exalt Him or seek Him. It is perfectly appropriate. Some are concerned about this practice since it seems it was the charismatic movement that introduced this practice back into the modern church. That may be true but there is nothing theologically significant about raising hands in worship. One is not embracing charismatic theology by doing this any more than one is embracing Catholic theology by kneeling (Catholics kneel a lot). It is important for us always to evaluate things biblically, not by our own cultural or personal background.

The Bible not only permits this posture in prayer and worship but encourages it (Ps. 28:2, Ps. 63:4, Ps. 134:2, 1Tim. 2:8). If you feel led to do this in your prayer life or in our worship services, feel free.  We certainly want to encourage a measure of liberty in our worship responses, as long as such responses follow the Bible.  And we certainly should not judge one another in this regard.

The emphasis in the modern church seems to raise the hands during singing.  This is a little different from the biblical teaching as the emphasis of the Bible seems to refer more directly to the practice of prayer (1Tim. 2:8).  But many songs are prayers so it is certainly not wrong to raise hands during worship singing.

As far as clapping hands goes, it is also true the Bible mentions this as a part of the worship experience (Ps. 47:1), although it does not have a large emphasis. I don’t believe there are any references to this in the New Testament – the biblical term “clap” is not used in the New Testament.  But there are a few references in the Bible which display clapping the hands as an apparent sign of enthusiasm and excitement for God, which is a proper response on occasion to the greatness of God. Sometimes our worship leaders may ask us to clap. This is fine. It is not something that has to be done all the time, but it is an appropriate aspect of responding to God, according to the Bible. Just as we sometimes clap to express enthusiasm, we will sometimes be still and quiet, which expresses reverence.

In today’s church we have some clapping that seems to be “applauding” like we might do in an entertainment venue.  Although motives are impossible to discern, I think we want to be a little careful with this.  We certainly do not want to be “applauding” in this sense in our worship services, unless it is directed to God. I think we all might want to applaud God from time to time!  Maybe that is what we are doing – if so, I certainly do not want to censor it.  But let’s be careful about applauding the human instrument.  As the old preacher said, “Don’t glorify the worm.”

The use of “hands” in worship should not be thought of as a major issue. It is merely part of permitting a free and spontaneous response to the glory and greatness of God. One of the important things about life in the body of Christ is learning to discern between the mountains and the molehills, or between the majors and the minors. This “hands” business is clearly one of the minors or molehills.

The general rule is we should respond to God in biblical ways.  God permits us to respond in  many ways as we worship and pray to Him.  A healthy spiritual life and worship life will seek a balance in these responses.  This freedom should be reflected in our praying and worshipping so long as everything is “decent and in order” (1Cor. 14:40).