Prayer and posture.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 July

On assuming the position.

I neither close my eyes nor bow my head when I pray.

Yep, that’s right. My eyes are open and I’m looking forward. Sometimes upward; sometimes downward. Sometimes at a list of prayer requests, or at a bible ’cause I’m looking for relevant scriptures, or at the person I’m praying for.

If I’m praying in the middle of an on-the-street ministry, of course I’m watching out my fellow ministers. ’Cause when people pray in public with their eyes closed, that’s the very best time for people to hassle us. Or lift our wallets. Or even shank people. It’s neither practical, safe, nor wise to close our eyes in some neighborhoods.

And if I’m working with kids, you know some of ’em are gonna take advantage of the times no one’s looking. They’re regularly surprised to find me looking. And a little disappointed ’cause now they can’t get away with anything. Sometimes they feign a little offense: “Why weren’t your eyes closed while you were praying? You know you’re supposed to close your eyes.”

Says who? Well, some pastors: “Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes.” Maybe even fold our hands. It’s how I was taught to do it as a child. My pastors still ask the congregation to do it, ’cause they’re about to ask people to confess stuff, and don’t wanna embarrass the confessors.

But the practice comes from western custom. Not bible, ’cause ancient practice was to lift one’s hands to the sky. Ne 8.6, Ps 28.2, 63.4, 134.2, 141.2, Lm 2.19, 3.41, Lk 24.50, 1Ti 2.8 Sometimes while kneeling. He 12.12

Two stories attempt to explain where western custom came from:

  • It’s the natural position medieval monks would take while they were at their studies, hunched over their bibles. (Assuming they could read, and had access to bibles.)
  • Kings used to demand their subjects approach them on their knees, with bowed heads, and not look ’em in the face. Since God’s our king, Christians figured we oughta approach him the same way.

But as custom, it’s optional. Bible doesn’t mandate any particular posture when we pray. God’s okay with us praying in any position. Standing up, sitting down, laying face down or face up, kneeling, bowing with our head to the floor, standing on our heads. The important thing is we don’t stop praying, and if we feel we simply have to assume a certain posture before we can pray properly, we’re letting that posture interfere with our prayer lives. So cut it out.

There’s nothing wrong with a custom when it helps us worship God better. There’s everything wrong with it when we’re more fixated on the custom than the actual worship. You know, like those kids who insist it’s not a real prayer unless we prayed with our eyes closed. Where’d they get that idea? From adults who told them, “We can’t pray till everyone’s eyes are closed”—and never bothered to explain they really meant won’t, not can’t.

That’s how customs wind up taking priority. (Something we need to watch out for when we teach newbies and kids to pray. So remember that for later.)

Can’t focus?

When I was a kid, and adults instructed me to close my eyes when I prayed, they didn’t actually know why we had to pray with our eyes closed. Nobody had taught ’em. True of a lot of traditions: We just hand ’em down without question. Never ask whether they contribute to our relationship with God or not. Not very wise of us.

Me, I asked questions. “Why do we gotta close our eyes?”

I remind you of the two stories. I didn’t learn ’em till my teenage years. My childhood teachers didn’t know ’em. And when people don’t know an answer, and don’t think to investigate it themselves, they just invent one. (Way easier than investigating.)

So I was told, “You shouldn’t be looking around at other things while you pray. They’ll distract you.”

Now this explanation… kinda sucks. For three reasons.

When you close your eyes, y’notice all those “stars” and colors, light spots and dark spots, moving patterns and so forth, which you can still see? Which you can even see in the dark? They’re called phosphenes. Our retinas are always cranking ’em out, even when our eyes are supposedly resting. Kids can be just as distracted by phosphenes as anything.

Second. Ever notice how these same adults who say, “Close your eyes lest you get distracted,” never think to instruct kids to do the same thing for anything else? “Close your eyes and listen to me very carefully.” In all the years I went to school, or taught school, not one teacher told us to do this. Wisely so: Tell your kids to close their eyes and listen, and they’ll fall asleep on you. I use this trick at naptime. Works great.

Lastly, the mind wanders. It just does. It’s designed to; it’s part of the brain’s creative process. If we think we can control any of the wandering by shutting our eyes, we’re fooling ourselves. Closing our eyes is a comfortable position. We sleep with our eyes closed. You wanna focus? You need to get uncomfortable.

No, let’s not hurt ourselves. Lots of Christians have historically made that mistake. But Christians have found that in order to focus on God, a little bit of worldly discomfort actually helps. Kneel ’cause it’s less comfortable than sitting. Bow ’cause it’s less comfortable than kneeling. Raise our hands ’cause it’s harder to keep our hands up than not—and arguably that’s why the folks in the bible prayed with lifted hands.

No, God doesn’t require us to put ourselves in uncomfortable postures before we pray to him. Good thing too: Knowing how people are, you realize they’d try to make themselves the most uncomfortable, just to show God their devotion. Like replace their comfortable undergarments with hairshirts or tightly cinched belts; maybe whip or cut themselves. You know, like medieval Christians have—and some overzealous Christians still do. Again: Let’s not hurt ourselves. God doesn’t want that. If you simply can’t focus, and simply raising your hands to pray doesn’t work, get a good night’s sleep, cut back on the caffeine and sugar, or speak with your doctor. Don’t go nuts!

Legalism and custom.

I repeat: There’s nothing wrong with custom when it helps us worship better. But legalists don’t consider customs to be optional. Customs are requirements. Don’t follow them, and they’ll get really cross with us.

As they did when I was a kid. “You didn’t close your eyes! Next time close your eyes.” Hmm. How’d they know?

When we don’t kneel when they instruct us to, or raise our hands when everybody else is, or sit it out whenever the preacher says, “Everybody come down to the front of the auditorium and pray”… well, some of ’em get shouty. I’ve been to churches where the worship pastors won’t stop interjecting, “Everybody stand! Everybody lift your hands! Come on people! Make a joyful noise!” As if nagging is encouragement.

I once had a pastor give me a strict talking-to because I didn’t remove my hat during prayer. No advance warning that this was the church’s custom; no signal to doff my hat; just the occasional irritated glance during prayer time, then the lecture afterward. As if I did so as an act of rebelliousness against God, and not just as innocent oversight on my part. I might point out I didn’t even go to his church! And after that, definitely wasn’t gonna go to his church.

But that’s how important traditions are to some people. And since legalism is a sign of spiritual immaturity, Ro 14 we need to be patient with such people. Not everyone realizes it’s not defiance towards God when we won’t assume their prayer postures. Not everyone remembers some people physically can’t kneel. And giving ’em rude looks isn’t gonna miraculously cure ’em either.

Your favorite prayer postures won’t work for everyone. Neither will mine. So let’s not mandate them for one another. If they further our relationships with God, keep them; if they don’t, stop them. And if they offend others, maybe we’d best keep them to ourselves.

And maybe we’d best think about whether our prayer behavior really is furthering our relationships with God. Does closing your eyes truly help you pray better? Do you lift your hands to pray because it helps you focus, or because now everybody can tell you’re praying? What’s your prayer posture really do for your prayer life?

Be honest with yourself. If it helps, keep it up. If it hinders, stop it.