HOW TO PRAY (Prayer – 2)

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. [1 Timothy 2:8 (ESV)]

We always knelt for prayer in the church I attended as a girl so I used to think the only way to pray was on my knees with head bowed and hands tightly clasped. While I now pray in a variety of postures, I wondered if Scripture tells us exactly how we should pray.

In Jesus’ day, both Jews and pagans usually raised their heads, stretched out their arms, and stood to pray. John tells us Jesus prayed with his head lifted before heading out to the Garden of Gethsemane but Matthew tells us He prayed prostrate on his face once he got there. When praying, Moses bowed his head before the Lord and the tax collector stood, bowed his head, and beat his breast. Solomon and Daniel both knelt in prayer, a leper knelt at Jesus’ feet when praying for healing, and the 2nd century church historian Hegesippus reported that James (the earthly brother of Jesus) spent so much time on his knees praying that “his knees became hard like those of a camel.”  Elijah climbed to the top of Mt. Caramel, bowed down, and put his face between his knees when he prayed but Israel’s army fasted, wept, and sat when they prayed at Bethel. People seemed to pray every which way.

Pictures in the Catacombs of Rome show early Christians praying with their arms extended out to the side but, at some point, arms were brought closer to the body. Perhaps it was to avoid the very thing Jesus warned about—praying in an affected or exaggerated manner to appear more pious. Then again, it simply may have been a practical matter of space when people gathered for worship.

Eventually, people started praying either with clasped hands or by crossing their arms and touching each shoulder with the opposite hand. Legend has it that monks would fold strips of leftover dough into the shape of crossed arms and, when children had memorized a prayer, they’d be rewarded with these treats called pretiola, Latin for “little reward” or preces, Latin for “prayers.” In Germany, however, the country known for pretzels, they’re called bretzels. The origin of bretzel, however, is brachium, Latin for “arms.” Whether the word initially meant reward, prayer, or arms and the validity of a monk inventing the knotted shape of the pretzel to symbolize arms crossed in prayer, we’ll never know. It does, however, make a nice story.

By the 9th century, Greek Christians claimed that the only way to pray was with the hands crossed over the breast but Pope Nicholas vehemently opposed it and defended the practice of folded hands during prayer. The Roman and Orthodox churches split in the 11th century and today it is considered proper etiquette in an Orthodox church to cross one’s arms when approaching the chalice during Communion. The Old Orthodox Prayer Book calls for the “brethren to stand with their arms folded over their breasts and their heads slightly bowed” during the reading of the Six Psalms. One source said such a stance symbolizes the folding of angels’ wings, standing before the throne of God.

Standing, sitting, kneeling, or prone? Hands clasped, arms raised, crossed, or at our sides? Eyes open or shut? While various denominations have their traditions or rules, the Bible gives no guidance as to our posture during prayer. While silent on the position of our bodies in prayer, Scripture isn’t when it comes to the position of our hearts! They should be bowed in submission to the Lord, free of anger and quarreling, and forgiving of others. Our prayers should come from an earnest, trusting, sincere, and thankful heart. We are to pray in truth and faith, in the power of the Spirit, and in Jesus’ name. How we do it, however, is up to us.

Perhaps there is no one special position for prayer because we are to pray without ceasing, meaning prayer isn’t limited to a specific time, place or situation—it is to be an essential ongoing part of our lives. Standing upright with head raised while on the battle field would be as problematic as kneeling in prayer (or closing your eyes) while driving, praying with arms crossed while serving food at the shelter, or lying face down on the floor of your workplace! As Reverend Billy Graham so aptly put it, “It is not the body’s posture, but the heart’s attitude that counts when we pray.”

A concentrated mind and a sitting body make for better prayer than a kneeling body and a mind half asleep. [C.S. Lewis]

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)]

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