The Physicality of Faithful Worship

Why We Bend Knees and Lift Hands

Article by

Pastor, Louisville, Kentucky

I can imagine several possible responses to an article with a title like this one.

  • “Oh great. Another extrovert clueless to the fact that God made people different.”
  • “Yes! A word of admonishment to the frozen chosen.”
  • “Come on. Just let people worship God undisturbed.”
  • “Why do we keep talking about this, anyway?”

It’s that last question I feel aware of most as I write another article on what we do with our bodies in congregational worship. Haven’t we talked about this enough? Aren’t people just going to do what they’ve always done? Isn’t it more important to focus on what’s happening in our hearts than what we do with our bodies?

Good questions. But the Bible doesn’t give us the option of minimizing or ignoring what we do physically when we gather as his people in his presence. It matters.

But why? Whether you lift your hands high on Sunday mornings or keep them below your waistline, God gives us at least three reasons why it’s important to display the worth of Christ with our bodies.

1. It Matters to God

Think about it. God created us as embodied souls, not bodiless spirits (Genesis 2:7). In the new heavens and earth, we won’t lose our arms, legs, feet, hands, and torsos. They will be glorified (Philippians 3:20–21). And until we enjoy that future, Scripture encourages and models a whole-being response to God’s greatness with the bodies we have.

My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being! (Psalm 108:1)

My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. (Psalm 71:23)

I appeal to you . . . brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

God repeatedly connects the thoughts of our hearts with the movement of our bodies. Of course, physical expressions aren’t the whole story. Lifted hands can be a mindless act or a shallow attempt to impress others with our spirituality (Matthew 6:2). We can jump around as a way to feed our emotions and “feel” God’s presence. And Jesus rebuked those who honored him with their lips while their hearts were far from him (Matthew 15:8).

Yes, physical expressiveness can be abused or misleading. But God still intends our bodies to respond to him in worship. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s creatures respond to his worthiness in external ways. They sing. They clap. They shout. They dance. They bow their heads. They kneel. They stand in awe. And yes, at times they even raise their hands. And God receives glory when they do.

Of course, bodily expression isn’t always possible. A woman in our church in the latter stages of ALS recently shared (through her daughter) how she is losing her ability to speak and move. But nothing keeps her from worshiping God with everything she has. She can’t sing, but she worships as others raise their voices. She can’t lift her hands anymore, but she rejoices as others do.

Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). As much as we’re able, that love is meant to be shown in and through our bodies.

2. It Matters to Others

God receives glory when we respond to his greatness with outward expressions of praise and dependence. But those responses send a message to those around us as well.

A Sunday morning visitor surrounded by church members mumbling lyrics or standing stoically with folded arms might have a hard time grasping that Jesus is a glorious Savior. Of course, the Holy Spirit can use lyrics alone to magnify Christ in someone’s heart. But the satisfying goodness of Jesus isn’t something we merely sing about. Our body language communicates to others our gratitude for who God is and what he’s done — or the absence of it. After all, “those who look to him are radiant” (Psalm 34:5).

God created us to be affected by what affects others. When people see my face instantly light up the moment my wife, Julie, walks into the room, they understand that I value her presence. They’ll be drawn to share in my joy and appreciation, even if they don’t know her well.

In a similar way, David says praising God with a new song will cause many to “see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40:3). Do people have the opportunity to “see and fear” as a result of observing us on Sunday mornings? Do our actions reveal that God has drawn us up from the pit of destruction and set our feet upon the rock of Jesus Christ (Psalm 40:2)? Could we be missing an opportunity to use our hands, arms, faces, and bodies to communicate that God is really present among us and that we’re amazed, humbled, and grateful?

3. It Matters to Us

Our bodily movements function in two different ways. First, they express outwardly an inward emotion or thought. Soccer fans jump to their feet and cheer when their team scores the winning goal. Parents clap and smile when their daughter takes her first step. Pro golfers raise their hands in jubilation after sinking the winning putt. A husband-to-be bends down on one knee as he prepares to place a ring on his future wife’s finger.

Why do we do these things? Because words alone aren’t enough. God gave us bodies to deepen and amplify what we think and feel. No one teaches us these bodily movements directly (although we learn a great deal through observation). Throughout the world, in all cultures, people respond outwardly to communicate what takes place inside of them.

“God is worthy of our deepest, strongest, and purest affections — and he intended our bodies to show it.”

But physical expressions function in a second way. They encourage us toward what we should think and feel. They help train our hearts in what is true, good, and beautiful. That’s one reason some churches’ liturgical practices include standing, sitting, and kneeling together.

In his commentary on Acts 20:36, pastor-theologian John Calvin elaborated on why Paul knelt to pray as he bid farewell to the Ephesian elders. His comments are as relevant in the twenty-first century as they were in the sixteenth.

The inward attitude certainly holds first place in prayer, but outward signs, kneeling, uncovering the head, lifting up the hands, have a twofold use. The first is that we may employ all our members for the glory and worship of God; secondly, that we are, so to speak, jolted out of our laziness by this help. There is also a third use in solemn and public prayer, because in this way the sons of God profess their piety, and they inflame each other with reverence of God. But just as the lifting up of the hands is a symbol of confidence and longing, so in order to show our humility, we fall down on our knees. (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 19, trans. Henry Beveridge [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], at Acts 20:36)

Calvin highlights three reasons physical expressions matter in our relationship with God (similar to the three reasons in this article). First, God receives glory through our entire being, rather than just a part of us. Second, physical expressions assist us when our affections don’t align with the truths we proclaim and cherish. Third, they inspire reverence in others.

I want to draw attention to the second point here. Sometimes we need to be “jolted out of our laziness.” Occasionally on a Sunday morning, I feel disconnected from what’s taking place. I find my thoughts and affections wandering or dull. In those moments, I have knelt down or raised my hands to acknowledge that God is God, and I am not, and that he alone is worthy of my reverence, obedience, and worship. Eventually, those actions help draw my heart to appreciate more deeply what I’m singing or hearing. I’ve done the same when I’ve been alone. In both cases, my body trains my heart to recognize what is real, what is true, what matters.

Eternal, Embodied Worship

Our bodies are a gift from God that he intends for us to use for his glory, the good of those around us, and our joy. He is worthy of our deepest, strongest, and purest affections — and he intended our bodies to show it.

Obviously, we only have space here to cover a few basic principles and expressions. I’m confident discussions about the physicality of worship in the gathered church will continue and bear fruit until Jesus finally returns. But then the discussions will cease. With every fiber of our being — every thought of our minds, every word of our lips, every act of our glorified bodies — we will endlessly worship the triune God who redeemed us.

What keeps us from starting now?