Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Should we raise our hands during musical worship, or keep them in our pockets? It’s the question from a listener named Geoff. “Pastor John, when you are singing at your local church, do you raise your hands? Is this something we should do when singing at church on Sunday?

“When I read verses like 1 Chronicles 16:23–31 and Psalm 95:1–2, it makes me wonder why not everyone lifts their hands when we sing together as a church. If only 5 percent of the congregation in my local church is raising their hands during the music, but all are singing out loudly with a joyful noise, then is this something we should teach on in order to encourage the raising up of holy hands? Or should I just be thankful we are all singing? As the worship leader at my local church, I want to be ‘maximalist’ in my thinking and always find ways to encourage myself and our congregation to be fully devoted and fully delighted in Jesus as we sing songs which are soaked in rich gospel lyrics.”

Disgust to Delight

I can remember a specific chapel service in the late 1970s, when I was a college teacher, in which I was sitting beside a fellow faculty member who during a prayer simply laid his hands, palms up, on his lap. I remember the almost disgust that I felt seeing him do that.

“I had never, in 36 years of my life, lifted my hands in song until that moment.”

I don’t remember what was going on in my soul at that time, but what I feel now is nothing but shame and remorse at such an arrogant and judgmental attitude.

Then about five years later, I had encouraged Bethlehem — I had moved from faculty to pastoring, and I’m about two years into my pastoring — to start an all-night prayer meeting once or twice a year in order to go hard after God together, to maximize his blessing in the life of our church.

It was about 2:00 a.m., and there were about twenty or thirty of us still praying in the fireside room, which doesn’t exist anymore because it was torn down in one of the building projects. But I remember that Bruce Leafblad, who was worship leader at the time, was leading us in simple 1980s songs like “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” Just simple things like that.

We were singing one of those, and suddenly I found my hands lifted in the air, and it was as though I was watching myself rather than doing it. I had never, in 36 years of my life, lifted my hands in song until that moment.

To this day, I cannot explain what happened, except that it bore fruit in what felt and feels to me now like a release from a very significant bondage.

Forced Worship

My approach toward lifting up of hands in worship since that time has been to simply try to create an atmosphere in which people felt free from the heart to lift their hands or not.

The reason I say “or not” is because coerced or constrained demonstrations of heart worship are self-contradictory. Either it comes from the heart and is valuable as an expression of the heart, or it is a performance and has no worship value at all.

I wouldn’t, as a worship leader, ever say, “Come on, people, get your hands up. We just sang a song that said, ‘Our hands are lifted up.’” I wouldn’t scold people like that at all. It creates an unbelievably hypocritical crisis for them because they’re going do what you say when they don’t feel like it. And it will ruin authentic worship.

Holy Hands

Depending on the kind of service and who was present and the nature of the music, I would guess that over time at Bethlehem you might have ten to thirty percent of the people lifting their hands in worship.

“Coerced or constrained demonstrations of heart worship are self-contradictory.”

We never try to cultivate an atmosphere where it was expected — that you’re supposed to do this if you’re spiritual. Although, Psalm 63:4 says, “I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.” And Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” And Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”

Now, I doubt that Paul meant, in 1 Timothy 2:8, that it’s contrary to God’s will for men to pray without lifting their hands. Rather, what I think he means is it’s contrary to God’s will that they pray without “holy hands” when they lift their hands. In other words, I don’t think it’s a mandate that every time a man prays, his hands must be in the air, but that if his hands are in the air, in his prayer, they’d better be holy hands.

Know Your Audience

Let me mention one other cultural factor and a closing word.

I was talking to a church leader outside America once who tried to explain to me that lifting the hands in worship in his city was a badge of bad theology. It was associated with certain churches that taught wrong things. He felt it would be a compromise in faithful churches if the people raised their hands. They’d be waving the flag of false teaching.

That’s the kind of thing you really need to be sensitive to when you’re an outsider and you walk into a cultural situation you don’t know anything about.

However, I suggested to him that there’s probably a better way to distinguish ourselves from false teaching than by letting the false teachers co-opt a beautiful, biblical practice as their own, while the true church goes without it. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Natural Expressions

Perhaps one word to those who are finding the lifting of hands in worship to be artificial for themselves, rather than real. Let’s just all agree that whether we are very formal or more charismatic, we are all equally vulnerable to hypocrisy and artificiality and judgmentalism.

“Hands can be kept down for motives just as defective as they can be lifted up.”

Hymns can be sung with just as much inauthenticity as worship songs. Organs can be played with just as much hypocrisy as guitars. Hands can be kept down for motives just as defective as motives for lifting them up.

As a hand raiser, I would just say to those who don’t do it that, for me, it is both a natural expression of inner admiration for God, and an intensifier of inner exultation as it finds expression in the body.

I hope that those who don’t find it to be so have their own experiences of released admiration and inner exultation and intensification. I believe that it is possible, and I will assume that is the case when I am worshiping with you, if you’re one of those.


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