Raising hands in worship: a new (or very old) way of thinking

Some of my students call it Football Hands: both hands lifted high in the air like a ref calling a touchdown. They try to predict what part of the worship song “everybody will go Football Hands,” when the music becomes the most moving and people want to express themselves more fully to God. This bothers me as a deeply serious person, but they’re joking in the way kids sometimes can, without real cynicism.

Raising hands, dancing, clapping, and shouting are hallmarks of Pentecostal worship. Having grown up in a well-behaved Baptist culture, I was drawn to this aspect of the college group I joined, which I later learned was Pentecostal. I could see their sincerity on the outside as well as the inside. Worship was about more than singing—it was an experience.

There’s a weak side to this expressive culture. Sometimes you’re expected to wear your worship on the outside for all to see. And if you don’t, you’re thought to be a bit less than spiritual. I’ve been guilty of raising my hands because I didn’t want to be the only one not doing so.

Now I’m attending a somewhat formal liturgical church and I’m back to square one on figuring out when to raise my hands. A few people do in our church, but honestly, one of the biggest obstacles is the printed bulletins we all hold with the words to the songs and prayers written out (no powerpoint slides.) Lifting one’s hands also means waving around a bulletin and not being able to see the words.

Should I overcome this obstacle when I can, or does it not matter much? Why is it wrong to raise my hands for others to see? Why is it weird to be able to predict when everyone will spontaneously go Football Hands?

Scripture is full of descriptions of people worshipping with their bodies, emotions, and minds. Just to keep things brief, I’ll only bring up a few that talk about raising our hands.

Psalm 63:4 says, “I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.”

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.”

Maybe there are some scriptures that describe raising hands as an involuntary action, but most of the time it’s either an exhortation or a commitment. (“Lift your hands” or “I will lift my hands.”) It comes across as a choice we can make.

As usual, there are really good reasons for this instruction and practice for God’s people.

When I raise my hands in worship, my mind tends to be more engaged. It takes some attention to keep my hands in the air, and sometimes I have chosen to stay in that position even when my arms were tired. It’s a way of saying to God, “I am fully here. Body, mind, emotions. I mean what I am singing, and I’m not letting my mind wander. I’m not saving my energy for something else.”

Is it right to raise my hands if I don’t really feel overcome by worshipful emotions? Isn’t that insincere? I would suggest that it’s no more insincere than singing words that we’re not really “feeling” in the moment.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Our devotion to God—singing worship songs, spending time with Him, obeying His commands—has to do with his deserving our devotion, not necessarily with our feeling devoted. He deserves our feelings too, but we don’t have a lot of control over that. We do have control over our minds and our bodies and our actions.

One of our choices is to involve our bodies in worship, and people have been doing that for eons. Anyone with an arm or two can participate. This simple act transcends cultures, centuries, languages and social classes.

Raising our hands helps us focus our minds, give God our energy, and make sure that worshipping is the only thing we’re doing at the moment. It’s hard to multitask when your hands are in the air, not to mention awkward.

I’m not suggesting that “real” worship must be punctuated with raised hands. There are plenty of other ways to fully involve ourselves in worship. This includes holding my preschooler on my hip and holding the bulletin in the other hand to sing unfamiliar songs to the best of my ability. My utmost for His highest looks different in different moments.

To those who feel strange doing something unfamiliar, afraid that others may notice and judge: try to shift your attention to God’s view of your actions. Try picturing Him watching you worship, listening to your words, and seeing your face. Try turning on a worship song at home and lifting your hands as you sing. Imagine yourself in a crowd with the holy people of old, King David even, hands raised; and there is God, so pleased with His people.

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