David states in this psalm that part of his personal practice of worship was lifting up his hands in the name of the Lord. The past century has seen a resurgence of that practice in Christian churches. I do not consider the practice a matter of right or wrong, good or bad. It is ultimately a personal matter of the heart, and not something that those who lead worship should encourage or discourage. No one could know for certain the motive, heart attitude, or thoughts of another as they engage in worship with this physical expression. At the same time, as something that goes expressed and noticed as part of public worship, we need to think carefully about it so that it does not become a vain an empty practice.
Here are some observations I have made over the years, and some good questions to ask as you evaluate your own thinking and practice in this area.
First, notice that there are many Old Testament examples (not commands) of raising hands in worship or prayer (Psalm 28:2, 88:9, 119:48, 134:2, 141:2, 143:6; Ezra 9:5; Nehemiah 8:6; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13). There are, however, many other outward expressions of worship in the Old Testament too. We need to recognize that Christians noticeably do not imitate or practice every form of physical expression of worship that we see in the Old Testament (nor should we). Generally we do not see Christians publicly lie prostrate in repentant sorrow, tearing their clothes, putting on dustcloth and ashes, or burning incense. One might argue that perhaps the church would be served by engaging in these practices as well. Common sense, however, makes it clear that those outward expressions of worship were part of the religious culture of Judaism, and are not necessarily prescriptive of what we should practice today. Perhaps it wouldn’t be wrong, but it would probably not be understood or appreciated in our cultural setting (much like foot washing, which served a helpful purpose in the dusty Middle Eastern sandal culture, but loses its significance today).
Second, we should point out that there are some physical expressions of worship mandated in the New Testament. Both baptism and communion are outward, physical expressions of worship. As well, lifting up hands as part of corporate prayer is also commanded in the New Testament (1 Timothy 2:8). That recognition means we can’t see hand-raising as merely a cultural practice. It did carry a practical and symbolic significance right into the New Testament church age.
Third, the contexts in which you see raising of hands as part of prayer and worship indicate that it served a number of possible purposes. (1) There is a connection with holiness, both acknowledgement and praise for God’s holiness (Psa 28:2, 63:4, 134:2), and a personal desire for God to produce holiness in the life of the worshipper (Psa 141:1-2). Unholy, unrepentant people, would never have lifted up their hands, exposing the sins they were “clutching onto,” to a holy God. (2) Lifting hands is also seen as a way to invite God’s blessing and presence as part of worship (Psa 143:6). We now have the indwelling Spirit as a constant and personal presence with us. This does not make the invitation and request less necessary, any more than a child who is in the presence of their mommy would not reach up and ask to be held sometimes. (3) As well, lifting of hands in worship is seen as an expression of thanks and dependence upon God and His Word (Psa 88:9, 119:48, 28:1-2; Neh 8:6; Lam 3:41).
I appreciate how Sam Storms combines these ideas in his own explanation of the practice. He notes first that if you don’t know WHY you are doing it, then it violates the principle that you must worship with understanding. He says:
By all means, we must worship with understanding. We must think rightly of God and love him with our heart and soul and mind (see Mt. 22:37). But we are not, for that reason, any less physical beings…why do I worship with hands raised? Because like one who surrenders to a higher authority, I yield to God’s will and ways and submit to his guidance and power and purpose in my life. It is my way of saying, “God, I am yours to do with as you please.” Because like one who expresses utter vulnerability, I say to the Lord: “I have nothing to hide. I come to you open handed, concealing nothing. My life is yours to search and sanctify. I’m holding nothing back. My heart, soul, spirit, body and will are an open book to you.” Because like one who needs help, I confess my utter dependency on God for everything. I cry out: “O God, I entrust my life to you. If you don’t take hold and uplift me, I will surely sink into the abyss of sin and death. I rely on your strength alone. Preserve me. Sustain me. Deliver me.” Because like one who happily and expectantly receives a gift from another, I declare to the Lord: “Father, I gratefully embrace all you want to give. I’m a spiritual beggar. I have nothing to offer other than my need of all that you are for me in Jesus. So glorify yourself by satisfying me wholly with you alone.” Because like one who aspires to direct attention away from self to the Savior, I say: “O God, yours is the glory; yours is the power; yours is the majesty alone!” Because as the beloved of God, I say tenderly and intimately to the Lover of my soul: “Abba, hold me. Protect me. Reveal your heart to me. I am yours! You are mine! Draw near and enable me to know and feel the affection in your heart for this one sinful soul.”
Is this your heart’s attitude as you raise your hands in worship? There are still other questions that can be asked.
I often wonder if everyone who raises their hands during worship has carefully considered what the expression is intended to express from their heart? If you cannot answer definitively what you are expressing through the action, then you must ask what your motive was for doing it in the first place. Can an action without an understood purpose truly be called worship? Again, I’m not judging everyone’s motive who does practice it, but simply reminding you that YOU must examine your own heart if you do. It is possible that hand-raising for many people has simply become a part of their “Christian culture” and is practiced simply because people around them are doing it. It could easily become just like the Old Testament sacrifices that were offered by cold-hearted worshippers who were just “going through the motions” of Judaism. Their sacrifices were not always an expression of surrender, dependence, thanksgiving, repentance and affection toward God. And so He says, “Burnt offering and sin offering You have not required [or desired]” (Psa 40:6; see also 1 Sam 15:22, Isa 1:11, Hos 6:6 and Matt 9:13). Likewise, hands raised outwardly without the proper heart attitude inwardly is just like those vain sacrifices — it means nothing to God, and in fact, He does not desire it. True worship is a matter of the heart primarily, not the hands. We should never raise our hands if we have no understanding of why we do it.
As a challenging follow-up to that principle, I often ask people whether or not the heart attitude that compels them to raise their hands in public worship causes them to raise their hands in private worship as well. Raising your hands to be seen by others only would be wrong. The motive of appearing spiritual to others is atrocious to God (that would be hypocrisy, which the Lord hates). If your heart is filled with brokenness, thanksgiving, dependence and surrender in public, to the point that you feel compelled to raise your hands as a physical expression of worship publicly, it seems that this expression would find its way into your private worship as well. As I ask that question, I do realize that there is a dynamic that exists in the corporate worship service (due to prayer, music, and the elements of corporate worship) that does not exist in the same way in our private worship. That dynamic is partially responsible for energizing the worship we enjoy in church (let’s face it; the music and singing is better at church when we’re together, than it is for most of us in our “prayer closet,” right?). If worship is a matter of the heart, however, then to some extent those same heart attitudes, and any physical expression of them (like hand-raising), will likely find its way into your private worship. If it never does, I believe it would be wise to ask if you raise your hands “in order to be seen by men.”
Another point to consider involves the contribution or hindrance to others that any physical expression of worship makes as part of corporate worship. There are discrete and calm ways to raise your hands in prayer and song, and there is also a manner of doing so that can be distracting and even unnerving to those around you. If your heart attitude is one that is motivated by affection and worship of the Savior, then you certainly should not want your gestures, or hand-raising, to be “jerky,” “showy,” or overly noticeable. These areas of personal practice and liberty must never be exercised in a way that does not give loving consideration to those around you (Rom 14:14-21; see below).
By asking such pointed and challenging questions, I know I run the risk of being thought of as a “worship curmudgeon.” But I will repeat what I said at the beginning: “I do not consider the practice a matter of right or wrong, good or bad. It is ultimately a personal matter of the heart, and not something that those who lead worship should encourage or discourage. No one could know for certain the motive, heart attitude, or thoughts of another as they engage in worship with this physical expression.”
I know for some, it is difficult to avoid associating this practice of hand-raising in worship with the excesses of many churches where hand-raising is a more consistent part of the church culture. It is often combined with a kind of worship that is driven by emotionalism more than a conscious meditation on the truth. As well, it is often practiced alongside an unbiblical manner of speaking in tongues, or with blatantly unbiblical practices (like being “slain in the spirit,” “holy laughter,” and even worse and excessive practices). Raising of hands in worship, however, has become much more mainstream in recent decades, and is no longer associated primarily with the Pentecostal or Charismatic churches where the practice found its resurgence. Because it is much more widespread, and much more understood, then it used to be, I believe it is important for everyone to have a gracious and generous spirit toward one another. Those who DO practice hand-raising should not consider themselves spiritual because they do so (or judge those who do not). And, those who do NOT practice it, must be gracious, understanding and believe that it is an honest expression of worship from the heart of those who do.
As a final encouragement, I will take a little liberty with Romans 14, and apply the principles of Christian Liberty and having a judgmental spirit to the matter of hand raising (the context involves “days” and “foods” but it reads just perfectly by inserting the idea of hand-raising in worship).
Romans 14 – Exhortation to Mutual Forbearance (from net.bible.org)
14:1 Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions.14:2 One person believes in hand-raising, but the other doesn’t raise his hands. 14:3 The one who raises his hands must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who raises his hands, for God has accepted him. 14:4 Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lordis able to make him stand. 14:5 One person regards hand-raising holier than not raising, and another regards it differently. Each must be fully convinced in his own mind. 14:6 The one who raises his hands does it for the Lord. Theone who does, does it for the Lord because he gives thanks to God, and the one who abstains from hand-raising abstains for the Lord, and he gives thanks to God. 14:7 For none of us lives for himself and none dies for himself. 14:8 If we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 14:9 For this reason Christ died and returned to life, so that he may be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
14:10 But you who do not raise your hands – why do you judge your brother or sister?And you who do raise your hands – why do you despise your brother or sister?For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 14:11 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.”14:12 Therefore, each of us will give an account of himself to God. 14:13 Therefore we must not pass judgment on one another, but rather determine never to place an obstacle or a trap before a brother or sister.14:14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing wrong in itself; still, it is wrong to the one who considers it wrong. 14:15 For if your brother or sister is distressed because of your hand-raising,you are no longer walking in love.Do not destroy [or distract] by your hand-raising someone for whom Christ died. 14:16 Therefore do not let what you consider goodbe spoken of as evil. 14:17 For the kingdom of God does not consist of hand-raising, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 14:18 For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people.
14:19 So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another. 14:20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of hand-raising [or any other outward expression of worship]. For although all things are acceptable,it is wrong to cause anyone to stumble by how you worship. 14:21 It is good not to raise hands, or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble.14:22 The faithyou have, keep to yourself before God. Blessed is the one who does not judge himself by what he approves. 14:23 But the man who doubts [what his heart attitude is] is condemned if he raises his hands, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin.