Last week I mentioned the massive investment Christians have made in building-centered, staff/program-heavy, Sunday worship. I wondered if God might evaluate us concluding, “I wish you would have done something different.” But how do we know what God would say? Most of us involved in leading church worship do want to know God’s evaluation of our worship. Is it possible to get such an evaluation?
At Faith Church, we’ve been studying the biblical letter of 1st Timothy, and the section we came to on Sunday brought us face to face with an evaluation of our worship. Read 1 Timothy 2:1-8 to see for yourself.
In verse 3 where Paul says that “this is good and pleases God our savior.” What is good? What pleases him? To be a praying people! “This” refers to verses 1-3 in which Paul is urging them to be a praying people.
You would be hard-pressed to use Scripture to support the investment most church makes in buildings, worship services, and staff (including pastors) that lead programs. I am not saying that Scripture says those things are wrong and we should stop doing them. Instead, we need to see Paul here teaching us that Christians demonstrate a commitment to being a praying people. When it comes to worship, being a praying people is good and pleases God our Savior.
So what will it look like for us to increase our quantity of prayer?
An attempt to answer that question brings to mind the Jim Cymbala quote I put at the top of every Faith Church Wednesday evening prayer meeting guide:
“From this day on, the prayer meeting will be the barometer of our church. What happens on Wednesday night will be the gauge by which we will judge success or failure because that will be the measure by which God blesses us.”
Think about that quote. Is it possible that if we are prayer-less or don’t pray enough, we will not access the blessing and power that God offers us? Is it possible that we emphasize Sunday morning worship too much, and Wednesday evening prayer not enough?
Paul says a few other things about prayer in this passage as well. But I’d like to jump to his conclusion in verse 8, where he says, “Therefore I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”
Based on everything he has said to Timothy about prayer, Paul wants men everywhere to lift up hands in prayer. Paul has made his case. He has argued that prayer is vital. He spends time describing what prayer is, who to pray for, what to pray for, and now his conclusion? Lift up your hands.
I have to admit that I got to that part and thought to myself, “Huh? Really? Why does he care about lifting up of hands?” And to some degree I still think that. In fact, I often think that hand-raising can be so contrived. Like in this video:
Then I think, I’m at least a bit used to the idea of raising hands during the musical part of our worship service. So why would Paul ask them to raise hands in prayer? And why does he pinpoint the men? Notice that in verse 9, which we’ll get to next week, he is going to talk specifically to the women. If there he is clearly talking to the women, here in verse 8 we know he is specifically talking to the men. I bring that up because sometimes “men” can be a generic way to speak of both genders. “Peace to all men, or all mankind”. Not here though.
Paul wants the men to lift up hands in prayer.
Men at Faith Church, including me, barely ever do this. Is that cool, in God’s evaluation, or not cool? We have some people, including men, that lift up hands during singing. Is that the same as what Paul is talking about? Maybe. Maybe not.
Let’s approach it from another angle: why do people not lift their hands during prayer? Should we? Investigate this with me a bit further.
Paul is possibly speaking figuratively here. It could be that he just wants people to pray, and he is using the words “lift up holy hands” as way of describing prayer. I grew up in a culture that taught Sunday School children to “bow your heads, fold your hands, and close your eyes”. Some Christian speakers, before leading a congregation in prayer, say “Would you bow your heads with me?” They don’t even use the word “prayer” but we all know what they mean. They don’t really want people to physically bow, do they? No, they want people to pray. But the act of bowing has become synonymous with the act of praying. “Bow your heads in prayer.” Paul could easily be doing something similar here. We’re not used to it because raising hands in prayer is not a part of our worship culture. But it was for them. Look through the Old Testament and raising hands in prayer is all over the place. So it could just be cultural.
But let’s not just assume that Paul is speaking figuratively. What if he does want Christians, and especially men, to raise their hands when they pray?
When I was a student at Bible college, we had chapel service every day in the morning. At some point a group of students started lifting their hands during worship. A few weeks went by, and one day the President at the time started off chapel with an announcement. “There will be no raising of hands here.” Why not? Was the president of a Bible college going against the Bible? It seems so, because here we have Paul specifically telling the men to raise up holy hands in prayer.
Frankly, I read this verse and I don’t like it. I must admit within me, I rebel emotionally at the idea of raising hands. Why, Paul, why? It seems so stupid. Really, Paul, no one cares whether or not I raise hands in prayer!
I think there are a few ways to respond to that.
First, I need to remember that God is not interested in rituals. We read that many places as well. He was regularly upset with the Israelites when they practiced the rituals of worship, especially the vast sacrificial system, but didn’t give their hearts in worship. God says “I want your hearts, not sacrifices.” Hand-raising could easily become a ritual. I start praying and raise my hands just to check it off the list. Or what if, at the end of each sermon when I normally close in prayer, I say, “OK, men, I’m going to start praying now, so up with your hands!”? Our God is not into that kind of ritual. He wants our hearts!
And that is where I think we would do well to examine why we do or do not raise hands. If done with the right heart motivation, raising hands can show a submissiveness to God. Look at the physical difference between the posture of open hands raised and that of crossed arms. Open vs. Closed. Symbolically that says something. Raised hands can be a plea to God for help, a humility before God.
Paul is not saying that you need to go to Tim Hawkins’ hand-raising class to learn how to do it right. But we all should look at our inner attitude and motivation when we do raise our hands. Examine your heart. Why do you do this? To draw attention to yourself? Or because you think you have to? Or because you are filled with gratitude to God, because you want to show humility and praise to God?
At Faith Church, we have a lot more of us that never raise hands, as compared to those that do. We have some that want to raise their hands, but are shy. Or we wonder what people will think if we raise our hands. Yours truly is in this category. When we’re singing songs, I have all kinds of thoughts going through my head. I want to raise my hands, but I don’t want to be showy. But then I think, maybe I should raise my hands because I’m the pastor. No, I think, that’s not what God wants. Not ritual, but heart. Then I think, yeah, but remember how excited you get at Connor’s soccer games, and your hands are in the air a lot! And you don’t care what anyone else in the crowd thinks of you. Michelle is embarrassed at how loud you get. Why can’t you do that during worship? True, I tell myself, true. My fear takes over though. I rationalize: I don’t need to raise hands, do I? I mean, God doesn’t really care, right? He wants my heart, right? And I usually don’t raise them.
And that is a peak into my heart and mind almost every Sunday. It can feel like inner turmoil rather than the worshipful, thankful attitude I want to have during singing praise to God.
If that at all resonates with you, are you allowing fear to grip you and control you, more than your desire to lift up your hands as act of praise and prayer showing your submissiveness to God? I can’t answer that for you. It could be that a lot more of us do need to raise our hands. But none of us should judge. Whether we see people raising hands a lot and think they should less, or whether we don’t see people raising hands much and think they should more, let us not be a people of judging one another. What is important is the heart!
Let us also, Christian brothers and sisters, be a people of prayer. I love that during most Faith Church worship services, we have an open mic sharing and prayer time. But I also love that we have Wednesday evening 7-8pm focused on prayer. There are many other ways and places that we can pray. Sunday School classes, small groups, Bible studies, one on one, before meals or before bed time. I encourage all those things.
But let me ask, family of Faith Church: what is your schedule like on Wednesday at 7pm? Seriously. Will you consider making Wednesday evening prayer meeting a priority? We won’t force you to pray out loud. We don’t require long, eloquent prayers. We have a short Bible study, right now we’re going through the book of Joshua, and then we pray. We have a time for requests, we pray through the bulletin prayer list, we pray for any requests that are submitted via the connection cards, email, or otherwise, and then we start praying for our church and ministry. I find the time usually flies by! Will you join us so that we can become more the praying people that God wants us to be?