While Christian denominations and churches across the world have much more in common than they do different, evangelical churches especially share similar major doctrines, leadership structures, membership expectations, outreach strategies, bible study approaches, teaching techniques, policies, and ordinances.
Most churches that gather for corporate worship even have similar elements in their services, such as singing, praying, taking up an offering, teaching, and an opportunity to respond.
However, exactly how churches go about expressing themselves in their worship can be very distinct from church to church and culture to culture.
But despite those distinctions, one of the most common means of worship expression in addition to singing is raising or lifting hands. Although it is such a common action, many people do not really know why they do it.
What Does Raising Our Hands Mean?
In general, the act of raising your hand or hands can have quite a few different meanings. For example, you might be trying to get someone’s attention, ask a question, or simply put yourself in a disarming or surrendering position.
Someone might raise their hands to be picked up (such as a small child in front of their parents), to be hugged, or to reach for something above them. Many exercises or sports incorporate raised hands also to stretch, catch a ball, or signal for a pass.
It is also common for people to raise their hands in approval of a decision at a meeting, in appreciation of music at a concert, or in celebration of a play at a sporting event (especially if their team is winning).
Depending on the context and intent of the person, raising an open hand, a pointed finger, or a closed fist could carry different meanings as well. The act of raising hands is so common that it seems to be natural and even possibly involuntary.
What Does the Bible Say about Raising Our Hands?
There is no shortage of Bible verses that encourage or command God’s people to raise their hands in worship. David sang in Psalm 134:1-3: “Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD!” (ESV).
Several other verses we should consider on this topic include:
Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension (1 Timothy 2:8).
Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them… (Leviticus 9:22).
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven (1 Kings 8:22).
And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground (Nehemiah 8:6).
Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven, And say, as I live forever (Deuteronomy 32:40).
I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name (Psalm 63:4).
May my prayer be counted as incense before You; The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering (Psalm 141:2).
It is helpful at this point to understand that the most common word used for worship in the New Testament is proskyneo, which means “to kiss.”
This demonstration of love, appreciation, or worth giving can be seen when a subject lays on the ground and kisses the feet of their king. We see this physical expression of worship exemplified in Scripture in passages such as Psalm 47:1 and 134:2.
When we are worshiping God whether in singing, talking, praying, or shouting, we extend or lift our hands to God to physically signify our intentions, to ask for or accept a blessing, to make ourselves vulnerable and open to the Holy Spirit’s ministry in our hearts (as opposed to closing our fists and crossing our arms).
To direct our praise upward to God through the pointing of our arms and hands, and even to cheer for the victory that we have in Christ over sin, death, and hell.
As you may have noticed, raising our hands in worship can carry some of the very same meanings as it does at other times.
God created us in such a way that what we do reflects what we believe and what we love. That is why the author of Lamentations wrote: “We lift up our heart and hands toward God in heaven” (Lamentations 3:41, ESV). The prophet Habakkuk even pictured the earth as lifting its own “hands” up to God in praise (Habakkuk 3:10).
What if We Are Not Comfortable Raising Our Hands?
There is an understandable discomfort that some people feel with lifting their hands in worship because of their culture, previous church experiences, or personal insecurities.
But before we give anyone (including ourselves) a “pass” to only do what we find “comfortable” (which is said way too often from the church platform), we need to ask the question that one pastor asked: “Are we teaching [others] to worship God how they want to worship Him, or… how [God] desires to be worshipped in accordance with scripture?”
This is an excellent question because, in all of our close relationships, we need to learn how to care for our counterparts in the way they want or need to be cared for and not just in the way we are comfortable caring for them.
For example, if I want to be a good husband, I must discover how my wife wants or needs to be cared for, related to, and loved. As Gary Chapman puts it, “I have to learn her “love language.” Every good, close relationship or friendship requires a similar kind of selflessness, especially our relationship with God.
That means that when we read in Scripture the imperative to worship God with raised hands (among other means of expression), then we ought to do it because He gets to determine how he wants us to express our love to him.
What if We Do Not Want to Be a Distraction to Others?
Some denominations do not agree that certain outward expression is acceptable in corporate worship. In those situations, individual believers must decide what is most important to them and whether Scripture actually commands these actions or not.
But in many evangelical churches, the leadership looks favorably and excitedly on its congregation outwardly expressing their worship to God in biblical ways.
In these situations, an individual believer can consider his or her physical displays of affection and praise to God as helpfully directing others to God and not distracting.
As one author explains, a soldier saluting the president is not distracting from the president’s honor, but rather helping display it.
In the same way, a sports fan that is standing, clapping, cheering, or waving their arms is not “causing a scene” but is exalting the athleticism and accomplishments of their team or favorite player.
The same could be said for someone admiring a sunset, a piece of artwork, a well-cooked meal, and anything else someone is experiencing and appreciating.
The same author goes on to write that “the posture and physical expressions of true worship do not distract from God’s glory, they display it… the authentic raised hand, the genuine bowed knee declares, ‘See his sovereignty! See his supremacy! See his lordship over all!'”
Why Does This Matter?
So, we do not need to worry about whether our raised hands will be a distraction to anyone, but instead, when we express our worship to God in heartfelt, biblical, and appropriate ways, we can rest assured that our actions are giving the glory to God that he is due while simultaneously pointing others to God and helping instigate their own worshipful expressions.
It is yet another way we can give glory to God through living our life.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.