Psalm 28:2: Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place.
Psalm 63:4: I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.
Psalm 119:48: I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees.
Psalm 141:2: May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.
Physical expression is appropriate in biblical worship. We aren’t disembodied spirits. God intends that we use our whole beings to bring him praise. But how and how much? It’s clear from Scripture that God expects us to use our bodies to glorify Him both in corporate worship and in all of life. He is infinitely glorious, desirable, good, and worthy of our strongest and purest affections.
Physical expression should flow from a heart that desires to bring God glory, but outward expressions are no sign one way or the other that someone is offering God acceptable worship.
God strongly rebukes those who think physical expression makes up for an idolatrous heart or disobedient life. Moving our church into greater physical expressiveness that’s not rooted in a clear view of God’s glory will hinder, not help, true worship.
One of the actions that supposedly signifies spirituality is lifting hands. Lifting hands can express a wide range of emotions and attitudes – dependence, gratefulness, expectation, reverence, or celebration. However, God condemned both the actions and motives of the Israelites through His prophet Isaiah:
“When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15).
The hands we lift to worship God should be holy hands (1 Tim. 2:8), an expression made holy through our humble trust in the atoning work of the Savior. In our culture singing has become almost synonymous with worship. But God turns a deaf ear to singing that isn’t accompanied by a life that is pursuing the Jesus life.
“Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24).
I’ve known more than one person who was exuberant in corporate worship who lived in unrepentant sin. I’ve also known people who exhibit little physical expression on Sundays but have a thorough knowledge of Scripture, an exemplary life, and a profound love for the Savior. We never prove our devotion to God by external acts alone. God looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).
It’s important to make clear that in issues regarding our faith, physical expressiveness in corporate worship is an important but secondary issue. I have no problem worshiping God with a church that may be more enthusiastic or reserved than I’m used to, as long as they are proclaiming the same gospel and glorying in the same Savior. Yet sometimes, the worship service is more reserved simply because the people are waiting for the permission to express what is in their heart in a physical way. It’s a cultural shift that can take time. The head to heart connection that overflows into worship is what we are after. Or in the vein of Jonathan Edwards, religious affections beget religious expressions.
However, our culture tends to separate head and heart, doctrine and devotion. Some congregations sing profoundly biblical lyrics with no visible effect (which doesn’t always mean they aren’t affected). Other churches are enthusiastically expressive, but seem to be pursuing experiences more than God (which again isn’t always true).
I don’t help people grow in God-glorifying expressiveness simply by explaining it or telling you to “lift your hands.” No, directing your gaze toward God’s glory in Christ is our ultimate motivation and goal as pastors at VCC. It’s the awe we are after. The transformation and not merely the inspiration.
Our bodies naturally reflect what affects us. I cringe when something of value is about to be knocked over; I open my arms wide as my daughter runs to greet me; I jump up from the couch with my hands upraised when my team scores the winning shot; I gratefully applaud unselfish acts of service; I cry when a friend’s loved one dies. Is the church the only place where our bodies can’t express what our minds are comprehending and our hearts are feeling? I would put forward that corporate worship is the most appropriate place for physical expression connected to what we say and hear.
The pastors at VCC want you to hear, see, and understand the right things. What does this look like? As we sing “No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from his hand,” some might raise their hands to thank God that His plans to save us can not be thwarted. As we sing, “My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, has been nailed to the cross and I bear it no more,” some might kneel in grateful adoration that ALL their sins have been paid for.
Even when my heart isn’t affected by what I’m singing, expressing my devotion to God bodily can stir up affection in my heart. I liken it to a kinked hose, when there is a kink in the hose the water slowly trickles out. When you straighten the kink the water comes gushing out of the hose. There is something about raising our hands, straightening our physical kinks, that causes our emotions and expression to flow freely. The very act of lifting our hands produces the head-to-heart connection that may seem elusive. I raise my hands because God is worthy to be exalted. I kneel because I am completely dependent on God for mercy, sustenance, and wisdom. My feet move for joy because my greatest problem – my sin against the holy God – has been solved through the finished work of Jesus Christ.
We can experience theological depth and passionate expression. Our physical expression should help people see the greatness of God’s glory in Christ. It may feel uncomfortable at times. We may find ourselves on our knees, broken over our sin, while others sing on, seemingly unaffected. It will mean we have to make every effort to engage with God, and not simply our emotions. It will certainly mean that we’ll never think any physical expression is adequate to fully express our amazement at God’s mercy in drawing us to himself through the Savior. It will look different at different times, in different churches, and in different cultures. But there’s no question that our goal is to help you understand that God is worthy of our deepest, strongest, and purest affections. And that our bodies should show it.
As I continue to exhort you in worship or as you are affected by some incredible truth in a song take that opportunity to break out of your comfort zone, but if you do not that doesn’t mean you’re not worshipping, all I want you to know is that you have permission to, we are a family and we can feel comfortable with one another. Maybe the time for you is not this Sunday or in 10 Sundays, but consider this exhortation and maybe in the weeks ahead you’ll have that moment where the words you’re singing make you want to jump out of your skin and you’ll know it’s okay to express that through lifting hands and clapping and even shouting. A few simple acts of engaging will change your entire worship experience.
“My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is great above the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.” (Ps. 108:1- 4)
This was edited and adapted from the five-part series, ‘How Do We Grow In Physical Expressiveness in Worship?’ by Bob Kauflin at worshipmatters.com. Italicized words are my own.