What’s Up with That?
As kids, our Sunday school teachers encouraged my brother and me (and our classmates) to invite friends and neighbors to church. They weren’t training us to proselytize as much as hoping to sensitize us to how many people around us had no faith tradition at all. They referred to unchurched folks as “lost” and it was our job “to reach the ‘lost.’” In all honesty, we weren’t too hot on the idea. We cared about our friends and all that, but we didn’t worship like most other churches and inviting kids we liked to worship with us entailed some risk.
You see, Pentecostal services typically open in communal prayer, with everyone praying aloud in concert, personally inviting God’s presence to fill the sanctuary. And when Pentecostal believers pray together, they tend to lift their hands to God. So, imagine you’re a ‘tween who’s seldom been to a worship service of any kind. Now that you’re here, the adults are already praying out loud and waving their arms in the air. Now go one better and imagine you’re the Pentecostal kid who invited his friend and knows just from the look on his/her face you’re going to have answer the same question as always: “What’s up with that?”
When we turned to our elders for answers, we discovered there were theories galore. We heard the “surrender theory”—raising our hands in prayer signified we released ourselves from every sin and desire that displeased our Maker. There was the “praise theory”—raised hands were symbols of heralding a conqueror, a King Who triumphed over sin and death. There was the “reach theory”—raised hands signaled of our need for God. These ideas had collateral value, but none of them captured the whole of the gesture any more than defining the sign of the cross as "reverence" scratches the surface of its meaning as a sign of humility and gratitude, an alignment of mind, heart, and body , contrition and praise swept into one physical prayer. Watching my friends cross themselves often brings joyful tears to my eyes—the beauty of their actions reflects the beauty I see in their lives. There’s something equally beautiful and moving about fellow believers raising hands to God. (And this practice has spread far beyond Pentecostal circles, by the way.) But it’s more than surrender and praise and reach. Whether or not we ever physically raise our hands in worship, we need to “lift our hands” to God in spirit. The Bible teaches us hands-up prayer comes from a very special place in our beings and means something very specific that we should treasure.
In Lamentations 3.40-42, Jeremiah urges us: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD. Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say: ‘We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.’” When we look at our lives and realize we need to return to God’s ways, we lift our hearts and our hands. We come to Him in honesty and humility—surrendering and reaching, as it were—with pure hearts. We tell Him, “We’ve done wrong. We’ve disobeyed. We’ve not asked your pardon and you’ve not yet forgiven us.” We raise our hands in innocence, as if to tell God, “All I’ve got is what I am. Nothing I hold or claim for my own holds any importance.” Now hear Jeremiah in verses 57-58: “You came near when I called you, and you said, ‘Do not fear.’ O Lord, you took up my case; you redeemed my life.” When we approach God with hands raised in innocence, we’re spared fears and turmoil wrought by our pride and knowledge. We come to Him in faith and He takes up our case. He redeems our lives. Coming to God in innocence restores our innocence.
“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2.8. Releasing resentments, frustrations, arguments, and every other self-driven behavior returns our minds and hearts to Garden-like innocence. Our communication with God becomes communion. Prayer becomes conversation; praise becomes love talk. David communed with God unlike any other Bible figure. He was a rascal, a ne’er-do-well who screwed up more often than he got things right. Yet he came to God over and over in unabashed innocence, acknowledging Him and glorifying His name above all else. “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands,” he sings in Psalm 63. When we lift up holy, innocent hands in God’s name, holiness and innocence are what He sees. Our desires to please Him eclipse our failures to obey. With hands up, we have nothing to fear. We have everything to gain. Raise your hands to God in innocence—how, when, and where you do it doesn’t matter. Actually do it or do it in your heart. Do it in public; do it when you’re alone. Just do it.
Raised hands in prayer = innocence.
(Tomorrow: “I AM”)
Postscript: Bible Study This Week
I return to Chicago this evening after a week away on business and visiting my parents. (Hence all the goofy formatting issues lately--I've published on three different computers!) Late this evening, I'll publish the guide for this week's online Bible study, along with access codes and instructions. If you're free this Thursday evening at 8 PM CDT or Saturday morning at 11 AM CDT, I encourage you join in. We need your knowledge and insight!