Changing my mind (and body…)
It seems every time I write on my blog I end up recording how I’ve changed my mind on something: the Lord’s supper, baptism and now, another entry after months of silence, recording another change of mind. (As a tangent, I’m not sure this worries me: in wanting to follow Jesus and take God at His word, I am committed to changing wherever I find Scripture leading me to change. As long as the impetus to change comes from His Spirit, then let the changing continue!)
But I write this to record something that is not just a change of mind: it’s a change of attitude that’s led to change in outward, physical ways. Once, when I sang in church, I’d keep my arms down by my sides. When I prayed, I’d put my hands down somewhere unobtrusive, or just folded my arms.
I did this with two main motivations. Firstly, it was a tribal marker: most people at the church I went to set this pattern, and most of the people who did something different went to other churches. Secondly, I was reacting against what I saw as two potential errors, either emotional manipulation (doing something with my body in order to feel a certain way) or empty ritual, in which my body and my heart didn’t line up. I wouldn’t have said I was against other people raising their hands per se, but I certainly wasn’t for it. I’d even rush in with how potentially unhelpful it was: emotionally manipulative for Christians, weird for outsiders, not the culture of the church I was in and so an unloving thing to do if it offended others there.
But I’ve changed my mind, and more besides. Now, when I pray, I like to hold out my hands. And when I sing, I like to raise my hands from time to time to express what I’m singing about. And at the heart of this change have been a few discoveries, about Scripture, about myself and about church.
A theology of my body
I could write reams in setting down a theology of my body. But to keep it brief, it’s hard to look at Scripture and escape the conclusion that God loves His material creation. Matter matters to Him: having spoken it into being, He calls it good (a rhythm of benediction running through Genesis 1). Even fallen, His created world reflects His glory, as Psalm 19 proclaims, and His creative care extends even to the space of material reality that I occupy, my body. Although Psalm 139:13-14 may smack of proof-text, the reality David is describing is awesome:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Here is where a theology of my body begins: my form is not accidental, but intricately crafted by a masterful Creator. From its very beginning, He has been involved. What He cares about in me is not merely my soul, but also my body. I know this because He stepped into my world in a body like mine, and rose again in a body that mine—one day—will be like! My body has a future, and Paul spends precious and extended time in 1 Corinthians 15 meditating on that future. This was a point of much controversy in the early church: the body of Christ had to fight fiercely against forces that would downplay God’s delight in material reality, from Docetism that proclaimed an only-seemingly-incarnate saviour, to the Gnostics whose worldview entailed the evil of physical creation. In God’s economy, my body is not a prison-house for the part of me that matters, the soul, and neither is it to be seen as temporary fodder, to use and abuse as I like before I slough it off. I am to use it to God’s glory, because He enacted redemption in a body, and His redeeming work includes my body as well as my soul.
When I look at my body, a range of cultural pressures set in, which can easily lead to disappointment or shame—and for some, pride. Many body positive campaigns and messages spring up in response, and much of what they have to say is good. But apart from this theology of a body, there is no true and lasting contentment, much less any hope. And when we see bodies as God has made them, the ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ beings around us, we will marvel at His generosity. We will find pornography abhorrent, and be sickened by the abuse of bodies that even very young children are taught to see as normal.
And—back to the point—we will seek ways in which to serve God with our bodies.
Lifting hands to the Lord: what I found in the Bible
What I have craved was an approach to Scripture that took it seriously, read it wisely and prayerfully, and lived out what it was clearly teaching. But I developed a hermeneutic—a way of interpreting Scripture—that left this question in a blind spot. While using Romans 12:1-2 to crow over other Christians’ misuse of the word ‘worship’ (“See, it’s not just singing, is it? It’s all of life”, I’d say, pedantically), I’d ignore the injunction: ‘offer your bodies’. While taking 1 Timothy 2 extremely seriously, I’d find a way to miss the clear exhortation of verse 8:
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.
I remember hearing a sermon in which the preacher frothed angrily at people who put all the emphasis on lifting of hands, saying that prayer was what Paul was enjoining on men. Subtler interpreters would point out how Paul’s call to pray with uplifted hands stands in contrast to what they might use their hands to do in ‘anger or disputing’. I agree on both counts with what these observations affirm, but why should they have any force of denial? For some reason, I allowed these considerations to let me off the hook on whether I should lift up my hands.
Instead of a biblical posture of prayer, I’d adopt a low-church evangelical slouch. I even had sympathy for way children were taught to prayer, palms together (?!) and eyes closed. (I could reserve another blog post about how strange and unbiblical I find that.)
And when I read a litany of verses in which lifting up hands was a posture of earnest prayer before the Lord (see Psalms 28:2, 44:20, 63:4, 77:2, 88:9, 134:2, 141:2, 143:6) I just thought they were different people doing a different thing. When Luke records the solemnity with which the risen Jesus blessed His own, with His hands lifted up, (Luke 24:50) I read on past the gesture as if it were empty. And whenever I had an uneasy thought about ignoring these postures, the examples set and the exhortations given, I consoled myself by saying: that’s not how my culture expresses itself.
Cultural context: what stays in the first century?
“After all,” I thought to myself, “I hardly ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’, do I? I go for a much more culturally appropriate thing to do: a good, solid handshake.” And, to be fair, that seems to me a wise way of interpreting the holy kisses of the New Testament: in some parts of the world, following that example literally would not be out of place. Here in the UK, it would be! I haven’t changed my mind on that: that stays in the cultural confines of the first century. Shouldn’t lifting up our hands, too?
Actually, I think suggesting that lifting up our hands is a culturally inexplicable gesture is nonsensical. I think that nobody in British culture would struggle to understand what that implies. But more to the point, it was a crazy thing for me to say! Anyone who knows me can attest to how frequently I use my hands to emphasise and even make my points while speaking. I’m tactile in showing affection, and quick to want to express myself physically as I communicate. (I put this down to not being ethnically Anglo-Saxon: there’s warmer blood from warmer climes in these British veins…)
But actually, let me get a little polemical. When British people go to watch a football match, they’d rarely stay in their seats. There’s chanting, clapping, jumping, hands lifted up in jubilation or clasped to faces in nail-biting tension. I’m describing football. A game, whose over-paid players draw out of all kinds of (otherwise reserved British) people all kinds of overwhelming emotion, that flows out into what these (otherwise reserved British) people do with their bodies, voices and even hands.
Could I really give Jesus any less? Could I allow a football match to draw out of me more emotional depth and bodily engagement than the life-giving gospel I build my life around? I have heard sermons in which physical expressions of praise to God are seen as a quaint, ‘sometimes’ thing. Only recently, I heard that it was ‘acceptable’ to express joy before the Lord physically, and ‘sometimes’ what we should do. (The passage in question was 2 Samuel 6, in which the restraint implied by the words ‘sometimes’, and the fringe status of the word ‘acceptable’, hardly seem in view in David’s jubilant dancing.) It felt to me at the time rather like telling a parent that they could ‘sometimes’ express their affection for their children physically: not technically untrue or unhelpful, but a strange and limited way of putting it.
As I reflected on this, I came to this conclusion. If you are the kind of person who watches a football match (or whatever else you consider important or worthwhile) and reacts to your team scoring by nodding impassively, and your team conceding goals with a little shake of the head, and if your arms are folded throughout…then I’m not surprised that you give no more bodily engagement in your praise of God, and I wouldn’t expect more. You’re clearly a person who is extremely muted in how you express yourself physically, and God welcomes your praise in Christ no less than anyone else’s.
But if you do any more than nod impassively, shake your head marginally and keep your arms folded, and if you call yourself a Christian who has received eternal life at the high price of Jesus’ death…how can you be happy giving Him less than what you give something as anodyne as football? Seeing as we hate an unbiblical culture around worship, and rightly fear both the manipulative and the emptily-formal…why would we let our culture of praise be set by something that the Bible never countenances, and owes more to upper class, stiff-upper-lip, public schools than the affective and embodied praise Scripture describes?
What others see
As I was working through some of these thoughts—and my experience of seeing Christians from other countries expressing themselves physically without any of my weird cultural hang-ups triggered much of this reflection—I was still concerned about what others would think. I was still a little worried that the unbeliever would see someone lifting up their hands as alien and weird, and that the Christian who associated this with something less wholesome would find this troubling. I felt as if it was a loving thing to do to hold back on this count. In all honesty, this is possibly the only argument that still convinces me to exercise restraint in church.
But I’m not even sure I’m that convinced. Firstly, let’s take the unbeliever. What is an unbeliever doing in church? Looking in and seeing for themselves, or possibly just visiting. But either way, an approach to corporate worship that takes its lead from what unbelieving guests might think will end up extremely wing-clipped. The fact is, Christians do all kinds of things that those who aren’t Christians will find utterly strange. We pray to a God we cannot see, out loud, often desperately. We exhibit a cross-cultural, cross-generational unity that you find hardly anywhere else. We celebrate a meal together, with commentary provided from two-thousand years ago. We listen to long tracts of a book read out, and then hear a sermon on it, often longer and differently presented from any other lecture. If we empty our times meeting together of all that the unbelieving world would find alien or weird, we’d be left with nothing. Salt would lose its saltiness.
But when the unbeliever comes in and finds it all a bit strange, that’s a very good thing. What are we afraid that they will see, when they see me lifting my hands when I sing? Someone with a real relationship with God, one that leads him to express deep joy. Why is that a bad thing for them to see? Most people who go to a church service without being believers are expecting something strange and different, anyway!
Secondly, what about the Christian who thinks differently? Whose conscience associates this with all kinds of other doctrinal errors? Well, let me put it gently: their consciences need educating! If the behaviour of God’s people as recorded (with approval!) and commanded by Scripture, provokes them, then they are the ones with the problem. Moreover, they no less than the unbeliever could take encouragement from seeing a Christian whose joy in the truths they sing about leads to visible expression.
Avoiding the dangers
None of what I’ve said means that there are no dangers at all in this. Like everything we do in our corporate worship, from baptism to preaching to public prayer to the Lord’s Supper, it can be done badly. This has never been a reason not to do it well. And it’s true that one can let one’s emotional state be their spiritual north star, associating a sense of jubilation with a sense of being nearer to God. That, of course, is rubbish. We are no less justified in Christ when we are depressed, sorrowful and doubting than when we are joyful and overflowing with praise.
But Scripture teaches that we are to direct our emotions: rather than being led by them, we get to direct them. If it were not so, how could we be commanded to rejoice, commanded to fear, commanded to love? But we are: which means that, even when I come to church utterly broken, or anxious, or upset, there is something truly joyful in the gospel about which to sing, and I can direct my heart to rejoice in that.
A side-note: if we reflected the balance of the psalter, singing songs which expressed lament and pain as well as joy, then the danger of chasing an emotional high would be lessened. Instead, we could let our singing and praise provide space for Romans 12:15 to happen, as we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. When I come to church feeling stable and happy, I can direct my heart to mourn over my sin or to feel compassion for the sorrows of others. Our unfaithfulness to the range of emotions expressed in the psalms means we start from behind in this discussion, and emotional manipulation and accusations of Christians who plaster perma-grins on their faces to meet God are inevitable.
(As another side-note, I belong to a constituency of Christians who often tell each other to sing as much horizontally as they do vertically, singing to one another as much as to God. For all that, we avoid eye-contact and fail to look around. Even what we state as a value, we don’t really do…)
What I’m doing when I lifting up my hands
But I find engaging physically with the truth I’m singing about has brought me untold joy. It’s meant freedom and integrity: freedom to show the outworkings of what I feel within, and integrity in the way that what I say with my lips and what I say with my body is finally the same as what I say with my heart. Instead of my praise of God being done in the shadow of people-pleasing, man-fearing instinct, or with a perpetual worry of what others might see and think, I now get to enjoy the thought of what God sees and thinks of my praise, acceptable to Him in Christ.
I am still working on how my bodily gestures express what I am singing about and praying about, but here are four ways I am finding myself encouraged, challenged and blessed.
Firstly, holding up empty hands before God is a gesture of surrender. In my praying and singing, it is a vivid and literal picture to myself of the emptiness of my hands, that there is nothing that I can do, that ‘nothing in my hands I bring’. For someone as easily distracted in prayer as me, having these empty hands outstretched is a constant and inescapable reminder. For someone as prone to pride and self-sufficiency as me, seeing these hands empty is a rebuke to all that pomp.
Secondly, holding up empty hands before God is a mark of expectation. These empty hands are lifted up so that they can be filled! Like a child holding out an empty hand for their parents to fill, I approach God with the shameless persistence of one of His own children. For someone who doubts, often, that their prayers will be heard, this act, this gesture of expectation rebukes my lack of faith.
Thirdly, the same way that Scripture tells us to lift up our eyes, or set our minds on things above, lifting up my hands cuts with the symbolic grain of where God is. He is above: not in the sense that He lives in space somewhere, but in the sense that He transcends all. He is not above in strict topographical terms, but the symbolic space He occupies is ‘high and lifted up’. To lift my hands up is to remind myself of this, a gesture that catechises my heart with the living illustration my eyes cannot miss.
Fourthly, lifting one’s hands is a sign of assent and celebration. When I sing an eternity-shaping truth like ‘For I am His and He is mine’ in In Christ Alone, I want to lift up my hands to express all the joy and love and excitement that truth brings my heart.
And, to bring it back to where we began, this is all worth doing because physical reality is not an evil that God shuns. It is part of His good design and cannot be seen as anything less. To think otherwise would be to miss so much of what He does. To give a parallel, it would be to stop taking the Lord’s supper because, really, that’s just about remembering Jesus’ sacrifice, and you don’t need to eat the meal to remember. It would be neglecting a means of grace, through which the Lord longs to teach us, win our hearts and stir our affections.