For most of my life, I have prayed lying down: late-night thoughts directed at God from my pillow. It probably comes as little surprise that, for most of my life, I have ended up asleep shortly after. Feeling betrayed by my body, I could not pray.
Several years ago a coworker at our church staff prayer meeting caught my attention when he arranged his body differently than the rest of us during prayer. He sat with head bowed, as we all did, but he extended his hands on the table, palms upward. I asked him afterward why he kept his hands outstretched. “It’s to remind me of the ‘nothing in my hands I bring’ thing,” he said, “and that I’m open to receiving whatever God has for me.”
I had long known that prayer is talking to God, communicating with the divine using human language. However, the thought that prayer might involve body language was a new one. But why not? Experts tell us that most of our communication is nonverbal, with intonation and body language accounting for more than 75 percent of the messages received by hearers. Crossed arms indicate defensiveness; hands on hips, aggression. Leaning forward and maintaining eye contact while listening indicate attentiveness and interest.
Experiments in Prayer Posture
With this new thought in mind, I became self-conscious about my supine supplications. What did my posture communicate about my priorities in prayer? Yes, it showed a trust that God is intimate and omniscient—knowing every thought before it is on my tongue and loving me even in the ragged exhaustion of the last moments of my day. But was it also possible that my pillow prayers indicated little commitment to God? After all, a healthy marriage needs more than a hastily whispered goodnight in its communication repertoire.
So I began to make a point of sitting up to pray, with palms extended as my friend had shown me. Before long I didn’t want to pray in bed anymore. I moved to the dining table. I found the shape of my prayers shifting with my posture. I prayed more intently; my thoughts drifted less. I found myself needing to pray some things out loud and even—on occasion—in writing. There were times when I felt the need to raise my hands, pushing back the awkward self-consciousness of wondering exactly what kind of weirdness my worship signals might communicate.
Phrases I had previously skimmed over in Scripture began to leap to my attention: places where men are commanded not just to pray but to do so “lifting holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8), where we are told not just to worship God but to “bow down” before our Lord and maker (Psalm 95:6). The prophets of old “fell on their faces” before the Lord (Number 16:22), and Jesus himself “knelt down” to pray (Luke 22:41).