A few Sundays back, my six year old son approached me after church with a question: “Why do you bow your head when you pray?” Before I could answer, he posited a suggestion – “I think we should look up, ‘cuz God is in heaven” – then bounded down the aisle toward the back of the church. I wanted to chase after him and give the theological significance to bowing in humility before the Sovereign Lord of all Creation, but I knew it would have been pointless. His first-grade curiosity had moved on to another great dilemma, and besides, he may be right.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1–2
I would be the first to declare the biblical truth that the typical posture of worship is to bow down and for good reason. Bowing our heads and diverting our eyes serve to recognize our submission to our Almighty God. They also serve to reduce the distractions of everything swirling around us while we seek to commune with our Savior. These are the positions of the one who prays effectively in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, who wouldn’t even look up to heaven (Luke 18:13). It is right to bow down in reverence.
The question that Joshua asked, and the question I now wrestle with is this: Is there one right posture for prayer? The Bible tells us in some verses to kneel and in other verses to stand when we pray; it even depicts David as praying while seated on the throne and while lying on his bed. The scriptures command us to look up and look down, to lift up our hands and wave palm branches while in the practice of prayer. There seems to be no one right way to intercede before the Lord.
Is a phone call better than a letter or an email better than a face-to-face dialogue? It would depend upon the content and context of the conversation. No one with an ounce of wisdom will propose to their beloved with a text message or dispute their electric bill with a hand-written poem. Similarly, different prayers demand different methods: prayers of adoration may be best expressed standing with our hands and our eyes raised and prayers of confession may be best conveyed with our eyes and our foreheads resting in the dust; prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of supplication may well be best delivered sitting in front of a photo album or a missionary’s letter. When we are talking with God, there is no one right way to carry on the conversation and no wrong way either.
So, Josh, why do I bow my head when I pray? Because God is great and I am small; He is master over all. Josh, should I look up, too? Absolutely – that is where my help comes from and that is where my hope abides. Son, pray any way you want, so long as you pray.