How ought we to pray? Kneeling, standing, sitting, prostrate? Should we pray out loud, in song, or silently? The most specific instructions we receive in Scripture pertain to the content of our prayers, not to the outward delivery of those prayers. In Matthew 6, when Jesus instructs the disciples how to pray, he only briefly addresses the delivery of prayers, cautioning them not to “heap up empty phrases” or to seek attention. The bulk of Jesus’ instruction comes in an exemplary prayer that includes the key elements of adoration, submission, supplication, and confession.
While Jesus instructs us in the content of prayers, Scripture provides illustrations of the postures we might assume during prayer: standing, kneeling, bowing, lifting our eyes to heaven, lying prostrate, and raising our hands. Indeed, the Apostle Paul’s exhortation that we “pray without ceasing” requires a certain flexibility: If prayer is a continuous aspect of our daily ritual, then we must be prepared to pray while standing, walking, or lying in bed.
The Reformed theological tradition lays particular emphasis on the contents of our prayers and our attitudes in offering them—the posture of our hearts, so to speak, over the posture of our bodies. This emphasis is scriptural, and not without its peculiar benefits. I understand that I am free to commune with my Savior prostrate in the dark, in an idle moment in class, or walking through a grassy meadow. If I were paralyzed, I would still be free to worship, to cry out to my Savior. Scripture lists many reasons why our prayers might go unheard—doubt, unconfessed sin, or familiar discord—all of which concern the carriage and condition of hearts, not bodies.
Yet, even as we pray with the most casual demeanor, one has to wonder whether we lose something when we downplay the importance of physical posture. It’s a grave error to deny that our bodies have moral meaning. Scripture tells us that we were given physical bodies for a purpose. Our bodies are ordered as instruments of worship: “[Y]our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit,” writes the Apostle Paul. The body-as-temple paradigm has profound implications for prayer. Like a temple, the body is the physical location in which our soul worships.
The positions of our bodies may not hinder our prayers, but they can alter the state of our hearts. “There are thoughts which are prayers. There are moments when, whatever the posture of the body, the soul is on its knees,” Marius writes to Cosette in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Marius is correct. There are times when we may pray without bowed head or bent knees. Yet, if this type of prayer becomes too habitual, it may have deleterious effects. In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon writes:
One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray “with moving lips and bended knees,” but merely “composed his spirit to love” and indulged “a sense of supplication.” That is exactly the sort of prayer we want…they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget…that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”
In the City of God, Augustine drew similar moral conclusions from a being’s physical posture. He writes, “The bodies of irrational animals are bent toward the ground, whereas man was made to walk erect with his eyes on heaven, as though to remind him to keep his thoughts on things above.”
Modern science bears this out. Amy Cuddy, a researcher at Harvard University, has published a number of studies showing a causal relation between physical stances and biochemical reactions. Adopting a dominant physical stance, for instance, can increase levels of testosterone and decrease cortisol in as little as two minutes’ time. Something as simple as standing hands-on-hips for a few moments can change our hormonal balance and incline us toward confidence and boldness.
It is in exactly this manner—the idea that the physical body might reflect or prompt the spiritual or mental state—that our posture during prayer matters. Just as a church or synagogue might be adorned differently to reflect different feasts or to commemorate particular blessings, we might adopt different physical tones to underscore the intention or heart of our prayers. To fall on your face in front of a king signified the complete control he had over your life. Lying prostrate before the cross reflects our acknowledgement of God’s omnipotence. We hide our face in shame, raise our hands in joy, or bow our heads in contrition. Kneeling for prayer is a tangible confession of Christ’s lordship.
There is no Scriptural requirement that we bow or kneel when we pray—and we ought not to burden the conscience of those who are unable to do so. Further, we ought not to adopt a prayerful posture solely for attention (in Matthew 6, Jesus condemns those who pray publicly solely to be seen praying). But choosing to kneel affirms our submission when our hearts struggle to do so, and bowing our heads can reflect the honor due to God in his Holiness. Rejoice in your freedom and pray without ceasing, but as you do so, consider how your posture reflects your heart.
Matthew H. Young is a summer intern at First Things. He has written for University Bookman, Civitas Review, the Carolina Journal, and other publications.