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Does It Matter Whether We Sit, Stand, or Kneel to Pray?

Recently, when I was teaching a seminar on prayer, I explained the traditional, scriptural postures for prayer. I was right in the middle of explaining their history, meaning, and use, when one of the men in the group interrupted me.

It doesn’t matter what you do when you pray, he said, because prayer is a spiritual act, not a physical act!

Is that really true?

So I asked him to demonstrate praying without facing a direction, without looking at anything, without imagining that he was looking at anything, and without assuming a posture, such as sitting or standing. So he tried it. He jerked around like he was being electrocuted. After he returned to his seat with a reddened face, I observed that he had not accomplished his goal. Instead of not facing a direction, he had faced several directions. Instead of not looking at something, he had looked at several things and at images in his imagination. Instead of not assuming a posture, he had assumed several postures in rapid succession. However, I didn’t have to press my point, because he quickly conceded defeat.

It is not possible for you to do a spiritual thing without doing a physical thing, and it is not possible for you to do a physical thing without doing a spiritual thing. Why? Because you are a special creature. Like the animals, you are a physical creature with physical needs and appetites; like the angels, you are a spiritual creature who needs significance in your existence and a relationship with God.

This truth has three ramifications:

Doctors cannot ignore your spiritual side.

There has been a lot of progress in medical science over the last hundred years. A hundred years ago, the most sophisticated surgery that a doctor could perform successfully was an amputation. By the early part of the twentieth century, we recovered all the medical know-how that had been lost in the decline of the Roman Empire. Fifty years ago, hospitals were places people went to die. Today, doctors routinely perform what would have been miracles only last week. So it is understandable that they get wrapped up in the mechanics of medicine sometimes, but despite that they are discovering that they have to take immaterial things into consideration when they treat disease. Few doctors today, for example, would attempt to treat high blood pressure without taking into account your family situation, your job situation, your attitude toward exercise, and your ethnicity—which can govern your diet.

For you are a hybrid creature, physical like an animal, spiritual like an angel; those who treat the physical side of you cannot ignore the spiritual side.

Counselors cannot ignore your physical side.

It used to be that if you had a problem such as depression or anxiety, you’d go into a quiet room with a counselor and talk things out. And if you consulted your pastor about a spiritual problem, the treatment was superficially pretty much the same, except that there was prayer. Everyone recognizes that it is silly to counsel a person for irritability when all they need is a good meal or a good night’s sleep. However, we have now discovered that there are a lot of physical factors that govern what we used to think were purely spiritual or emotional problems. So today, pastors and secular counselors have to be on the look-out for tell-tale signals that indicate a physical illness, so they can refer their clients to physicians when it is appropriate. There’s no sense putting you through years and years of ineffective psychotherapy if what’s really bothering you is an electrolyte imbalance in your bloodstream.

For you are a hybrid creature, physical like an animal, spiritual like an angel; those who treat the spiritual side of you cannot ignore the physical side.

You cannot separate your beliefs from your behavior.

Many of us have been so thoroughly indoctrinated in the truth that we are saved by faith alone, apart from works, that we become uncomfortable when we read that Jesus tells us that if we call Him Lord, but do not obey His commandments, we have no part in Him, or when Jesus says He will judge us by our works. You are a hybrid creature, physical like an animal, spiritual like an angel, you cannot believe one thing and do another. This is the truth underlying the word hypocrite. You cannot separate beliefs from actions. It is easier to lie with your words than with your behavior, so if your behavior and your words do not match, you are lying.

When we say that we are saved by faith, we mean that faith is the beginning of salvation, not the end of it. If we have faith, we are saved, and if we are saved, the Holy Spirit dwells within us, and if the Holy Spirit dwells within us, He transforms us over time, and the transformation is evident in our behavior. Suppose a man tells you he graduated from a prestigious cooking school with honors, but when he prepares simple meals, it always turns out a disaster. Suppose a woman tells you she is a registered nurse, but when a drowning child is dragged from the lake, she panics and asks if anyone knows artificial resuscitation. Suppose you claim that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, but in your conduct you are indistinguishable from your friend who is entirely secular? How can you be a Christian if you do not forgive, if you are not humble, and if you do not love others, as Jesus loved you? How can you be a Christian if your professed love does not manifest itself in deeds of providence, grace, and kindness in the lives of unworthy sinners?

A loveless Christian is like a flatulent diplomat. Useless.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.
—1 John 4:3, NIV

Not only is it impossible for us to separate the spiritual from the physical during our life in the body, it is heretical for us to try. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to us in the flesh, thereby sanctifying the physical matter that He created, redeeming not just our souls, but also our bodies. He promised us a resurrection, not just some ethereal spiritual home. So if we separate the spirit from the body, we are not just making an impractical academic distinction, we are denying the significance of the Incarnation and of the Resurrection on the Last Day.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
     We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
—Romans 8:19-23, NIV

So does it matter whether you sit, stand, or kneel in prayer? Yes it does. Do we not clean the church and decorate it appropriately for Sunday services? Then how much more important is it for us to prepare our bodies for prayer, seeing that they are temples in which the Holy Spirit dwells?

So—to get back to my seminar—after that man demonstrated that he could not do a spiritual act without doing a physical act, we all did an experiment:

The class decided that their posture really did make a difference.

So I enjoin you to make sure that your posture reflects the content of the prayer, so that you pray with your body as you pray with your spirit.

For more information on the postures for prayer, see Shall We Sit, Stand, or Kneel to Pray?