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Shall We Sit, Stand, or Kneel to Pray?

You are visiting a friend’s church and the minister says, “Let us pray,” and you find when you reach for the kneeler that it isn’t there. Looking around, you see that everyone has remained seated with their eyes shut tight. Or perhaps you visit a synagogue, and the people stand to pray.

“What’s going on?” you wonder.

Here are the five traditional postures for prayer, how they originated, what they are used for, and who uses which one:

Diagram of prayer positions

Standing to pray in the orans position

Standing:
   Eyes open, looking up
   Hands uplifted with the palms up

This is the oldest posture for prayer. It is called the orans position, from the Latin word for praying. By praying this way, the worshiper acknowledges God as external and transcendent. This posture is for thanksgiving, praises, blessings, benedictions, and general prayers. This is still the normal position for prayers in eastern churches and in Jewish synagogues, and it is still used in the western church, particularly when the clergy bless the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
—Luke 9:28-32, NIV

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed
—John 17:1a, NIV

I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer
—1 Timothy 2:8a, NIV

Standing to pray with hands clasped

Standing:
   Looking down with eyes averted or closed
   Hands clasped at the waist

This is the traditional posture of a shackled prisoner of war who is brought before the conquering king. The hands are clasped at the waist as if they were shackled in chains. The eyes are averted—in ancient times, looking directly at one’s captor was insolent and a good way to get killed on the spot. This posture is for submissive petitions or for intercessory or penitential prayer, as we see in Luke 18:10-13.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I want to thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
—Luke 18:10-13, NIV

Kneeling to pray

Kneeling:
   Eyes open, looking up
   Hands uplifted with the palms up
      —OR—
   Looking down with eyes averted or closed
   Hands folded

This is the traditional posture for requesting favors from a king, and so it became the traditional posture for prayers of repentance or supplication. The Council of Nicaea in AD 325 forbade kneeling on Sundays, because penitential prayer is not appropriate during a celebration of the Resurrection. In western Christianity, kneeling came to mean simple humility and submission, and so kneeling became the normal posture for most prayers in the west. However, to eastern Christians, kneeling still means repentance or supplication.

The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.
—Matthew 18:26, NIV

[Jesus] withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
—Luke 22:41-44, NIV

Some western churches have kneelers so the congregation can pray in the pews. Others do not have kneelers, but when people gather at the altar railing, they kneel. The secret to kneeling is not to bend at the waist. Thrust your hips forward, so that your abdomen and thighs form a straight, vertical line, and you’ll be able to kneel for long periods of time without fatigue and without sitting on your heels.

Lying prostrate to pray

Prostrate:
   Lying on one’s belly
   Looking down with eyes averted or closed

This is the traditional posture for begging favors from a king when the favors are great and the petitioner is either desperate or has no standing before the king even in the literal sense. It became the traditional posture for desperate, penitential, or intercessory prayer and is still used in eastern churches, which have plenty of room because they don’t have pews.

Then [Jesus] said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
—Matthew 26:38-39, NIV

Sitting to pray

Sitting:
   Looking down with eyes averted or closed
   Hands folded

The Roman Catholic Church invented pews during the Middle Ages, right before the Protestant Reformation. Since the Protestant Reformation was essentially a Christian education movement with very long sermons, the Protestants kept the pews even though they rejected just about everything else they regarded as a ‘Roman invention.’ As a result, sitting has become the normal posture for prayer for many western congregations.

In 2 Samuel 7:18, David sat to pray. However, sitting for prayer was not prevalent until after the invention of pews.

In general:

But does it matter whether we sit, stand, or kneel to pray?