Swimming Biblically

August 1, 2011

Here's one of my advanced swimming techniques. Maybe I'm missing something.

I love being in water. At the gym, in the ocean, even the shower. Water is great. And I really enjoy swimming, but I have a confession. I’m terrible at swimming. Sure, I can move through the water at a good pace, but I’m horribly inefficient and my arms end up doing all the work. I hear that swimming is a whole body exercise, but I’m okay with my purely functional windmill stroke. After all, I’m in the water, I enjoy it immensely, and I’m content.

But what if, in my Bible reading, I discovered passages that described particular techniques for to enhance my swimming. I wouldn’t have to do them all, especially not all at once, but shouldn’t I want to look into these strokes and see if it helped my swimming? That’s one way of looking at the biblical examples of outward expression in worship. What does the Bible say about how God’s people express themselves in worship?

This is a good time to insert one consideration about outward expression – it is not the most important thing. It’s not a litmus test to measure if someone is really worshiping or just treading water. God is concerned first with the engaged heart and mind. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” This helps us avoid two pitfalls. First, we can’t assume that the lack of physical expression means that nothing is going on in the heart. Second, we must remember that the presence of expressiveness doesn’t necessarily indicate a strong, faith centered worshiper.  Jesus and Isaiah took a stand against heartless worship: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…” Matt 15:8-9  Clearly, any physical expression must be connected to an inward reality. We’ll come back to that later.

So if physical expression isn’t important, why spend time talking about it at all?

Wait a minute! Who said anything about physical expression not being important? On the contrary, the primary words the Jews and the early church used for worship were connected to particular ideas about posture and expression. Allow me to drop the very small amount of Hebrew and Greek I retained from seminary on you. I’ll be gentle.

Shachad  is translated “worship” 81 times in the Old Testament. It means “to bend down low, to prostrate oneself.” As in, to put your nose to the ground low. That’s one way the Hebrews understood and related to God. But the word yadah (used 90 times) has a different connotation, meaning “to throw out the hand.” The very word encourages the worshiper to raise their hands, whether as a sign of joy, desperation, exaltation, or need. Additionally, the Hebrews sometimes used ‘abodah, meaning “to serve or work.” The Old Testament’s physical understanding of worship is carried into the New Testament by the word proskuneo. Used 51 times, this word combines pro (“to turn toward”) with kuneo (“to kiss”). Proskuneo contains the same humility as the Hebrew shachad, but with an added intimacy and closeness. Clearly, the people of God have historically understood a connection between inward and outward action in the very words they chose to speak of worship.

The Bible doesn’t just use gesture-related words to refer to worship. It also has a lot to say about our bodily expressions in worship. The Psalms alone are full of a huge variety of gestures and postures. What physical expressions do you find in these passages?

  • I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. Ps 34:1
  • And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me,
    and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy Ps 27:6
  • Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! Ps 95:6
  • My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws. Ps 119:120
  • “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp.” Ps 149:3
  • Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” Ps 47:1
  • “I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” Ps. 63:4
  • “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands.” 1 Tim 2:8
  • And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Neh 8:6

It’s quite a list – standing, speaking, singing, playing instruments, bowing down, dancing, raising hands, shouting, and that’s not all. It turns out that biblical worship, like swimming, is often a full body exercise. Some of these physical expressions are more common in our weekly gatherings, but others are rare or unheard of. However, none of them are foreign to our culture. These expressions are downright common at many moments of joy and celebration –  weddings, reunions, births, football games, concerts, and graduations. Watch the footage of any SEC game and you’ll see people using physical expression to demonstrate their inward emotion. It’s a great picture of worship, declaring the worth of something or someone. Great celebrations and times of joy normally create outward expressions of worship. Yet we are reluctant to bring some of them into our most profound celebration, our gathering around our great joy in Christ, the one who is most worthy of our most profound worship. The Bible has suggested several “strokes” for us to try as we worship. They all aren’t appropriate or necessary all the time, but aren’t they worth considering?

Some might immediately dismiss half of this list as categorically irreverent or improper for gathered worship, but that would be very premature. Each of these gestures and postures were part of biblical worship, were birthed out of reverence and awe, and were well received by the Father when they were accompanied by pure hearts of worship. So there’s not a simple answer as to why we are reluctant to be more expressive in our worship. The truth of why we aren’t more physical in worship is a tangle of our culture, our fears, our our expectations and traditions, a lack of teaching and encouragement, and possibly a measure of coldness towards God in our worship. We’ll start there on the next post.

Read part one of this series.

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