Do I Have to Close My Eyes Or Bow My Head When I Pray?

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Whether it’s been in a church, at a funeral or wedding, or even at a sporting event, you may have encountered a situation where everyone was asked to “close their eyes and bow their heads” for a prayer, or for a moment of silence.

Is shutting our eyelids and bending our neck downward a requirement for a prayer to be prayed.  Does closing your eyes or bowing your head somehow unlock the secret code to get God to hear your prayer better?  Is this practice even Biblical?  Why does it seem these physical actions always accompany the spiritual practice of prayer?

We’re going to investigate what’s behind these questions and arrive at some common-sense answers.

So, do you have to close your eyes or bow your head when you pray?

No, you don’t have to close your eyes or bow your head when you pray and there’s nothing in the Bible that requires these actions.  People typically do shut their eyes or bow their heads mainly to avoid distractions during prayer and as a sign of reverence or humbleness.

Since there is no scriptural foundation to be discovered for mandating the posture of bowed heads and closed eyes, it appears that the practice developed over time through repetition, rather than requirement.  You can be sure that if you pray with your eyes open, or head up, that your prayers will be heard and answered by God in accordance with his will and purposes.

Let’s take a look at some background on these postures and gain some further understanding on how prayer and our bodies can be linked together.

Praying With Closed Eyes is Helpful, But Not Required

While you may be used to praying with your eyes closed, it might be helpful to know that Jesus did when he prayed.  Interestingly, we don’t see anything in the Gospels about Jesus closing his eyes, but rather lifting his eyes to heaven.  When it comes to our understanding of prayer, we want to be open-minded.

As Jesus prayed one of his final prayers, he looked toward heaven. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he looked up to heaven. In Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus doing it when he commanded Lazarus’ grave to be opened.

So, because Jesus lifted his eyes up, does that mean we should now be required to do the same?  No, I don’t think so.  These examples are merely to show you that closing your eyes when you pray isn’t mandated.

Besides, most people close their eyes during prayer not because of some scriptural teaching about it, but simply to shut out any distractions.  Shutting your eyes shuts off a key input into your thoughts, allowing you to focus on God and what you are saying to God as you pray.

If you’re used to closing your eyes when you pray, then it’s okay to continue the practice.  But you don’t have to do it because it’s required–because it’s not!  Every so often, though, you may want to pray with your eyes open, especially if you’re outside, so you can see the wonders of God’s creation, as the Psalmist did:

“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, NIV).

If closing our eyes when we pray doesn’t seem to have a scriptural foundation, what about bowing our heads?

Praying with Bowed Heads is Respectful, But Not Required

Typically, we bow our heads as a show of reverence during prayer, or in the midst of a tender worship experience, or even in a moment of silence for people who have died.  In many cultures, it’s regarded as an act of humility and respect.

In Genesis, we see a servant who bowed down in response to answer of prayer. A whole assembly of people bowed down to worship God at David’s request.  We see the Levitical priests bowing down in praise and worship.  In the book of Nehemiah, the gathered people bowed their heads and faces to the ground in worship.  Moses acted in a similar fashion. The Psalmist bows his head in mourning.

As we pray, we should always recognize that we are praying to God Almighty and thus have a mind and heart of respect toward God.  If bowing your head helps you to keep this in focus as you pray, then, of course continue praying in that manner.

But as we saw in the previous section, people in the Bible did sometimes lift their head when they prayed, so it clearly is okay to do so.  Rather than imprison yourself in some human-created restriction around praying, consider approaching God with the physical posture that best suits your spirit, mood, and situation.

Physical Posture in Prayer Can Be Powerful

As we have shown, the physical posture of your body when you pray can be whatever is comfortable or the situation may call for in the moment.  For example, if you’re driving, clearly you cannot pray with your eyes closed, or with your head bowed.

We’ve also seen that people in the Bible prayed to God in various ways, which is an encouragement to us as we seek to grow in our prayer practices and in our relationship with God.  So, it might be worth exploring how we can use our bodies to deepen the experience of prayer, as it is a form of worship to God.

“He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10.27, NIV).

There are several instances of people praying or worshiping God with their face to the ground.   There’s a leper beseeching Jesus for healing.  Jesus falling to the ground in a prayer of desperation.  A Samaritan went down to the ground seeking mercy from Jesus.  The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women and they fell at Jesus’ feet in worship when they saw him.  Even unbelievers may fall in worship when confronted with God’s Spirit.

Another posture of prayer or worship is kneeling.  The wisest person ever to live, according to the Bible, was a king, and he knelt to pray:  “When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven” (1 Kings 8.54, NIV).  The Psalmist urges us to kneel before God.  The Apostle Paul shares that he may kneel before God.

Lifting up your hands in prayer is a physical action or posture that is encouraged at times, according to Paul, “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 2.8, NIV).   Here again, the Psalmist mentions lifting hands in prayer.  Even the down-to-earth poetry of country music speaks to this physical action.

You might want to change your physical posture when you pray and see if it doesn’t make a difference in how you feel, or how you may sense the presence of God as you pray.

For instance, try this simple experiment using the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”).

Pray the prayer standing up.  Then pray it sitting down.  Finally pray the prayer kneeling on the ground, as you are able.  Perhaps have your hands open and palms up, or arms at your side, or arms lifted up above your head.  As you try different physical postures while praying, pay attention to how this well-known prayer may take on deeper significance based on what your body is doing.

As we saw above, we are to love God with our strength, our body, so it makes sense to involve our body more in our spiritual practices, such as prayer and worship.  While there is an undeniable connection between our body and our prayers, it’s the positioning of our heart and spirit in prayer that may be more important.

Posture of Heart in Prayer is Vital

We can now see that our physical posture during prayer can be whatever we need it to be, and it will be appropriate.  But what about the posture of our heart?  Isn’t our mindset and the attitude of our spirit more important when we approach God in prayer?

From scripture, this very much appears to be the case.  The best example is from King David’s prayer in Psalm 51  (it is worth your time to read the whole Psalm).  He prays this after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba.  Convicted by God’s Spirit, King David prays with repentance in his heart:

“Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions. . .
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight. . .

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (Psalm 51, NIV).

Praying with a repentant heart is key in keeping our relationship with God in the realm of grace and mercy.  The posture of our heart can keep us from become hardened or cynical in prayer.  We also want to pray with thanksgiving in our heart.  Jesus counsels us to come to God in prayer with humility and not to show off for others.  Jesus also shows us that the words that come out of our mouth find their start in our hearts.  The Psalmist offers that we should come to God in full trust.  Without doing an exhaustive survey of scripture, even these few examples show us the biblical trend–pray to God with a humble heart.

Given that we are sinners and God is God and we are not God, it is easy to see how we can approach with both confidence through Jesus Christ,  and also with a sense of reverence, respect, and understanding of who we are, and who we are not.  Praying with an open heart seems to be the ideal, and one we can all grow into, and deepen as we journey forward with God.

Final Thoughts

You can pray to God any time, anywhere, about anything.  You can pray with your eyes open or shut, your head bowed or raised up, arms at your side or lifted high, and palms open or clasped.  You can pray standing up, kneeling down, walking around, sitting down, or jumping up. You can pray silently or out loud.

Our physical posture can be helpful to us as we pray, to be sure.  We’ve seen from scripture that there are a variety of physical actions or body postures used in prayer and worship.  But a mandated motion, or required form isn’t to be found in scripture, which frees us to pray and worship God with an involved body, an upright heart, and a clear mind.

You don’t have to worry about whether you’re “doing it right” when it comes to prayer and your physical posture.  Just come to God in prayer with honesty, vulnerability, and transparency.   Accept who you are in God’s eyes as the Psalmist does in these selected verses from a song of worship:

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. . .

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
   your works are wonderful, I know that full well. . .
23 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139, NIV)

Keep praying to God, wherever you are.  Keep praying to God, knowing that he hears you, and rest in that truth and peace.

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