Problematic Words in Prayer: Overextending “Lift Up”
This is the third and last of a series of posts in which I identify words or phrases to be omitted from public prayers. Previously, I discouraged the inappropriate uses of the words “just” and “be with” in making supplication to the Lord. In this post I identify another catch phrase to be avoided in prayer: “lift up.” It is commonly used in intercessory prayer, such as: “Lord, we lift up Sally for healing.” It can also be found in petitions for oneself: “God, I lift up my financial difficulties to you.”
This idiom in prayer has become common in the past decade or so. Personally I did not begin to hear this used in Lutheran contexts until about 2010. It may have been around much earlier than that in contexts of which I was not a participant, but my own observation of this phenomenon is fairly recent. It is a catchy phrase, and I must admit that I have used it in my private prayers and even on occasion in public, all before giving it further thought.
Let me begin by saying that there is nothing about using “lift up” which is theologically improper or inherently dangerous. As such it differs from my previous two posts regarding the use of “just” and “be with.” In those cases the words as popularly used can give rise to misunderstanding. But the use of “lift up” doesn’t bring with it similar concerns.
When we pray, “We lift up this concern to you, O Lord,” this is another way of saying that we bring to God this concern. We offer it to him as a petition. Accordingly, there is nothing inherently wrong with this.
So what is the concern? Why is this included among my posts entitled “Problematic Words in Prayer”? What’s the problem?
The issue is that this usage has become clichéd. It is overused. I believe that it is so heavily used because Christians believe that it uses biblical language. It is true that the image of “lifting up” is commonly used in the prayers of the Bible. But that biblical usage differs from the way in which language is commonly used in prayer today.
The imagery of “lifting up” in the Bible frequently refers to the posture of prayer. So the scriptures speak of lifting up one’s face (Ezra 9:6), eyes, (Ps. 121:1, 123:1), hands (Ps. 28:2, 141:2), head (Ps. 27:6), soul (Ps. 25:1, 86:4, 143:8), voice (Is. 24:14, 40:9: Luke 17:13), and song (Ps. 68:4). This can be intended literally, since often the Israelite worshiper would raise his hands, head, and face to God in prayer. Similarly, his voice and song would literally be directed to the Lord. In some cases, perhaps this can be understood figuratively to refer to the posture of the heart in speaking to God. The image of lifting up one’s soul to God indicates that the psalmist directs his very being to Yahweh in prayer and supplication.
This usage is different, however, from the contemporary application. Commonly today we speak of lifting up cares, concerns, problems, needs, and people. The object of the verb is different in this case. The current popular usage makes the topic of concern to be the object of the verb lift: “We lift up the church’s financial shortfall.” Sometimes specific people are named as the object of the verb: “I lift up Karen, who is to undergo surgery.” This differs from the biblical usage which speaks of lifting up as a posture for prayer.
In one incident in the Bible the object of the verb “to lift” is actually prayer itself. In the face of Assyrian threats, Hezekiah asked the prophet Isaiah to “lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left” (2 Kings 19:4; Isaiah 37:4). This is similar to the idea of lifting up one’s voice or song—it refers to the lifting of words to the Lord. Once again, this is a different usage than that which is popular today.
Also in the Psalms there are occasions in which God is described as lifting up people. The Lord lifts people from death (Ps. 9:13) and humiliation (Ps. 146:8) to safety (Ps. 27:5) or exaltation (Ps. 75:7, 147:6). In these Psalms, which are themselves prayers, God is depicted as lifting up people. But notice that this differs from the contemporary popular parlance in which the supplicant lifts up others to God. Accordingly, asking God to lift someone from tribulation to triumph is more consistent with the scriptural language than to say “We lift up [name] for deliverance.”
As I indicated at the beginning, this is not of the same level of concern as other language used in prayer. Some might call my concern nit-picking, or “straining out gnats” (Matt. 23:24). I agree that it isn’t a weighty issue. I also affirm that it is better to pray using clichés than not to pray at all.
What I do encourage, however, is thoughtful reflection on the language used in prayer. I seek prayer language like that found in the Bible and which is consistent with sound theology. I encourage patterns of praying which follow biblical usage of language. I recommend that in our prayers we use the image of “lifting up” in the same way in which God’s Word uses it.
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I’ve had my say about some words and catch phrases which are popularly used in prayers today. What about you? Are there other idioms commonly employed in prayer which you deem to be worn, inappropriate, clichéd, or theologically troublesome? I would love to know what prayer words are irritating you!