Standing to worship: why it matters

We think that we have an emotion, and our body then responds with the appropriate physiological response. One of my psychology lecturers told us “the conventional or common-sense view is that perceptual and cognitive appraisal of a stimulus causes the emotional feeling, which in turn causes behavioural and physiological responses.” We face a situation which we find scary; so we are scared; and because we are scared our body responds by increasing the heart rate and reducing blood flow to the gut and making us breathe faster. Or we are faced with an enjoyable event, so we are excited looking forward to it; so our body responds by increasing the heart rate and reducing blood flow to the gut and making us breathe faster – and hang on, haven’t we been here already?


Actually, it happens the other way around. Our body responds to the situation we are in, and our brain then interprets that response and tells us what the emotion is that we are feeling. When our hearts race and our blood pounds and our chests rapidly rise and fall we could be feeling scared, or we could be feeling excited, depending upon how our brain interprets the situation. Or, if you have alexithymia, all you may know is that your heart is racing and your blood is pounding round your body and you are breathing faster than usual, but you don’t know why and you feel neither fear nor excitement. The physiological, bodily response is still there, but people with alexithymia struggle to assign that body experience to an emotion.


The physiological response happens before we consciously feel an emotion. The emotion that we feel depends upon both the physiological response and the context in which we experience it. If two people are placed in a scary situation but one has been given a sedative, then the sedated person doesn’t feel afraid despite the situation. This is because the sedative blocks the normal physiological response to such situations. This is the reason why doctors give out beta-blockers to people with anxiety: beta-blockers lower heart rate and blood pressure, and our brains interpret the lower rates (or at least, the lack of increased rates) as a lack of anxiety. Altering the physiology alters the experienced emotion.

Equally, context is important. In a classic experiment, volunteers were given shots of adrenaline and variously told to expect no side effects, drowsiness, or increased heart rate. These volunteers were then placed in rooms with actors, where the actors had been told to act either happy or angry. The volunteers who had a valid reason for their increase in heart rate did not respond emotionally to the behaviour of the actor. But the volunteers who could not explain away their physiological response instead interpreted their increased heart rate as due to anger (if placed with the angry stooge) or happiness (if with the happy stooge). The volunteers’ brains used the context of the situation to explain the altered physiology, and came up with an appropriate emotion (or lack thereof) for what the brain thought was going on.


As well as interpreting out physiological responses, our brains also seek justifications for our behaviours. We may think that we act kindly to someone because we love them – but we also love them because we have previously acted kindly towards them. Our brain is looking for a reason why we carried out an act of kindness, and love is a pretty good reason. Humans are very good at post hoc justification: we act, and then we rationalise why we did it; our body responds physiologically to a situation, and then we assign an emotional reason to why our body did what it did. The actions we take influence how we feel about things and towards other people.


In one experiment, volunteers were asked to lie about how interesting a boring task was to the next ‘volunteer’. Volunteers who were paid $1 to lie were more likely, on a later date, to rate the task as interesting than were volunteers who had been paid $20 to lie. For the high payment group, the incentive was enough to justify what they told the next person. But for the low payment group, $1 didn’t seem like a good enough reason to claim that a boring task was actually interesting, so this group was more likely to post-hoc justify their behaviour by believing that the task was actually more interesting than it was (Festinger and Carlsmith, 1959).


In another experiment, some volunteers were asked to return their ‘winnings’ either for the sake of their impoverished researcher or for the sake of the department. Those who had returned their money for the researcher subsequently gave higher ratings of ‘liking’ the researcher than did the other two groups (Jecker and Landy 1969).


Or ask a group of people to taste-test a series of smooth-set raspberry jams (to make sure that some samples don’t have more pieces of raspberry) and they will give you reasons why they preferred one over another – even though all the samples were from the same jar. They made a choice, and then justified it; acted, and then sought a reason for the action.


We have a tendency, therefore, to look back on our actions and seek justifications for them.


To some extent, perhaps we stand to worship God only because everyone else around is doing the same: we do it to conform with social norms, and don’t seek any other reason. But it is still worth asking why the social norm arose in the first place. The original effort still has to be justified, and whilst we may merely ascribe it to social norms which we resent, seeking the source of these norms is more useful. At some point, someone made the effort to stand rather than sit in the presence of another – and that original social custom may well have been connected with feelings of respect and reverence.


We may think that we are already reverent towards God, and we choose to express that sometimes by standing to pray or to sing praise or to hear from the Bible; and other times we may express it by kneeling or bowing; but most of the time it doesn’t matter if we simply remain seated. But our bodies are more important than that. What we do with our bodies influences how we think and feel about something. We can’t repeatedly remain seated in the presence of God (from choice) and not lose respect for him. The very comfort of sitting; the informality of it; necessarily influences our attitude towards God. Our bodies are acting informally, and our brains justify it by telling us that God is not worthy of our respect, or that our relationship to him as children is more important than our relationship as created beings.


People used to make special efforts on Sundays to dress up more smartly. Especially for manual labourers, it may have been significant to wear clean clothes that are not torn or patched. Many of us don’t do so anymore, and I wonder if in so doing we have lost a little bit of our respect, reverence and awe for God. It is good to remember that we are called his children and can approach him with some familiarity because of that status – but it is also good to remember just how awesome and terrible (in the old sense of the word) God is.


On reflection, I think it would do me some good to start to make an effort again, at least for attending church if not for the rest of the day, to remind me of the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of all wisdom. This is perhaps particularly the case because I cannot stand to worship, so need to find a different way to mark my respect for God. I am not rich so my ‘smart’ clothes would not be any more expensive than my ‘casual’ clothes, nor from any trendier a shop, and perhaps to most people would not be obviously ‘smart’. But I would know – I would know that they weren’t patched; that they were clean and fresh on that day; that they weren’t my ‘day-to-day’ wear. I would know if I put in some ear-studs and wore a necklace, that this was me ‘dressing up’ for God to show him reverence. As a woman, I find that dresses or skirts often feel more ‘special’ to me, because they aren’t especially practical clothes so I don’t tend to wear them during the week, so these are a good choice without requiring me to have expensive clothes at a level that I can’t afford.


Overall, then, I think that it is important that we choose some way of marking our respect for God. It might be by standing to worship him, standing or kneeling for prayer, or having certain clothes that we keep for ‘Sunday best’. Perhaps you have other ways – but I would encourage you to make sure that they are physical, outward markers and not simply internal feelings, because your physical actions will help to weaken or strengthen your internal feelings. And respect for God is a feeling that is well worth cultivating.


German worship

In tweeting and writing on the subject of standing to worship God, I learnt that in Germany it is common to sit for worship – but to stand for prayer. I have not found any information on why this is the case, although I did discover the book Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism. Without accessing the whole book or having any scholarship in the history of Christinaity in Germany, reading the first chapter (available on Google books) suggested that German congregations historically sat to listen to the choir or a soloist sing the worship parts of the service. Luther tried to encourage Christians to participate in the singing, and to make an effort to learn the songs, but was not initially very successful. I wonder therefore whether the habit of remaining sat stems from a time when most people sat and listened to the choir, with a handful perhaps becoming bold enough to sing along (but not to stand to do it) until the time when the whole congregation eventually was singing – but still sat. The practice of standing for prayer perhaps acts as an alternative place in the service at which to indicate one’s respect for God through one’s bodily position before him.


Experiments on emotion

The James-Lange theory of emotion tells us that, “we do not run away from the bear because we are afraid; we are afraid because we run”. He thought that our emotions were just our perceptions of our bodily responses to the environment. But there is an added dimension: the context of the situation, as we explored above. An experiment by Schachter and Singer helps to show this. They gave injections of adrenaline to three groups of people, telling each group that it was a vitamin injection and saying to one of the groups that potential side effects included increased heart rate and sweating, another that side effects included drowsiness, and the third being told nothing about side effects. The research participants were then placed, individually, with another person who was there to act either euphorically or angrily. The group that had been given accurate information about what effects to expect did not respond emotionally to the actor, but the group that had been told nothing and the group that had been told to expect drowsiness did respond emotionally: they were more likely to express feeling angry if they were placed with the angry actor, and happy if placed with the happy actor. Our emotions are not just about our bodily sensations, but also the context in which we experience those sensations.

In another study, men were shown photos of ten women and given real-time auditory feedback on their heart-rates as they looked at the photos (Valens 1966). For half of the men, the audio they heard was faster than their actual heartbeat for five of the photos. When questioned later, these men rated the women as more attractive when they believed that their heart-rate had increased at the sight of these women. Our emotions are not just about the context, but also about our bodily sensations.

Or try this: listen to a statement whilst either nodding or shaking your head. Now ask yourself: do you agree with that statement? Volunteers who were asked to do this (under the pretext that they were asked to shake or nod their head in order too test the stability of the headphones they were wearing) were more likely to agree with a statement they heard if they were nodding their head whilst listening to it (Wells and Petty 1980)

This is also seen in people with spinal cord injuries: the higher up the spine that an injury occurred, the lower the level of emotion experienced by the individual, because the information from the body is not there (Hohman 1966).


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