Moving and settling into the New Year, God has been speaking to me about breathing. It seems fitting considering the exceptionally cold winter this year. It’s hard to ignore the winter breath that escapes when I walk outside!
While one might assume that life is all about choices, the miracle that is our respiratory system disagrees. This is what fascinates me about breathing. It’s is an involuntary response to life. We don’t choose to breathe, but it’s necessary for our survival. Not only that, the nuances of our breath, or breathing patterns, can be evidence of our state of mind or physical well being. For example, in this cold weather breathing can be challenging with congested sinuses. I also find breathing challenging any time I attempt a light afternoon jog! Perhaps this is evidence my physical state could use some improvements.
Though breathing is an involuntary response to life, external and internal factors affect it. Consider the impact of emotions. We experience a rapid rate of breath when fear /adrenaline / anxiety / stress kick in. Or, when we’re in a state of calm, peace, and spiritual rest, our breathing slows and deepens. These are extreme references and other physiological variables play a role, but studies show that respiration is altered by all sorts of emotions. Conversely, studies also indicate that we can alter our emotions by adjusting our breathing patterns.
I learned the impact of breathing from Buddhists monks in Nepal. I was working with a missionary family who had an outreach to Tibetan Buddhists. To better understand Buddhism, we took an immersion course in Buddhism at a lovely monastery. My intent for this course was to learn how to communicate with Buddhists and bridge the gap to Christ. It was an incredible experience and I had many powerful encounters with Jesus. We would spend hours sitting on little pillows practicing meditation and breathing. Through these exercises I learned how to quiet my body and my mind through intentional breathing. I learned how to focus. I learned how to step into my “prayer closet” and into stillness amidst the chaos around me.
God has been reminding me of this kind of intentional breathing; of the value of breathing with Him, at His pace, instead of my own. Yes, our God breathes.
There are two significant moments relayed in scripture of God breathing. The first is in the beginning. In Genesis 2:7:
Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
The second significant occurrence of God breathing is after Jesus declared, “It is finished.” In His resurrected state, he appears to the disciples. We read in John 20:21-22 (emphasis mine):
So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and *said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
As evidenced in both of these passages of Scripture, when God breathes, life is birthed. He breathes peace within us. And with peace, we have authority over our emotions and our response to life’s circumstances. I believe that we are intended to breathe that peace, power, authority, and life into the world. Into ourselves as well as others.
That God breath – just like our natural breath – is always with us. God is ever present in the most intimate of ways. There is an element of intimacy to breathing. Think about how near God must have been to the first person to breath life into him. Or how near Jesus was to the disciples when He released the Holy Spirit. God is as near as our breath.
There’s an Old Testament passage — 1 Kings 19:1-12 — that I often run to when stress is high and I’m out of breath. When the mountain of tasks seems to overwhelm. When the chaos around me feels unrelenting and I begin to retreat into the darkness of negativity. In those moments, I remember Elijah on Mount Horeb. To put it in context, Elijah is on the run. He’s just witnessed God bring fire from heaven marking a great victory. God is clearly with him! Yet, a mortal threat against his life sends him packing. He’s fearful and tired and just wants to hide. Eventually, he finds himself holed up in a cave. I’ve been in that cave of negative thoughts and emotions. It’s a dark place. This is where Elijah found Himself. It is also where he found God.
I’m comforted by the words of St. Porphyrios, “Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul. Open a tiny aperture for light to enter and the darkness will disappear.”
God made himself known to Elijah in the cave and said, “What are you doing in here? I’m not in here. Come to where I am.” Or as Jesus said centuries later, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden.”
Elijah then has a revelation in God’s invitation. This is captured in verses 11-12. If you’ll allow me some interpretive license:
Elijah saw a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking the rocks. It was chaos around him. An absence of control. “Don’t focus on the storm. I’m not in the wind.” And after the wind, Elijah experienced an earthquake. The ground unsettled beneath his feet and his foundation rocked. His direction was lost. “Don’t focus on the earthquake. I’m not in the earthquake.” After the earthquake a fire ignited. It was overwhelming and destructive like those all-consuming negative thoughts. “Don’t focus on the fire. I’m not in the fire.” And after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. “Focus here. I am the gentle blowing. The still small voice. The whisper in your ear. The intimate breath on your face.”
Breathe with Me. Breathe as I breathe. Breathe Me in. Breathe out Life.
If we breathe out what we breathe in, then breathe deeply of the Lord. Lift your eyes with every inhale. See the miracles of life around you as you exhale. Then, breathe deeper.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)