Spiritual Practice

Just Breathe

Sarah Arthur

As a child, when I went biking or skiing, I concentrated so hard on doing it right that I forgot to breathe. After a few minutes, my muscles would give out and I would feel as if I were wading through peanut butter.

Bike Ride at sunset FTR TS 93167366In college, as a group of us left on a bike trip, my gym instructor said, “Don’t forget to breathe while you’re pedaling. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.”

What? There’s a right way to breathe? No one had ever told me that the secret to exercise is managing oxygen efficiently. I started breathing on purpose, keeping pace with my body. To my astonishment, I didn’t wear out and actually began to enjoy myself. To this day, when I get my heart rate up, I sound odd, blowing and whistling like Darth Vader. But who cares? I’m not trying to impress anyone. I just want to get where I’m going without collapsing.

The Breath of Life

The ancient Hebrews thought of breath as the source of life. In Genesis 2:7 (NRSV), “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Sometimes the word breath is translated “spirit.” God gave man the spirit of life, without which he was just a lump of dust, with no being and no personality.

During Lent, we remember our beginnings as dust. This 40-day season begins with Ash Wednesday and perhaps with a service during which the pastor or priest marks our foreheads with the sign of the cross drawn in ashes. We hear these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” As the days of Lent move toward Good Friday, I imagine how the disciples felt after Christ’s crucifixion—as if the wind had been knocked out of them. They were breathless, utterly dispirited.

tired runner FTR TSP 181798149The bewildering, joyous, Easter-morning news that Jesus was alive probably seemed too good to be true. Did the disciples hold their breath, not daring to hope? 

Then imagine their surprise when “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” And catch this—“he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:19b, 22, NRSV).

Just as God took the man of dust and breathed into him the spirit of life, the Son of God took those dispirited disciples and breathed into them the Holy Spirit. Without the spirit of life (small s), we have no earthly existence; but without the Holy Spirit (big S), we have no existence with God beyond the grave. Nor do we have the power the disciples were given to change the world for Jesus.

Too often we try to follow God on our own power, using our own small spiritual strength. We’re like runners who forget to breathe. Without the Holy Spirit, we’ll soon collapse with spiritual exhaustion, unable to move forward. Instead, we must take time every day to reconnect to the Spirit of God, the source of our life and strength.



This week, pay attention to your breathing. When do you take quick, shallow breaths; and when do you take slow, deep ones? How does your breathing change as you spend time with God through prayer or Bible study?

Read Psalm 150 or say The Lord’s Prayer. Breathe in on the first line or phrase, out on the second, in on the third, and so on. Connect to the spiritual source of your life and strength by spending time in God’s presence.

Sarah Arthur is the author of various devotional books, including The One Year Daily Grind, (365 devotions for young adults). She breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth while biking to graduate school in Durham, North Carolina.

—from devozine (March/April 2009). Copyright © 2009 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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