What Do We Know about God’s Breath?
- Rev. Kyle Norman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2022 6 Jan
We all have times when we find ourselves on the wrong side of life’s circumstances. Our lives don’t always run according to our schedules or our desires. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. When life’s imperfections rear their ugly head, we may even find ourselves feeling that God is distant. We may believe that we are abandoned by God. Like Elijah in the cave of Horeb, we feel alone and discouraged, in desperate need of experiencing God’s movement in our lives.
In these times, the breath of God brings us comfort and encouragement. Understanding the breath of God, therefore, helps us recognize the places where God moves in our lives. The breath of God refers to the deepest part of who God is. It also describes how God acts in the world. God does not hold God’s breath. God constantly breathes, constantly moves. Thus, the breath of God declares God’s unyielding presence. Feeling God’s breath, therefore, gives us hope, and inspires us to live more faithfully with the Lord.
What exactly is the breath of God? How do we interact with God’s breath? In answer to these questions, there are three important things to remember.
The Breath of Life
The Scriptures open with a depiction of God breathing over cosmic chaos. We read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless, and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). The Hebrew word for “Spirit” is the word Ruach, which can also mean “Breath” or “Wind.” Therefore, the opening scene of Genesis depicts God breathing over the formless chaos. In response to this chaos, God breathes creation into existence.
The Bible describes all creatures as having “the breath of life.” God’s breath is placed within all living things. In the act of creation, God imparts life into his creatures, a life that is connected within the Lord’s sustaining power. Furthermore, God’s breath is imparted uniquely in the creation of the ones bearing God’s image. God does not merely bestow life upon humanity, God places God’s breath within them. In the creation of Adam, we read that “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (2:7). Similarly, Job remarks that “the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). God’s breath is the source and the sustenance of human life.
This breathing-out of creation is not merely a past event. God’s breath does not only create life but also brings about new life. God’s breath re-creates. We see this in Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones. Here the bones are re-animated when the breath of God is placed within them. In fact, there is a distinct moment in the vision where the bones are assembled with tissue, muscle, and skin, but do not yet possess the force of life. Ezekiel records “I looked and tendons and flesh appeared on them, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them” (37:8). The full animation of the lifeless bones occurs only when the breath of God flows within. “So, I prophesied as he commanded, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast army” (37:10). This vision of the dry bones, animated by the breath of God, becomes a wonderful picture of resurrection. God breathes new life.
The fact that God created us by God’s breath, and sustains us by God’s constant breathing, helps us in those times when we are tempted to deny God’s presence. In a visceral way, the breath within our lungs is connected to the activity of God in us. The act of breathing reminds us that we are sustained by the Lord. Thus, when we are feeling discouraged or alone, our very breath serves as a witness to God’s presence and activity. It also gives testimony to the resurrected life that God will bestow.
The Breath of Inspiration
The breath of God is fundamental to our understanding of the Bible. God’s breath is the inspiration of the scriptures. Paul writes that the Scriptures are “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). This is why we refer to the Bible as “God’s Word.” There is a divine origin to the biblical words. Peter writes “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The 66 books of the Bible contain but one author. The breath of God “carried along” the human writers; they were but instruments to reveal the breathed-out words of God.
As it is God’s breath that inspired the words of Scripture, it is God’s breath that helps us receive the scriptures and understand them. The Word of God, we are reminded, is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12). The breath that inspired the writing of scripture also inspires the hearing of Scripture. When we read the Bible, therefore, we meet the breath of God. God breathes over our hearing and receiving of the divine Word. In reading the Bible, God speaks God’s truth into our lives.
The Breath of The Spirit
God’s breath animates us. It sustains us. It inspires us and guides us. This is because the breath of God is indistinguishable from God’s own presence. In the act of breathing life into creation, God breathes in God’s very self. God’s breath, therefore, is tantamount to God’s Spirit, otherwise known as the Holy Spirit. Both the Hebrew word Ruach, and the Greek worked Pneuma contain this association. These words can equally be translated as “Breath” or “Spirit”
It is the Holy Spirit that animates the Christian life. Christians live in the power of the Spirit and receive the gift of the Spirit in baptism. John tells those who await the coming of the Messiah that “one is coming … who will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.’ The Christian person is immersed in the presence of God’s animating breath. The Spirit enlivens us.
We see a strong example of this in the Gospel of John. Following his resurrection, Jesus appears amongst the fearful disciples. After confirming his identity, Jesus breathes on them and says “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). In the act of breathing, Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit into the lives of the disciples. This serves as a foretaste of the full manifestation of the Spirit to occur at Pentecost.
The breath of God, therefore, is the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christian men and women. The Spirit within enables us to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit also unlocks our praise and adoration. Paul writes that no one can say “Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The breath of God is the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, uniting us more deeply to Jesus Christ our Lord.
Receiving God’s Breath
Ultimately, God’s breath is not a theological doctrine we need to understand; it is a reality we live within. God’s breath, equated with God’s own Spirit, informs how we live our lives. The Christian life, with our rootedness in the Biblical word, our understanding of God’s presence, and our capacity to hear God’s voice is all predicated on the indwelling of God’s breath. Just as every moment of our physical lives is powered by physical breath, our spiritual lives are empowered and fueled by God’s Spirit within.
How might we receive the breath of God, today? How can we recognize God's breathings more deeply in our lives? The answer to these questions is relatively simple. We ask for it. The pouring out of God’s spirit is not unique to the feast of Pentecost. God constantly breathes God’s spirit within us.
God desires all people to know the life-giving power of the Spirit. God desires us all to experience the reality of grace and mercy. To that end, The Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is poured out. The breathing out of the Spirit opens our lives to the reality of God’s loving presence. Happily, we need not wait to garner some level of theological understanding for this to occur. We do not earn the power of the Spirit, or merit divine inspiration. The breath of God blows freely, we are asked only to acknowledge it and receive it.
There is no better time to ask for a deeper experience of God’s breath than this moment. Simply ask the Lord to impart a fresh bestowal of His breath upon your life. Ask to be made new, to be sustained, and to be inspired. If you can’t find the words yourself, use this prayer, taken from the song “Holy Spirit, living breath of God,” by Stewart Townsend.
Holy Spirit, living breath of God,
Breathe new life into my willing soul.
Let the presence of the risen Lord,
Come renew my heart and make me whole.
Cause Your Word to come alive in me;
Give me faith for what I cannot see,
Give me passion for Your purity;
Holy Spirit, breathe new life in me.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/BrianAJackson
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.