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A Time to Breathe


Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of the season that celebrates the birth of Jesus — that moment when the one who breathed the breath of life into Adam, in ways we cannot fully wrap our minds around, took His own first breath of life as a baby born in Bethlehem. The richness and mystery of that alone is worth pausing to ponder! John opens his gospel with reflections on this moment in history by drawing on the imagery of the creation story, by describing God again speaking life into our world in perhaps an even more profound way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” [1]

Breathing and speaking, it seems, go together. The Word/Life that God speaks/breathes is seen/heard in its most clear, complete and articulate expression as Emmanuel, God with us — the life and the light that shines even in the darkness. It’s worth noticing that what God speaks here are not just ideas to accept or requirements to keep, but a living, breathing Person to embrace. The message we celebrate, the Word made flesh, is one that breathes! That too is worth pausing to ponder, both because of what it tells us about the God who reaches out to us, and because there are probably few things that we can identify with so personally and profoundly as the experience of breathing.

One of the things I remember about the many trips taken to Yosemite over the years, are those sections of road near the valley that went through a series of tunnels of various lengths. While I don’t know just where the idea came from, it seems to have been generally understood that when driving into the darkness of a tunnel, the proper response of the passengers in the vehicle was to strive to hold their breath until we emerged into the light on the other side. From the driver’s perspective (who was usually exempt from having to participate) it was always interesting to observe the levels of intensity and urgency that would build as we made our way through these tunnels, until we finally burst through into the light, and experienced together the massive communal intake of breath that seemed like it might suck all the oxygen out of the air. Those were times when the sheer urgency of the desire to breathe was evident to everyone with a clarity that left little room for doubt about how central it was to life!

Road trips to the Sierras of course are not required to understand this. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to be out of breath, or the anxiety that can ensue if we fear that our air supply is being cut off. For some, this might take the form of allergic reactions, or other health conditions which can leave us struggling to breathe. But as anyone who has either experienced or observed it knows, things that inflame, constrict, block, or otherwise compromise our airways, are things of serious concern. Clearly, breathing matters.

So, given both our desire and the necessity to breathe, it is interesting to notice how the imagery of breathing and descriptions of the life that God invites us to embrace often occur together. In the opening verses of Genesis’ first creation story, we find God’s Spirit (Ruach Elohim, which also conveys the imagery of the wind or breath of God) hovering, blowing, or perhaps even breathing over the surface of the waters in preparation for creation.[2]

In the second, God breathes life into Adam and he becomes a living being.[3] In Ezekiel’s somewhat graphic vision of the spiritual condition of Israel, in which they are depicted as dry lifeless bones scattered throughout a valley, we find another somewhat startling version of this imagery. After God directs him to prophesy to them, these scattered bones (and subsequently various other body parts) begin to noisily reassemble themselves into bodies (not a scene for those with squeamish stomachs). But even then, they still lie lifeless throughout the valley. So God tells him to prophesy to the breath or the wind. Then as God’s Spirit breathes upon them, those who were once dead, lifeless and scattered, now stand on their feet as a people fully alive.[4]

In an evening conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses the metaphor of birth — that moment when we take our first life-giving breath — as a metaphor for the beginning of spiritual life, coupled with the imagery of wind, to describe the work of the Spirit in bringing about new life.[5] And then there is the post resurrection scene of Jesus breathing the Spirit on his disciples,[6] and the wind that comes at Pentecost to breathe life into the church as it prepares to share the good news about Jesus.[7] All of those reflecting a biblical view of inspiration.

In each case, the presence of the Spirit is known by the life it breathes into those to whom God is graciously coming to be with. This may well be the same kind of imagery that Paul has in mind when he too describes how God’s word nurtures our spiritual lives:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God‑breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.[8]

Paul says what he does here as part of a conversation he is having in 2 Timothy about what leading a Spirit-led life looks like in contrast to lives shaped by other concerns. He encourages them to continue to look to the scriptures as a God-breathed source of encouragement and guidance. Not only do we have the scriptures as the result of God breathing into the lives of those who have gone before us, but they also are one of the ways through which God continues to breathe life into us.

In fact, in the context of the even larger conversation that the entire New Testament is engaged in, it becomes evident that what God is breathing in and through scripture is not just a collection of doctrinal instructions that have to be teased out of the narrative, but glimpses of an embodied way of living and relating to each other. This is why, when the Word of God is spoken the most clearly, profoundly, and articulately, it is spoken as a Person. The Word becomes Flesh in Jesus. Thus Jesus is the calibration point, the set of lenses, the embodied life through which our understanding of God is clarified, and all other recorded words and experiences are viewed and understood. Jesus is the Word to whom we respond.[9]

All of this suggests that this personal, relational, “God-breathed” quality of scripture may well be at the very heart of why it is so useful when it comes to:

• teaching — the process by which we look at and reflect on what it records

• rebuking — helping us to notice, often as much by considering case studies as by direct instruction, how we can obstruct our airways, choking off the life God wants to breathe into us

• correcting — opening our airways once again and pointing us back in the right direction

• training — developing the patterns and rhythms of good respiratory health, both in how we live and how we lead, that reflect the good news as it is expressed in Jesus and nurtured through the ongoing work of the Spirit

That is the way of living that scripture equips us for.

On the other hand, when our conversations about inspiration and scripture become disconnected from this rich biblical imagery, our focus and subsequent ways of thinking can shift in unhelpful ways that confuse form with substance. To change metaphors for a moment, we become more focused on the wineskins than the wine they contain. When this happens, it can become difficult for us to notice that whether we are ancient Hebrew worshipers, first century followers of Jesus, medieval reformers, 19th century New Englanders, or people living in our own culture today, we always hear, read, think, write, and express ourselves through the lenses of how we understand our world and experiences. The Word that God speaks to us, we repeat with our own voices within the framework of our own limited language and understanding. As Ellen White explains,

The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers. It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind.[10]

This would of course be as true of Ellen White herself, a person who wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit, as it was of the Bible writers she writes about here. And yet, it is because we often struggle to grasp this insight, as is sometimes reflected in conflicted conversations over how we discern between wine and wineskins (be they old and brittle or new and unfamiliar), that the inflammation that this can cause in our spiritual airways can make breathing well more of a struggle than it needs to be. And when we are urgently gasping for breath, we are not always at our most relaxed or reflective best. But as she points out in her comments, inspiration is not so much about the words, as it is about what happens in response to our interaction with a Person, as God breathes life into us.

One might ask then, what it would be like if we were to realize that the primary purpose of inspiration may be more about helping us to breathe, and to live responsively, to the God who is sharing himself with us, than becoming obsessed about the details of the language in which it is described? What if we found ourselves being deeply moved by Genesis 1 and 2 where, in contrast to the other creation stories of the day in which the created world was the unintentional result of an argument between temperamental gods, we are shown a loving God who creates, on purpose, a beautiful world and beings who would reflect God’s image?

What if we lived in a greater awareness of the possibility that, even though the language used in the telling of the story might in some respects reflect an understanding of the cosmos that made sense to people at the time, but does not reflect what we believe to be true today, the life that God breathes in the creation story still gives life?

What if we realized that, whether one envisions a dome holding back waters above, a sun that moves around the earth, or a view of the cosmos that reflects a more modern understanding, the core truth of the story remains strong and firm? What if we saw in the Psalms, how David’s awe and wonder at the majesty of a God who holds the heavens, is not at all diminished by the use of poetic language, or a way of thinking that reflects an earth-centered solar system, however imprecise it may be from a scientific perspective? What if we saw inspiration primarily at work in the response of his will and heart, rather than his ability to articulate astronomical data?

What if we simply embraced how Jesus takes nothing away from the inspiration of scripture when He, the embodiment of inspiration, speaks to us in the sermon on the mount saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you” as even in the realm of accepted religious practices, He seeks to remove what has obstructed the ability of people to breathe, or reduce the constricting inflammation of their spiritual airways with a clearer picture of what God wants to share?

What if we were willing to accept that, while the Good Samaritan would have been inaccurate in much of his theology, he was the one who Jesus said rightly embodied what the law was about? And how might things be different for us if, as we continued to read the book of Acts, we focused on how the Spirit’s breath, sometimes in the form of a mighty wind, and other times in less dramatic ways, continued, even in the face of resistance, to open the church to new ways of thinking, ministering, and sharing the message of Jesus with others? What if we let the scriptures be our guide in how we see the imagery of inspiration at work?

Ironically, not entirely unlike what happens with asthma or autoimmune responses (over-reactive inflammatory processes or the misidentification of parts of our body as the enemy) sometimes those very things that are supposed to function to preserve life can become the vehicles through which it is undermined or hindered. The scriptures also faithfully record how many in positions of leadership in the time of Jesus, who out of a desire to preserve purity and unity, promoted an understanding of religious devotion that resulted in labored breathing and chronic spiritual fatigue, and subsequently saw the invitation of Jesus to take up easier yokes, lighter burdens, and to breathe deeply and freely, as more of a threat than a gift. Thus the irony expressed by John, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”[11]

The season in which we find ourselves however, provides us once again with an opportunity to accept the invitation of Jesus as we reflect on what inspiration is, and indeed what it looks like embodied. What if, during this season when we celebrate how the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and still does through the presence of the Spirit, we allowed those words of Paul, “All scripture is God-breathed,” to be heard against the backdrop of the incarnation?

What if we allowed that phrase — instead of contentious arguments over inerrancy, infallibility, the validity of ancient cosmology, or the contributions of literary studies, history, science, or even the obsession of some with the number of hours in a creation day or concerns of a similar nature — what if, we actually allowed the scriptures themselves to lead the conversation and to inspire and be inspired in the way they seem to intend?

What if we engaged the scriptures less in terms of a detailed technical instruction manual for all aspects of life, and more in terms of a respirator that helps us to breathe more fully and deeply of the amazing grace of our Creator and Redeemer? What if we talked more about how Jesus embodied what God has been trying to say all along, and how we live in response to that, rather than reflections of the limitations of human language, understanding, and experience that might shape the way we describe it? What if those questions were to be the primary ones we consider when we reflect upon the first of our fundamental beliefs?[12]

It might be something that we would find to be inspiring in every sense of the word. And, for those who, for whatever reason, have been feeling the intensity of the urge to breathe, it might just be the light at the end of the tunnel.


Notes & References:

[1]John 1:1-5, 14 (NIV)

[2]Genesis 1:2 (NIV)

[3]Genesis 2:7 (NIV)

[4]Ezekiel 37 (NIV)

[5]John 3:1-8 (NIV)

[6]John 20:21-22 (NIV)

[7]Acts 2:1-4(NIV)

[8]2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV)

[9] One might suggest that it is not so much that the inspired scriptures establish who Jesus is for us, as it is Jesus who establishes for us what the inspired scriptures are actually all about. Recall, for example, Jesus’ post-resurrection conversation with two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35.  

[10]Ellen White in 1 Selected Messages, 21.

[11]John 1:1:10-11 (NIV)

[12]That’s not to say, by the way, that we should not be having conversations about all of those issues that are raised by the contributions of those fields of study that touch on the Bible and the understandings of its authors and first hearers including geography, history, astronomy, biology, disease, or any number of others. Those conversations are important, and should be done thoughtfully, thoroughly, with integrity, and without fear. There are many lenses through which to view scripture, and each perspective, though not sufficient in itself, has something to contribute to the conversation, even as the scriptures themselves provide a perspective from which to view them. There is always more to consider and learn. While we believe the scriptures to be clear about Who God is and what God is about in the world (a view that is brought into sharp focus in Jesus), we also need to simply own the reality that how scripture has been understood in relationship to other fields of study has shifted and changed over the years as we have learned more and been exposed to more. Ellen White indicates that our understanding of things will continue to expand and grow throughout eternity. None of that need be any more of a threat to our understanding the inspiration of the scriptures than is the stance of assuming we have nothing more to learn. Clearly there is much more that can be said about this, but for the purposes of this article, these comments belong in the footnotes.


Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.

Photo by Marina Vitale on Unsplash


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