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Breath Prayers

I teach Breath Prayer as a way to meditate on a beloved Bible verse while slowly breathing in and out. It’s delightful and powerful!

Like me, probably your mind wanders sometimes when you pray. Breathing a prayer to God is a simple way of using your body to engage your mind on the Word of God. Whispering the words of Scripture as you are breathing in and out, slowly and deeply, over and over, can help you to “abide” in Christ (John 15:4,5,9). This is a special way to Abide in Prayer.

Richard Foster in his book, Prayer, refers to this kind of meditative prayer as “prayer of the heart” (p. 141). Quiet, reflective prayers are a way to overcome the mind’s tendency to wander and get distracted.  It’s a way to increase your consciousness and appreciation of God’s presence.  It’s a way to “let the word of Christ dwell in your richly” (Colossians 3:16).

A Breath Prayer Example

You may be unsure exactly what a Breath Prayer is. An example of the kind Breath Prayers that I use is “The Lord is my Shepherd… I shall not want.” Here is one way I do this:

Breathe in slowly and deeply as you whisper or think: “The Lord is my Shepherd…”

Hold your breath and your consciousness of God’s presence…

And then exhale as you whisper or think: “…I shall not want.”

Later in this article (highlighted in bold), I give more examples of Breath Prayers.

Are Breath Prayers Biblical?

Using a Breath Prayer may be new to you. Perhaps you’re wondering, Why focus on our breathing? Is this Biblical? 

I am not advocating a New Age or Eastern meditation approach to reach Nirvana or emptiness. As I explain below I’m talking about an ancient way of connecting with the Lord Jesus Christ by renewing our mind and heart on Scripture. I’ve developed some particular methods for Breath Prayers, using Biblical theology and psychology to further our formation in Christlikeness.

Using Breath Prayers have helped many people I counsel or mentor to draw closer to the Lord Jesus Christ and thereby to overcome worry, fear, low self-esteem, compulsive behavior, or anger. This simple practice can make for a delightful time of meditating on Scripture and then throughout the day you can use your Bible phrase as a little arrow prayer that you shoot up as often as you can remember, which helps you to learn to follow Paul’s teaching to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

To meditate deeply on Scripture is to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). We take God’s Word from our mind down, down, down into our heart so that our will is formed by it. Breath Prayer meditations on Scripture help us to become as the branch that abides in the Christ-Vine to bear fruit naturally (John 15:1-7).

Prayers Jesus Breathed

Jesus said his words are spirit and life (John 6:63).  There’s resurrection power in the Word of God!

Into the dark and putrid-smelling grave, Jesus speaks the Word, “Lazarus!  Come forth!” and Lazarus, who has been dead four days, walks out as a Mummy! – living and breathing and ready to be unbound from his grave clothes!  This is the power that’s in God’s Word to free our spirits and raise our bodies so that we can walk to Jesus.

When Jesus was being crucified on the cross his last breath was a prayer to his Abba, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Jesus in Luke 23:46, NKJV).

Then after Jesus rose from the dead and before he left earth to ascend back into heaven he appeared to his disciples and he breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22b, NIV).  Jesus breathed his prayer for his disciples.  He breathed his Word of life in them.  He breathed the Holy Spirit into their souls.

God’s Breath of Life

Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit into his disciples recalls the creation story when the Lord breathed his Spirit into Adam’s dust-formed body and he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).

Did you know that the Biblical languages link Spirit and breath?  Both the Hebrew word “ruah” and the Greek word “pneuma” are translated as either “breath” or “spirit” (God’s Spirit or our spirit).  To breathe is to be alive!  And the spirit is the will, the essence of life.

The Psalmist’s Way of Prayer

We see quiet, reflective prayer used in the Hebrew Psalter, our prayer book. This ought to assure us that contemplative prayer is Biblical. In the Psalms, we have many short prayers repeated over and over like “His love endures forever” or “Lord, have mercy.”

We also see the Psalmist breathe a prayer, in a way, when he offers words like, “My life is a breath” (Psalm 39:5, 11; 144:4, paraphrase).  And the book of Psalms closes with the words: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).

And 71 times in the Psalms the Psalmist literally pauses to invite us to take a breath with him.  He does this by inserting the word, “Selah.”  The Selahs were added to the Psalms after they were written.  “Selah” probably means, “Pause to reflect and pray.”  Right in the middle of the Psalm – as it was being read or sung! – a sacred space was made to be still and quiet in prayer before the Lord.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers

About three centuries after Christ men and women known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went out into the Egyptian desert to pray and meditate on God’s Word. This was after the years of intense persecution when many Christians were martyred.  These monks and nuns were separating themselves from the worldliness in the church, which was increasingly adapting to and being accepted by Roman culture.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers lived in cells or huts made of reeds and practiced austere and rigorous spiritual disciplines like silence, solitude, simplicity, fasting, penance, and obedience to an elder.  Their asceticism was their “internal martyrdom” that purged their souls of sin and worldliness and led them into lives of intimacy with the Lord and ministry to others.  Their testimony to the transforming life of Christ was so powerful that thousands of people traveled to visit them in the desert to receive spiritual direction or healing.

One of the beautiful things that emerged from the disciplined life of the Desert Fathers and Mothers was their soul-full practice of Breath Prayers.  They contemplated Christ’s presence in quiet solitude, meditating on short, one breath prayers. Often they did this while sitting outside their cells and weaving baskets from reeds.

They breathed in God’s Word slowly and deeply.  Gently, they repeated their prayer, over and over, letting it descend with their minds into their hearts, to form their will in the image of Christ.

They would breathe their prayer before going to sleep at night until it prayed itself within their souls while they slept.  Then when they awoke in the morning the prayer was still on their lips!

The Jesus Prayer

The Desert Fathers and Mothers prayed the Psalms every day.  They regularly prayed the whole Psalter in sequence.  And they picked up one of the most common prayers of the Psalmist: “Lord, have mercy” (“Kyrie Eleison” in Greek).

Jesus put this prayer on the lips of the tax collector in his parable.  The tax collector and not the Pharisee was made right with God after he beat his breast in repentance and humility and cried out, “God, have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

The Desert Fathers developed this into a Breath Prayer that became known as the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” (Sometimes this is expanded further as, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”)

The Anonymous Russian Pilgrim

The Way of the Pilgrim is a devotional classic about the Anonymous Russian pilgrim from the 19th Century.  He was an orphan, a poor beggar who was alone in the world, disabled, and mistreated and traveled the countryside on foot.

His only possessions were his father’s Bible and the Philokalia (the writings of the church fathers on prayer).  As he wandered from place to place on foot he held his precious Bible over his heart and the Jesus Prayer burned continuously in his heart: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”

Praying the Jesus Prayer over and over healed his grief after he was orphaned as a young man.  It warmed his body in freezing storms and frightening dark nights.  It empowered him to forgive the people who stole his Bible, beat him, and left him for dead.  It guided him when he was lost.  It drew him out of his shell to offer blessing, healing, and spiritual mentoring to others.

My article, “The Jesus Prayer: a Little Prayer and a Big Change,” tells the story of the Anonymous Russian Pilgrim and how he breathed the Jesus Prayer continuously.

Using our Bodies in Prayer

Breathing a prayer is simply a bodily expression of worship that assists us in engaging our whole self in prayer and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). It’s in our bodies and with our bodies that we pray and fellowship with God.

The Psalmist prays using his body. Sitting quietly, falling on his face, kneeling, standing, raising his hands, or dancing are all helpful postures for prayer used by the Psalmist. Being intentional about offering our body as a living sacrifice to God helps us to renew our minds and engage our hearts, using Scripture to help us worship the Lord (Romans 12:1-2).

Deep Breathing

When I’m meditating on Scripture with a Breath Prayer I like to begin by combining it with deep breathing.  Letting my rhythm of relaxed breathing be an expression of prayer helps me to slow down my praying so that I connect with God deep in my heart.

Maybe you’ve tried deep breathing as a relaxation exercise? This is a proven way to reduce anxiety and worry, but what I’m referring to is much more than a psychological technique – it’s a mind and heart interaction with the Living God!

To learn how to do a Breath Prayer it’s best to settle down in a quiet place where there are no distractions and then get still before God.  (Later, once you get the hang of this, you can do your Breath Prayer by “shooting up” a short prayer anytime as you’re going about your day – getting ready in the morning, driving in the car, before a meeting, or while waiting in line.  This will help you to practice God’s presence.)

To begin, slow down your breathing (and your heart rate!) by breathing in deep… Holding your breath… And then slowly exhaling…

Think of it as if you’re breathing in God’s Spirit with the oxygen in the air (the Holy Spirit is all around you and inside of you)…

Then as you hold your breath you hold your sense of the indwelling Holy Spirit…

And then you’re breathing out your anxieties sins with the carbon dioxide so that you can live freely in God’s loving presence and power…

Alternatively, you can think of your exhaling as a releasing of control to God, submitting all your activities and agendas to him as your Lord.

Or you can use your breathing out as an expression of sharing God’s loving presence with others.

To practice breathing in God’s Word deeply and slowly try using God’s word to the Psalmist in Psalm 46:10 as a Breath Prayer: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Breathe in slowly as deep as you can while you whisper or think: “Be still and know that I am God” (It takes a long breath that fills up your lungs!)  Hold your breath…  Then exhale and repeat…

Praying with Your Hands

When you were a fidgety, little child you probably were taught to fold your hands when you prayed.  But you don’t have to keep your hands folded to pray! In fact, praying with your hands – just like raising your hands in worship – is another helpful way to engage your mind with God’s Word.

Try this way of praying with your hands…

Begin by extending your hands with palms up, indicating your longing for God and your receptiveness to his words…

Then pull your hands slowly toward your chest to remind yourself that you’re internalizing and embracing God’s life-giving Word and Spirit…

Then extend your hands back out again and put your palms down, symbolizing that you’re releasing anxieties (or letting go of trying to control things or overflowing with his love for others).

A Word-Breath-Hands Prayer of Worship-Grow-Serve

Sometimes I like to do a Breath and Hands Prayer Rhythm.  This combines meditation on a Scripture, deep breathing, and using my hands.  It’s a three-step rhythm and I use it to express what I consider the three-fold purpose of life: worship, grow, and serve.

Worship is the upward journey of giving thanks and praise to God.  Grow is the inward journey of being formed in the image of Christ.  And Serve is the outward journey of ministering to others.

Here’s how I do it…

1.  Worship (Look Up): Be still and silent (to worship God without words)…  As you wait to breathe (letting your longing for breath remind you of your longing for God’s Spirit and his Word)…  As you open your hands to heaven (letting your open hands express your openness to God)…

2.  Grow (Look In): Whisper or think the first half of your Breath Prayer (e.g., “Lord Jesus Christ…”)… As you breathe in deep (receiving the gifts of God’s Spirit and Word)… As you pull your hands into your chest (embracing Christ in your heart)…

3.  Serve (Look Out): Whisper or think the second half of the Breath Prayer (e.g., “…have mercy on me.”)… As you breathe out (releasing to God your sins or stresses or control of things or sharing his mercy with others)…  As you extend your hands outward (letting go or sharing)…

To get comfortable with this Breath and Hands Prayer Rhythm you’ll need to practice it!  For me it’s a flow of life that has become a part of me, slowing me down, attuning me to God’s presence, and shaping my attitudes about life.

My Little Prayer Brought a Big Change in Me!

Some years ago Kristi and I were on a retreat with a group of Christian leaders and I found myself feeling jealous – of not just one person, or two, but three!  They each had wonderful opportunities to serve God in powerful ways that I’d like to do.

I was disappointed in myself – I didn’t want to be that way!  I thought that I had worked that issue through in my prayers already.  Besides, these people were my friends and they were serving the Lord!  I felt discouraged and guilty.

Later, when talking with another friend he brought up Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3 about Christ’s “kenosis” or self-emptying love: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

Now you might think that just heaped onto me more guilt and pressure.  But actually it focused me on Jesus and how in his incarnation and life of service he humbly ministered to me.  Jesus, the Lord Almighty and King of kings, picked up a towel, got on his knees, and washed my dirty feet! (John 13:1-17).  I wanted to serve others as he served me.

As I meditated and prayed on this the Lord led me to form a Breath Prayer: “In Christ’s humility… consider others better than yourselves.”

I kneeled before the Lord in quiet prayer, waiting to breathe, hands raised high in worship before the Lord who humbly served me…

Then I prayed, “In Christ’s humility” as I breathed in deep and pulled my hands toward my chest, receiving the Lord’s generous, gracious love…

Then I prayed, “Consider others better than yourself,” as I exhaled and extended my hands outward, overflowing with Christ’s consideration and esteem for those I had been jealous of.

I prayed this Breath Prayer for each person I had been jealous of, asking God to bless each one in his or her life and ministry.  And my soul smiled with delight.  I was happy for these people to be in the spotlight.  I realized that I was blessed to be in the background and to affirm and intercede for them.

Prayer without Words

I’ve found that my Breath and Hands Prayer Rhythm is a great way to practice contemplative prayer. What joy and peace is ours when our hearts are at rest in God’s presence and no words or thoughts are needed – we’re comfortable just being with the One we love.

To truly and deeply rest in God’s presence, not only in silence but also without thought is a challenge for me!  Have you ever tried to pray without word-thoughts?  The church fathers and other Christian mystics write about this deep, silent prayer and the peaceful union with God that it leads to.  Sometimes in extended prayer, I slip into this blessed and peaceful experience for a few moments… Then thoughts come tumbling back into my consciousness!

Wordless prayer is a very deep form of prayer that takes practice.  Using the Breath and Hands Prayer Rhythm I’ve described without the words can help us get into a quiet, surrendered, intimate, and peaceful place with Christ.  The concreteness of using our breathing and our hands helps us not go into the mode of thinking, analyzing, and planning (all of which are good things to do but can crowd out a heart connection to God).

As I pray in this way I discipline myself not to think, but simply to let my body posture, breathing, and hands express my wordless prayer to the Lord, a prayer of worship-grow-serve.

Personalized Breath Prayers

Another way to do a Breath Prayer is to develop your own personalized prayer that helps you to connect deeply with God in whatever way you need it the most at that time.

To do this, start by selecting a favorite name for God.  (In the Biblical conception the names of God represent God’s character and invoke his power, as indicated in Genesis 4:26, Jeremiah 10:6, Proverbs 18:10, John 16:23-24, Acts 4:10.)   For instance, you could call on God as Creator, Yahweh, Lord Almighty, the I AM, Father, Jesus, Spirit, Potter, Good Shepherd, Living Water, or Bread of Life.

Then pick a word or phrase that describes what your heart longs for from God.  It’s important that you take some time to settle on your personal Breath Prayer.  Be still before God and ask him to reveal himself to you and to show you what you most need from him.

Abba, I Belong to You

Years ago Brennan Manning developed a very special personalized Breath Prayer that has brought the healing love of the Father to countless wounded people.  He tells the story of how the Breath Prayer that God gave him healed his heart.  Since being abused and abandoned by his alcoholic father as a boy he had suffered from crippling shame, insecurity, and addiction.  But breathing in and out of his contemplative prayer helped him to develop a secure identity as the beloved child of his Abba Father.

Brennan’s Breath Payer is “Abba, I belong to you” (Experiencing Jesus: A Spiritual Retreat, San Diego, CA, 2004; see also his book, Abba’s Child).

This Breath Prayer is a seven-syllable prayer that perfectly synchronizes with your breathing.  As you breathe in you pray with a whisper, “Ab-ba…”  Hold your breath as you imagine yourself a child in your Heavenly Papa’s lap.  He smiles at you, and you smile back.  Then as you breathe out, pray softly, “I belong to you.”

More Breath Prayers

To pray a short verse or paraphrase of Scripture as a Breath Prayer is refreshing and empowering. It helps you learn to practice God’s presence all day and stay in tune with the peace of Christ. I’ve selected key verses of Scripture and developed step-by-step instructions for meditation, breathing rhythms, and prayer in “Breath Prayer Guides.”

Further Reading

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