Editor's Note: As we face this global pandemic together, the In Touch editorial team will publish a new essay each Friday to help you remember what’s certain in uncertain times.
One of the telltale symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath, which means we are all paying more attention to our breathing these days. Is this it? Or is it just a cold? Or allergies? Those of us who are healthy also breathe differently. Facemasks limit our air exchange, and anxiety can settle on our chests like an elephant.
All this vigilance around breathing reminds me of a night a few years ago when I took my 9-week-old baby to the ER for breathing difficulties.
That night, while we watched a movie as a family, I noticed my son couldn’t complete his breaths. With his little body on my lap, I could feel his body’s effort—it was as if his lungs had turned into an accordion.
It turned out my son had RSV, a viral infection that can cause wheezing in babies. As nurses monitored his oxygen levels with a sensor clamped to his tiny finger, the number at one point dipped into the low 80s. Too low. He ended up in the hospital for a few days, using a nasal cannula for oxygen support and getting albuterol treatments and painful-to-watch mucus suctioning.
As I kept watch over my precious child during that time, I found it hard to breathe myself. Taking a deep, full breath meant I needed to relax my chest muscles, to let go in a sense. As a worried mother, that was next to impossible.
After seeing how hard it can be to do the one thing we must all do to stay alive, each full breath seems like a minor miracle. It is not something we can take for granted. Each time we fill our lungs with oxygen is a gift, reminding us of our dependency on God. In these troubled days, when we feel unmoored in a sea of bad news, tuning in to our breathing can also help us embody trust. It can wake us up to God’s presence, moment by moment—even here in the valley of the shadow of death.
When we feel unmoored in a sea of bad news, tuning in to our breathing can wake us up to God’s presence, moment by moment—even here in the valley of the shadow of death.
Across the globe, as coronavirus stalks our communities like an invisible, silent predator, many of us are stuck in our houses and apartments. Though we are told that staying home is the best way to stop the spread, at a physical level we might be dealing with a thwarted fight-or-flight response. There is a threat. We see images of sick people on ventilators and makeshift morgues. Perhaps we know someone who has the virus, someone in the hospital. Perhaps this crisis is bringing up other traumatic memories.
In moments of anxiety like these, our breath comes too quickly. What can we do? How can we help? Is there a way to protect ourselves?
As I hear the latest reports on the numbers who have died from COVID-19 and how deeply it has penetrated into my corner of the world, I wish for a way to hoard my breaths, as we hoard toilet paper and frozen pizza. I want to buy all the supplements and immune boosters on the market to make sure my children never again suffer strained lung capacity.
Our breath is God’s to give and take away.
But just as the Israelites attempted to hoard manna but found it rotten and maggot-infested the next morning, so we cannot hoard our breaths. The Israelites were allowed only the day’s share of that fine, flaky bread from heaven. And we can take only the one breath we are given in the moment—ragged or smooth, shallow or deep. Like those desert wanderers, we are forced, breath after breath, out of our illusions of self-sufficiency and into the arms of God. The simple act of taking in air is a way to reorient our hearts away from fear and toward trust. It can ground us in a deeper spiritual reality.
In the Bible, breath is life. God forms man from the dust and breathes into his nostrils so that man becomes a living being (Genesis 2:7). Ezekiel prophesies God’s words to the dry bones, saying, “I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life” (Ezekiel 37:5). The psalmist says to God, “When you take away their breath, they die and return to dust” (Psalm 104:29 NIV). Our breath is God’s to give and take away.
When Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to His disciples, He does so by breathing on them (John 20:22). Throughout the Scriptures, breath and spirit are often paired (Isaiah 42:5; Job 34:14). The Hebrew word for the Spirit of God is ruach, which also means “breath” or “wind.” Breathing is a physical act, but if we pay attention, it can also be a spiritual one.
When I used to hold group fitness classes, I would lead my students through exercises using the pattern “Inhale, release from the stretch slightly. Exhale, go a little deeper.” Sometimes I would say, “Inhale, gather up your feelings, whatever is weighing on you. Exhale, let them go.” During challenging moves, I’d say, “Remember to breathe.”
Training our attention on our breath can pull us out of anxious headspaces and into our bodies. Here, in our bodies in the present moment, is where God meets us.
There is an ancient prayer called the Jesus Prayer, which also works with breathing. You inhale, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and you exhale, “Have mercy on me.” You inhale your petition. You exhale your surrender. Over and over. I heard it suggested that the Jesus Prayer may be the simplest thing to remember for people with COVID-19 who are going to the hospital, who may have to die alone in isolation. But it’s also a useful practice for each one of us.
Here in what’s historically known as Eastertide—the weeks immediately following Jesus’ resurrection—we celebrate anew the defining moment of history. Jesus died. He stopped breathing. Then He rose again, His lungs once again filling with the earth’s air. What all of this means for us who have put our trust in Jesus is that we can breathe freely—we can be fully present to Him and each other.
The anxiety will come, no doubt—going to the grocery store, thinking about someone we love who is still working outside the home (maybe we are ourselves), or wondering about the economic fallout in the months to come. Even if we can’t seem to stop the downward spiral of thoughts, we can pause and take some deep breaths. Lord Jesus Christ—in through the nostrils, opening our diaphragm to the very pit of our lungs, and out through the mouth—have mercy on me.
Training our attention on our breath can pull us out of anxious headspaces and into our bodies. Here, in our bodies in the present moment, is where God meets us. Will you breathe with me?
Inhale, gather your fears. Exhale, release them to Jesus.
Inhale, receive God’s gift of life. Exhale, let go of your death-clutch on life.
Inhale, know you are God’s own. Exhale, lean into Him.
As we breathe, maybe we’ll start to notice the rise and fall of our chest, the blood pumping through our veins, the bird singing outside the window. Maybe we’ll sense the presence, here and now, of the One who gives us breath.
May each breath awaken us to fuller knowledge of Him.
Art by Jonathan Todryk