Breathing Lessons: Or, How to Understand Your Pentecostal Friend

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"If the baby weighs more than six pounds, you will need a cesarean section." That's what the doctor told Pamela. The doctor was quite sure that my wife, with her small frame, would not be able to deliver a large baby naturally. If she was going to bring this baby into the world, it would require some help. As it turned out, that's where I came in.

Lamaze classes are an interesting experience. One comedian has said, "I'm confused by these breathing classes. I just don't get it. You can't just BREATHE an eight-pound object out of your body."

I had similar thoughts the first time Pamela and I attended the classes. Entering the classroom felt a bit odd; all I heard was lots of strange sounds.

La-ho, la-ha. La-ho, la-ha.

Typically I would assume I had just entered a room full of Pentecostals. But these were people practicing their breathing. The promise the instructor made was that if we would work on our breathing then my wife's labor pains would be greatly reduced. It was even possible for her to deliver our baby without the use of any pain-killing drugs.

Still, something about taking a class on how to breathe seemed a bit preposterous. I mean, come on. Breathing is as natural as eating, right? After all, the first thing we learn to do in life is breathe. Before a baby is even placed at her mother's breast it first expands and contracts its lungs. No one has to teach a baby how to breathe. There is no home study course, no website to study, no instruction tapes to listen to. I mean breathing is breathing. Who needs a course?

I had a few lessons to learn.

It wasn't long before I was discovering that the breathing I had been used to was quite different from what we were learning. As it turned out, I was an amateur breather. By the first night of class, our instructor began to take us into the higher realms of Breathology 101. We studied deep breathing, pant breathing, slow breathing, exhaling, cleansing breaths, and all sorts of other types.

During one breathing lesson, the mothers were instructed to grab the fathers by the tender area of their knees and to steadily apply greater pressure until they were giving it all they had. The men, in turn, were to use a breathing technique to focus and to lessen the pain. What a sight we were—a bunch of guys pinned down by their wives and hyperventilating. To my amazement, it all worked like a charm; the breathing actually focused my mind and lessened the pain, or perhaps heightened my tolerance of it. In short, the breathing worked.

The Holy Spirit is the "breath of God" to the Body of Christ, to every believer. Without the Spirit we cannot breathe spiritually and without this breath we cannot truly live spiritually. On the contrary, in order to live as overcomers, we must learn to inhale the Spirit of God daily, to breathe deeply. Just as breath infuses our biological system with mind-enlivening nutrients, so the Spirit fills us with the soul-invigorating Resurrection life of Christ.

One of the most intimate occasions Jesus spent with his disciples after his resurrection involved breathing. It was a most unusual event. While meeting with the Twelve privately, the Scripture says that Jesus actually "breathed on them" and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn. 20:22). From a purely human level, such an encounter would seem odd. In light of biblical history, however, it is profoundly significant.

From Genesis (2:7) we see God taking dust from the earth, shaping the clay, and breathing into it the breath of life: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

When creation occurred and the breath of God entered Adam, the Bible says that "man became a living soul." At the beginning of the New Testament church era, in like manner, Jesus breathed upon the clay again to bring it into the life of the Spirit. One breath precipitated a physical and spiritual birth; the other, a spiritual re-birth, renewal and infilling.

Some Christians and churches today have forgotten how to breathe . . . spiritually. A worship service may be full of talk about God, and yet tragically devoid of the breath of God. It seems that we can become so adept at filling our schedules up with church events and activities, yet still fail to fill our souls with the irreplaceable presence of the Holy Spirit. Have we become better at spitting out new programs than breathing in the Spirit of God?

Could it be that we have gotten really good at "doing church" and yet forgotten how to be the Church, how to breathe in the Spirit of the Bridegroom, how to be "led by the Spirit"? Roger Olson says that during the first few centuries of the church as ecclesial hierarchies emerged, the church tragically moved from a focus of "what will the Spirit of God do next?" to one of "what does the bishop want to do next?"