Life and Breath

Recently, someone again called my attention to the fact that I begin just about all of my spoken prayers with the words, “Father God, thank you for today, and thank you for the gifts of life and breath.” This is certainly true for almost all of my out-loud, “corporate” times of prayer…whether I am facilitating a DivorceCare class at The Crossing on a Wednesday evening or, on a personal level, blessing the evening meal at our home.

While I sincerely pray that my Christian faith continues to grow and mature as long as God chooses to give me life, this is one prayer habit that I hope to stubbornly keep with me until the grave. I suppose that there are as many valid prayer habits as there are faithful Christians, but for me, starting off my prayers in this manner is a constant reminder that God has already given me everything I need, most supremely in the sacrifice of His own Son to reconcile a rebellious sinner to Himself (Romans 5:8). In other words, “life and breath” are just the beginning of all that God has done for me in Christ.

If those words sound at all familiar, they were lifted entirely from the Apostle Paul in Acts 17. Paul, hustled off to Athens to escape multiple assassination plots against him, was very likely dropped off in that city and told by his well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ to “Please lay low for a bit,” at least until those who were seeking after his life had given up the chase. (Sure, that last bit employs a bit of best-guess speculation, but the “reception” Paul received in both Thessalonica and Berea tends to support the idea that at least some of the Jews very much wanted Paul dead, so much so that they were willing to follow him around from city to city; see verses 13-14.)

Paul, his spirit provoked within him by the idolatry that he sees everywhere in the city (verse 16), apparently decides that the best way to remain unobtrusive and go unnoticed is to begin publicly debating with the Jews in the local synagogue, “those who happened to be” walking into the Athens Hy-Vee (verse 17), as well as the Stoics and the Epicurean philosophers (verse 18). Had the early Christian church been sufficiently well-organized to have its own Gospel Witness Protection Program, this guy would have been an administrative nightmare. Repeatedly throughout the book of Acts, Paul shows very little in the way of concern for his personal safety.

It is Paul’s utter lack of self-interest and complete disregard for his own personal safety that most decidedly commands my attention, to be quite honest. Yes, he has written roughly a third of the New Testament. Yes, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ personally cleaned his clock while he was on the road to Damascus, determined to imprison and kill as many members of the early church as he could (Acts 9:1-32). But for me, the decisive factor in evaluating Paul has always been how little he cared for his own interests in the months and years after meeting Christ in person. It is his astonishing level of commitment that forces me to carefully consider the words of Paul as he spoke on Mars Hill, courting even more personal danger:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Acts 17:22-31 (ESV)

These days, my own personal prayers of gratitude for life and breath may seem far removed from the stir created by Paul on that day, so long ago, in Athens…but I really don’t think that’s right. Just as God granted Paul life and sustained his breath through many afflictions (2 Corinthians 11:23-33), so too God grants all of us the undeserved gifts of life and breath each and every day, week after week, year after year. One day, of course, as an integral part of His plan for our lives, the blessings of life and breath will be removed. For those who die in Christ, though, this is just the beginning of the true blessing our souls long for, the blessing of life with Christ. Just like Paul, we will gladly exchange everything we are or have for the incalculable blessing of peace with God in eternity (Philippians 3:3-11).

In my own prayer life, remembering to thank God for providing me with both life and breath is not a mere spiritual discipline, either. There have been times when I have felt certain that I was in very real danger of losing both. As an asthmatic, I have lived through several visits to the ER during which I strained with all my might to take air into my lungs, and that has taught me not to take the gift of breathing for granted. In 1999, certain that I had progressive brain cancer, I was “relieved” to find out after much medical scanning that I “only” had a severe case of Chiari malformation, and that I would “only” need brain surgery followed by six to eight months of recuperation time. (There really is something about escaping a death sentence that makes “six to eight months until full recovery” look pretty appealing.)

I am like everyone else. Whenever I go to God in prayer, I have a shopping list of things that I want to “call to His attention,” you know…”just in case He missed it.” (What an idiot I am!) Beginning my prayers with a deliberate thankfulness for life and breath reminds me that I am certainly capable of losing them both, and that God has been very, very good to me throughout my entire life. Yes, there are things going on in my life right now that are upsetting. Yes, things could certainly be a lot better than they currently are on many fronts; relational, financial, health, etc. But a deliberate call to thankfulness for the everyday goodness of God not only helps me put my “requests” in proper perspective, but it also keeps me eminently aware of the many, many good things that God has given me in addition to another opportunity to plant my feet on the bedroom floor and head off to the shower to begin my day.

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