Last night I woke up at 3am in a panic. Something just gripped my mind and heart as I was filled with anxiety. A small, still Voice told me, “Just breathe … and pray.” So I took deep breaths. I tried praying the Jesus prayer, but it was too long. All that could come out was, “Jesus, have mercy on this sinner.” So each breath I prayed, “Jesus, have mercy on this sinner” over and over and over again. Sure enough, God showed mercy on this sinner. The anxiety lifted, perspective was granted, and peace came.
I was reminded of the power of the “Breath Prayer.” The breath prayer is a short prayer (a few words long) that fits in the moment of a breath. In some ways, breath prayer is one of the ways we can seek to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:18) as breathing is something we do all the time. You can pray it aloud or in your mind. Breath prayer is the quickest and most effective discipline to get me back “in touch” with God. It is also the most rhythmic and portable spiritual practice. It aligns with the tempo of physical inhalation and exhalation. And you can pray a breath prayer anytime, anywhere.
Depending on the situation, the breath prayer can be a desperate and immediate cry for help (like my 3am attack) or it can be a long-range desire or petition. One of my long-term breath prayers is “Lord, help me to love as You do,” as God helped me to realize my deficiency in my life (and, interestingly enough, also my deepest desire). Or if someone you know has a great need, you can do powerful intercession through a breath prayer (“Lord, grant grace to _______” or “Draw ________ with Your love” or “Give _______ wisdom”).
The power in the breath prayer is repetition. You pray it over and over and over again. You can pray a breath prayer 20 times a minute. You can engage in this prayer several times a day. You can pray it in your car or waiting in the checkout line at the store. Like the relentless prayer of the widow in Luke 18:1-3, breath prayer is a way to keep knocking on the door until something happens.
Many authors have written great stuff about the power of breath prayer. Richard Foster (“Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home”) mentions a dual-breath prayer that utilizes the power of inhalation (“Fill me, Holy Spirit”) and exhalation (“I empty _____ from my soul”). Ruth Haley Barton (“Sacred Rhythms”) advocates finding a breath prayer that captures your deepest desires and longings as revealed by the Holy Spirit. She describes this as a “gut prayer” because it is a prayer that requires little thought, but deep soulfulness.
Most of all, you don’t have to be a spiritual giant or a theological scholar to pray a breath prayer. It’s a prayer that anyone can pray at anytime. It is a prayer that God hears, certainly. Like the power of water in erosion, persistent breath prayers can dramatically change the contour of situations, hearts, and societies.
But even more important, God uses breath prayer to shape our hearts and souls. It refines our motives, desires and petitions. It helps us to practice perseverance. It brings us to the throne of God at times that we normally might not even think about God – during our everyday ordinary daytime hours or in the wee hours of the night. As the name of God is on our breath, His presence comes into our thoughts and His peace enters our hearts. Breath prayer postures us to constantly offer our lives and our desires to God. Breath prayer aligns us for Whole Life Worship.