April 23, 2008

A Metaphor for Prayer

2008 1512 page24 capN HIS BOOK, SLICES OF LIFE, EVANGELIST Henry Feyerabend told a story about a coffee vending machine that malfunctioned one day. When the coins were put in, out came the coffee, followed by the cream and sugar, then last of all came the cup! That machine had all the right stuff, but in the wrong order, and it made for one big mess. Sometimes, I think, we do the same thing in our relationship with Jesus.
There’s a statement from Ellen White that has long intrigued me. “Prayer,” she writes, “is the breath of the soul. It is the secret of spiritual power. No other means of grace can be substituted, and the health of the soul be preserved. Prayer brings the heart into immediate contact with the Wellspring of life, and strengthens the sinew and muscle of the religious experience. Neglect the exercise of prayer, or engage in prayer spasmodically, now and then, as seems convenient, and you lose your hold on God. The spiritual faculties lose their vitality, the religious experience lacks health and vigor” (Gospel Workers, pp. 254, 255).
“Prayer is the breath of the soul.” Wondering if this same concept was found anywhere in the Bible, I ran a search for words such as “breathing,” “breathes,” etc. One passage that quickly stood out was Lamentations 3:55, 56: “I called upon thy name, O Lord, out of the low dungeon. Thou hast heard my voice: hide not thine ear at my breathing, at my cry.”* It sounds as though Jeremiah, the author, had the same idea as expressed by Ellen G. White. Today we use the expression “I breathed a prayer.” Perhaps that’s where it came from.
2008 1512 page24Comparing prayer to breathing, I took (perhaps facetiously) some of the common questions, complaints, excuses, and problems people often use in connection with prayer and tried to illustrate how those same objections would work if applied to breathing. (Some illustrations I use are my own; some I’ve taken from others.)
How often should I breathe?
That would be a pretty foolish question, wouldn’t it? Yet people ask: “How many times a day do I have to pray?”
To a healthy, living person, breathing comes naturally. One doesn’t have to think about it; it just happens. And it happens all the time. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.” When we are healthy Christians, we won’t have to decide to “pray without ceasing”; it will happen automatically.
Consider the following from Ellen White: “He who receives Christ by living faith . . . has a living connection with God. . . . He carries with him the atmosphere of heaven, which is the grace of God, a treasure that the world cannot buy . . .” (Conflict and Courage, p. 79). If we were all constantly breathing that atmosphere, we’d all be a lot healthier Christians. And we should not only pray always, but also everywhere. Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:8: “I will therefore that men pray every where. . ..”

If I don’t feel like breathing, should I do it anyway?
Genesis 2:7 says: “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.” Without the “breath of life” from God, humans could not live. And it doesn’t take a doctor to suggest that if you remove the breath from any living creature, the result is death.
The same applies to spiritual breath. Stop breathing for any reason, and you die. And the times we feel the least like praying are the times we need prayer most.
What if I’m too busy to breathe?
“No other life was ever so crowded with labor and responsibility as was that of Jesus; yet how often He was found in prayer! How constant was His communion with God! Again and again in 
the history of His earthly life are found records such as these: ‘Rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.’ ‘Great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by him of their infirmities. And he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed.’ ‘And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.’ Mark 1:35; Luke 5:15, 16; 6:12” (The Desire of Ages, p. 362).
If Jesus, the only sinless One who ever lived, needed prayer that much, how much more do you and I need to pray!
How much time should I actually spend breathing?
Some of us struggle to spend sufficient time in prayer. We feel we do not have much to say to God. If that’s the case with you, try talking to Him about what He is saying to you. Breathe in, as it were, by reading His Word and talking to Him about what you’ve read.
Have you ever become discouraged over one of those stories about some pious individual who spends four or five hours a day in prayer? Perhaps it’s because you struggle with getting past the 15-minute mark! (If so, I can relate.)
It’s wonderful to hear stories of marathon prayer warriors, but we need to remember that each individual must breathe according to their own needs. I have come to realize that breathing will increase naturally when my activity does. If I don’t pray like Martin Luther, it’s perhaps because I don’t live like him.
If I fall and hurt myself, should I stop breathing?
Many people get discouraged when they fall into sin. So they stop praying. But check this out: Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never, ever cast out” (my own translation of John 6:37). The Bible says of Jesus, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2, NKJV).† John writes that we should not sin. But “if you do sin,” he says, “there is someone to plead for you before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who pleases God completely” (1 John 2:1, NLT).‡ We must keep coming to Jesus no matter what, even when we fall into sin. Especially when we fall into sin. Remember 1 John 1:9: “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (NLT).
If people make fun of me, should I stop breathing?
According to 2 Timothy 3:12, “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” Be certain that if your “breathing” is effective, the devil is going to do all that he can to discourage you from continuing.
Paul and Silas, by the standards of many, had good reasons to get discouraged and quit praying. They had been beaten without a trial and thrown into prison. But Acts 16:25 says that “at midnight [they] prayed, and sang praises unto God.” God responded to their faith by giving them not only their freedom but also the privilege of leading the jailor and his entire household to Jesus.
2008 1512 page24Jesus said, “Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Luke 6:28). When persecution of any kind comes, we should see in it a call to prayer.
If I don’t know the very best techniques, if I can’t breathe like the “experts,” should I stop breathing?
Consider Romans 8:26. It tells us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (NIV). This is saying, as someone put it, that no matter what my prayers sound like when they come out of my mouth, the Holy Spirit is going to fix them up before they get to heaven.
Couldn’t I just let the pastor breathe for me?
I remember sitting in a church in northern Alberta one summer and hearing the pastor tell about a time when someone said something like this to him: “I pay the plumber to do my plumbing for me, I pay an electrician to do my electrical work for me, and I pay you to do my praying for me.” That attitude isn’t a sign of a healthy relationship with Jesus. If you want to live, you have to breathe for yourself. There’s no other way.
What if breathing doesn’t do for me what I want it to?
We breathe for the sole purpose of sustaining life. “If you are praying to get answers,” one preacher said, “it won’t be long before you stop praying!” God wants to answer—and does answer prayer. But if that’s our only reason for praying, all the devil has to do is wait. We often ask for things that God knows are not for our good, and He loves us way too much to give us everything we want. One verse to consider on this point is James 4:3: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.”
Obedience is also important for answered prayer. John wrote: “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22).
Let’s remember that the primary reason for breathing is to sustain life.
Is it ever appropriate, or needful, to breathe for someone else?
“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:14-16).
When it comes to breathing for others, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is most beneficial to the one in trouble if our efforts to revive them begin before death sets in. I wonder how many more we could save if we did all we could to keep them instead of waiting too long, then trying to bring them back after they’re spiritually dead. The shepherd described in Luke goes in search of the lost sheep immediately. We would do well to follow his example.
Is there ever anything that can hinder my breathing?
Proverbs 28:9 says: “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination.” It’s difficult to have a conversation with someone who refuses to listen. If we’ll not listen to God, why should we expect Him to listen to us? And if we’ll not obey, He’ll not add to our guilt by giving us more light for which to be accountable in the day of judgment.
In 1 Peter 3:7 the apostle says, “Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife . . . and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.”
Whoa! Apparently the way I live at home can affect my prayer life!
How do I know if my breathing is effective?
Are you alive? Have you found the peace that passes all understanding? Does Jesus have your thoughts? Do you have a desire to share Jesus with others? If all answers come out positive, then it’s a sign of effective breathing, effective prayer. And if you still have a desire for a closer walk with Jesus, then keep on breathing, you’re not dead yet!
“The darkness of the evil one encloses those who neglect to pray. The whispered temptations of the enemy entice them to sin; and it is all because they do not make use of the privileges that God has given them in the divine appointment of prayer. Why should the sons and daughters of God be reluctant to pray, when prayer is the key in the hand of faith to unlock heaven’s storehouse, where are treasured the boundless resources of Omnipotence?” (Steps to Christ, pp. 94, 95).
*Unless otherwise indicated, all quoted scriptures are from the King James Version.
†Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
‡Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
Norman Johnson is pastor of the Williams Lake and Bella Coola Seventh-day Adventist churches in Williams Lake, British Columbia, Canada.