Breath Of Life: Reflections From Respiratory Medicine – Dr John Upham


from Luke’s Journal 2020 | Breath of Life | Vol.25 No.2

Most of us take breathing for granted – aside from when we have to run for a bus, climb a mountain or engage in unaccustomed exertion! Even then, most people are not concerned by feeling ‘out of breath’ in these situations, recognising the sensation as entirely appropriate.

As a respiratory physician, I often meet people who experience dyspnoea, usually defined as difficult or laboured breathing, or ‘shortness of breath’. Such people have difficulty breathing to the extent that it restricts their capacity to take part in physical activity, whether that be playing sport, exercising with friends, walking short distances or even ‘routine’ activities of daily living such as bathing and dressing. Some people with advanced lung diseases are breathless even at rest, every breath an effort and a reminder that their hold on life is tenuous.

With this in mind, it is instructive to consider what the Bible has to say about breath and breathing. Four themes will be discussed:

• The breath of life in creation

• The breath of God’s judgement

• The renewing and refreshing breath (wind) of the Holy Spirit

• God’s breathless people

Breath Of Life

In the creation account, we read that every living animal has the “breath of life” (Genesis 1:30). Likewise, during the creation of Adam from the dust of the ground, the Lord God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Interestingly, the Hebrew word ruach usually translated as the Spirit who hovers over the waters in Genesis 1:2, can also be translated as ‘wind’ or ‘breath’. The Psalmist proclaims “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).

The close connection between life and breath is reinforced in Job 12:10 “In his hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of every human being”. Both humans and animals share this breath: “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). Lifeless idols are condemned because they have “no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14). Paul proclaims to the residents of Athens that God “gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” Acts 17:25, while Revelation foretells a time when “the breath of life from God” enters and rejuvenates the faithful witnesses (Revelation 11:11).

Breath Of Judgement

Breath also appears in the Bible as a metaphor for God’s judgement. In Exodus, we read that God’s breath (or wind) blew on the sea to defeat the Pharaoh’s army who were pursuing the escaping Israelites (Exodus 15:10). God’s breath of anger consumes evil people (Job 4:9 and Psalm 18:15), the breath of his lips brings judgement to the wicked (Isaiah 11:4). Paul speaks of a time when the Lord Jesus will destroy the ‘lawless one’ with the breath of his mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

The Renewing And Refreshing Breath (Wind) Of The Holy Spirit

In Ezekiel’s vision, the refreshing wind breathes new life into the dry bones, a prophecy of the time when God will send the Spirit to renew Israel (Ezekiel 37:1-14). In explaining the new birth to Nicodemus, Jesus compares the Spirit’s sovereign and unpredictable actions with the wind (John 3:8). After the resurrection, Jesus breathes on the disciples, imparting the Holy Spirit (John 20:22), while the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is accompanied by the blowing of a violent wind (Acts 2).

God’s Breathless People

The psalmist describes how he pants for God, comparing his overwhelming desire for God’s presence with a thirsty deer that longs for water (Psalm 42:1-2). Psalm 119:131 proclaims “I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands”.

What does this mean for us? It is worth recalling that the Holy Spirit continually seeks to breathe new life into us, bringing renewal and refreshing where we might have grown stale and complacent. Have we as individuals or as the church become lukewarm in our love for God and our neighbour? Do we need to rediscover what it means to pant for God’s presence? Do we need to allow the Holy Spirit to revive in us the call to mission, justice and compassion? Let us be mindful that each breath we take is a life-giving gift from God, and let us consider how we might use our lives to bring life to others.

Dr John Upham is a respiratory physician and clinical researcher working in Brisbane. He is happily married to Susan, and has four children and five grandchildren.

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