How often do you think about breathing? It’s something that happens, on average, 12–18 times per minute from the very beginning to the end of our lives. In fact, ceasing to breathe is often the mechanism that ends a life. When was the last time you consciously thought, I need to breathe? Chances are, it was only when you were stressed or having trouble breathing. For something that happens so often—and something that is very much keeping us alive—we seem to take it for granted.
The numbers are startling. We breathe more than 700 times an hour, 17,000 times a day, and more than 6 million times a year.1 Across an average life-span of 75 years, that’s more than a whopping 465 million breaths! Given the magnitude of breathing, maybe it’s something we should pay a little more attention to.
So, how does it work? Breathing doesn’t start in the lungs so much as in the brain. According to scientists, two centers in the brain are responsible for and regulate the automatic process of breathing.2 The diaphragm, a large muscle under your lungs (that you usually only know is there when you have the hiccups), relaxes and softens down into the abdomen. This causes the lungs to enlarge, which in turn causes air to be sucked in through your nose and mouth. The air travels down the trachea and then separates into two separate tubes called bronchi, which lead to each lung. From here, a veritable maze of small tubes (bronchioles) carries the oxygenated air to tiny air sacs called alveoli. Alveoli have extremely thin walls, allowing the oxygen to cross over into your bloodstream while carbon dioxide moves into the lungs to be expelled.3The extraordinary complexity and sheer size of the system is astonishing. The lungs are made up of more than 1,500 miles of tubing!
who is the Holy Spirit?
The Bible has a lot to say about breath. In fact, the Hebrew and Greek words for the Holy Spirit both carry the meaning of “breath.” So what—or more precisely, who—is the Holy Spirit? And what exactly does He do?
The Holy Spirit is mentioned throughout the Old Testament (ancient writings before the birth of Jesus) and the New Testament (the story of Jesus and beyond) more than 100 times. In the very first book of the Bible, the Spirit of God is present at Creation with God the Father and God the Son:4 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1, 2, NKJV).
As we move further through history, a number of significant biblical figures, such as Daniel (Daniel 4:8), Isaiah (Isaiah 63:10), and David (Psalm 51:11), reference the Holy Spirit in their writings. From these accounts, we see the divine nature of the Holy Spirit and begin to get a picture of Him as a being. According to David and Isaiah, we can either rebel against the Holy Spirit or be filled with Him.
In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit steps into a more obvious role. The Gospels are filled with accounts of the work of the Holy Spirit, from the conception of Jesus (Matthew 1:20) to Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22) and the public proclamation of faith in the early church (Acts 4:31).
Three in One
Jesus’ baptism is particularly important because, just like at Creation, it once again brings God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit together in the same place (Luke 3:21, 22). Jesus is in the water being baptized by John the Baptist. God the Father speaks words of affirmation from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends as something like a dove and lands on Jesus in view of the crowd.
The interaction between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit has been studied by theologians for centuries and has resulted in a teaching referred to as the Trinity. Trinity is simply a word that describes the three-in-one God that Christians worship. God is One but is made up of three distinct Divine Beings, each of whom is also fully God: God the Father, God the Son ( Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. (Don’t worry if it sounds confusing—theologians have been wrestling with how to explain this for centuries!)
Essentially, the doctrine of the Trinity explains the separate and distinct work of each Individual making up the Trinity and yet affirms that They are one God. They are separate, yet each is fully God.
We see this best explained through the work of Jesus. God the Father sent Jesus into the world ( John 3:16), meaning Jesus is a separate Person from God. Jesus then tells His followers that the Father is sending Someone to be a comforter to them after He returns to heaven ( John 14:26)—none other than the Holy Spirit! That means the Holy Spirit is a separate Person from the Father (God) and the Son ( Jesus). We also know this is true because Jesus said that people should be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
breath to the soul
Now that we have established that the Holy Spirit is part of this three-in-one God, what does He actually do? Many attributes are ascribed to His work. He is a gift (Acts 2:38), He helps us to be bold in our faith (Acts 4:31), He brings us comfort (Acts 9:31), and He sometimes instructs people (Acts 13:2). The Holy Spirit might also stop us from doing something wrong or unwise (Acts 16:6). He pours God’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5), gives us joy and hope (Romans 15:13), teaches us (1 Corinthians 2:13), and lives in us (1 Corinthians 6:19).
The Holy Spirit was a special gift from God the Father to be a helper when Jesus ascended to heaven after His resurrection ( John 14:25–27). He lives in us, works through us, and convicts our hearts when we have done something wrong ( John 16:8). He is always with us—always—which brings us back to breath and breathing.
At the end of His ministry, Jesus breathed—actually breathed—the Holy Spirit on His beloved disciples ( John 20:21–23). He breathed goodness and mercy and love and power and guidance and comfort over them and into them through the power of the Holy Spirit. The metaphor of breathing, of inhaling that which brings life and exhaling that which brings death, is rich with spiritual significance.
Just like breathing keeps us alive, the work of the Holy Spirit keeps us spiritually alive. Through Him, we breathe in the goodness, beauty, and power of God. Through Him, we can let go of those things that hold us back, distract us, or draw us away from our God-given purpose.
We need to breathe to live, and we need the Holy Spirit working in us to keep our faith vibrant and vital. He is our Advocate, our Comforter, our Guide, and our Helper. He is God living in us, so go ahead and be filled with the expansive mercy, love, and grace of God. Just like your breath, the Holy Spirit continually dwells within you. Just breathe!
Karen Collum is an Australian children’s author, a chaplain, and a theology student. She lives on the Gold Coast, Queensland.
1. “How Your Lungs Get the Job Done,” American Lung Association, July 20, 2017, https://www.lung.org/blog/how-your-lungs-work.
2. “Two Brain Systems Tell Us to Breathe,” ScienceDaily, April 2, 2003, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/04/030402073004.htm.
3. Science Buddies and Sabine De Brabandere, “How Do We Breathe?,” Scientific American, May 16, 2019, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-we-breathe/.
4. See John 1:1–4; Colossians 1:13–16; and Hebrews 1:1, 2, where Jesus’ role in Creation is explained.