Are "breath prayers" a method by which we can become best friends with God?
To direct people on a spiritual journey for 40 days, Rick Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Life
. The bestselling book has impacted millions of persons. Some of Pastor Warren's purpose involves recommendations for "Becoming Best Friends with God." To become God's friends, the author shares six secrets, one of which is practicing God's presence by being in "constant conversation" with him. After quoting 1 Thessalonians 5:17 ("pray without ceasing"
), Warren asks how a Christian can practice unceasing prayer to which he answers, "One way is to use 'breath prayers' throughout the day, as many Christians have done for centuries. You choose a brief sentence or a simple phrase that can be repeated in one breath." Then after providing ten examples of short biblical phrases that could work as breath prayers, Warren advises "Pray it as often as possible so it is rooted deep in your heart." In this context Warren also cites the book of Brother Lawrence (c.1605-1691), The Practice of the Presence of God
, who advocated experiencing God's presence in the most menial of circumstances by praying short conversational prayers throughout the day. The Roman Catholic practice of praying the rosary is akin to breath prayers.
In the course of our waking hours, think of how many times we breathe--hundreds and hundreds, even thousands per day. So to pray "breath prayers" means that like breathing, I am to intermittently say the same short prayer over and over again during the course of a day.
Advocates of breath prayers recommend the discipline of repeatedly breathing out a short biblical phrase of prayer. For example, in the parable of The Pharisee and the Publican
(Luke 18:9-14), Jesus portrayed a tax collector who in repentance and humility, cried out, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'"
Out of this parable The Desert Fathers, a monastic group in Egypt circa
the 5th century, created the "Kyrie Eleison" prayer (i.e., "Lord have mercy.") which became known as the "Jesus Prayer." The prayer became a favorite of these fathers who later expanded it to be, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." This prayer as well as others, they chanted over and over again.
As one advocate of contemplative spirituality summarizes, "One of the beautiful things that emerged from the disciplined life of the Desert Fathers was their soul-full practice of contemplative prayer, including the use of 'Breath Prayers.' The Desert Fathers preferred short, one breath prayers offered in a receptive stillness before God . . . To focus their minds simply on Christ and to descend with Christ into their hearts these monks slowly repeated their short holy prayers over and over with each breath. Many of these prayers were a perfect body rhythm of seven syllables that easily could be whispered in one breath." As linked to The Desert Fathers, this helps account for Warren's advice to pray breath prayers as, "many Christians have done for centuries." If in the context of Christendom those fathers originated breath praying, then a question arises, did The Desert Fathers borrow the method from someone else? Might they have adopted the method from the monastic and mystic practices of other ancient religions?
In light of this background and contemporary recommendation to practice breath prayers, an important question arises. Can short biblical phrases be employed to pray in a wrong way? To answer this and other questions, we should first analyze the message of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and then consider breath prayers in the broader context of Jesus' teaching and example of prayer as well as that of the apostles and prophets. Scripture must determine whether or not believers should employ breath prayers in their devotional lives. For Protestants, the Bible ought to be our authority in all matters of faith and practice
First, we must note that English translations consider 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to be one sentence consisting of three present imperative verbs. Considered as related and coordinate commands by the translators, the verses are separated by either semi-colons or commas (see NKJV, NASB, NIV, NRSV, 1901 ASV). The text reads, "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus"
(1 Thess. 5:16-18, NASB).
Therefore, what did Paul mean when he commanded the Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing"
(1 Thess. 5:17, NASB, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, etc.; "pray continually,"
NIV; "Keep on praying,"
NLT)? We can understand that Paul's admonition to continually pray lies in combination with his parallel commands to rejoice ("Rejoice always,"
v. 16) and to be thankful ("in everything give thanks,"
v. 18). In other words, a believer's day-to-day walk with the Lord ought to be consistently joyful, prayerful and thankful. In fact, Paul's epistles reveal rejoicing and thanksgiving were constant themes of his consistent prayer life (See Rom. 1:9-10a; 1 Cor. 1:4; 2 Cor. 6:10; Eph. 5:20; Phil. 1:4; 4:4; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2 Thess 1:3; Philemon 4).
Second the word to "pray" (proseuchomai) includes all types of praying (i.e., thanksgiving, petitions, praise, etc.). In that Paul used the comprehensive word for prayer we may infer that he was not directing the Thessalonians to pray in a certain way by employing a certain phrase to be repeated over and over throughout the day. That reads far too much into the command. Low and Nida advise that when translating this word for prayer into various languages, "It is normally best to avoid an expression which means primarily 'to recite'." In contrast to the free spontaneity of prayer, breath prayers are recitative and repetitive.
Third, other than it is to be "without ceasing,"
Paul leaves the manner and method of prayer undefined. Elsewhere the New Testament describes prayer to have been "earnestly"
(James 5:17), directs it to be with head covered (1 Cor. 11:4) and orders it to be "in the Spirit"
(Eph. 6:18; Jude 20). Given that under the Holy Spirit's guidance Paul left out advice on how to
pray, why should spiritual directors then proceed to recommend a method of prayer based upon this verse? Where in his providence the Holy Spirit left a blank, why do spiritual directors attempt to fill in the blank?
Fourth, the command "pray without ceasing" is a present iterative imperative, the sense of the tense being that believers ought to maintain a spirit of prayer throughout their waking hours. Prayer should be a constant part of Christian consciousness. As defined by the surrounding commands to rejoice and give thanks, "pray without ceasing"
defines more the attitude of vigilance that ought to characterize a believers' prayer life than a particular technique of prayer. Just as the attitude of a believer is to be continuously joyful and thankful, so also their attitude is to be continuously prayerful. Though there is no indication that the apostle practiced or taught breath praying, Leon Morris noted that "Prayer was as natural to Paul as breathing. At any time he was likely to break off his argument or to sum it up by some prayer of greater or less length. In the same way our lives can be lived in such an attitude of dependence on God that we will easily and naturally move into the words of prayer on all sorts of occasions . . ."
As the record shows, Jesus never practiced or taught breath praying. Attempts by contemplative spiritualists to associate breath prayers with the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), Jesus' dying words (i.e., "Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit,"
Luke 23:46) or Jesus' commissioning of his disciples ("Receive the Holy Spirit,"
John 20:22) intrude upon Jesus' teaching and the Gospel narrative (i.e., eisegesis
). There's a ditty that goes, "Wonderful things in the Bible I see, Things that are put there by you and by me." Attempts to find breath prayers in the Bible are just that kind of reading into the text. In brief, here's why.
First, as contemplative spiritualists define them, the Lord's Prayer is not a breath prayer. It's too long. It takes a person with great lung capacity to fit the Lord's Prayer into one breath. If you don't think so, try saying it in one breath. Furthermore, trying to fit the Lord's Prayer into a person's natural breathing rhythm is unnatural. Second, Jesus committed his spirit to the Father one time. He did not pray repeatedly, "Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit."
Third, the words Jesus addressed to the disciples ("Receive the Holy Spirit"
) were not a prayer, unless we would contrive it to mean that Jesus was praying to the disciples! By his instruction and practice, it cannot be discerned that Jesus either taught or practiced breath prayers.
Praying a short sentence over and over bears too much resemblance to the mantra praying of eastern religions (i.e., a word recited or sung repeatedly to induce an altered state of consciousness within the practitioner). In praying breath prayers, Christian devotion becomes indistinct from that of the eastern mystical religions. So the question for the Christian becomes, am I going to engage in a form of praying that does not fit, but in fact contradicts the New Testament model of prayer? Even though Rick Warren recommends saying breath prayers, I will choose not to disobey when I pray .
Now to the question, can right words be used to pray a wrong way? To me this becomes the subtlety of the spiritual directors' recommendation to incorporate Bible sayings into breath prayers. So at this juncture we ask: Even if it masquerades and parades itself as pious and devotional, can such a practice be wrong? I think so. Words of Scripture can be employed for means other than what God intended.
Take for example, the temptation of Jesus Christ. Satan came at Jesus with a biblical text to entice him to disobey his Father. In fact Satan quoted from the Old Testament book that many Bible students consider to have been Jesus' favorite--Deuteronomy (see Matthew 4:6). Right words can be employed for a wrong purpose. What I am suggesting is that using short scriptural phrases does not sanctify saying breath prayers. Something can be wrong even though it might seem and feel right. Contemplative spiritual directors are deceptive when they attempt to provide sanctity to an unbiblical practice by recommending using biblical phrases for breath prayers.
In their contest with Elijah the prophets of Baal prayed a "breath prayer" until they were out of breath. "O Baal, answer us"
, they prayed. They prayed it over and over again from early in the morning until high noon (1 Kings 18:26). But Jesus directly instructed his disciples not to pray like that. He warned, "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them"
(Matt. 6:7-8a). The direct command of Jesus our Spiritual Director is enough for me to avoid any resemblance of pagan praying. As a pastor and in submission to the Lord's and the apostles' teaching on prayer, I cannot in good conscience recommend the practice of praying breath prayers.
TV sitcoms and reality shows constantly picture people vainly praying breath prayers. They go something like, "Oh, God!" or "Oh, My God!" In their repetition and in the trite situations in which these words are uttered, such expressions are meaningless, vain and even hypocritical. The Law commands, "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain"
(Ex. 20:7). If in their repetition breath prayers become boring and therefore meaningless to the practitioner, then praying them is vanity, especially if in their personal lives the practitioners are disobedient to God. As regarding breath prayers being a spiritual discipline to draw us into the circle of God's friends, they could, if uttered in hypocrisy, drive us farther away from him! As Isaiah and Jesus evaluated the prayers among Israel, the Lord's ancient people, "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me"
(Matt. 15:8, NKJV; compare Is. 29:13).
Can we become "best friends" with God without practicing his presence by praying breath prayers? Jesus admitted to this potential when he told the disciples, "You are My friends, if you do what I command you"
(Jn. 15:14). Though in Scripture Jesus has commanded us to do many things that pertain to holiness and godliness, he never commanded us to pray breath prayers. In fact, his teaching on prayer implies just the opposite, that we should not pray repeated and recitative prayers like the heathen. The Lord called Abraham "My friend"
(Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23), but there is no record that first, he prayed constantly, or second, used breath prayers. Yet because Abraham obeyed God he was a friend of God. In the same way we become God's friends through obedience. Trust and obey, for there's no other way.
By Pastor Larry DeBruyn
 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) pp. 87-89. Based upon 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "pray without ceasing"
, Richard Foster also recommends the practice of breath prayer. See his Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home
(SanFrancisco: HarperCollinisPublishers, 1992) pp. 122-124.
 "In Christianity the chanting of the name of Jesus in prayer was recommended by Diadochus of Photice in the middle of the fifth century, and by John Climacus in the early seventh century." See Rosemary Ellen Guiley, "Chanting," Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience
(New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991) p.92.
 It must be noted that the Publican's prayer was not a breath prayer. In his parable Jesus stated that in humility and contrition of heart the "tax gatherer"
prayed this sinner's prayer one time and then "went down to his house justified"
(Lk. 18:10-14). In the Christian life the Jesus Prayer is an entry level or salvation prayer. After a sincere one-time utterance of that prayer or one like it, the believer enters into a secure and justified standing before God based upon the merits of Christ. Before God they are "Not guilty!" Repeated recitation of the Jesus Prayer is unnecessary for reason of the believer's justified standing before God. Based upon the verity of the Scriptures, upon Jesus' merits and upon being "in Christ," a believer's justification before God is a done deal (Rom. 8:28-30). In spite of their sinful state and because of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, believers possess a standing before God like unto that which God has with himself! (2 Cor. 5:21). This standing in Christ before God makes the Jesus Prayer an unnecessary form of self-flagellation. Personally, with the security of my soul in the hands of the Father and the Son (Jn. 10:27-30), I have applied the Jesus Prayer to my spiritual life in the following way: Frequently I will think or say, "Thank you Lord for having been merciful to me, a great sinner, through the merits of Jesus Christ."
 William Gaultiere, "Spiritual Disciplines for the Soul: Breath Prayers," ChristianSoulCare.com
 Warren, PDL
 "Chanting is an ancient, universal practice, and is often done in conjunction with drumming, hand-clapping, dancing, or fingering of beads on a rosary. Rosaries are widely used in chanting in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity." See Guiley, "Chanting."
 Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains,
2nd Edition (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989) Vol. I, 33:178, p. 409.
 Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics
(Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1996) 521. The command is a present iterative present, the idea being, "not that believers are to pray every minute of every day, but that we should offer prayers to God repeatedly."
 Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians
(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959) 173.
 Gaultiere, "Spiritual Disciplines." Eisegesis
is reading our thoughts into the Bible.