I used to be a “prayer warrior.”
When I was single and had no kids, I would enjoy praying for long periods of time. Each morning, I would turn on worship music, sing, and meditate on God’s Word. Then I’d spend time interceding for my friends, my family, my neighbors, and for our lost world. I even went on a solo prayer retreat for three days once.
These spiritual habits were instilled in me by the Korean churches in New York and Maryland I attended growing up. Daily early morning prayer services would start at 5:30 or 6 a.m., allowing believers to start the day by gathering at church for a short worship service followed by an extended time of prayer before heading to work. This type of early morning prayer service dates back to 1907 and quickly spread across Korea. It ignited a revival in the country and became one of the most important spiritual disciplines to Korean Christians.
Today, I am a mom to two young children. As I listen to my preschooler screaming for Mommy and my toddler throwing a tantrum, I know there are no prayer retreats in my near future. When even taking a shower without interruptions seems like a luxury, finding a long period of time to pray feels impossible. When I finally find the time to be alone with God after my kids go to bed, I find myself too exhausted for extended prayer.
I started feeling guilty that I couldn’t spend long hours with God like I used to and felt my walk with God grow stale. At the same time, I realized that I needed God more than ever when my toddler made yet another mess at mealtime and my kids bickered and screamed at each other. I desired to come to God, but I struggled to find that chunk of time.
That is when my spiritual director, Ellen Hsu, reminded me that I was in a different season from when I was single. She encouraged me to put aside the false guilt of not meeting my self-imposed expectations of spiritual disciplines. Instead, she advised me to be more gracious with myself and to practice breath prayers throughout the day.
Breathing through prayers
Breath prayers are short prayers that coincide with inhaling and exhaling. They originate from the “Jesus Prayer” practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church beginning as early as the third and fourth centuries by Egyptian desert monks. The most well-known Jesus Prayer was inspired by Mark 10:47: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
In the 13th century, Nicephorus the Hesychast connected this form of prayer to breathing. The publication of Philokalia (1782), a collection of Greek Christian monastic texts, and The Way of a Pilgrim (1884)—a story of a pilgrim who was practicing the Jesus Prayer—helped the practice gain wider exposure.
In breath prayers, the Christian begins by focusing his or her heart and mind on God. The prayer is then divided into a few words on the inhale and a few words on the exhale. For example, one would inhale and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and exhale with, “have mercy on me.”
Whether a Scripture verse or a theological couplet, breath prayers are meant to be short. This allows them versatility so Christians can pray wherever they are, while doing anything. Ellen advised me that breath prayers could help shift my attention to God throughout the day while I’m busy with my daily tasks.
Seeing Jesus as a friend
Despite the practicality of breath prayers, I didn’t immediately embrace them.
Were these short prayers I could pray while cooking or walking good enough for God? As a 1.5 generation Korean American who grew up in the US, I had internalized values from the Korean church.
Koreans have a high power distance culture. Followers yield and submit to authority. I did not view my pastor or leader as my friend. I could not call them by their first name; I needed to address them formally, showing a lot of respect.
When approaching God, this high power distance is even greater. The Korean churches I attended emphasized the need for reverence before God, and I viewed God as primarily high and mighty.
I heard stories about how church leaders would pray to God in their best attire even in their home, coming before God on their knees. My parents kneeled to pray in their rooms. Through these images I gleaned the need for formality when addressing the Lord.
This understanding of prayer started to crack in grad school. While visiting my Caucasian Christian friend’s house, I watched with surprise as she prayed aloud while applying makeup. I could not believe someone would dare speak to God in that way. In the Western world, the low power distance culture seems to shape a person’s view of approaching Jesus. Jesus is seen more as a friend than an almighty, reverent God. The two cultures focus on different aspects of Jesus.
As a Korean, I had a hard time coming to God as a friend. But the more I read Scripture and learned about worship, I realized that God is approachable. My worship studies professor Andrew Hill taught that the Hebrew word nāgash or qārab, which is translated into “worship” in our English bibles, literally means “draw near.” Drawing near to God is part of our Christian worship.
This is quite counter-cultural to my Korean culture, as well as the culture in Malaysia, where I currently live. But the King of Kings and Lord of Lords wants us to come to him and be his friend.
And how often does the God Most High want us to come to him? Constantly.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 commands us to “pray continually.” However, “continually” is a hyperbole similar to Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 18:1 (“they should always pray and not give up”), according to Gene Green in The Letters to the Thessalonians.
The command should not be taken literally where you cease to do everything except pray. Rather, it should be taken as an instruction to approach God and talk to him often during the day. Prayer should be less of a one-time event and more of a common and constant component throughout the day. When prayer becomes a regular rhythm of your life, it will feel like you are always praying.
Praying continually in the everyday
Breath prayers are an excellent spiritual exercise that enables us to pray often and throughout the day. If I’m cooking and want to pray, I don’t need to go into my bedroom and kneel to say a prayer to God. While I’m in the kitchen, I can breathe in and say, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and then breathe out with “give me strength for today.”
When my child is throwing a tantrum on the floor and I’m channeling every single fiber not to lose my temper, I can approach Jesus in that moment. Breathe in, “Lord Jesus.” Breathe out, “give me patience and understanding.” Even while doing mundane things such as grocery shopping, I can breathe in, “Jesus,” and breathe out, “let me know that you are with me.”
These short breath prayers throughout the day add up. They become spiritual exercises that help us build a healthy spiritual life, similar to building a healthy physical life. Research shows that when a 30-minute workout is broken up into shorter mini sessions throughout the day, the health benefit is the same.
Likewise, whether it’s praying 30 minutes in one sitting, or saying 10-second breath prayers 180 times a day (that does feel like “praying continually,” doesn’t it?), I’ve found the spiritual health benefits are similar. Both the early morning prayer service and the breath prayers throughout the day are ways of coming before God.
In this season of my life, breath prayers are my offerings to the Lord. Perhaps I can still be a “prayer warrior” like I used to be, but my prayer times look much different. Nowadays, whenever I hear someone’s prayer request or hear about the devastating news in the world, I then and there say several short breath prayers for them.
Breath prayers help me realize that I can come into God’s presence anywhere, at any time. I’m able to ask for God’s strength and wisdom throughout the day. I’m also able to give praise and adoration to him all day long. The more often I pray breath prayers, the more I am aware of God’s omnipresence. I now see that God is, and has been, walking with me on this challenging yet wonderful journey of motherhood.
So I breathe in, “Jesus, my God,” and breathe out, “thank you for being a friend who is with me always.”
Esther Shin Chuang, who holds a Doctorate of Worship Studies, is an award-winning concert pianist, worship leader, and international worship educator. She is currently a lecturer at Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary in Penang, Malaysia.