When I first began having panic attacks as a young adult, there was one piece of advice I received quite often: quote Scripture. There was no shortage of rhetoric about the Bible being the “Sword of the Spirit,” and I was told that freedom would be found as I formed those words with my lips. That that was me wielding the sword against the enemy of my soul, metaphorically speaking. Only, I’m pretty sure at least a few of the people telling me this saw it as more than metaphor. And besides, didn’t Jesus quote Scripture in the wilderness when the devil tempted him? I mean — if Jesus did it, surely that’s the right thing to do. It’s not just narrative; it’s normative.
More than a decade later, I can’t tell you how rare it is that I quote the Bible in any conversation. For one thing, I’ve heard the more familiar verses in so many different translations, that I can’t quote any of them. But to be perfectly honest, I struggle to see the purpose in it. If that makes me a “bad” Christian, so be it. But if there is anyone besides the satan himself who would accuse me of such, I’m willing to bet that person has never been through any dark night of the soul. Otherwise, they’d know what I know: quoting the Bible doesn’t silence the demons.
I’ve seen studies online from Rewire Me, PsychCentral, Fulfillment Daily, This Emotional Life, and so on that amount to basically this: fear — like what triggers panic attacks — is rooted deep in our minds. It’s not a conscious thing, for the most part. Sure, people have phobias and are often aware of the things that trigger their fear and anxiety. But fear itself is below conscious thought. Talking? Like what you’re doing when you’re thinking of Bible verses and saying them out loud? That’s very much a conscious thing. So once you have the fear building and the lips moving, you’ve likely only succeeded in adding to the noise inside your mind.
A scientifically-backed and better way to deal with it? Breathing. That’s right. Because breathing is controlled by a part of your mind well below the conscious level. You can think about your breathing and alter the depth and frequency of it, but once you stop thinking about it, your body picks right back up where it left off. Fortunately.
I find it interesting that there was a study not too long ago where a group of participants were asked to recreate a handful of emotions to the best of their ability — anger, fear, joy — and then to notice their breathing and write down a description of it. As it turns out, everyone had similar breathing patterns for the various emotions. Anger was matched with a certain pattern of breathing, as was fear, and so on. Later, a completely different set of participants (who were unaware of the previous group and their activity) were given the descriptions of the breathing patterns and told to try to match them. If it said to breathe faster or more shallow, they were to do so. And the result? They began to feel the emotions that the first group was describing. Just by changing their breath, they changed their mental state! Now you know why we’re always telling each other to take a deep breath when we get angry or anxious.
I’m good at throwing babies out with the bath water, sometimes. And the cynical, jaded side of me certainly has done that with quoting — and even memorizing — the Bible. But I’ve begun to realize something: it’s not the memorizing and the quoting that need to be thrown away; it’s the idea that quoting Scripture like some kind of incantation will magically change your circumstances. It’s the reduction of sacred texts to black magick. God is no genie, and we are not wizards. That’s just not the way it works.
I think — and maybe this is what people were trying to get me to see years ago — when I do connect with God through the reading of Scripture, it’s more about unlearning the misinformation that leads me to fear in the first place than it is about unsheathing a sword and slaying spiritual enemies, as heroic as that may seem.
There are plenty of ways to connect with God, and Scripture is definitely one of them. It isn’t my favorite, and it may not be yours, either. Maybe you like losing yourself in music, or — like me — maybe you like to enjoy a beautiful sunset or a lunar eclipse or the majesty of a mountain somewhere. But that doesn’t mean the Bible is worthless, regardless of your opinion regarding its inerrancy or infallibility. People of faith were inspired to write it, starting several thousand years ago. And today, people of faith are inspired when they read it.
Inspiration. Another word for breath.
Breath. In ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek — the original languages of most of the Bible — it’s the same word as Spirit.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in God’s love for you. Breathe it out to those near you who need it desperately.
Breathe in the love that casts out all fear. Breathe out the lies that cause you to fear in the first place.
Just like the whole of life cannot be lived on the power of a single breath, we are dependent upon God continually. One breath after another. And if we choose to use our breath to speak words of Holy Scripture as a reminder to ourselves, that’s certainly worthwhile. But it’s the inhaling of the Breath of Life that makes that exhale possible in the first place.
Breathe in. Breathe out.