Catching Your Breath
If praying is breathing, as it is in our sermon series, then catching your breath is about the times it's hard to pray. Just like when you say, "Let me catch my breath", you want to breath/pray; you're struggling to breath/pray. What to do in such times of dryness, barrenness, sadness?
Maybe it will help to know where such spiritually depressive times come from. Did you notice that "the devil, the world, and our sinful nature" are back? In the Third Petition, these 3 came at us from the outside hostilely. In German they're Anfeindung. There they did no want us to hallow God's name or let His kingdom come. Here the devil, world, and flesh come at us from the inside as temptation or in German the more familiar Anfectung (Peters, Lord's Prayer, 184). These unholy 3 lead us into a place where it's very difficult to pray: to a place of false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. It all starts with "false belief". The Latin has superstitio but really the German is somewhere between disbelief, presumption, and mistrust. Luther said, "'Everyone fights against the doubt that God may not be merciful. From there he falls into despair.'" Really, we go between being Judas or Peter, from overconfidence to despair (Ibid., 190). Neither Peter nor Judas could pray at the height of their temptation when false belief, led to despair, leading to the great shame of betrayal and the vice of not believing God could or would forgive.
Worse than the initial fall into sin is being Adam and hiding from the Lord when He comes looking for you. To Adam, He was coming not to help but only to judge and punish. Luther said in his lectures on Galatians that "if Christ appears in the guise of a wrathful judge or lawgiver who demands an accounting of how we spent our lives, we should know for certain that is not really Christ but the devil. For Scripture portrays Christ as our Propitiator, Mediator, and Comforter" (LW, 27, 11). Neither Devil, World, nor Flesh will let you see Him this way, and so with Adam we hide not speaking, not breathing, not praying.
This is not where our Father in heaven would lead us. We pray lead us not into temptation, not because God tempts anyone. We say with James 1:13, "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone." So why do we pray, "Lead us not into temptation"? Because anything and everything can be used by the unholy 3 to tempt us. Luther early on used the distinction between bitter and sweet temptations. The bitter ones entice to anger and hate. The sweet excited and enticed the flesh with pleasure. Later on, Luther took up a middle position. The real temptations were to apathy and weakness at hearing sermons. This is the spiritual sloth monasticism spoke of (Peters, 186-9). What we call ennui, the monks called the noonday devil. This is based on Ps. 91. The noonday devil was over against the terror that came at night, the arrow that flies by day, and the pestilence that walks in darkness. It's the destruction that lays waste in bright day. The noonday devil is the sense everything is wrong when nothing specific is. Under the noonday devil, we can't see the need, have no desire or can't pray.
One way or the other we don't pray; we can't catch our breath. What do we do? Do? What does Jesus say? He commands us not to do anything but rather to pray. He commands us to pray for His guardianship and His protection from the unholy 3. Jesus teaches something about the Tempter specifically and temptations generally by telling us to pray against him. In other words, we can't act against him. A Mighty Fortress expresses the truth that on earth no one, no thing, outside of God is even equal let alone greater than the Devil. And following that hymn further we hear what Luther thought the greatest temptations of the Devil were: Goods, fame, child and wife. There is no acting against the old, evil, foe who means deadly woe. It's his world and in our sinful nature, the Devil already has a beachhead.
Yet, in praying this petition, we confess that "Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory." How? Each Sunday during Lent we say how in the Proper Preface. The historic Proper Prefaces are the oldest and least changed part of the liturgy. From 3rd, to 4th, to 5th century Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Augustine make mention of them (Harris, Explanation, 17-18). In Lent, we praise the Father "who on the tree of the cross did give salvation unto mankind that, where death arose, there Life also might rise again; and that he [the Devil] who by a tree once overcame likewise by a tree would be overcome, through Christ..." That's what's going on in our Passion Reading. I know; it looks like our God and Savior is being overcome by a tree. He can't even carry His cross. Simon of Cyrene has to help. The 2 thieves carried theirs.
However, Jesus doesn't want to be wept over, pitied, but warns if men do these things to Him, the holy, green Tree of life, what will be done to us trees dead in our trespasses and sins? If such judgment can be carried out on Jesus, what will come upon fallen sinners in love with the Devil's World? I'm not sure but it's enough for us to ask the mountains and hills to hide us from God's wrathful judgement. But if Jesus has anything to say about it, it will never come to this. The God who is Man is being overcome by Sin, ours not His, by Death, the one we are deserve to die for our sins, and by the Devil, who ever seeks someone to devour.
But you've seen this before. This is the monster who is destroyed by the very thing he devours. Jesus having kept every law of God dies our death under the judgment of God in our place. Having kept all of God's Laws as a Man, Sin, Death, and Devil can't bring any Law to God demanding Jesus continue suffering or dying. So, being True God, death can't hold Him, and the God-Man bursts forth from the grave fatally ripping open the Devil who swallowed Him.
Breath deep this Gospel. Put this on like athletes do supplemental oxygen. We know from doping scandals that blood oxygen levels are everything in sports. We know from St. Paul that the Christian life is sport; a boxing match, a fight, a race. And we know from this petition that as long as we are in this life, the Devil, the World, and our Flesh will continually seek to deceive us or mislead us. We are, not might be, not will be, but are attacked by these things. The promise of constant temptation leads to payer without ceasing, and for this reason Luther embraces temptations. Luther anticipates that "Even up until our hour of death, the temptations of Satan will not depart from us. God wishes that they draw us unceasingly into the battle through prayer. As such, Luther did not shy away from saying: God Himself assigns to us temptations that they may discipline us into faithful obedience" (Peters, 196). In yet another place, Luther has a quixotic approach to temptation saying, "But where all is as it should be, trials will not pass by, and we do not seek to avoid them, but to overcome them like a true knight" (LW, 42, 72-3).
After surgery, doctors want to encourage you to take deep breaths even measuring them. The constant temptations of the unholy 3 lead you to breath the only fresh air available: that won by Christ Crucified and distributed today through Water, Words, Bread, and Wine. Tertullian said that like fishes we are born in Water and can only remain alive by swimming in it. Without ceasing, we seek our oxygen from Baptismal Water like fishes; we eat and drink it in the Body and Blood of He whose flesh is lifegiving, and we take oxygen in through ears opened to the absolution preached to us for Jesus' sake.
But you're troubled. You've tripped on 1 Thes. 5:17, "Pray without ceasing." Don't Google this. You'll be told how you can achieve this. Or that it really means to pray continually not constantly. You won't be told you actually do "pray without ceasing", and so this passage will burden your prayer life. A 21st century Australian Lutheran says that praying without ceasing is misunderstood if you imply we sin if we fail to pray everyday. Satan wants us to believe that to load us up with guilt and discourage our praying (Grace upon Grace, 179).
This is not Luther's take. Luther believed every Christian prays without ceasing, and he didn't originate this take. Augustine said, ""For your desire is your prayer, and your desire is without ceasing; your prayer will also be without ceasing'" (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 280). Luther equates praying with believing: "Faith is 'merely prayer since it provides divine mercy without ceasing,..'" (Peters, 18, fn. 103). He's clear on this as early as 1520 saying, "In fact, there is no Christian man who does not have time to pray without ceasing.." (LW, 44, 61). Clearer still is Luther less than a year before dying preaching, "And even if we do not always pray the [Our] Father with [our] mouths, nevertheless the sighing and longing of our hearts does not cease, just as our pulse [does not stop] while we are sleeping. This is the continual groaning in the hearts of the righteous." (LW, 58, 319) Clearest of all is this 1537 sermon, "Wherever there is a Christian, there is none other than the Holy Spirit, who does nothing other but pray without ceasing... A Christian without prayer is just as impossible as a living person without a pulse" (LW, 24, 89).
In Ps. 81:10 the Lord gives the command to open our mouths wide, and promises, "I will fill it." Go find a bird nest with young in it. Approach, make a noise like a mother bird. Instantly, all those little baby birds will throw back their heads and open their mouths for their mother to fill them. We believe that we are in a state of ever, aching need of forgiveness for life eternal and daily bread for life now. We're baby birds; our mouths are always open. But we're knights too. We live in a World where the Devil and our Flesh pursue us trying to get us so out of breath we surrender. Luther says we have 2 kinds of armor and defense to rout the Devil and make him afraid. Hearing the Word and praying to God upon the authority of that Word for help in temptation (Lenker, 8, 304).
When we say, "Let me catch my breath", none of us believe that breath will come from us. We don't think we generate more air by that statement. Neither does our petition, "Lead us not into temptation" produce air. No, It locates Whom has and is the breath we need to live, to pray. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers V (20220330); Lord's Prayer IV, Passion Reading 5