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Tuesday, February 2, 2010


God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (see Genesis 2:4-7).

I think most of us read this verse sort of like watching Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. The lightning flashes and God raises his fists in the air and exults, "It's alive!" Maybe Gabriel is hunched there doing his best Igor imitation while the man, who a moment before was just dead as dust, stirs on the slab and sits up. Hmmm. Maybe our imaginations need some help.

If we gloss over this, the next couple chapters -- for that matter, the rest of the Bible -- won't make a lot of sense. It helps here to understand that in Hebrew, the words for "breath" and "spirit" and "wind" are all the same word -- something like "ruach" if you accent the last syllable and make the final "ch" sound way back in your throat. (If nobody's paying attention, try it. It's a fun word.) So the man gets his lungs filled, but there's more than that. He receives God's spirit -- the breath of God. The old hymn has it right, I think:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will
To do and to endure

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

This is the defining moment in human existence. This lump of dust is filled, infused, enlivened with the Spirit of God. This is the moment, the action, the presence, the quality that defines life. All the scientific debates in the abortion wars about when, exactly, life begins are dancing around the biblical point -- in biblical terms life begins when the Spirit of God is poured into this lump of dust. With God's Spirit, we are alive. Without the Spirit, we are lost, dead, hopeless.

The other way we misunderstand this verse is we imagine some kind of divine CPR where God plugs Adam's muddy nostrils and makes a good seal and gives one quick breath, watching to see if Adam's chest rises ... Adam coughs and sputters and begins to breathe on his own, and voila! He's alive! If life is about the presence of God's Spirit, Adam never does begin to breathe on his own. His life depends not on his own respiration, but on the Spirit. It's about God's presence in the heart more than it's about oxygen exchange.

Human beings have a deep, driving hunger for life. The genius of a Roman crucifixion was that it pitted a deadly, inescapable bondage against the human will to live -- so that for hours, days sometimes, the crucified person without hope would push the weight of their body up against the spike driven through their feet to take the weight and strain off their diaphragm, to exhale, to draw one more painful breath rather than relax and surrender. Time and again we are amazed at what humans can endure in the quest to survive.

But this is not about surviving, as though a ventilator in the intensive care unit could maintain life. It is about living. There's a difference, and we too often surrender the ground between the two. I like the slogan on the commercials for Bear Grylls' show, "Man vs. Wild": "Bear doesn't just show us how to survive -- he teaches us how to live." (By the way, did you know that Bear came to know Jesus through Alpha, and is now a strong advocate for the Alpha course?)

In my teens I pondered off and on why God says to the man and the woman that if they disobey him and eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will die. More than that, God very specifically says they will die that day. But they go on for years and years, having kids and grandkids and great grandkids. Did God lie?

No. Because from God's perspective, the moment they turned from trusting him to trusting their own decision-making abilities, they lost his Spirit. They lost their reliance on his presence. Life -- Spirit-driven abundant life as God designed it -- ended in that moment. After that all Adam and Eve had was survival.

An old German man once explained to me what life is for a German. "Go to school. Work. Work. Work. Work. Build a house. Work. Die. That's it." Basic survival. Getting by.

What does it mean if "being alive" really means being filled, animated, empowered by the presence of God in us, and without that presence we are effectively dead? What if, like in "The Matrix", the hordes of people walking down the sidewalk each day are not really alive, as God defines life?

It might have some implications for how we read the Bible, even how we understand Jesus. If this is the case, and if what Jesus said is true that he came so we might have abundant life (John 10), then the whole push of the biblical story from Genesis 3 onward is a drive not just to the cross and the empty tomb, but it is a push to Pentecost. God is laser-focused not just on getting our sin-slates wiped clean, but on placing his Spirit in us, making his home in us, living within us, giving us life. Eternal life is not so much about how long it lasts, but about how alive it is. It is not "ever-lasting life" so much as it is "the life that carries the qualities of eternity, the life God lives."

The question that begs asking is, of course, the most basic of all: are you alive?

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