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Previous article in this series: March 1, 2015, p. 257.

From the moment we are born till the day God calls us to our eternal home, we are in need of a constant supply of oxygen. The cells of our bodies depend on it—so much so that, under normal circumstances, we cannot live for much more than five minutes without oxygen. In the providence of God, we are supplied the necessary oxygen every moment of the day through complex processes, as seen in our previous article. However, there are many inhaled substances and many external circumstances that can disrupt these processes and affect the ability of our bodies to acquire oxygen. Some of these disrupt the supply of oxygen to the lungs, while others disrupt the supply of oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body. To grow in our appreciation of how dependent we are on life-giving oxygen, it is profitable for us to examine briefly some of the circumstances that can make it difficult for one to breathe. Through this study we will also consider how God provides for us spiritually, in and through all the circumstances of our lives as we are spiritually upheld by His life-giving Spirit.

Impairments to Inhalation

For oxygen to be used by the cells of the body, it must first enter the lungs and then be absorbed into the bloodstream. Certain common illnesses can interfere with the lungs’ ability to get oxygen. For example, during the past winter season some experienced bronchitis—an inflam mation of the lining of the respiratory system, often due to an infection. In addition, little children contracted RSV (respiratory syncytial virus)—a respiratory illness that is characterized by wheezing and rapid, short, and shallow breaths.

Also, in the coming months, there will be an abundance of pollen in the air from a variety of trees and grasses. The immune system of some 35 million Americans (about one in ten) is easily triggered by pollen. This leads to an immune response that includes, to one degree or another, itchy eyes, runny nose, and a narrowing of the respiratory tubes—all of which are attempts of the body to rid itself of ‘invading’ pollen.

And finally, throughout the year, others will suffer from asthma—an extraordinary sensitivity to allergens, like pollen, though also triggered by exercise and stress. Asthmatic attacks involve a constriction of airways and excess mucus production, resulting in wheezing, tightness in the chest, and breathlessness.

In all of these illnesses, there is an underlying issue— the respiratory lining and tubes become irritated or infected, which causes them to constrict and produce excess mucus, further narrowing the respiratory pathway. The end result is less oxygen delivered to the lungs, and consequently, to the cells of the body that need life-giving oxygen. Without oxygen, cells die rapidly. Nerve cells, in particular, die within a minute or two without oxygen. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that we have a constant supply of oxygen.

Disruptions in Getting Oxygen to the Cells

Another major difficulty that is encountered in the body is the hindered ability of oxygen to pass from the lungs to the red blood cells in the bloodstream. As we explained in our previous article, oxygen diffuses into the bloodstream via the alveoli, which are the tiny air sacs at the end of the respiratory tubes in the lungs. It is the hemoglobin molecules of the red blood cells that pick up the oxygen molecules as they pass by the alveoli. Because each red blood cell can carry approximately 250 million hemoglobin molecules, and each of the latter allows up to four oxygen molecules to attach to it, every red blood cell that passes by the alveoli of the lungs is capable of carrying about one billion oxygen molecule passengers! Normally, therefore, the lungs together with the red blood cells make astonishing provision for the satisfying of the body’s need for oxygen.

However, there are substances that disrupt the diffusion of oxygen from the lung tissue to the many red blood cells. Cigarette smoke is one such substance. Cigarette smoke contains tar—a mixture of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals produced from the burning of tobacco. This tar accumulates and coats the lungs—ultimately damaging them in at least two ways. First, the tar damages the alveoli so that scar tissue develops that will decrease the rate of diffusion of oxygen into the bloodstream. Secondly, the tar causes an incurable disease called emphysema. In this serious disease, tar breaks down some of the inner walls of the alveoli, reducing the total surface area of the alveoli. This reduced surface area decreases the amount of oxygen that diffuses into the bloodstream. In addition, and perhaps most serious, the tar causes the elastin in the walls of the alveoli to be so damaged that the alveoli cannot recoil and expel the harmful carbon-dioxide produced by the body. This loss of the elasticity of the lungs makes it extremely difficult to breathe.

Besides the damage to the alveoli that affects how much oxygen can get to the red blood cells, there are toxins and poisons that can disrupt the bonding process of oxygen with the red blood cells. Carbon monoxide is a common example of such a toxin. Some common sources of carbon monoxide include automobile exhaust, furnace exhaust, and tobacco smoke. What makes carbon monoxide such a dangerous and poisonous gas is the way in which it bonds to the hemoglobin molecules of the red blood cells. The carbon monoxide bond to hemoglobin molecules is more than 200 times stronger than the bond between oxygen and hemoglobin. Therefore, the presence of carbon monoxide in the lungs will adversely affect how much oxygen gets to the cells of the body. This is because the carbon monoxide will also diffuse into the bloodstream and compete with the oxygen molecules for a place on the hemoglobin molecule. The more hemoglobin molecules occupied with carbon monoxide molecules, the less are available to transport oxygen to the cells. Sensitive organs, such as the brain and heart, suffer quickly when there is a sustained lack of oxygen. Thus, carbon monoxide poisoning, even at relatively low levels, can be harmful.

Dependence on Life-Giving Breath

Most of us are able to rise from our beds each morning and go about our tasks with very little difficulty obtaining life-giving oxygen. However, under certain circumstances there are challenges and difficulties in obtaining necessary oxygen. We ought not take for granted the ability to breathe easily, nor take lightly the trials of those who cannot. When we observe the challenges some face to obtain sufficient oxygen each day, then especially we note our complete dependence on our every breath. Thanks be to God for the ability to breathe and for the good gift of fresh, clean air!

Our complete dependence on each life-giving breath of air for our physical existence is a picture of our complete dependence on the Spirit of Christ—the Breath of God—for our entire spiritual life. The Holy Spirit regenerated us (John 3:3-8), giving us our spiritual life (Ezek. 37:9). He continues to sanctify us each day (II Thess. 2:13), making us a partaker of Christ and all His benefits (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 53). By the work of the Holy Spirit we are also able to comprehend and believe the Holy Scriptures, which feed and nourish our hungry souls, thereby strengthening our faith (Canons 3/4, Art. 11, 17 and I John 2:20-21, 27). The Holy Spirit, the breath of God proceeding from God the Father and God the Son in the communion life of the Trinity, is also the source and fountain of the communion among believers in the body of Christ (Eph. 2:18-19; II Cor. 13:14).1 We cannot live without the air we breathe. Nor can we live without the Holy Spirit!

Just as we find in our physical life that there are things that hinder our ability to obtain life-giving breath, leading to physical weaknesses and perhaps even death, so it is in our spiritual life. There are all sorts of distractions that can interfere with our enjoyment of the spiritual benefits of the life-giving breath of God. Though God does not completely remove His Spirit from us, and though we cannot lose the salvation Christ has earned for us, we can have times in which we do not as fully experience the work of the Spirit in our lives and are weakened spiritually (Canons 5, Arts. 4, 6, 8).

Therefore, we must be faithful in the use of the means of grace that God has given us. We need to hear the preaching of the gospel regularly and be “constant in watching and prayer,” that we be not led into temptation. “When these are neglected, [we] are not only liable to be drawn into great and heinous sins by Satan, the world, and the flesh, but sometimes by the righteous permission of God actually fall into these evils”(Canons 5, Art. 4). We must be on guard against the many attacks of our threefold enemy. These attacks, in their various forms, threaten to distract us from our callings in this life. They seek to lull us to sleep, depriving us of our life-giving breath, so that we slowly suffocate. As foolish as it is to deprive our physical bodies of the necessary life-giving oxygen by a deliberate action on our part, all the more foolish it is to starve our souls of the necessary spiritual nourishment found in the chief means of grace—the preaching of the gospel.

Thanks be to God, who provides not only for all of our physical needs in life but also for our every spiritual need. This is God’s promise to us in the familiar 23rd Psalm.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over (Ps. 23:4-5).

Our confidence in the midst of all the spiritual trials and afflictions we face in this earthly life is that “[our] God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).

Sometimes the temptations we face are very severe. But the promise of the gospel is that “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (I Cor. 10:13). The devil may seek to destroy God’s people (Rev. 12:13, 14), but God will feed and nourish His people by His Spirit and Word.

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen (Eph. 3:20-21).

1 See Prof. David J. Engelsma’s Trinity and Covenant: God as Holy Family, ( Jenison, MI: RFPA 2006), 73-74, 101, 105, formore on this.