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How to Breathe in the Season of Lent

The joy and practice of confession.
How to Breathe in the Season of Lent
Image: Matthew Harris / Getty Images

20,000 times. That is the number of breaths the average human draws each day. Inhale, exhale, repeat. Incredible! Just beneath our awareness level life happens inside us all day long.

What does that have to do with Lent? Something, I think.

Have you ever heard of “alveoli”? Alveoli are tiny sacks on the surface of your lungs to absorb the oxygen you inhale. You have 600 million of these little guys—like catcher’s mitts—trapping O2 and on its way to your blood stream. Again, incredible!

But here’s the challenge: alveoli can only bring in to the extent that they let go.

We receive O2 in proportion to releasing CO2. This is challenging because our lifestyles—e.g. busy schedules, overstressed, contorted postures, little exercise—mean that we do not exhale deeply, thus yesterday’s CO2 often sits in the bottom half of our lungs. This is toxic. Catch the metaphor? We must learn to exhale. The season of Lent is meant help us with this.

As Augustine wrote somewhere (paraphrasing): We must empty ourselves of all that fills us so that we may be filled with what we are empty of.

The Joy of Confession

Our cultural moment is a negative one. Do you agree? In this election year, it’s almost a given that pessimism, vitriol, cynicism, and the like will only ramp up as November closes in. In moments like these, clergy (like me) sometimes question whether corporate confession in a weekly worship service is helpful or hurtful.

In the Anglican tradition, where I serve as a priest, the season of Lent is launched on Ash Wednesday with a series of self-renunciations, the imposition of ashes, and then traversed by 40 days of penance. Ouch!

Furthermore, every Sunday we create space in our worship to pause, reflect, and repent of personal and systemic sin, praying together:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought word and deed. By what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your son, Jesus, have mercy on us, and forgive us. That we may delight in your will and walk in your way to the glory of your name. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

It’s tempting to omit communal confession in a negative cultural moment where congregants are already dealing with so much pessimism on newsfeeds, stump speeches, and social media. But I think to omit confession would be a mistake.

Which brings me back to alveoli. Which serves as a metaphor about breathing in Lent.

What if confession—framed rightly—is a joy, not a dread? A liberation of the soul, not a beat down of spirit? A gift to our wellbeing, not a threat to our happiness? A great exhale, in order to inhale?

After all, Jesus launched his public ministry not with phrases you’d expect: “Here I am, joy to the world;” or “Great job everybody, keep doing what you’re doing.” Rather, “Repent, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2, ESV). Was Jesus being a kill joy? I don’t think so. Jesus understood that we can receive only to the extent we release. Being filled is intertwined with letting go. Exhale, inhale, repeat.

Our natural breathing patterns to sustain life are the same patterns of the Kingdom. If we want God’s Kingdom life to flow in and through us, we must spiritually release the toxicity which fills us. These are evident—pride, shame, bitterness, greed, lust, resentment, unforgiveness, and so forth—like CO2 sitting in the soul taking up space amidst busyness, stress, and contorted postures. Confession and repentance, then, are how we exhale our toxins to a loving God, that he might refill us with divine life.

No wonder the Holy Spirit goes by the name: Breath! (Hebrew: Ruach HaKodesh). Confession, rightly framed, is a joy. Jesus taught us to repent out of the gate because he knew space in the soul needed clearing to make space for heaven within us.

The Practice of Confession

Every time the local church gathers individuals bring a diversity of experience into the space. Some people come from traditions that practiced confession regularly, while others from communities who did not—and everything in between. Therefore, the practice of confession needs an artful invitation by the pastor, priest, or preacher.

How we frame sacred moments shapes the way people experience them. Confession, then, must be (re)framed as a joy. This is especially important because many carry negative perceptions about corporate confession such as the feelings of shame (rather than conviction) and judgment (rather than freedom).

Confession needs an artful reframing. Rather than being viewed as a burden, it’s designed to become a joy. It’s not a have to but a get to. We get to exhale a day’s (or week’s, month’s) worth of spiritual toxins to inhale God’s peace, love, acceptance, and grace.

We don’t practice confession to feel bad about ourselves (although contrition is appropriate to some extent); no, we practice confession to be refilled with the very thing we most need: God. In the history of the world, never has one who approached God with sincerity been rejected, despised, or shamed (e.g. Luke 18:13). Rather, we are received. And the peace of Jesus comes upon us. Ironically, it is those who feel they have no need for confession that leave most empty of God (e.g. Luke 18:14).

This, then, is why after confession in our community, it is proclaimed: The peace of the Lord be with you. And the church audibly responds: And also with you. We then invite the community to greet one another and exchange the overflowing peace that Christ gives. Confession is a joy! It leads to abundance. Exhale, inhale, repeat.

The Jesus Prayer

So, what about the rest of the week? How might we encourage apprentices of Jesus to go beyond Sunday confession and spiritually breathe confession as a way of life? The answer for me has been The Jesus Prayer.

More than the Lord’s Prayer, the Shema, or the Prayer of Serenity, many suggest the Jesus Prayer is the most utilized prayer in church history. I think this is true because this prayer is not merely assigned to the morning or evening, but lives on our lips throughout the day.

The Jesus Prayer is a mash up of Philippians 2 and Luke 18. To pray these words is to pray Scripture. I like that. The prayer is an attempt to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), and—like spiritual alveoli—captures the essence of breathing. Here is a condensed version of the Jesus Prayer that I teach our local church.

Lord Jesus Christ (inhale)

Have mercy on me (exhale)


In confessing our need for mercy, we exhale. In opening our desire for presence, we inhale. This is spiritual breathing.

We exhale the brokenness of this life. All our sin, shame, and the injustice of the world we release. We inhale the name of Jesus. He is Lord of all, and the prayer reminds us that Jesus (not we) is before all things and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:17). What O2 is to the lungs, Jesus is to the soul.

Most mornings I try to be still and practice this prayer. Sometimes I’ll repeat it with my breathing for five minutes, and other times it’s for 20 minutes. I then aim to breathe it on my commute and again just before lunch. I sometimes pray it in the shower and when I walk Maggie, our four-pound yorkie with a heart of gold and subversive grit. I close the day with the Jesus Prayer on my lips as a reminder from Augustine: We must empty ourselves of all that fills us so that we may be filled with what we are empty of.

The church needs practices to anchor herself—both communal and personal. Confession is a beautiful path on the way to reclaim joy. Lent isn’t just a season to say “no” to things; it’s a season of exhale, that we might inhale that which truly is life. Inhale, exhale, repeat.

Breathe deeply.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to go on a deeper study with AJ during Lent, be sure to check out his book Being with God: The Absurdity, Necessity, and Neurology of Contemplative Prayer. In it he gives us applicable ides about how to slow down from our busy lives and be with God.

AJ Sherrill serves as the lead pastor at Saint Peter’s Church (an Anglican community near Charleston, SC). With a Doctorate in spiritual formation, he teaches courses on preaching and also the Enneagram at Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as workshops on spiritual formation and personality theory. He is the author of "Rediscovering Christmas: Surprising Insights into the Nativity Story You Thought You Knew" (forthcoming in 2024) and "Being with God: The Absurdity, Necessity, and Neurology of Contemplative Prayer."

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