Breathing after Holiness

Open HymnalToday we look at a hymn that is often published as “O, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways,” but I like the title Isaac Watts gives it – “Breathing after Holiness.” I use the concept of a “Breathing Prayer” as a strategy for dealing with stress, but in this hymn, Isaac Watts uses breathing more like a fitness regimen. He selects verses from the massive meditation on God’s law in Psalm 119 and dissects them to lay bare deeper truths. In his verses, he breathes in the guidance of the Lord and breathes out doubt, fear and hopelessness.

It seems like a good discipline to take a deep breath after each couplet and spend that time breathing in the wisdom of the Lord and breathing out the human misconceptions and outright deceptions that are published in places like Facebook, where they pass for the wisdom of the ages. Real wisdom lies in God’s revelation of himself in his law and his righteous expectations of us in our daily lives.

In order to appreciate the value of this hymn, it is crucial to see the Bible verses from which the hymn writer drew inspiration.

Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Psalm 119:5 ESV
Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Psalm 119:33 ESV

These verses inspired the hymn writer to say:

 O that the Lord would guide my ways
To keep his statutes still!
O that my God would grant me grace
To know and do his will!

There are secularists who nevertheless consider themselves to be spiritual. They believe that they are in contact with a spirit or some spirits, but they do not concede any power to the spirits.  No secular thinker believes that spirits should have any authority over people. They reject God’s right to assert any authority over humans, and they take offense at the moral boundaries God sets.

  • What is the difference between the mindset of a secular thinker and the mindset of the psalmist with regard to the value of God’s law?
  • Why do you think the psalmist needs God’s grace in order to know his will if the commands are clearly written down?
  • What is the difference between “complying with the law” and “keeping the law by God’s grace?”

 Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law. Psalm 119:29 ESV

O send thy Spirit down to write
Thy law upon my heart!
Nor let my tongue indulge deceit,
Nor act the liar’s part.

  • Theoretically, secular thinkers and Christians would agree that lies are bad. In practice, what is the difference in the way Christians and secular thinkers define truth?
  • Can you think of an instance in which someone in public life has acted deceitfully while claiming that this behavior is, in fact, honorable and truthful?
  • What is the difference between the law written in your heart and the law memorized in your brain?

Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. Psalm 119:36-37 ESV

From vanity turn off my eyes;
Let no corrupt design,
Nor covetous desires, arise
Within this soul of mine.

Secular thinkers allege that capitalism is all about greed while socialism is all about fairness to all. Christians historically consider capitalism to be the way God has provided for human beings to earn the means of feeding their families. Socialism has yet to prove itself as a blessing in any venue where it has been tried.

  • The real question is  this: is greed a quality of an economic system, or is greed a quality of human beings acting in an economic system?
  • Where did the psalmist believe that greed originates? What does the hymn writer say is the way to prevent “covetous desires?”
  • What economic system does the hymn writer advocate? Why does it matter?

Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Psalm 119:133 ESV 

Order my footsteps by thy word,
And make my heart sincere;
Let sin have no dominion, Lord,
But keep my conscience clear. 

  • Some secular thinkers declare that it is child abuse to tell a child he is a sinner. What would the psalmist say?
  • Why do the psalmist and the hymn writer act as if sin can imprison a person? 

I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. Psalm 119:176 ESV

My soul hath gone too far astray,
My feet too often slip;
Yet since I’ve not forgot thy way,
Restore thy wand’ring sheep. 

  • Secular thinkers berate Christians and their God, because they believe God’s law is rigid and his judgment is harsh. How is that image refuted by the psalmist and the hymn writer? 
  • What parable of Jesus is called to mind by this verse?

Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. Psalm 119:35 ESV

Make me to walk in thy commands,
’Tis a delightful road;
Nor let my head, or heart, or hands,
Offend against my God.

  • If God’s commands are onerous and humiliating, as secular thinkers often imply, why do both the psalmist and the hymn writer find them delightful?
  • Clearly, fear of cold condemnation is not the motivation for obedience these writers to which these writers respond. Why do they make such diligent efforts to obey God?
  • After thoughtful consideration of this hymn, do you concur with Isaac Watts that it expresses “Breathing After Holiness?”

You can find this hymn under the title “O, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways,” in many hymnals and on the web at .

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Watch for Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, to be released this fall.

Hymn by Isaac Watts
Hymn text in the public domain
Source: Watts, I. (1998). The Psalms and hymns of Isaac Watts. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 

Image: Open Hymnal
License: CC BY-NC-SA