Fighting Fire with Fire
I have been reading a lot of reports and watching stories about the horrific fires taking place on the West coast recently. I have also been noticing the psychological effect these stories can have on me and have been contemplating how I should relate to this.
Is it wrong or dangerous to overfill my mind with so much fear that is unavoidable aroused from having such scenes imprinted into my memory and imagination while I watch videos of houses bursting into uncontrollable flames or read stories of people traumatized by heat so intense their shoes are melting? I find myself waking up in the middle of the night because I cannot help but identity with what it must feel like to be trapped inside a burning vehicle and to experience the searing pain of your body succumbing to being burned alive. Even writing these words makes me squirm to say the least, and part of me insists that it is not right for me to dwell on such horrors anymore than it would be healthy for me to watch horror movies.
Yet that is not the only objection that comes to mind. Another part of me says, If you refuse to ever even think about such things, how will you be able to relate to such an experience should you find yourself in a similar situation? Yet is it even reasonable or sensible to try to prepare one's self by filling the imagination with what it must feel like to be tortured or trapped in feelings of helplessness as fire closes in around you like demonic tentacles of death leering at you, lusting for your very life?
The issues of sympathy and compassion come to mind. There is a certain level of need for identification with others that comes with being part of the human fabric of society. Refusing to allow my imagination to feel what others might be feeling is to withdraw into selfish protection and isolation rather than choosing to be vulnerable with those who are hurting. Sympathy and identification with those who are suffering involve experiencing feelings I would rather not experience, yet is all part of what Jesus came to this earth to do. One of the main reasons the Son of God came here was to convince all of us that God is not unsympathetic with our dilemma but can fully identify with anything we may feel or experience. This identification with us is a core part of God's plan of salvation and how He earns our trust that He understands and knows and can relate to anything we might feel.
When Jesus says He will be with us at all times even to the end of the world, that was not just a nice platitude but a solid anchor meant to give us something to hang onto tenaciously when we find ourselves in desperate situations or facing imminent death. Jesus often referred to Himself as the Son of Man for a reason, because the only way we could begin to believe that God can be trusted to identify with how we feel was to get down into our mess and experience things that make us terrified in order to show us how to act and think when we go through things that overwhelm our capacity to cope.
As I pondered this for several hours this morning while waking up again with these scenes in my imagination, making me unable to rest in peace, I struggled as to how appropriate it is for me to fuel my imagination with so much exposure to stories and images that create fear in me. For many years I have known that fear is the main currency of the kingdom of darkness, and wherever there is a preponderance of fear there is almost always a diabolical scheme to entrap as many as possible into its tentacles that suffocate hope, love and joy out of the soul. Yet at the same time I cannot avoid being exposed to situations or stories designed to make me afraid. So what is God's will for me in this regards? I need to know, for if I allow fear to take over my life, I know from experience that it can quickly take over my life like the fires I witness on video documentation. This fear can easily overwhelm me to the point of incapacitating me from even living or thinking clearly if I am not careful.
I don't claim to have all the answers. That is one reason I am writing this right now, for writing helps me to sort through conflicting ideas along with impressions that seem clearly to come from inspired sources designed to guide me toward better understanding. I feel a need to better know how much is healthy and where to draw the line in self-regulation of what is allowed to circulate in my imagination. I know well the danger of dwelling too much on things that make me afraid and the vital necessity of regulating my imagination by imposing a curfew on how much I dwell on danger. I have learned from the Spirit of God that I must give my highest priority to going after God's kingdom and His righteousness if I am to counteract the debilitating effects of troubling thoughts in my soul.
Since learning about the extreme importance of my responsibility to choose what my imagination is allowed to dwell on, along with the powerful healing effect that focusing my mind like a laser on the goodness of God can have to counteract the caustic effects of fear in my spirit and body, I have practiced more self-regulation of my thoughts by turning away from despairing scenarios and reversing their effects by focusing on the Truth that has the saving power to set me free from the power of fear.
This is not to suggest I live in denial of what we unavoidably encounter in this sick world of disease, horror and death. Denial suppresses or represses facts that we don't like or that overwhelm us. And while there is certainly a place for this when the brain is not capable of handling trauma and goes into emergency mode by utilizing such techniques just to survive, it is important to grow in maturity and capacity by learning healthy ways to deal with unavoidable evil so that we do not lose touch with reality but rather may tap into another dimension of reality that too many fail to notice.
As I lay in bed this morning wrestling with these very emotions and how to relate to them, I chose to focus my imagination on what God is really like in spite of all the horror people are experiencing. Then something new began to emerge into my awareness that I found compelling. The more it emerged from the smoke of fear and horror in me from imagining myself in other people's shoes feeling desperate and helpless in the midst of the flames, I remembered the prayers of some of those spontaneously springing from their hearts as they cried out to God for deliverance while they saw the flames all around them. This must not be overlooked in what has been coming out.
I don't want to discredit or misrepresent such prayers as somehow being a magical means to escape trouble. Yet is it possible that some who experienced the horror of being immolated alive in the flames also may have cried out to God as they were dying? We likely have no way of knowing that I suppose. Yet the issue is not whether God is bound to save everyone from death who cries out to Him, but rather our choice to turn to God and recognize our helplessness may well be something to become more familiar with whether or not we find ourselves in similar situations.
I have come to believe that prayer is largely misunderstood and is viewed by many is either some formal activity one is supposed to do to keep God happy, or is reserved for when we find ourselves beyond our capacity to handle a situation ourselves. Both of these I find lacking in truth, for I believe prayer needs to be more like an on-going conversation with God in which there is two-way communication. This means seeking to remain open to hearing from God as much as sharing with God whatever is going on in and around us so we can learn to view life from His perspective instead of waiting until things are beyond our control.
In no way am I suggesting there are not times when our desperation will compel us to cry out to God and cling to Him as our only hope. Yet it seems that if one has developed a relationship with God through on-going communication over time, whether things are going well or not, the nature of how we view God in times of crisis will be affected by how we have come to know Him the rest of the time.
I want to go back to the issue of fear, for this factor is vividly present in nearly all of the stories and details coming out of these disasters. My imagination this morning began perceiving fear like burning embers driven by the fierce winds of the firestorm that fall down far ahead of the present fire onto dry landscapes to ignite new fires even before the main fire gets there. This phenomenon is yet another source of terror as people already afraid of the approaching inferno suddenly realize that the danger is already present, not just approaching.
I see something very similar happening in the retelling of these stories, how the propagation of mental images of terrifying disaster ignite fear in fertile imaginations maybe already tinder dry from lack of moisture from God's grace and goodness. It is true that those who live in continuous trust in God's love are not exempt from tragedies coming into their lives like others around them. Yet what becomes noticeably significant in times of crisis is a difference in the condition of the spirit that reveals whether or not they have internal resources for coping with the fear falling all around them. It is in times such as these that we discover how real and substantive is the faith we profess to have in God. Does our faith have roots that can hang on in fierce winds, and does it have stored up moisture to resist the fiery temptation to melt down in fear brought brought about by sudden danger? That is not to say a true follower of Jesus will not feel fear. But I believe there will be a noticeable difference in how they respond to a crisis filled with fear.
My imagination can start to feel overwhelmed by fear as I immerse myself in these stories. And while I may not be presently facing imminent death by fire as others have, my imagination can become inflamed with scenarios ignited by these stories and my spirit can become afraid. How should I deal with the fears aroused in my imagination? What about millions of people all over the world likewise being exposed to these stories? One can begin to get a sense of what Satan may be doing as he invents even more disasters to fill the world with terror and hopeless despair. It can feel like being under aerial bombardment intended to destroy any resistance to a military takeover from enemy forces.
No doubt we are under vicious assaults from the enemy of our souls. Yet too often we imagine that the ammunition most effective prepare ourselves to prepare for attack is fear itself. Is it true that we can inoculate ourselves against fear by dwelling on fear? How do we relate to fear, for it is impossible to avoid being exposed to fears that land in our imagination and burst into flames almost instantly.
It is hard to describe in words that I sense at this point, yet at the same time I feel it is extremely important to somehow grasp what I believe God wants us to understand in relation to preparing for crisis. While we cannot prevent attacks of the enemy who incendiary fear bombs into our souls and seeks to suffocate all hope, love or anything else reflecting the glory of God out of our lives, the truth that alone can prepare us to deal with such attacks is not found in preemptive fear. Rather it is in keeping our heart and spirit saturated with the moisture of God's love for us that can dampen the fires of fear from flaring up inside and taking over our lives.
I believe the early believers after Pentecost had entered into a dimension of reality that has seldom been enjoyed by anyone since that time. We are told that after humbling themselves and repenting of their unbelief by embracing the revelation of God by Jesus, and after uniting their hearts for ten days by putting away all their differences, pride, prejudices and selfishness, they became united in spirit and heart and purpose. They sole passion at that point was to simply have their lives reflect the amazing beauty of God's love they had been so slow to recognize or appreciate while Jesus lived and loved among them. After they finally woke up to smell the roses Jesus had brought them from God, and became aware of the stunning truth that God was radically different from what their narrow minds had previously imagined, they were ready to be infused with the very fire of God in a way we have yet to appreciate or experience in our day.
Now, toward the end of the day of Pentecost, while they were all there observing that celebration, there was a noise that suddenly came from the sky. It sounded like a violent wind and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire, which were distributed so that one sat upon each of them. And they all became filled with Holy Breath and started speaking in different languages, saying whatever the Breath was telling them to say. (Acts 2:1-4 2001 version)
What might this have to do with devastating fires roaring over the hills of California consuming everything and everyone one caught in its path? I believe it has a lot to do with it, for what I see the enemy doing through his counterfeit kingdom of darkness and destruction, I see parallel principles at work in the principles of life that operate in God's kingdom of love.
One cannot help but notice striking similarities in the description of this empowering fire on the day of Pentecost and descriptions emerging from those who surviving the fires in California. They describe the roar of the approaching flames whipping up terrifying wind, witnessing fiery tornadoes as trees are consumed in nearly an instant and fires leaping over highway and rivers as if they were nothing. Intense noise, violent winds and taking over all the surroundings upon arrival. Then the flames of fire consume everything and everyone caught in its path. Yet in this instance the results of the fire were anything but destructive or fear-inducing but rather the opposite. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?
It would be easy to dismiss this as irrelevant or merely metaphorical. Some might think it almost irreverent to suggest any correlation to the horrors of what is taking place in the current tragedies. Yet I would insist that this is not at all irrelevant but highly insightful for any with ears to hear and eyes to see, for it well may be an invitation from heaven we should explore and embrace personally.
I am witnessing an increasing sense of urgency taking over our planet that is unavoidable to notice by thinking people. Yet much of the urgency is focused on how terrible things are or how immature leaders act or how wicked and violent people are becoming. Yet focusing on everything that is frightening may be exactly what the enemy designs for us to do, but it will not result in preparing us for the next round of terrors but can actually set us up to be even more afraid as fear debilitates and distracts us. Fueling our imagination with fear-inducing scenarios is never the right way to prepare our hearts for life, and it is urgent that we learn God's way of preparing to meet disaster and crisis.
Those early believers were no strangers to terror and tragedies in their time. The world in which they lived was governed by an empire that specialized in terror and violence as the primary means of maintaining law and order. These early believers knew this all too well from personal experience. Their beloved Master had been victimized by not only the vicious torture of a Roman crucifixion, but He had been set up for this through the betrayal of His own church leaders in collusion with one of His personal close friends. Many of these believers had very recently been traumatized by terror, shame, horror and helplessness and had given up cherished hopes that Jesus would save them from all the evil around them. Hope had evaporated and despair had consumed them until they found themselves huddled together behind locked doors, terrified of the authorities the expected might break in any moment to haul them off to their own horrendous fate.
This is the backdrop of Pentecost easy to overlook. These disciples, though energized with fresh hope and joy after finally seeing that Jesus was alive again and still loved them, continued to live in a world where Roman soldiers could ruthlessly abuse and corrupt religious authorities still governed from greed with hostility towards any who dared to threaten their power or influence. If anything, the resurrection of Jesus only intensified the heat of opposition, so the followers of Jesus had to decide how they were going to relate, both to each other as well as to the increasingly hostile environment around them.
Beneath all this were the fires of fear constantly fueled by the hatred and jealousy of those in power that remained unabated even fifty days after Jesus came back to life. The world had changed very little after the resurrection of their Master, and now He had left again not to be seen for who knows how long. The believers in Jesus had to face themselves and their own attitudes, both towards each other and about God. They began to realize that what Jesus had been seeking to get them to see had been ignored the entire time they had been with Him because they had persisted in resisting viewing reality the way He had been trying to get them to see it. Now they chose to see reality through the eyes and words of Jesus and aligned themselves with His perspective in stark contrast to the that of religion or any other version in the world around them.
When the intense fire of Pentecost infused each of those 120 people in that same upper room where some of them had previously cowered in fear, something startling happened. Fire falling from heaven ignited in their souls a new kind of fire that had power to neutralize the fires of fear still smoldering in them. This new fire was the very consuming fire of God. Like the snake from Moses' rod was able to eat up all the snakes produced by Pharaoh's magicians, this fire could neutralize all the old fires of fear. This fresh wind and fresh fire was fueled by passionate love and ignited in hearts that had willingly humbled themselves and made themselves willing to be vulnerable, caring and open. The furious fire of love consumed everything inside of them foreign to God's heart, giving them increased capacity not only to see reality in a whole new dimension but to face fear and resistance from others without becoming infected by fear. This new fire burst into flames of joy rather than resulting in searing pain, for this fire was to empower them to express freely the glorious truth about God resulting in uninhibited boldness to annihilate every fear that previously caused them to cower in darkness.
This is the true fire of heaven that Satan's fires only counterfeit. Just as glowing embers of Satan's fires can ignite flames of terror across the world through acts of violence and destruction, the true fire of God's love can send flying embers far and wide to land on fertile hearts starved for the healing power only this fire can produce. Like an inferno of life, this purifying fire spread within minutes to consume fear in three thousand more people and continued to spread rapidly to more hearts every day. The book of Acts outlines some of how this fire continued to spread until it brought light, joy and love to places all over the known world. But the story is not yet finished.
The fire of Pentecost was effective and spread for many years. Yet the counter fire of lies by the enemy began to suffocate the truth through new fears of God soon eclipsing the original Source of that fire. The world was plunged again into deeper darkness, scorched over by fires of satanic hatred, prejudice and violence. Over the past couple hundred years light has begun to emerge again, yet the fires ignited at Pentecost have yet to burn brightly like they did for a few brief decades.
There is another illustration of the power of divine fire to neutralize the fear fires of the enemy. This is found in the story of the same believers from Acts 2 but with many more added to those who had been set free from fear by the power of divine fire. Religious authorities realized their ability to control and exploit people was still threatened by the spreading fire of love ignited by the believers who were sharing liberating good news to ever increasing numbers of people. This was undermining the power of fear, and without continued ability to manipulate the masses, both religious leaders and political leaders knew that soon their own power structure would be lost, and they could not tolerate such a situation from becoming reality. So they decided they must fight back with the only fire they possessed and hauled Peter and John in for interrogation and a fresh round of fear conditioning.
You can read the whole story in Acts 4 and it is very revealing. What I want to focus on most is the how the entire community of believers responded after Peter and John returned to share with them what had happened. The authorities were attempting to launch an incendiary bomb into their midst to reignite the old flames of fear in everyone's hearts so as to quench the new fire threatening their own little empires. But something very significant happened when Peter and John returned. Instead of allowing the fire of fear to reignite and race out of control, the believers immediately turned to God to receive again a fresh infusion of the same boldness the original 120 had experienced previously. They chose to fight fire with fire. But most importantly they understood that it is impossible to effectively fight fire with fire unless you get an entirely different kind of fire.
Today we have firefighters who use backfires in attempts to contain larger fires. They do this by intentionally starting what they hope will be 'controlled fires' to burn off an area ahead of an out-of-control fire so that when it arrives hopefully there will not be enough fuel to sustain it. Of course the danger is always that the control fire will not go as intended and unexpected winds may cause yet another out-of-control fire causing more damage. This is always a problem for firefighters, but I would contend is a far greater danger when it comes to our emotions and the condition of our spirit.
Many believe the best way to 'get ready for Jesus to come' is to dwell on fear-inducing scenarios of how terrible things are going to be just before the Second Coming. Or they try to publish all the details of the latest conspiracies in order to preempt the plans of the enemy by exposing them. I have never understood how this plan is supposed to be effective, but what it does do is keep everyone involved in a constant state of fearfulness. Somehow it is believed that the way to prepare ourselves to face the terrors of the last days is to fill the mind with fearful scenarios, and somehow that will condition us to cope with whatever may come. Yet this is in fact, one of the most subtle schemes of the enemy to distract us while leading us believe we are preparing to meet Jesus with greater faith.
Attempting to use the weapons of the enemy to fight the enemy is a disastrous choice. Picking up the enemy's weapons to use against him is to step into the trap set for us, for using the enemy's weapons places us under the influence of the enemy. Thus to employ fear as the means to prepare ourselves to resist being afraid in the future only sets us up to be overwhelmed by fear, not inoculated against it. It is a most sinister ploy by the enemy that if very popular but deadly. Starting a backfire by relying on the same fire the enemy employs will only result in discouragement and destruction, not in salvation.
It is important to learn how God's fire is not destructive even while it is consuming. This is one of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. God certainly is a consuming fire, yet what is consumed is everything out of harmony with His character of pure love alone. It consumes lies about God that make us afraid of Him, and many of those lies are deeply embedded in what we embrace in our systematic theology. Thus the enemy has built-in ignition points in our very belief system by which he can easily access us because we have failed to embrace the truths that can expose and expel these deadly seeds. They are like hidden fuel tanks ready to explode when the heat of danger overwhelms us with terror. They will only add more damage to our disaster instead of saving us from it. Fighting the fire of fear with fear cannot result in boldness or joy or love. It only sets us up for a catastrophic meltdown when we were expecting to emerge as victors.
The early believers understood this and resisted the temptation to slip back into fear again. They were all too familiar with fear and its debilitating effect in their lives and its power to manipulate them by exploitation of abusers. They had only recently come to enjoy the freedom of love and were learning to heal in the atmosphere of transparency and joy, something they had never experienced before but which made them feel alive like nothing else. Now the old familiar monster of fear loomed like a cloud of heavy smoke to obscure the Sun of glory they had enjoyed since their conversion. They now had a choice: would they react in fear and fall back to old patterns, vulnerable to demands of those refusing the truth about God, or would they believe in the mercy of God, rest in His love and trust Him to handle the crisis using only His methods?
The prayer that spontaneously came from the collective hearts of those believers is highly instructive. In essence they handed over the problem entirely to God, reminding Him of His overarching perspective, the history of His ways in the past and His prophecies that made clear nothing could take Him by surprise. Finally they petitioned the court of heaven in the name of Jesus Christ the High Priest of all humanity now representing them, to deliver fresh boldness to extinguish every trace of fear in their hearts so they would be empowered to fearlessly spread the incredible news that God was just as good and trustworthy as Jesus.
By focusing on God, His goodness and His words designed as an anchor for emotional stability, this prayer unleashed a fresh outpouring of the very same fire that had previously shaken the smaller group on the day of Pentecost. This is the kind of backfire we need today for the same purpose, not increased doses of fear to make us afraid of what might happen in the future, but a fire ignited through fresh revelations of God's character that is love and love alone. Only the power of this kind of fire is effective to neutralize enemy fires and will protect us from the raging infernos we will encounter.
Yes, we must fight fire with fire. But let us do so intelligently and with diligence to avoid relying on the wrong kind of fuel to feed our fire. We must be thoroughly weaned from our addictions to the enemy's enticements of false fires and to sanctify ourselves to only use the pure fire of God's love if we would be overcomers the same way Jesus overcame.
Having our eyes fixed on Jesus, the guide and end of our faith, who went through the pains of the cross, not caring for the shame, because of the joy which was before him, and who has now taken his place at the right hand of God's seat of power. (Hebrews 12:2 BBE)