I’ve never been in a fire.
Not a real fire.
Not a house fire. Not a forest fire.
The closest I’ve come is watching my father’s 1980s Chevy pickup practically explode on the side of Monroe Street not a mile from Westside School where my mother taught first grade and I moseyed along nicely through fourth.
My mother had volunteered to drive the old beater, so my father could take the nicer family car to an earlier-than-usual doctor’s appointment. Therefore, crammed into the front passenger seat I sat with my sister and an ungodly number of backpacks, band instruments, lunchboxes, jackets, gym shoes, and teaching bags.
It was a sight.
That is, until smoke begin to rise up from underneath the dashboard.
We were bumping along listening to the crooning radio voices of Simon and Garfunkel and that “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and I was honestly confused at first.
What is that? Did we pick something up off the road?
Then my mother saw it and yelled, “Get out of the truck!”
I’m not sure if it was the tone of her voice or her actual words that got me, but once we stopped, I leaped out of there faster than lightning strikes. My sister and I flung bags and parcels, shoes and coats into the tall grass just past the roadside pavement. And it’s a good thing too because by the time we got that last bag out, orange flames began to flicker through the crevices of the truck’s interior.
Luckily, by God’s grace, some off-duty firefighter just happened to pass by. He got us a good distance away and went back to lift up the hood. When he did, literal fire shot twenty feet into the air causing everyone to gasp and leap for cover.
I have to tell you, that moment was enlightening.
It taught me just how quickly fire can spread. How alive it is. How active it is. How fast it can engulf, devour, devastate, destroy. In those moments, fire just seems unstoppable.
A lot like our anxiety does at times.
I mean the kind of anxiety the rises out of nowhere. The kind that teases with a puff or two of nervousness, then wham! It’s shooting up inside you like a twenty-foot spire so furious and wild you think your lungs and liver might just explode.
In that moment, trying to identify the source of such angst is just plain stupid. Trying to mentally analyze, intellectually evaluate, overly inform, theologically speculate your way out of it—whatever you want to call it—is about as ridiculous as trying to reseal a popped can of biscuits.
There’s no getting that disobedient dough back in there. What’s done can’t be undone. What’s started can’t be stopped.
It’s survival time now.
Find water! Find it fast! Your soul cries out.
And you begin to look, to search for help, for real hope. In fact, your first instinct probably is to rise. To get higher, to move quicker, to take matters into your own hands.
But let me tell you from experience, you can’t outrun anxiety once it starts. You can’t out-rise the emotional smoke that’s billowing and puffing, choking and suffocating no matter how hard you try. Its very nature is to rise, after all. To go up. To accelerate. And if you do the same, you’ll just be putting yourself right into anxiety’s smoldering hand.
What are we left with then?
Are we to just plop ourselves down in defeat? Are we to remain paralyzed with panic until the flames disrupt our days by burning away every last ounce of our fortitude, courage, peace, confidence, faith?
I can’t claim to be any expert here.
I’m far too prone to anxiety myself. But in my many anxiety-ridden moments (and they are many), I’ve learned one thing that has helped me. One thing that has made a significant difference in whether I survive that fear-fire or sink into an ash heap of discouragement and despair.
I go low.
Like what the firemen tell you to do.
Go low! Cover your mouth with clean cloth! Crawl on your hands and knees inch by inch, minute by minute, millimeter by millimeter away from the flames and toward an open door!
Hear me out on this.
Paul writes in his letter to the Jesus followers in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV).
Usually when I read these verses, I get caught up in Paul’s idealism.
Am I supposed to never be anxious? Am I supposed to pray in every situation? And with thanksgiving no less? I can’t make it one day on this stuff.
But let’s stop for a minute and rethink it.
Paul is a realist, a survivalist here too. Notice how he follows his idealistic sentiments ever so quickly with a “but”: “Do not be anxious about anything, but…”
That’s a powerful word of contradiction, right there.
You see, Paul knew we would be anxious. He himself, in fact, was anxious and even records his persistent and ongoing struggles with anxiety over the sickness of his dear friend Epaphroditus not two pages earlier in this very same letter (see Philippians 2:28).
Therefore, if we get caught in Paul’s idealism, we miss out on what we really need here. That bit of survival-truth that gets us out of the hot seat and moves us toward a place of peace once again.
Paul writes, “but in everything.”
Meaning every time anxiety shoots its ugly flames at you. Every time you feel emotionally on fire. Every time your soul sparks and bursts ablaze and you feel like whatever peace you had is currently incinerating into a plume of ash and smoke. That’s when “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
That’s when you need to go low.
To get down on your knees and into that soul posture of prayer. To get down into a position that no longer fights, that no longer rises with fists pumped and teeth clenched. Rather, you need to move to that soul space that recognizes you can’t fight fire with fire.
You need water.
And that Water runs deep, so you’ve got to get low.
You have to silence your heart and mind from the temptation to figure it all out. You have to cover your mouth with the clean-clothed truth of His Word and stop breathing in the toxic fumes of your own rationalizations.
And you need to crawl.
To pray-crawl and keep crawling. To crawl not just pleading with God. And not just petitioning to God. But instead, crying out who He is. Because who He is, who we know Him to be, who He promises He will be for you especially in those moments of extreme anxiety is what brings you peace.
He is our Rescuer, after all. Our Redeemer, our Deliverer, the most powerful Firefighting Force in all of the universe.
And He Himself is Living Water.
Water that not just quenches thirst but puts out fires. Water that not just flows but overflows. Water that not just runs but that never runs dry (Isaiah 58:11).
That’s who we are praying to. That’s who we are petitioning to get us safely out of the walloping flames and back onto secure ground. Acknowledging who He is, praying to a Person and not just some intangible force, and remembering “the Lord is near” and the only real Way out of this mess (Philippians 4:5, John 14:6), that is what has gotten me through many a fiery moment of anxiety and back into the firmness of peace.
Even to that supernatural state of peace that goes so far as to “transcen[d] all understanding.”
It’s never easy. It’s never fun.
But survival is possible if we learn to go low. If we learn to let Him go high.
And if we then let that Living Water wash over us until it extinguishes the billowing flames of anxiety so that peace can emerge once more.