When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was be a firefighter. Every Saturday night, I could be found glued to the TV set, mesmerized by Emergency—for those who have no idea what I’m talking about, it was the Chicago Fire of the 70’s—dreaming what it would be like to be one.
The first chance I had when I was old enough, I became a volunteer firefighter.
I couldn’t wait to fight my first fire. It didn’t take long.
It was a really “good job.” (For firefighters, a “good” fire is what civilians would call a bad fire, i.e., one where there’s a lot of fire.) Somehow, I ended up being the nozzleman, the prized position at a “good” fire—It’s where all the action is.
I was so green. I remember getting off the engine in a daze thinking: “That building is on fire. Somebody should call the fire department!”
The entire back of the house was burning. Fire was shooting through the roof thirty feet into the air. Then it dawned on me: “Oh yeah, we’re the fire department.”
My Lieutenant was yelling at me to bring the hose line through a side door. With every instinct I had screaming at me to run the other way, I was thinking: “Go in there? You’ve got to be kidding. It’s on fire!”
The only reason I didn’t run away is because I was frozen with fear. My mind went numb. I couldn’t think for myself. I would have done whatever I was told to do in that moment.
So I followed orders—not out of duty or bravery, but sheer mind-freeze—and crawled in.
It was nothing like Emergency.
There’s a reason there aren’t any reality fire shows: there’d be nothing to watch—you can’t see a thing in a fire. It’s lights out.
But that’s not the worst part. It’s hot. Not the kind of heat you feel during a heat wave, or from a fire pit, or, if you’ve ever been a bystander at one, the radiant heat from a building fire. It’s oppressive heat. It “cooks” you from the inside out.
That’s what shook me out of my terror-induced stupor.
As we moved in on the fire, I was instantaneously exhausted. It only took about thirty seconds for me to feel like I had worked an entire week in the scorching sun. The condensed air coming through my face mask, which was so fresh and cool during training, became so superheated I couldn’t swallow. I’ve never been stranded in a dessert, but I can’t imagine feeling thirstier.
I was so drained, so depleted of every ounce of energy, that I didn’t care if I died right there. I didn’t have the energy to be scared anymore!
As I operated the nozzle, the 175 gallons a minute of water it was throwing out was just evaporating into a wall of orange. It wasn’t surrendering to our advance the way it does on TV or in the movies! We were in a grueling stalemate.
A few minutes in, the ceiling above us began coming down in pieces onto our heads. I thought the building was collapsing and was sure we were about to die—again, I was so exhausted, I didn’t care. I just wanted to take a blow (another firefighting term meaning “rest”). It’s a strange feeling that I’ve had many times since: feeling so wiped out from the physical strain of it all that you don’t care if you make it out alive—I’ve been opening up roofs right above a fire that were moments from failure but was too exhausted to climb down the ladder; I didn’t care if they collapsed with me on them.
I discovered later, after realizing that we didn’t die, that other firefighters were pulling the ceiling down on purpose to make sure the fire wasn’t going back over our heads and cutting us off—a common tactic.
The whole thing was surreal. After my initial “what did I get myself into and is it too late to turn my gear in and quit” moment; after my brain started to process things again, I felt a euphoric calm.
It was nothing like Emergency. It was indescribably better.
It was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had. I was hooked.
Words can’t convey what that adrenaline rush is like. How exciting it is. The strange mix of being so scared out of your wits that you want to be anywhere else (Oddly, I’ve had that “I want to quit” moment at the start of just about every fire I’ve been to) and once you get in, the inexplicable calm that comes over you, ironically in the midst of the utter chaos that is a structure fire, like this is the one place in the world where you feel most at peace.
I feel guilty when people thank me for my service. To me, the military, the police, that’s real sacrifice, real service. There are few places I’d rather be than in a “good job.” It’s not like running into a fire is a sacrifice. I can’t help myself.
There’s nothing like fighting a fire.
But until you’ve been there, you can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like. You have to experience it for yourself to truly know.
Do you know what you’re missing?
One of the greatest frustrations I have as a Christian is that most people outside the faith think it’s boring, dull, a drudgery; all about following the rules, giving up your freedom the sake of some kind of eternal reward that may or may not come. A cosmic gamble: give things up now so that you’ll get a bigger reward when you die. An “only the good die young” kind of thing.
But that’s not at all what it’s like.
Despite anything else you may have thought or heard, Christianity is first and foremost about a relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s the whole point. IF Jesus is God—and I know that is a big if—then there is nothing better: you can know the perfect love of the Lord of the Universe and know that love eternally.
Not everyone has firefighting in their blood. But everyone has a profound need to be loved, unconditionally, perfectly. And like nothing else, Jesus satisfies that need.
I know: blah, blah, blah. You’ve heard it all before.
But the thing is, for those who’ve trusted their lives to Him, these aren’t just words.
We know they’re true, because—albeit, this side of eternity, only in a partial and incomplete way—we’ve experienced this love for ourselves
And nothing—nothing!—is more thrilling or fulfilling.
In firefighting we justifiably boast that we’re the ones running in when everyone is running out. To the public, it looks crazy. But we know how indescribably amazing running into a fire actually is.
A relationship with Christ is the most exciting and exhilarating experience there is. At times, it’s like living on the edge of heaven. But no words can describe it. You have to experience it for yourself to truly know what it’s like.
And as I can fully attest, a relationship with Christ is even better than running into a fire!
Has Jesus ignited the “fire” of His love in your heart? If not, what’s holding you back?
Please send your comments, questions, and your own stories to me on the Raising Jesus Facebook page.
E.J. Sweeney is a pastor, author and public speaker whose passion is to show skeptics like himself the overwhelming evidence for the Christian faith. A graduate of Trinity College, BA and Yale University, MDiv, summa cum laude, E.J. has taught theology and scripture in two high schools and has served as a pastor at two churches. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, where he is a volunteer firefighter. You can follow E.J. and his writings at www.RaisingJesus.com and on his Raising Jesus Facebook page.