The agonizing 18-day ordeal and successful 3-day rescue of 12 school-age boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand has captivated the world’s attention. In fact, there is news out today that corporate executives are already negotiating book and movie rights to the story. You can be sure that both will be blockbusters, maybe even by next summer.
Throughout the nearly three-week ordeal, both social and traditional media were replete with calls for prayer – for the boys, their coach and the Navy Seals who ultimately coordinated and assisted in their dramatic rescue.
In times of crisis, even the marginal believer, and sometimes even the agnostic, will often call on the divine for intercession and relief – and for good reason.
“There are no atheists in foxholes!” is the popular modern-day aphorism, with obvious origins in war, suggesting that in times of trouble, even non-believing people inevitably recognize a higher power. But it’s sacred scripture that invites the distressed to lay out their worries and concerns to God.
“Call on me in the day of trouble,” wrote the Psalmist, “I will deliver you and you will honor me” (50:15).
Writing in the New Testament, James tell us that “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (5:16), a truth that should both comfort and embolden any believer who is burdened.
But did all of the prayers from around the world deliver these boys to safety from the dreary and darkened flooded cave?
More simply and bluntly put, did the Lord first need to hear from us before enabling the rescue?
At the heart of such a question is a bigger one yet:
If God is in control and sovereign over all things, why do we pray at all?
I think we pray for many reasons:
First and foremost, we’re commanded to do so – and because Jesus Himself modeled a life of prayer. Jesus even told us how to pray, sharing what is now known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The apostle Paul wrote expansively on the subject of prayer, suggesting that we’re to “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12). He also said we’re to “devote” ourselves to prayer (Colossians 4:2).
Second, we pray in order to deepen our relationship with the Lord. After all, you can’t really love someone unless you really know them – God included. Quiet conversations with the Lord allow us to connect with Him on a deeply personal level.
Third, we pray in order to better discern God’s will for our lives. Decisions in life aren’t always black and white, and we need divine help in order to make wise choices. It’s the wise believer who humbly brings their petitions to the Lord. “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows,” wrote Dr. Tim Keller.
Truth be told, most of us pray primarily for other reasons – concerns related to health, family, career – and intercessory prayers for others, like the ones for the cave rescue. All of these are entirely valid and good things to pray for – we just need to make sure we don’t see prayer like the gambler sees the slot machine, a transactional vehicle to simply get what he wants, when he wants or needs it.
But getting back to the main question: There is no doubt that our prayers for those boys and their soccer coach were answered. But why did the Lord allow the boys and coach to live – but didn’t step in to save the life of Saman Kunan, one of the heroic Seal divers who tragically perished while trying to refill his oxygen?
I don’t know.
Why God rescues some from their suffering and not others is an ageless question, and one that has perplexed and frustrated virtually every believer since the beginning of time. We know that God allowed His own Son to suffer, and we know that He uses suffering to accomplish His purposes – though we’re rarely able to piece together this mysterious puzzle of pain to see what all those purposes are.
I heard just the other day that the late Admiral James Stockdale, who was imprisoned and tortured for seven years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War, considered Job to be his favorite book in the Bible. He said he leaned heavily on the story of Job’s misery and eventual deliverance throughout his ordeal. Upon his release, he eventually landed in the classroom and began a tradition of teaching military personnel about the lessons he learned and how they, too, could endure times of trial and tribulation. But he started off each class each year with a single and instructive statement that is at once cold but true:
“Life isn’t fair. Get over it.”
Indeed, as believers, we often cannot understand what the Lord is up to. We cannot always make sense of the seemingly senseless things He sometimes allows. But I think prayer helps us to bridge the chasm, anchoring us to His will and way and teaching us to trust Him when we don’t understand.
I am grateful for the power of prayer. It has sustained me in times of trouble and deepened my walk with the Lord. I suspect you could say the same thing. I welcome your thoughts.