I have no friends, no family, no acquaintances in Tallmansville, West Virginia. But over the past few days, as the Sago Coal Mine disaster has unfolded, I have prayed for the trapped miners and their families.
Prayer is a faith response to tragedy. Christians often turn to prayer at such times, hoping that God will intervene. But there are other kinds of responses, and they seem harder to understand.
How do we explain the hundreds of men who entered the mine in the rescue attempt, despite the deadly gases and unknown hazards? These were not relatives of the miners. Most were not even friends. At best, they shared a common backgroundthey were miners themselves. Is that enough to explain their willingness to risk their lives for strangers?
The risks were not overstated. In similar disasters, would-be rescuers have perished. Lifeguards have drowned trying to save floundering swimmers. Firemen have died in burning buildings. Police officers have lost their lives trying to protect the innocent.
Why are we willing to throw ourselves into peril, even when hope is slim and danger is great?
"We were clinging to hope," said Ben Hatfield, the CEO of International Coal Group.
Hope can lift us above terrible circumstances. But hope is a frail thing, easily lost in the assaults of real lifea mere word can light its fire, while another word can dash it to pieces. Hope sustains us, but it does not motivate us to heroism.
Instinct tells us to run from danger. The brave men who entered the Sago Mine over and over again, going deeper and deeper into its inky depths had to will their fears and instincts to be quiet. They did not act in their own self-interest, but above their own interests. They risked what was most precious for the slim hope that they might benefit others.
They acted benevolently. They acted from a desire to do well for others. They were motivated by love, specifically by agape love.
Agape is love that is expressed without calculation. It is love that is given without reference to merit. It is love that spends itself in the pursuit of the good of another.
It was Jesus who was our greatest example of agape love. The Christian faith is immersed in agape, and so, it is not surprising that in a nation steeped in Christianity, even among those who don't profess the faith the notion of public sacrifice for the benefit of strangers is still highly valued.
The selfless agape of the Sago Mine rescuers is an example of the love Jesus was speaking of when he told his disciples:
I command you to love each other in the same way that I love you. And here is how to measure itthe greatest love is shown when people lay down their lives for their friends. John 15:13,14, NLT
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16, NLT
The apostle John puts it this way:
We know what real love is because Christ gave up his life for us. And so we also ought to give up our lives for our Christian brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:16, NLT
In each of these passages, the word translated love is agape. The Greek word agape wasn't used much in the Roman world until it began to show up in Christian writings. The writers of the New Testament seized upon it as the perfect way to describe the teachings of Jesus. He calls us to love as he did: without cost/benefit analysis; without stinginess; with all of our focus on what is best for the other, not ourselves.
It was agape love that finally brought those 13 lost miners back to their loved ones.
When you walk into a long dark tunnel in the earth, breathing from a tank because the air around you is toxic, wearing a small light on your helmet to pierce the blackness, you know your life hangs on a thread.
The rescuers were brave men, no doubt about it; but courage alone is not enough at such times. The rescuers had been trained for this very scenario, but experience alone is not enough at such times.
Only love could overcome the instinctive terrors those men faced. Only agape can explain how it is possible for men to lay down their lives for strangers.
Photo credit: American Public Television, Appalacian coal miners