Thai cave rescue: Don't forget man who made ultimate sacrifice so that boys, coach could live

Prayers from around the world were answered this week with the daring rescue of 12 youth soccer team members, ages 11 to 16, and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. But we must not forget that one courageous diver sacrificed his own life to keep them alive.   

The diver, 38-year-old Saman Gunan, was the “hero of Tham Luang cave,” said Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn of Ching Rai in Thailand.

Gunan died from lack of oxygen as he swam out of the cave after delivering desperately needed supplies to the trapped boys and placing extra air tanks inside the cave the boys would use in escaping.

A former Thai Navy SEAL, Gunan was a triathlete and husband. His wife said he enjoyed helping people and doing work for charities.

Gunan made the ultimate sacrifice. He died so that others might live. That kind of love and courage has the capacity to move us emotionally like nothing else can – if we let it grip our hearts.

Gunan knew the mission to help the trapped soccer players and their coach was dangerous. But that didn’t stop him. He was willing to risk his life to save their lives.

“Saman once said we never knew when we would die. ... We can’t control that so we need to cherish each day,” the heroic diver’s widow told the BBC in an emotional interview.

Gunan made the ultimate sacrifice. He died so that others might live. That kind of love and courage has the capacity to move us emotionally like nothing else can – if we let it grip our hearts.

Gunan’s sacrifice reminds me of others – ones that hit closer to home.

This past summer, I felt the grip of such love and courage as I watched the movie “Dunkirk,” a film depicting the famous World War II battle in which British fighter pilots fought against overwhelming odds to save more than 330,000 Allied troops trapped by the Nazis on the beaches of Dunkirk in France.

As a child, I felt it when my grandfather – Army Col. John T. Ashford, Jr. – finally opened up to talk about his experience as a bomber pilot in the European theater of World War II.

As my grandfather described the 25 combat missions he flew during the war, he suddenly lapsed into silence and struggled to maintain his composure. He was thinking of his friends – other American pilots – who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Stories like these must be told and retold, celebrated and commemorated.

We must tell these stories because we, as Americans, always need a reminder to be grateful for the freedoms that we enjoy. Our great nation was founded on the sacrifice of men and women who gave what President Abraham Lincoln described in his Gettysburg Address as the “last full measure of devotion.”

Because of heroes who sacrifice their lives to protect the lives of others we have the right to live freely. To pursue life, liberty and happiness. To live according to our deepest convictions in life, and to do so openly, peacefully, and without fear.

As I point out in “Letters to an American Christian,” billions of people in our world live without the liberties we so easily take for granted. Sometimes the best and most powerful wakeup call is a reminder of those who laid down their lives so we can be free.

But there’s a greater reason to tell these stories – not just as Americans, but as humans. You see, we all need a reminder that sacrificial love is woven into the very fabric of the universe.

Because of heroes who sacrifice their lives to protect the lives of others we have the right to live freely. To pursue life, liberty and happiness. To live according to our deepest convictions in life, and to do so openly, peacefully, and without fear.

When God created the world and placed humanity within it, our lives were designed to be an unbroken experience of justice, love and peace. The world God had made was one in which we related perfectly to God, to each other and to nature around us.

But regretfully, we turned away from God and from His rules for life. And in so doing, paradise was lost. Our sin unleashed forces of evil and destruction. It set in motion the perpetual existence of injustice, hatred and conflict. It broke our relationship with God, with each other and with the natural world.

In response to our sin, God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. He died as a victim of our injustice and hatred, and in the process, took our sins upon his shoulders.

As the old hymn says: “In my place condemned he stood; Sealed my pardon with his blood.” He took our guilty record, died for it and offers us his sinless record in return.

That is why the Bible says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

Our life in exchange for his.

Through Jesus, God made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave the last full measure of devotion, not for a cause or for a country, but for you and for me. This is the sacrifice that restores what sin has broken. This is the sacrifice that will enable God to return one day to set the world aright, destroying evil without destroying us.

So as we celebrate the rescue of the Thai soccer team – and it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this – let us not quickly forget Saman Gunan, who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of young people he didn’t even know.

And in remembering his death, we might be reminded not only of our American forefathers who made the ultimate sacrifice, but more importantly of Jesus Christ, who died to set us eternally free.

Bruce Ashford is the Provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is "Letters to an American Christian." Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford and Facebook.