How to Pray When Tragedy Kills

188 dead. 114 missing. 174 rescued.

As I write on Sunday afternoon, these are the latest numbers from the SEWOL Ferry tragedy in South Korea.

It’s utterly, unfathomably, heartbreaking.

How to Pray When Tragedy Kills

Since the ferry capsized on April 16th I have been absorbed by this story of human errors and poor judgment which quickly escalated to a disastrous loss of life. In the tragedy’s wake, a #PrayforSouthKorea hashtag exploded on Twitter, driven mostly by South Korean teens who can’t fathom the drowning death of scores of their peers from Danwon High School.

Many of their tweets plead with the world to pray for a miracle. Here’s a few of them:

⟩ Just pray… pray. Pray. Pray for a miracle.—April 16
⟩ Pray for a miracle and remember we still have hope.—April 20
⟩ Although the death toll continues to increase, i’m still hoping that there are survivors, lets pray for a miracle—April 21
⟩ Honestly, as the days go by, it’s unlikely that they’ll find survivors. But I still hope and pray for a miracle.—April 22
⟩ Never lose hope. Pray for miracle!—April 24

These tweets reveal the revulsion of death that we all share, especially death this massive and purposeless. We instinctively know every death is just, wrong; but still, the death toll rises.


If there is a good God in heaven why will He not come to the rescue? Why won’t He lift that ferry out of the water like the super heroes we imagine? Why does He let the innocent die?

Any theological answer I could offer to questions like these would only seem cold and clinical in a blog post from a distance. But the #PrayforSouthKorea tweets drove me to consider, “How should I pray when tragedy kills?”

What if a neighbors’ family is in an accident, and their children’s lives are hung by a thread? How should I pray?

What if natural disaster strikes close to home, wiping out families by the dozen? How should I pray?

In the most desperate hour imaginable, what should I ask God to do?

Here’s how I hope to be able to pray for others in the hour of tragedy.

1. Ask first, pray second. I hope to show compassion and respect for those in need by asking how they would like me to pray. We recently hosted a dinner party for a friend who was soon to have a mastectomy due to cancer. After dinner, we gathered around to pray and began by letting her share how she was praying for herself. It meant a lot to her that we were willing to pray with sensitivity to her perspective.

2. Pray for a miracle. Yes, indeed. Because I never know God’s will for the future; I only know His power. I know the truly miraculous is seldom granted, but still, God frequently grants blessed outcomes, even where blessing seems impossible.

3. Pray for mercy for the suffering, the dying and the grieving. I want to pray for both temporal mercies (relief from suffering) and eternal mercy (deliverance from judgment), knowing that mercy is God’s business, and that we can’t claim to know His purpose for every life. Ultimately however, I believe the cry for mercy is the most human prayer of all.

4. Pray for trust in God’s goodness when everything about the tragedy screams, “NOT GOOD!” A fundamental tenet of Christian faith is that God is good and does all things well. But, I know that tragic suffering assaults that core belief. Like Job, I hope to pray that we all might say, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”Job 13:15.

5. Pray for grace for those who must endure dark days ahead. I know tragedy always lingers. It leaves a mark, a wound of lifelong pain. God promises to heal the wounds of all who belong to Christ. “By His stripes we are healed.”Isaiah 53:5. But full realization of that promises is for eternity; for now, pain lingers, thus we need grace.

6. Pray for hope in God’s eternal promises. I want to pray that tragedy will not embitter those who suffer, or reduce them to cynicism or constant fear. Suffering people need hope, real hope beyond this life and the pain tragedy leaves. They will only find such a hope in God and who He is. No other source of hope will do.

7. Pray for comfort in loss. I should pray that God will truly comfort the grieving. Otherwise, what did Jesus mean when He promised, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”Matthew 5:4.

The cry for mercy is the most human prayer of all.

8. Pray for joy in His will. Perhaps, this is the most reckless prayer of all. Perhaps, never pray it aloud. When tragedy strikes, it doesn’t make sense. But when joy in God comes, the sense will shimmer on the edge of any dark reality.

9. Pray for faith in the gospel. Finally, I want to pray that those affected by tragedy may be able to hear, understand, and believe the gospel. And in believing, I pray they will embrace all that God has become for them in Christ through the tragedy of Christ’s own death: eternal forgiveness, eternal love, eternal fellowship, eternal embrace, eternal comfort, eternal peace, eternal joy.

As I review this list, I’m struck that so often the only thing we want is the miracle, even though it is the only thing in this list we are not promised. All the others: mercy, grace, trust, faith, hope, comfort, and joy are all benefits of having God as your heavenly father, and Christ as your brother. They are promised; and God is true.

I hope I learn from this the wisdom to pray well when tragedy kills.

Oh God, have mercy on the families affected by the SEWOL tragedy. Grant them comfort and hope beyond the present grief. For Christ’s sake. Amen.


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