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The Faith of 'Soul Surfer'

Bethany Hamilton’s life was changed by a shark attack at age 13. What happened after that was remarkable.
By Dave Boehi

Tom was from New Jersey, and Cheri grew up in Southern California. They loved surfing, and in the early 1970s they each heard the siren call of Hawaii, with its huge waves and large surfing community. They both ended up on the North Shore of Kauai—camping, surfing, eventually finding jobs to support their lifestyle. They met and married.

As you might expect, Tom and Cheri Hamilton built a family and a lifestyle that revolved around their favorite sport. Their three children learned to surf at an early age, and their daughter Bethany began winning surfing competitions at the age of 8. In Hawaii they could surf year-round; even on Christmas morning they went out as a family to surf because the beaches were uncrowded. 

One other significant thing occurred early in Tom and Cheri’s married life, however. They both received Christ as their Savior and Lord, got involved in a local church, and began growing in their faith. Their faith became a firmer foundation for their marriage and their family than surfing ever could. As Cheri says, they were “on fire” for the Lord, and they modeled their love for God and His Word to their children. 

I am reminded again of Matthew 7:24-27, which I wrote about just a couple weeks ago after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In this passage, Jesus assures us that those who hear His words and put them into practice are like the wise man who builds his home on a rock. When the storms come, the house does not fall.   Somehow, I cannot imagine that Tom and Cheri knew just how important this foundation would be in the years to come. 

For a storm did blast into the Hamilton family. 

Out of the depths

When Bethany was 13, her love for surfing was as strong as ever. She was competing in the National Scholastic Surfing Association circuit, and planned to become a professional surfer. She and her parents saw this as an opportunity to tell others about their faith. In a recent interview for FamilyLife Today, Cheri described a day when she said to Bethany, “Let’s just pray that God’s will be done for your life. Let’s pray for God to bring you into the center of His will.” 

They continued praying this for about two weeks. And then, on October 31, 2003, Bethany was surfing with some friends when a 15-foot tiger shark rose from the depths and attacked.   Rushed to the hospital, Bethany’s life was saved, but her left arm was gone.     

And that’s when the story really becomes remarkable. 

With the support of her friends, her church, and her family, Bethany somehow did not lose her hope. Within a few weeks she was back on her surfboard, and eventually returned to competition. And from the beginning she glorified God and reached out to touch others. 

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers to why bad things happen to good people,” Bethany says in her book, Soul Surfer. “But I do know that God knows all the answers, and sometimes He lets you know in this life, and sometimes He asks you to wait so that you can have a face-to-face talk about it. What I do know is that I want to use what happened to me as an opportunity to tell people that God is worthy of our trust, and to show them that you can go on and do wonderful things in spite of terrible events that happen. I don’t think it does any good to sit around feeling sorry for yourself. I made myself a promise: I’m not going to wallow or walk around moaning, ‘Woe is me!’”

A film that shows biblical faith

From the outset, the media was interested in the story of the champion surfer who had survived a shark attack. In addition to her book, Bethany had the opportunity to appear on shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tonight Show, 20/20, and Good Morning America. She was also the subject of a documentary. 

And now her story has been turned into a feature film, Soul Surfer, which opened in theaters April 8.  The cast includes Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Tom and Cheri Hamilton. 

I was impressed with the acting, the surfing sequences, and the cinematography (I’ve decided I am ready to move to Hawaii … if FamilyLife will let me). What pleased me most about Soul Surfer was that Bethany Hamilton’s faith is presented pretty clearly. This was a concern, because Hollywood is not exactly known for its positive portrayal of evangelical Christians.   But in the opening few minutes of the film, when the Hamilton family arrives at church with everyone singing, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” it is clear that an authentic, biblical faith is the foundation of this home. 

In another significant sequence, Bethany attends her weekly youth group, and youth leader Sarah Hill (played by country singer Carrie Underwood) talks about Jeremiah 29:11:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This verse—used in the movie to foreshadow the shark attack—helps set the tone for Bethany’s recovery and her determination to view her suffering from God’s perspective. 

“That’s one thing I just love about the movie,” Bethany said on FamilyLife Today, “… it shares the struggles my family and I go through … I think it’s something that everyone can relate to in one way or another. … Whatever struggles they are going through in their own life, they can kind of take it into perspective and … hopefully get hope and just know that God has a plan for them.”

Bethany Hamilton has been learning that God’s plan for her is far beyond anything she could have imagined. And I can’t help but wonder what her life would be like now if her parents, early in their marriage, had not been so faithful to make God and His Word the foundation for their home.

Copyright © 2011 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author: Dave Boehi

Dave Boehi is a senior editor at FamilyLife. He has written one book (I Still Do), coauthored the Preparing for Marriage workbook, edited dozens of books and Bible studies, and produces the FamilyLife e-newsletter Help & Hope. Dave and his wife, Merry, live in Little Rock, Arkansas, and have two married daughters.



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