I have discovered that I am never more aware of God’s presence than when I am experiencing hardship. I recall certain times of pain in my life—events, circumstances, and even sin—and remember the foremost thing in my mind always being God: What is God up to? There were times when I bristled at the mention of God and prayer and considered giving up on faith. But the secret of my heart, that only God could see, was that I thrashed for him like a drowning man needing air.
We all have heard or read the poem “Footprints in the Sand.” It has become a classic spiritual reflection on the Lord’s aid to us. But I have now come to frown upon the writing. Before you refuse to read more, hear me out. I get the writer’s intended message, but I am not sure it is correct, according to God’s Word, about his nearness and assistance. Let me explain.
The poem is an allegory and relates a dream the narrator has of walking along the beach and seeing scenes of his or her life flashing across the sky. The focal point is footprints in the sand, one set belonging to the Lord and the other to the narrator. This person notices that at life’s most painful times, the Lord seems to have disappeared, for there were only one set of footprints during those times. This prompts the narrator to question the Lord’s faithfulness. The Lord replies that during the times the one set of footprints were seen, that was when he was carrying the speaker.
There is no one who lives the Christian life that will not get his or her share of trial and proving. Also, no one should think that the Lord has not ordained these times. Remember God’s words to Ananias in Acts 9:15-16 concerning Paul, then Saul of Tarsus? “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Hardship comes with the package.
“Footprints” is very true in its expression of human feeling, something I understand fully. I know what it is to be overwhelmed by difficulty and inner turmoil. I know what it feels like to drown emotionally. I know what it feels like to be at my wits end and wanting to die. I know what it feels like to think that all, including God, have abandoned me. My problem with the poem is not that it accurately details the experience of divine absence. Psalm 10:1 plainly asks, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” What a strange concept that God can be known, or silhouetted, by his apparent absence. Moreover, we should not overlook the fact that God may indeed withdraw the sense of his presence for the proving of our faith. And here is where my problem with the poem surfaces. It never achieves a biblical portrait of the suffering saint.
The promise of God throughout scripture is his presence: I will never leave you. In fact, we may consider his wonderful and abiding presence the primary benefit in our relationship with him. Even when Israel sinned to their heart’s desire, God punished them but never deserted them because they were his own. We also are God’s possession and whether we have the sense of his presence or not, it gives us no place to question his faithfulness to us. Contrarily, it requires complete faith to be sure of his promise, especially in tough circumstances.
Let me explain this from an account with Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah 15:15-21 details a profound rebuke from the Lord to Jeremiah for his impatience. Jeremiah has been persecuted by the leaders of his community for his preaching and, once again, has become impatient with God’s slowness to vindicate him. He lashes out at God and even refers to him as being possibly deceptive and unreliable in his manners (v. 18). God stops Jeremiah and rebukes him with stern words.
Jeremiah felt it his right to God’s vindication because of what he was doing for God, namely, being his prophet. God debunks Jeremiah’s notion by telling him that his vocation doesn’t guarantee him less suffering. Jeremiah was not doing God a favor because he and his ministry belonged to God. The real issue in Jeremiah’s impatience, God says (v. 19), is his suspicion of God’s faithfulness. In Chapter 14, Jeremiah had just pleaded for God’s mercy, reminding the Lord of his covenant with his people. Now the Lord applies the theme to Jeremiah personally to express that he would never break covenant with him as he told him at his call (Jer. 1).
Even deeper was God’s implication that he didn’t necessarily need Jeremiah’s service, but he had obligated himself to Jeremiah; if he obligated himself to need Jeremiah, he would be completely faithful to the prophet despite any suffering he might experience. God tells the prophet that his attitude and words were so revolting that they spiritually ejected him from his prophetic office and that he needed to divorce his human passions from his divine assignment. His passions were a frustration and hindrance to his mission. God uses the image of a precious metal being separated from its dross to represent the purifying Jeremiah needed in his heart; such would restore to him the prophetic mantle.
This very same scenario is present in “Footprints”—“Why have you not been here? Why did you leave?” But God promised that he would never leave or forsake us (Deut. 31:6). Jesus said that he was with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). God reassures, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). Our first duty is to trust what he says; what he says right clearly is that not only is he near, but he draws closer to us in our trials.
I cannot agree with the poem for its main point: the one set of footprints that indicate God carrying us. The spiritually mature Christian relies on God and adheres to his words, and God expects that of us. He has endowed us chiefly with his Word and his Holy Spirit, and through these we are made equipped to weather the storms that may cloud our lives. This means that we can bear up under pressure. We can stand and fight. We can walk and progress. God is not taken by surprise at our circumstances, and he promises to never allow anything in our lives that is too great for us to handle. Thus, if we find ourselves in it, God saw it first and knows that we have available to us everything necessary to walk through it and come out better persons on the other side (2 Pet. 1:3). He will draw close to us—that’s his promise—but there is no reason for our needing to be carried as though we were too weak or in jeopardy.
Sure, God carries us in the sense that he strengthens and comforts us. The miracle of grace relies upon his full provision for our total existence and well-being—“…apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Yet the result of that grace is our spiritual vitality and enablement. “[Not in your own strength] for it is God Who is all the while effectually at work in you—energizing and creating in you the power and desire—both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and delight” (Ph. 2:13, AMP).
This grace is even more wonderful because God promises his presence to us even when we err. Israel sinned to the point of drawing God’s indignation, but he never left them. God’s dealing with them throughout the Old Testament is a marvelous and loving example that, although our sin will bring punishment, the Lord faithfully walks with us through the consequences.
It is unfortunate for many Christians who miss the richness of God’s purpose with hardship. These are ever trying to throw the yoke from their shoulders or view it as a scheme of Satan when God has very well appointed such times in their lives for proving and perfecting. They surely miss a deep experience with God and perhaps some deeper aspect of his person that only comes with the intimacy born out of shared pain. One thing is certain though: Our ease is not God’s primary purpose with us. Frothy teaching will always align us more with self-help practices and cultural comfort than biblical teaching. Instead, God wants our whole hearts and resistance to the soul will give him the results he seeks.
So it doesn’t matter what the state of my life is. I can know without doubt that God is near and even closer when I face trouble. Although I may not see him, he sees me; although I may not feel him, he feels my pain. My confidence is his purpose for me in the situation. My hope is the refinement the fire brings. My relief is that the burden won’t crush me. God told Jeremiah, essentially, “I am not like you. Your affections with others will change, but mine won’t—and they won’t change regarding you. I am faithful.”
“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isa. 49:14-16)