Ever read that poem, footsteps in this sand? I’ll post it here, just in case:
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed
he was walking along the beach with the LORD.
Across the sky flashed scenes from his life.
For each scene he noticed two sets of
footprints in the sand: one belonging
to him, and the other to the LORD.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path of
his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very
lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really bothered him and he
questioned the LORD about it:
“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow
you, you’d walk with me all the way.
But I have noticed that during the most
troublesome times in my life,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why when
I needed you most you would leave me.”
The LORD replied:
“My son, my precious child,
I love you and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.”
I’m conscious that many will have taken a form of comfort from this, perhaps in dark times, so I want to say from the outset that I’m glad you found something in it to warm the cockles, but to write honestly, and to shine the light I feel led to shine, I must be clear that I think this kind of thinking is as harmful as it is unbiblical. Please bear with me, I will explain. If it were just you and I, over a cup of tea, this would be much easier…
What is this poem saying to us? That in our hardest and most difficult times, when we feel abandoned by God, we’re not really alone. That everything will all be okay, because at some point we’ll look back on our trials and realise Jesus had been carrying us, even though we couldn’t feel it at the time. Somehow, his reassurance, which seemed absent when it was actually needed, makes everything okay when delivered decades too late?
I think what this poem is really saying to us is that the perceived absence of God in hard times is normal, but he’s there anyway. In other words – don’t worry if you never know the nearness of God. Your faith is alive and well, and God is active and busy behind your back. Or in even simpler terms – don’t expect to feel the actual presence of God.
I will begin my counter argument with this – if you do not feel the comfort of God, you have not been comforted.
This poem fails to reflect the nature of our God, his promises, and his love, and yet it is treated almost as scripture in some congregations, read out as an answer to the problem of suffering. There are hundreds upon hundreds of verses and passages I could use to dismember this bottom-of-the-barrel vision of life with God, but to keep it simple I’m going to focus on the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
Living as Israelites in captivity, they had refused to bow down to an idol of the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, who was furious with them, and ordered a furnace to be stoked up so they could be thrown into it and burned to death. His challenge to them was ‘what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?’ Daniel 3: 16-18,
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’
Notice the statements the three Israelites make. First, their confidence in the power of God – ‘the God we serve is able to deliver us from it’. Second, their confidence in God’s intention to deliver – ‘and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand’. They knew their God, and they knew he would protect them. They added a third statement, but it was not about their confidence in God, or in his promises. It was a personal statement, from them to the King. ‘But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’
This was a personal act of defiance, but not a statement about the Lord, who they had already confessed could and would deliver them. Unfortunately, it is this personal statement that many in the Evangelical movement have seized upon – ‘but even if he does not…we will not,’ as if that were the thrust of the passage. Evangelicalism has a problem – it wants to justify the status quo and call it spiritual, rather than raise its expectations in faith the see the promises of God come to pass. If we bypass ‘he can and he will’ and emphasise ‘but even if he doesn’t’, we take the emphasis off God’s nature and power and place it on ourselves instead. With that kind of attitude, we glorify our response instead of the Lord, and abandon faith. In the abandoning of faith, we put blockers up between us and the Lord, and stop him from acting in our lives.
This is the same dynamic which restricted Jesus’ ability to perform miracles. Where they doubted him, particularly in his hometown, it limited the freedom of God to move. Mark 6: 4-5,
‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marvelled because of their unbelief.’
If unbelief undermined Jesus’ power and ministry, then it undermines the ministry of the Holy Spirit today. This godless tradition of ‘even if he doesn’t’, takes this incredible story of divine faithfulness and deliverance, and turns it into a lesson on how we can never be sure God will do what he promised, but should focus on our response instead (if you haven’t read Nullifying the Word of God, I’ve explored this in detail in that article). This focus on ourselves instead of God’s faithfulness robs us of God’s intervention and protection, but it also robs God of the glory that should be his.
The Lord is glorified (his light shines, and we see him for who he is) when he acts, in demonstration of his loving nature. If the emphasis is on our reaction to tragedy, the spotlight is entirely on us, and not the nature of God. We defame God by doubting his promises, and then steal his glory by focussing on our pious reaction to tragedy.
So let’s look at what happened in response to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s faith – that God could and would deliver them. Daniel 3: 24-28,
Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisors, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’
They replied, ‘Certainly, Your Majesty.’
He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.’
Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out…the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
Then Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.
God was faithful, not only protecting the Israelites from death but appearing in the flames with them – many scholars believe the one who looked like ‘a son of the gods’ was a manifestation of Christ, of which there were several similar instances in the Old Testament. I share that view. Nebuchadnezzar’s response is to praise God, recognising he had rescued his servants in great power. He goes on to order that the Hebrew God be reverenced throughout Babylon. In other words, God is glorified by his defence of his children, and the response to that glory is praise and honour of his name. This is how God is glorified – when he can and he does fulfil his promises, and those who witness it give praise to him.
After Jesus healed a paralysed man, telling him to pick up his mat and walk, the crowd’s reaction is telling: Mark 2: 12,
‘Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”’
There are dozens more instances where the crowd’s response was identical, which I won’t quote for the sake of brevity, but I hope the message is clear. God is glorified when he acts according to his promises, and is seen for who he is. I will be writing a separate post of this, to demonstrate it in undeniable detail.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s deliverance was perfectly in line with the promises of God in scripture, such as Isaiah 43: 1-2,
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”’
So let’s consider this poem again, but it is our three Israelites who are walking with Jesus along the beach. Would they look back on their hardest trial, and see only one set of footprints, because God was carrying them? Of course not! They would have seen four clear sets of prints – their own, and those of Christ himself, who was with them in the flames. And what of the Apostle Paul, or any of the early disciples, whose lives were marked by the direct intervention and miraculous power of God? Would they be having this wistful conversation with God about his apparent lack of support?
As for me, I have been through some truly awful times in my life, but even in the darkest moments…no, especially in the darkest moments, I knew the closeness and comfort of my God. He has delivered me from tremendous suffering, and is closer to me than my own skin. When my days are done, I will not need to ask Jesus about a single set of footprints in the sand. Rather, I will worship him and thank him for his faithfulness and love.
This poem reflects a way of thinking about God and the Christian walk that is, in my view, as disempowering as it gets. It tells us that in life’s hardest times, we might not feel the closeness of God, but not to worry because he’s there anyway. It lowers out expectations of the closeness of God, makes us doubt the promises of God, and leaves us only with a whisper of hope that at some point we’ll look back and realise God was with us all along.
No, no and no. By this tradition, we nullify the Word of God. Let’s cast these deceptions aside and teach faith instead. Once we begin to believe the promises of God, we will start to see them come to pass. Once we draw near to God, we will find his companionship tangible and a comfort, even in the most challenging moments. He never feels distant, to the one who walks closely with him.
Lord, let us walk more closely with you. Let us know you better, and fellowship with you more intimately. Let those whose relationship with the Holy Spirit is occasional or distant find themselves saturated by your loving presence. Let all your children hear your voice. Let all your children believe your promises. Let all your children have the faith to let you move, that you may be glorified in the Earth. That the world may turn and say, ‘Look what the Lord has done!’, and give they lives to you. In Jesus Name, Amen.