In Christian popular culture in recent decades, one poem has caught the imagination of many Christians around the world. The poem, often titled ‘Footprints in the Sand’, is known to be the inspirations behind gospel songs and numerous Christian merchandizing products. It has been quoted in church services and funerals. Many believers have claimed to find comfort in the poem in times of distress. Yet how biblically and theologically sound is the poem? How should the poem be used in the Christian community today? What issues can arise if the poem becomes part of our understanding of the Christian faith?
A Theological Reflection is needed to address these questions. This article uses an expanded theological reflection model to analyze the experience, identify the theological issues, make connections between the poem and Scripture and Church Tradition, and finally develop new insights and ways of application regarding how Christians should approach the ‘Footprints’ poem and other similar discourse.
‘Footprints in the Sand’ describes a dream in which a man walks along a beach and sees the footprints that represent his own life journey and walk with God. There are two sets of footprints in the sand, one from the man and one from God. However, the man finds out at one point of the journey, there is only one set of footprints, and that it is from the time when he experienced the lowest, most difficult time of his life. He asks God why God has abandoned him during his time of suffering, leaving behind only one set of footprints. The poem ends with God’s comforting answer: the set of footprints is from God Himself because He carries the man in His arms through the difficult times.
The poem is indeed emotional, touching, and in some ways, romantic. The sentimental ending with God’s assurance of His presence surely contributes to the poem’s widespread popularity among Christians. The man in the poem has asked God the same question that many Christians have asked in times of frustration – Where is God when I need Him? Why has God abandoned me? Since there have been several deaths in my church congregation recently, I have heard many members who have lost loved ones asking the same question to God. It is easy to identify with the man’s sentiments in the poem because these sentiments are very human. Even Jesus has asked God, “eli eli lama sabachthani” when He was suffering on the cross. This is a sentiment that Jesus himself has experienced.
A closer look at the poem reveals some deeper theological questions about the nature of God, which can be evaluated against Scripture. In the poem, the man clearly has specific expectations and understanding of what God is like. God takes the images of a human companion. One can imagine God is almost like a walking buddy. The man expects God to be literally walking with him side by side on his journey, as shown in the pair of footprints. God is expected to be present at all times of trouble and distress. We all desire this relationship with God. Numerous Psalms in the Bible, especially Psalms 23, present a God who provides refuge and comfort to His people. The biblical narrative, from Genesis to Acts, clearly describes God as faithful in being with His people in times of need. ‘Footprints’ offers a loving, caring God who dwells among His people and provides comforts to those in need. Isaiah 46:4 also describes God carries His people to sustain them. ‘Footprints’ captures this imagery accurately.
Although this aspect of God's nature corresponds to the Biblical notion of God of love, there is a one-sided focus on only one aspect of the Christian understanding of faith.
1. Our assurance lies in Jesus' death and resurrection and God's promises, not in checking for physical signs.
Undeniably, we know that Christ has died for us all and that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Corinthians 5:15). God's presence with His people is one of the most frequently repeated promises of God, from Genesis all the way to Revelations.
The focus is therefore quite different from the story of ‘Footprints in the Sand’ in both the questions they raise and the answers they provide. In the Bible, the question concentrates on who God is and whether Christ achieves salvation for humanity. God’s eternal victory is the core of the answer. Yet in the ‘Footprints’, the question only concerns the period of time when the individual is feeling distressed, and only on the personal expectations and needs of one individual. Although asking the question is not a sin, the man in the poem clearly loses sight of the big picture of eternal salvation in the Christian faith.
2. God is reduced to a walking buddy when needed.
When God answers, “That set of footprints is mine because I carried you through the most difficult times,” God warmly satisfies the desire of the individual in the way he expects it. Yet God is reduced to a set of footprints which can be checked and traced to provide emotional comfort. As the poem ends abruptly after God’s answer, the author sees no need to address the individual’s perspectives of God or to adjust his expectations from focusing on himself to focusing on who God truly is and God’s eternal purpose.
The Bible provides a much broader approach to the understanding of the relationship with God which can be closer to the picture presented by the ‘Footprints’ poem. The answer to the man’s question (Where is God when I need Him?) lies on the cross. Christ’s death on the cross is an eternal testimony of Christ's presence among humanity and His suffering for our sins. Checking for footprints at a certain period of time is irrelevant. The gospel is concerned solely with the issue of sins and God’s reconciliation with His people, not merely an emotional ‘fix’ when we want it.
3. Man is accountable to God, not the other way round.
The relationship between man and God portrayed in the Bible also poses a stark contrast to what is seen in ‘Footprints in the Sand’. Every Christian believer is personally and directly accountable to God alone in all his deeds, thoughts and salvation (Romans 14:12). Every individual who knows the grace of God in Jesus Christ is set free to act on the basis of love, and is therefore not subject to no one except God (Romans 6:22-23). Every Christian is held answerable to God, though the ‘Footprints’ story seems to suggest the other way round: the man checks if God is walking with him, asks God when he does not feel God’s presence, and God gives a satisfactory answer. God is reduced to an ‘attendant’ figure that provides companionship. The fact that the man does not even know God is carrying him in the story also poses another question of how much the man knows God and how closely he is following God.
4. Christianity is about you following God, not God following you.
Another way in which ‘Footprints in the Sand’ may have contradicted Scripture is that the story clearly focuses on the question whether God is following the man, not whether the man is following God. The Old Testament consistently emphasizes the Israelites’ obedience to God and His law as the core issue of Israel’s salvation. In the New Testament, Christ also commands all Christians, “carry your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Scripture demands absolute obedience in a Christian spiritual walk with God which entails self sacrifice and denial. An overuse of the ‘Footprints’ story in our culture may allow a distorted understanding of Christianity and wrong expectations of God to infiltrate our faith community.
5. Christianity is about knowing God, repentance and transformation, not only seeking comfort when we want it.
We all long to see physical signs in our lives that can reassure us of God's presence and blessings. At times these signs become even more important than seeking God Himself. When things go bad, we often ask 'Does God love me?' and 'Can I trust God?' Jesus' birth, death and resurrection answered YES to both questions. Our spiritual walk with God is sustained by the cross which is revealed to us through the Scripture, not by checking for ‘footprints’. We are to grow in our knowledge of God, bear fruits for Him and live a life worthy of Him (Colossians 1:10).
In Gospel of Mark, the woman who has suffered from bleeding for twelve years seeks healing through Jesus’ supernatural powers which she has heard about (Mark 5:25-34). The healing takes place immediately. Yet Jesus demands the woman to come out from the crowd and to know Jesus face-to-face. Jesus does not allow the woman’s faith to be limited to a satisfaction of immediate needs. Jesus makes sure her faith involves receiving eternal forgiveness of sins and being called “daughter” of God. This is what the gospel is about.
So what do we do in times of despair, hurt and loneliness?
This article is not to denounce the ‘Footprints’ story. It certainly does not deny a lot of pain and suffering people experience every day in our fallen world. Christians should expect God to actively reveal Himself, intervene and engage in our daily experience today. We are encouraged to cry out to God to tell Him all about our:
misery (Genesis 16:7-13)
worries (1 Peter 5:7)
anxieties (Philippians 4:6-7)
needs (Matthew 6:9-13)
grievances (Psalm 142)
weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15)
anger (Psalm 140)
doubts (Mark 9:24)
fear (Psalm 69)
longing (Psalm 85)
confusion (Psalm 102)
disappointment (Psalm 74)
although He already knows all before we tell him (Matthew 6:8). He promised He will never leave us (Deuteronomy 31:6). Our God is a God who sees, hears, responds to, and delivers us from suffering (Exodus 3:7-16). As He is bigger than our problems (1 John 4), His grace will always be sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). These references are only a tiny selection.
What if these are still not enough? It happens. We are even encouraged to wrestle with God! Or let God wrestle with you (Genesis 32). God had an intensive physical wrestle with Jacob. Jacob said to Him, "I will not let you go until you bless me." God not only blessed him there, He also gave him a new name (a new identity), but also a crippling injury (a permanent mark of God's power over him).
While the Footprint story presents a nice picture of God carrying us in times of sorrow, God in the Bible goes way beyond this. Not only it is virtually impossible for us to hide from God (Psalm 139), God even seeks to transform us in all sorts of unexpected ways through the miseries we face. The reason why God treasures a broken heart is that He can draw close to it intimately.
In other words, instead of asking God, "Where were you?" ask Him "What are you doing in me and with me?" Let the painful experiences be turned into a time of intimacy with God and other people. When our security is taken away, we experience how God is enough to satisfy us. Let Him touch the deepest part of our hearts and fill up all the empty spaces with the deepest desires. He promised He will answer whenever we cry out to Him (Jeremiah 33:3). Wait patiently for His answer. The answer and its timing are almost always different than what we expect!