One Set of Footprints: What It Means for God to Carry You Through Suffering
If you are at least twenty years old, you have probably heard of “Footprints.” There are shorter and longer versions, but the one on my dresser reads like this:
“A man dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. He noticed two sets of footprints. However, during the saddest times in his life, there was only one set of footprints. He questioned the Lord about this: ‘I don’t understand why when I needed you most, you would leave me’. The Lord replied, ‘During your time of suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you’.
I first encountered “Footprints” at my grandmother’s house when she babysat me as a child. It was the long version (a bit more fleshed out than the above) and I loved it. I thought it was such a poignant picture of the way that God cares for His children.
But the older I got, the more doubt began to creep in. Wait a second. How can you say that Jesus carries us? What does that really mean? Sure, He helps out now and again. An answered prayer, a timely word. But it’s not Jesus who gets us out of bed in the morning. We’re the ones who do the walking. We do the grunt work. We grit our teeth and soldier on, putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, week after week, even when the going gets tough.
And the going did get tough. In 2018, I fell sick with chronic illness, and doubt morphed into outright resentment. It wasn’t just “Footprints” that bore the brunt of my dissatisfaction. It was hearing from other sufferers that God would "carry" me through the worst season of my life so far. Reading Paul’s command to the Philippians (4:4) to rejoice…times two. Even reading the first line of David’s classic Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
I lack nothing, Lord? Seriously? I could think of about ten things I lacked back then: good health; a job (which I’d been forced to give up practically overnight); the ability to drive, socialise, and attend church…not to mention, a good night’s sleep. As my health deteriorated in early 2021 and my husband Dave was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes) shortly afterward, my bitterness festered. These people who talked about Jesus carrying them through suffering must either be blindly optimistic, wilfully self-deluding, or that unrelatable brand of cheerful sufferer who smiles fiercely and savagely through a waterfall of tears. Perhaps even all three.
If I’d had “Footprints” on my dresser back then (it was given to me later as a gift), I’m pretty sure it would have ended up in the bin. But God has been patient with my impatience, and I’ve come to see how He has carried me (and continues to carry me) through my suffering—to grasp hold of four truths that have sustained me in ways I could never have imagined.
1. God's mercies are truly new every morning.
This verse is quoted so often that it’s easy to become immune to its promises. Let me copy it here:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
It would be impossible to walk the road of suffering if God did not show mercy to us every step of the way.
I could give countless examples from my own life. The meals and care packages that arrived on our doorstop after my husband was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of a state-wide (and later nation-wide) COVID-19 lockdown. The ability to drive my husband to and from his chemo appointments when up until that point, I hadn’t been able to consistently drive due to my own symptoms. Financial mercies from my husband’s workplace. Even the awful episode of gastritis (painful inflammation of the stomach lining) that landed me in hospital the day we moved into our new house, which not only led to a diagnosis for my chronic illness symptoms, but a procedure which picked up a large cyst in my bowel that, according to my specialist, would likely have turned cancerous in a couple of years.
God was working behind the scenes—though my bitterness prevented me from trusting in that at the time. Before that wilderness period, I'd only ever experienced God’s love and blessing as the absence of trouble and trials. But in the wilderness, God’s blessings persist even in the presence of the things we might otherwise want to wish away.
Why should God’s provision come as a surprise to us? Our God is the same God who thought to give His human mother into the keeping of His friend even as He hung in agony on the cross (John 19:25-27). The God who gave His people manna and quail in the wilderness, even while they were grumbling and disobedient (Exodus 16).
But here’s the thing about manna. The Israelites had to gather it fresh every day. They couldn’t hoard it, else it would turn maggoty and smelly (Exodus 16:2). In your season of suffering, God’s mercies will be new every morning, fragrant manna from Heaven in the barrenness and turmoil of your life. But you will also have to go out each morning to gather them—that is, to notice and acknowledge what God is doing in your life. To eat of Jesus, the bread of life, who richly satisfies our hungry souls in a way that even manna could not (John 6:35). And to thank Him for the mercies that He brings, even in the middle of a barren desert.
2. God’s presence is independent of your awareness of His presence.
We live in the “I feel, therefore I am” generation. If we don’t feel something within ourselves—however nebulous, subjective, and enigmatic that might sound—it must not be true. By this metric, anything which does not match up to our lived experience may be discarded as “not my truth.” Therefore, if I don’t feel God is here in my suffering, He must not be here. For why would a loving father who can see my pain choose to stay away?
This is, of course, where we run into the limitations of our humanity and understanding—just as God reminded Job—and therefore must trust what we know to be true rather than what we feel to be true. The Christian who has lived in the world long enough to know the deceptiveness of their own heart (Jeremiah 17:9) and who has learned to act in spite of their feelings (e.g., to love their spouse despite fleeting feelings of anger or disappointment) is freed from the prison of self-perception. What we know and understand is a drop in the ocean of what is known and understood by God.
Emotions are not sinful or to be pushed aside, however, but to be shared with the God who is acutely familiar with suffering. And, knowing that subjective feelings do not always map onto objective realities, our task then is to trust, and to preach to ourselves in the darkness what was so easily seen in the light. God is present even when you don’t “feel” Him. Perhaps even especially when you don’t feel Him. King David, who felt close to and distant from God at various points throughout his life, writes that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted and the crushed-in-spirit (Psalm 34:18).
I love this reminder from Sam Wan in his letter to his younger self about the dangers of basing the authenticity of our faith on our feelings:
You are going to be captivated by the gospel in sharp moments where your “heart feels strangely warmed,” your heart will be stirred, your passion attuned. In moments when you don’t feel it—when you’re not moved by joy in God or delighted in his word, or have a single-minded pursuit of him—you are going to doubt whether you’re faithful. So you’ll end up chasing after these moments as authentic spirituality. You are going to use them as a barometer for your faith. When you experience a longer ‘dryness,’ you’ll be frustrated, and in this frustration, you’re going to try and ‘force’ emotion into faith and be envious at how others speak of their spiritual experiences. You’re going to get confused and wonder in your less moved moments whether you love God at all.
The answer, Wan writes, is not to try harder, gain more knowledge, or be more perfect. Instead, we are to embrace the gospel of grace, just as we did when we first became Christians. Jesus has freed us from the prison of our feelings, of stubborn self-reliance. All we need to do is to lean into Him, to accept His grace when we fall short, to admit our vulnerabilities and our pain. He is strong enough to carry it all. And He will, unlike those around us, never get compassion fatigue.
3. Jesus has suffered as we have…and more.
If you’d said this to me during the darkest of my wilderness days, I would have probably gotten very cranky. Sometimes it feels like Jesus is that perfect older brother who does everything right and, more importantly, never does anything wrong. When we lean into that bitter attitude, we might even find ourselves denying Jesus’ humanity in a bid to make ourselves feel better (“Well, Jesus is God, so of course He did everything perfectly! But I’m only human…”). Or perhaps doing the opposite: denying Jesus’ divinity (“What can God possibly do in this situation? It’s hopeless!”).
If you’re in a season of suffering and someone reminds you—or you read the Gospels and are reminded yourself—that nothing you can go through is more than Jesus experienced Himself, you might bristle at it, feeling like that imperfect younger sibling and tempted to resentment rather than admiration. But more often than not, that resentment is a sign that you’re clutching your troubles more tightly than you’re holding onto Jesus. Quite possibly, you have a bigger view of your suffering than you do of God’s sovereignty (I know I did).
When you go on a hike, it’s foolish to think that you’re the first one in the world to blaze that trail. There are signposts everywhere, telling you how long the walk is, what the grade is, and what you’re going to see on the way. There are steps cut out in advance for you and handrails to hold in the more dangerous sections. All you have to do on that walk is to trust the signposts, follow the directions, and not try to blaze a trail of your own. If there’s a tour guide available, that's even better!
The Gospel is the story of how Jesus has given us everything…including Himself. Using the language of "Footprints," He’s walked this road before us, so His footprints are easy to follow.
Jesus is the ultimate tour guide, the pioneer of this trail (Hebrews 12:2), but you have to let Him lead. What does that look like? Well, you have to pay attention to the signs and listen to the Guide (make space to read your Bible faithfully). You have to talk with the Guide and ask questions where you’re uncertain (carve out time to talk with God in prayer). You have to lean on the handrails of hope when the going gets tough (Hebrews 6:19) and maybe even on other people who represent God’s mercies and ministrations to you in the wilderness. You may even need to watch out for snakes on the trail.
4. If God gives you a burden too heavy to carry, it’s because it’s a two-man job.
There’s an incredibly dangerous but exceedingly palatable myth floating around out there: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
The truth is that if you’re a Christian for more than a minute, God will give you more than you can handle. Several times, God has given me things that are too heavy to bear. Soul-crushing things that even made me wish I'd never been born (Job 3). He doesn’t always space them out neatly, either. Sometimes they come all at once.
If you cannot lift what’s been delivered to your doorstep (and even if you can), you need to seek help from the only one strong enough to carry it (and you). What does that look like?
It’s painful, for starters. It involves the slow death of an insidious self-reliance that creeps up on us every second we’re immersed in the proudly independent culture of the West. As a trained psychologist, I will do everything and anything in my power to solve my problems before I take them to God. But God wants us to take our problems to Him first, even if the solution ends up being human, not divine (at least in our eyes). He is God, not us. Trying to solve our problems on our own strength is like trying to start our campfire with flint and steel when there's a bonfire already roaring at our backs.
Remember that the disease of disordered priorities is one of the reasons why God takes away what is dear to us...so that we will reach out for better things. But, ultimately, God always gives much more than He takes away. And the more He offers is always more of Himself: His presence, His sufficiency, His sovereignty, His grace, His mercies, and His daily companionship. If you are mourning the loss of good things, know that your future will involve purpose and fulfilment in abundance, since God only prunes to bring about even greater fruitfulness in your life (John 15:1-16). So if He’s stripped something away from you, don’t jump to complain. Stand back and watch Him work, and learn to notice the small mercies that every new day brings. I promise they will be more than enough, even on the days when you find yourself asking, as the Israelites did, "But what is it?" (Exodus 16:15)
God isn’t just faithful Samwise Gamgee, who says to the travel-weary Frodo, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” Jesus can do both—if we let Him. And if we do, what we see snaking up the side of Mount Doom is not two sets of footsteps, but one, leading to the place where Jesus has already wrenched the chains from our necks, cast the ring into the fire, and won the battle against the Enemy forever.
All we have to do is surrender.