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Wednesday Writings

One Set of Footprints: What It Means for God to Carry You Through Suffering, Part 1

by Jasmine

Originally published on www.jjfischer.com

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, willfully 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.

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