This popular piece of 20th-century verse boasts a controversial background: no one knows for sure when it was written or by whom, although there are multiple contenders.
Meanwhile, some believers consider the poem to be only vaguely “Christian” and are concerned that it has no basis in Scripture. They believe the poem is misleading about the character of suffering and of God. Yet, the poem endures: why do Christians love “Footprints in the Sand”?
Talking to Non-Believers.
The theme of “Footprints” is, “Where is God when I suffer?” Everyone has suffered, and those are the times when one feels most alone. The narrator is hurt and puzzled by what feels like God’s absence: “I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
The isolation of grief, deep sadness, depression, despair, or anxiety is a familiar feeling. No matter how many friends and family one has, the hardest times are also the loneliest.
Maybe everyone can relate to this emotional facet of suffering and can echo the writer’s implied question: “Where are you, God”?
The writer’s answer paints a picture of God, which is both gentle and powerful. The Christian God is always there, and he can carry us through hardships of every kind. “When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.”
From here, potentially meaningful ideas can start to unfold. As an answer to one of the most frequent questions, unbelievers ask, “Footprints” lacks the formality of scriptural language, making it accessible and comforting.
The picture is moving and enables one to pull back and see the big picture. God is at work, but we often have no idea how our suffering could be part of his bigger, greater plan.
Moreover, the writer has indicated that faith is a matter of believing in what we cannot see, when one argues that such a thing using the Bible, defensiveness and attack are both common.
One might answer “But I have tried to believe, and I feel nothing,” or “You would have to be insane to believe such a thing.”
But when one points to this poem, the door opens. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). There are truths here if one is willing to unpack them and the listener is patient enough to hear them.
A Victorian Legacy.
The visual and spiritual themes emerging from “Footprints in the Sand” find their inspiration in the Victorian period, which, though very distant from the modern reader, might have been influential on the writers who claim to have written it.
The Lord’s own words were his comfort at such times, and his legacy of faith contributes to our confidence.
Spurgeon wrote a sermon in which he asked the congregation if they had ever endured trouble, which left them feeling as though no one had ever been through anything similar before.
“And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked and say, ‘I am alone—alone—ALONE—nobody was ever here before me’? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man?”
Justin Taylor quoted this sermon to point out that the ideas are not corny or shallow but can in fact be traced back to the likes of Spurgeon. Notice the loneliness of this imagery and even the footprints: is this direct inspiration for the writer of a 20th-century poem?
Taylor had once dismissed the poem as “Evangelical Kitsch” until he realized how effectively the writer shares the idea that “we walk by faith and not by sight with the Lord [who] will never leave us or forsake us” (2 Corinthians 5:7). If Spurgeon thought the idea was powerful enough, why should we mock the imagery of “Footprints”?
Whenever a link is made with a respected name from history, this fuels even greater curiosity and interest. We often quote those who died in faith, people who appear to have maintained their faith in the face of that lonely kind of suffering the author of “Footprints” is talking about.
They encourage the doubting and suffering individual that God will sustain us because we can look back and see that the likes of Spurgeon, Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and Ten Boom ran the race until the very end.
They join that great “cloud of witnesses” which help us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Some Biblical Backing.
Yet, Spurgeon’s writing is not as powerful as God’s own words, the scriptures, which are our primary resource. “Footprints in the Sand” is popular with Christians, in part, because of the profound biblical themes conveyed therein.
Particular among them is this promise from God in the fourth verse: “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you,” which God spoke to Israel and which Christ uttered to his disciples.
God declared, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8). The narrator insists, “You said you would walk with me all of the way,” leading us to Matthew 28:20, where Jesus promised, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Or there is Isaiah 41:10 — “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
The Psalmist was moved to write, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
While the beach and the sand appear, at first glance, to be a contrast with the dark valley, cliffs rising high and foreboding all around, these writers are both saying the same thing: we feel alone when we suffer.
And both writers conclude that the Lord is with us at such times, even if we cannot see room for two to walk along that narrow path.
Perhaps it is a stretch to say the writer took inspiration from the verses above, but the poem certainly delves into the same themes and comes to the same conclusions.
Believers must never forget that the Lord does not leave them to suffer alone. God’s presence is protection against Satan’s plan to convince us that there is no comfort from the Father if we are suffering.
The Missed Step Leads to Our Next Step.
“Footprints” is not Scripture; more like a gateway to God’s Word. The writer evokes the presence of God. Those who are in Christ can rest on his Sovereignty and care. He is the Psalmist’s staff.
God can and does use all kinds of resources to lead one to the foot of the cross. Popular art of all kinds, even when only tenuously associated with him, will sometimes suffice for this purpose simply because of the yawning gap between imperfect imagery and biblical reality.
Any Christian seeking to use “Footprints” for evangelical purposes could discover that the listener sees the gaps and asks for them to be filled; if not, then the Christian, seeing the gaps, can use those empty spaces within pop poetry to dig deeper into the reasons we have for our faith.
We do not glorify “Evangelical Kitsch” by quoting a piece of light verse if our motive is to glorify God.
Instead, we build on this opportunity by using the sort of imagery which simplifies this profound truth: when we are weak, God carries us. “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4).