“Soul Talk: When There Are No Footprints”
Ps. 77; (Exodus 14:13-31)
Our son was supposed to be enjoying 6th grade. But he was spending the year at home – not because he was being home-schooled but because he was ill. He had a severe headache that would not go away. The doctors weren’t sure what to do – all that was left was exploratory brain surgery, an option we were not excited about. It turned out they did another surgical procedure which did, in fact, discover the problem and solve it. For the first time in months, he was headache free – only to have them return a few weeks later, though somewhat less severe and not as constant. All eventually ended well but it was a long year – and difficult at times to carry on pastoring. What do we do when there are no footprints?
During that year I never lost faith, but I had plenty of questions and did plenty of wrestling. I believed God was present, but I sure couldn’t see him. With the Psalmist, I was frustrated and confused since God’s footprints where nowhere to be seen. With the Psalmist I was smack dab in the middle of THE ANGUISH OF LIFE. And I, like the Psalmist, did what believers are supposed to do - again and again I CRIED OUT TO GOD I identified with the Psalmist (1-2): “I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted.” Prayer often originates in pain, and the pain propels our prayers with increasing intensity and frequency. And when it seems like God is not answering the pain deepens, and the prayers increase with still more intensity and frequency. That was the cycle in my life.
Along the way I did something else believers are supposed to do: I REMEMBERED GOD. I kept rehearsing what God is like. I was even preaching it every Sunday. But the pain and distress only grew worse; the active God I was preaching about didn’t seem to lineup with the inactive God I was crying to. At times, sleep was not restful nor abundant. The Psalmist described the mood well (3-4):” I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night.” Far from helping, remembering God, at times, made matters worse. I knew who God was but was not experiencing Him accordingly. What do we do when there are no footprints?
I know my experience was and is not unique. SAINTS THROUGHOUT THE AGES have lived where I was living. John Henry Jowett, pastor of New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and later Westminster Chapel in London, wrote to a friend in 1920: “You seem to imagine I have no ups and downs but just a level and lofty stretch of spiritual attainment with unbroken joy.… By no means! I am often perfectly wretched and everything appears most murky”. Charles Spurgeon, who suffered debilitating bouts of depression all his life said, “There are dungeons beneath the castles of despair.” Reformer John Knox prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit and put an end to this miserable life.” Author John Bunyan shared, “I had my temptations attending me.… Sometimes I should be assaulted with great discouragement therein, fearing that I should not be able to speak the Word at all … at which times I should have such a strange faintness and strengthlessness seize upon my body that my legs have scarce been able to carry me.”(1) The prophet Jeremiah cried out, “Cursed be the day in which I was born.” Even Elijah lived there: “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life.” When there are no footprints.
YOU, TOO, KNOW THE ADDRESS. You’ve lived, and perhaps are now living in the depths of despair, where there are no footprints. There are moments, even whole chapters of life when God’s way’s and presence are unseen or unintelligible. “It doesn’t have to be dark outside…to be in the middle of the night.”(2) You’re overwhelmed and not sure where to turn. You’re suffocating under the pressure. The scenes are numberless. Parents keeping vigil over an infant or child, with no signs of relief; the Doctor has told you that “There’s nothing we can do;” your spouse has shared she’s not in love with you anymore, that she’s found someone else, and is leaving and has filed for divorce; the boss called you in an informed you that, although they love the work you do, they had to ‘let you go’; your loved one died way to early and without warning; your child has become prodigal and shut you out and left you behind; your parents disapprove of your lifestyle and will have nothing to do with you; the college you couldn’t wait to get to, you can’t wait to get away from; the prayers you’ve prayed so fervently for healing or transformation haven’t been answered. Yes – the scenes are numberless.
And therefore WE WONDER – just like the Psalmist (6b-9): “My heart meditated and my spirit asked: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” Asaph didn’t just pick these questions out of the air. He knew what God had told the Israelites when He identified Himself (Ex. 34:5-7): “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”” Asaph was calling each of God’s self-descriptive phrases into question. “Has He rejected us? Will He ever again show favor to Israel? Has His unfailing love vanished forever? Have His promises failed? Has He forgotten or decided not to be gracious? Is He so angry, He has shut up His compassions?” In the depths of our despair, these are, in one form or another, our questions too – when there are no footprints.
On the heels of the devastating tornadoes that struck Oklahoma in May 2013, LifeWay Research completed a survey about suffering and faith in God.(3) Here's how people responded when asked, "How do you feel about God when suffering occurs that seems unfair?"
• 33 percent—"I trust God more"
• 25 percent—"I am confused about God"
• 16 percent—"I don't think about God in these circumstances"
• 11 percent—"I wonder if God cares"
• 8 percent—"I am angry or resentful at God"
• 7 percent—"I doubt God exists"
Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents said that at the very least their interest in God increases when a natural disaster occurs.
Actor Tim Allen lives at this address and has the same questions. His father died when Allen was 11 years old. A drunk driver crashed into their car as his dad was driving home from a college football game. Nearly 50 years later, Allen still claims that his father's death "changed everything forever." In a 2012 interview he said, “Part of me still doesn't trust that everything will work out all right. I knew my father was dead, but I was never satisfied with why he was dead. I wanted answers that minute from God. "Do you think this is funny? Do you think this is necessary?" And I've had a tumultuous relationship with my creator ever since.” (4) It can be unsettling when there are no footprints.
Just how do we survive and move beyond this anguish of life? The Psalmist turned to THE FOCUS OF HIS FAITH. (10) “Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.” The focus of his faith was to REMEMBER WHAT GOD HAS DONE. In a recent issue of Leadership Journal, Doug Resler shared some of what he learned from his experience of ministerial burnout that led to his resignation from pastoring the church he served. He said, “During This time (prior to resignation) I railed at God. ‘Why have you let this happen to me? Have I not been faithful? Have I not given you everything? Are you enjoying the train wreck my life has become? ... Three months earlier, my wife had uttered the words no pastor wants to hear. ‘I am miserable being married to you. It’s either me of the ministry. You need to decide which is more important to you.”… During that season my marriage, family, and vocation were all at risk. I was failing in every area of my life. The ground on which I walked trembled. Even my faith was shaken… Sometimes it is only when everything you hold dear is put at risk that you discover the faithfulness of God.”(5) When there are no footprints…there is God.
That’s what the Psalmist discovered. He decided to LOOK BEYOND THE PRESENT BY LOOKING BACK TO THE PRESENCE of God in the lives of His people. He continued (11-12), “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” When the hound loses his scent, he hunts backwards and so recovers it, and pursues his game with louder cry than before.(6) So the Psalmist, when his hope was at a loss, looked backward to see what God had already done. In verses 13-18 he recalled God’s creation of and power over the world, and the history of God’s works and miracles among the Israelites. In verses 19-20 he offered his conclusion: “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Though His footprints were not seen, the Mighty God of the earthquake and thunderstorm led the Israelites out of bondage, through the Red Sea into freedom in the Promised Land.
So when there are no footprints, we LOOK BEYOND THE PRESENT BY LOOKING BACK TO THE PRESENCE OF GOD IN JESUS CHRIST. Remember how good he has been to you. He is now seated at God’s right hand. He is the one to whom we cry out. At Calvary His footprints were not seen but then (Mt. 28:2-7): “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead…”
Jesus is still at work, though his footprints are often not seen. As Paul wrote (Eph. 1:18-21 & 3:20-21): “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come… Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
When there are no footprints, look back to Jesus. Remember how good He has been to you. It’s when we remember Jesus that we come back to the core of our faith. Timothy George points to the movie Notebook for a wonderful illustration.(7) ”It's a love story about Noah and his wife Allie. Most of the movie is about their young love together and how they met, but every now and then, the movie tells the other end of their life, showing them in their old age. Allie has developed Alzheimer's disease, and she's in a nursing home. Noah doesn't have to be there, but he insists on staying with her. Some years before, she had written down the story of their love in a notebook. Every day, Noah comes, they have lunch together, and Noah takes out the notebook and reads Allie the story of their love. As he reads the story, her eyes will open every now and then, and she comes back to him for a few minutes. That's what the Bible is. The Bible is God's covenant love story for his people through all the ages. When we're in the depths and it seems that the Lord has rejected us forever and his mercy is gone, we take out the notebook and we read, "In the beginning, God created" and "he delivered my people out of Egypt with a mighty hand," and "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." When we read, we come back to reality, and we know who we are because we know who God is, what he has done, and that his unfailing love will never perish.” When there are no footprints, read the Notebook.
Asaph received no immediate answer. He simply returned to the core of his faith and left his situation in God’s hands. And that’s the key – LEAVE EVERYTHING IN GOD’S HANDS. To this day I have no idea why our son suffered for a year; I have no idea what all God was doing – but I know He was busy ‘doing’ all the time. I didn’t see very many footprints, but I know He walked beside us, before us, behind us and, and beneath us. And I know he brought us through. Sometimes God moves in a mysterious way. As Isaiah prophesied (50:10), “Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” Someday, we’ll see the footprints. We will know for certain, in answer to Asaph’s questions, that God has not rejected us, has not stopped loving us, has not stopped being faithful to His promises, has not quit being gracious, and has not shut up his compassions. In the meantime, when there are no footprints, leave it in God’s hands.
Joe Bayly was an active, well-known Christian leader; he and his wife Marylou lost all three of their young sons to death in a span of 7 years. Out of that experience, where there were no footprints, Joe wrote a poem, which said, in part: “Let me alone, Lord, you’ve taken from me what I’d give your world. I cannot see such waste that you should take what poor men need. You have a heaven full of treasure; could you not wait to exercise your claim on this? O spare me, Lord, forgive, that I may see beyond this world, beyond myself, Your sovereign plan, or seeing not, may trust You, Spoiler of my treasure. Have mercy, Lord, here is my quitclaim.” (8)
Paul wrote (Rom. 8:32-35 MSG), “So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way!”
When there are no footprints, are you willing to give your quitclaim to God – to transfer all you have and the management of your life over to Him? In fact, are you willing to do it now?
(1) Morgan, R. J. (2000). Nelson’s complete book of stories, illustrations, and quotes (electronic ed., pp. 205–206). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) Warren Wiersbe, Conversations in the Night, ‘Prayer, Praise, and Promise
(3) Research: Americans Turn to God and Generosity after Natural Disasters, Facts & Trends (5-28-13) | posted 6/24/2013 - Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/ PreachingToday.com.
(4) David Hockman, "Don't Let the Burger Fool You," AARP (October-November 2012) | posted 8/19/2013 - Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/ PreachingToday.com.
(5) Doug Resler, LeadershipJournal.net, Spring 2014, p. 33-35
(6) William Gurnall, The Treasury of David, LOGOS
(7) Timothy George, The Unseen Footprints, © 2009 Christianity Today International, Preachingtoday.com
(8) Joe Bayly, from Psalms of my Life, p. 40, as quoted in Preaching the Darkest Psalm, David M. Howard Jr., Preaching Magazine, September/October, 2012, p. 39