The invisible work of an invisible God

Many people have been encouraged by the poem, “Footprints.” The authorship of the work has been hotly disputed, but its influence is not. The poet dreams that she is walking along the beach with God, leaving footprints in the sand behind them. Scenes from her life flash before her, and most of the time, two sets of footprints can be seen.

But she notices that during the most troubled times of her life, there is only one set of footprints. Distressed, she wonders aloud to God: did you leave me just when I needed you most?

No, God replies lovingly: “It was then that I carried you.”

It’s no wonder that believers have drawn inspiration from the poem. God is faithful, and can be trusted to bear us up in times of trouble.

But here’s the question: what if even the footprints can’t be seen?

Psalm 77, as we’ve seen, is a complaint in which the psalmist struggles to hold to the belief that God has not abandoned his people. He cries out to God continually; he can’t sleep at night; he meditates on God and on his past wonders, but finds no comfort. The psalm may have been written during the Babylonian exile, with the psalmist giving voice to the people’s despair:

Will my Lord reject me forever?
    Will he never be pleased again?
Has his faithful love come to a complete end?
    Is his promise over for future generations?
Has God forgotten how to be gracious?
    Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?
(Ps 77:7-9, CEB)

The lament reaches a crescendo in verse 10: “It’s my misfortune, I thought, that the strong hand of the Most High is different now.” The “strong” (literally, “right”) hand of God is a common metaphor for God’s miraculous power in rescuing his people — most notably, in the exodus from Egypt. Have things changed so much, the psalmist wonders, that we will never see God’s right hand working on our behalf again? Is God done with us? Are all of his promises null and void? Do our children have no future?

But the psalmist persists in his meditations, straining to hold fast to the narrative legacy of the exodus. The latter part of the psalm seems somehow to crackle with renewed confidence in the ancient stories that tell of God’s power on behalf of the people. The next to last verse is noteworthy in an unusual way:

Your way went straight through the sea;
    your pathways went right through the mighty waters.
        But your footprints left no trace!
(vs. 19)

“Your footprints were unseen,” reads the New Revised Standard. Surely, there was no saving miracle more spectacular than the path God cut through the Red Sea; indeed, the story of the exodus from Egypt is the central, defining episode of the people’s story. It doesn’t get more “seen” than that.

What should we make of such a cryptic remark?

Given the context of the psalmist’s deep lament and anguished questioning, he seems to be reminding the people of the mysteries of God, whose right hand works in mighty but invisible ways. Here, faith may mean trusting that he is carrying us even if there are no footprints in the sand to see. As the Benedictine scholar Konrad Schaefer has written: “The psalmist cannot track God in the present crisis. Like writing on water, God works miracles, but erases the traces.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the evidence of God’s presence and work. Such is the longing expressed in this and many other psalms. But we have to be careful not to fall into the “Show me!” attitude for which Jesus scolded many of his detractors. It’s a question of whether we will doggedly trust that God is who he says he is, that the stories we tell of his past mercies are true. We must continually tell, sing, and meditate on those stories as individuals and as a community.

And in so doing, we may find that despite our anxiety or even terror, God was leading us through the deep waters all along.