You Walk (with God) Wrong
Do our spiritual practices insulate us from the benefits of pain?

In a recent issue of New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh accuses, "You Walk Wrong." And I can't help but think that his insight into feet has spiritual application for Western Christians.

As the title suggests, Sternbergh claims that none of us walks correctly. But it's not our fault; it's shoes. "Shoes are bad," he claims. In fact, he cites researcher William Rossi as saying, "Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person." After comparing the feet of 180 people from different cultures, along with a few feet from 2,000-year-old skeletons, researchers concluded that feet were healthier before shoes became fashionable (the skeleton feet were better off). And people who don't wear shoes - Zulus, in this case - have healthier feet than we Westerners. Athletes who wear cheaper, less padded, shoes have fewer injuries. Elderly people with back, knee, and hip problems report less pain when barefoot. This is, to oversimplify, because feet absorb shock better than shoes (because they flex) and because we walk lighter when barefoot (because we can feel the ground).

Growing up, I loved the feeling of shag carpet and cool mud between my toes and feeling the earth as God made it, with all its points and sharp edges. So I was particularly pleased at Sternbergh's conclusion: that our feet - and the rest of our ambulating parts by extension - are healthier when we avoid the temptation to wrap them in foam. Lacing up to avoid the momentary discomforts of walking unshod causes long-term problems, because although our feet adjust to walking without shoes, our joints never adjust to walking with them.

Now for the spiritual application.

Our culture is determined to mediate its own experiences, so that we feel what we want when we want. That explains my frustration with NetFlix. Who knows what kind of mood I'll be in by the time I get a movie in the mail? Will I want to laugh or think or cry on Friday evening two weeks from now? Or to take another example, when my wife brings up a difficult conversation (like the family budget) at an inconvenient time, I'm tempted to say, "I can't deal with this right now." It's as if I have some right to determine when to face difficulty and what emotions to engage.

This impulse appears in broader Christian culture. The title of a book by the bestselling author of Boundaries (Zondervan, 2002) says it all: Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't (Zondervan, 1996). We've learned to protect ourselves with spiritual gifts inventories: "I'm afraid I can't help in the youth group; it's not my gift." We consider things edifying if they reinforce what we think, not if they unsettle us (I had this conversation with Christians concerning Pedro the Lion.)

May 30, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 13 comments

Julia Madas

September 27, 2014  10:16am

This article was really interesting. I feel as though the bare feet was an analogue to the Christian walk. What I got from this was that when we don't walk with God (or walk without shoes on) we aren't letting ourselves open up to God. We trend on ground that isn't comfortable for us and and go out of our comfort zone in the process. When we do walk with God (or walk with shoes on) we are more free. We don't worry about where we are going because we know that God has us and nothing is impossible with Him.

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July 29, 2008  12:57am

I heard of this article and I've been experimenting with rather thin soled (and on the cheap/er side) shoes. I like the concept though my feet do feel more fatigued at the end of the day. Then again, I'm not sure how many Zulu's and 2000 year old skeletons spend their time exclusively on concrete, tile and lacquered hardwood. To further tax your foot metaphor, I am reminded of something a wise old teacher we both shared once said in a ministry class years ago. It had to do with the image of a callous on your foot allowing you to walk without every sharp or difficult bit crippling you while also allowing you to feel enough pain to know you're being injured. I tried to live this metaphor for two years walking hard tile halls of hospital intensive care units as a chaplain. I shared it with nurses who felt that their emotions meant weakness or a lack of professionalism. I shared it with colleagues who didn't know when to go home and leave the pain and death in the rooms where they found it. It seems to me that many of us are in danger of insulating ourselves from the pain of others so that when we do encounter it, we are devastated. Others of us, perhaps some of your readership in Leadership, might be in danger of ignoring their pain until it overtakes them. As for David Bazan of Pedro The Lion, he will always have a special place in my heart for the edifying ministry of unsettling.

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Todd Burus

June 02, 2008  8:39am

The first thing that came to my mind when I read this article was the need for expository preaching straight through books of the Bible. If our ministers commit to doing a thorough exposition of the text from chapter 1 verse 1 until the end then we get that same experience as the author talks about. We don't get the luxury of skipping around and choosing which texts we want to talk about and which ones we don't, but we have to face whatever metaphorical rough patches may lie in the road along the way. If every message was meant to be about how to get "your best life now" or what not, don't you think there would be a book of the Bible that deals with only that? But that's not what we see. Instead, every book covers a myriad of topics. Some light, some serious. Some easy, some hard. Some clear, some confusing. And often these extremes sit right next to each other. And you may ask, "But is there a Biblical precedent for this?" To that I would say, "Yes, I believe there is." Beyond Paul's instructions to Timothy and Titus about studying and preaching the Word (and not just parts of the Word) for it is all profitable, I believe this is also what we see in Nehemiah 8 when Ezra and the Scribes taught straight through the Torah one Sabbath morning and exposited the text clearly so that the people would understand it. Moreover, as I talked about recently in my blog, this exposition of the text led to revival and repentance among the people of Israel, not by words of wisdom but just by the power of the revealed Word of God. I think the church would be much better off if we got away from the large number of topical series that we preach which often times only talk about those things that we want to hear and insulate us from the things we don't. As Mark Driscoll often says, "We believe that soft words make for hard people, but hard words make for soft people."

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June 02, 2008  7:58am

I find it interesting that the list of 'spiritual disciplines' doesn't seem to include bible reading. Why would that be? One would think that the shoe/barefoot analogy would both begin and end there, what with Jesus washing the disciples feet and the practice of removing one's shoes upon entering a house.

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Martin Balunos

June 01, 2008  9:41pm

Oustanding Article. I personally have experience on barefoot for almost 12 years during my childhood days. I grew up in a remote town. This help me later became one of those sucessful athlete in my army. As a challenge, I did participated in a 25 mile runner (Bataan Death March)in New Mexico where during the last few milesI have to hung my shoes around my neck to be able to survive. Yes... this article is worth even to my spiritual development. Thanks to you wo0nderful guys... God bless!!!

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June 01, 2008  8:42pm

I believe the point is not necessarily that we need to physically go barefoot more as a spiritual exercise. The point is that we in "Christendom" have adopted various means to insulate ourselves from true service to God, i.e. the reference to "spiritual gifts inventories" to avoid participation in a ministry we simply don't want to do. The author urges us to figuratively slip off our shoes and practice fasting, silence and giving as a means of disciplining ourselves to hear God. While I am familiar with scriptural reference to fasting and prayer for this purpose, I am not personally familiar with silence and giving for this purpose, but I believe we could dedicate anything - fast anything and it would be honored by God. The point is to inconvenience ourselves, challenge ourselves for the purpose of honoring God and opening our spiritual ears so we can hear Him more clearly. Jesus didn't say "IF you fast," He said "When you fast." We must also diligently look to see if we are carrying out the will of the Lord in our lives. Are we truly seeking His will for us and living it day by day? Our Pastor called for a moratorium on all "programs" for the summer, and has challenged us all to get out of our comfort zone and go out into the world and become the hands and feet of Jesus, reaching out in the community. It does no good to study if we don't actually put it into action. When we are faced with personal responsibility for ministry, that is when the insulation gets ripped away, as it should be.

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A. Shelton

June 01, 2008  9:33am

Interesting article ... I never wear shoes except for outside of the house, work, etc. .. but also got me thinking about what the Gospel says about shoes...especially Ephesians 6:15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.

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May 30, 2008  6:39pm

I'm not sure I fully get the connection between this blog and the barefoot article, but it was awesome reading that we should be barefoot more often. I have always hated shoes, and I spend as little time in them as possible – even in the winter. I just like my feet better. Thanks for pointing me to this article so that I can find kindred spirits! God bless!!! :)

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May 30, 2008  3:16pm

Okay, so, lets get metaphorical... When one goes barefoot one feels the mud, and the the argument goes that "shoes," metaphorically speaking have separated us from the elements which have inured us from the natural world rendering our position in it artificial because of our coccoon like state. However, lets look at shoes from the other side of the coin...they have protected our feet from sharp stones that would have crippled us, from parasties who would have burrowed under the skin and irritated us, and have allowed our efforts to travel further along hostile paths that would have turned us back to our homes where our barefooted feet felt comfortable with the paths we followed each day. Hence, I argue that without shoes we would be a world suffering from crippling injuries and worse still, crippling ignorance of each other. All, of course, metaphorically speaking.

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May 30, 2008  2:09pm

I totally appreciate this article. It's another reminder not to go to extremes. And also, not just to accept things that we're comfortable with and that we like. We also need to listen to people different from us, step out of our comfort zones, learn to suffer for good, and grow holistically. I like the reminder that we don't do it alone - we do it in community and with community. On a personal note, as a people-pleaser, I have found books such as Boundaries, and Safe People to be quite helpful. (I actually like How People Grow the best, more holistic, also talks about the necessary roles of grief, pain etc. in growth, and by the same authors). But, the problem I have run into and have seen is people twisting the principles for their own selfish ends (including me at times! haha) And I think it's because we are an highly consumerist culture, addicted to things such as comfort and individualism. So, that's why we also need the spiritual disciplines. For me, what's helped me in this part of my journey are fasting, solitude, and service.

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