August 5, 2020

The World’s Worst Feet

The worst feet in the world undoubtedly belonged to St. Francis of Assisi. Francis walked miles everyday throughout the region of Italy where he and his followers preached the Gospel. He walked on broken rock, bare dirt, ice, snow, and thorny weeds each day–in his bare feet. His feet were a mass of bloody wounds, blisters and scars. Francis never owned a pair of shoes for long. If someone gave him sandals, he would only wear them until he met up with someone who had no sandals, and he would give his shoes away. Thus he was almost always barefoot.

Perhaps he knew better than we the importance of walking barefoot.

I first began thinking about walking barefoot in relation to our our spiritual journey when I read an article in New York Magazine a few years ago titled “You Walk Wrong” (written by Adam Sternbergh). The author made a strong case for going barefoot. How our bodies were not designed for the wearing of shoes, and how shoes actually mess us up more than they help.

“Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person,” wrote Dr. William A. Rossi in a 1999 article in Podiatry Management. “It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot.” In other words: Feet good. Shoes bad.

So physiologists are now realizing that what makes us comfortable–shoes–may not be the best for us in the long run (pun not intended, but it works). And speaking of running, the best runners on the planet barely wear any protection on their feet. In the Copper Canyon of Mexico live a tribe known as the Tarahumara who can run literally for days on end. They run up and down mountains in hours where it takes others days to hike the same trail. Their running gear is a very simple thin, flat sandal with a leather thong wrapped around their ankles to hold it in place. No padding, no arch support, no air insoles. Barely anything at all. Yet the men of this tribe almost never suffer injuries common to most other runners. So could it be that shoes, after all, are not good for us?

Shoes protect us from stepping in the world as it is. With the right shoes we can walk or run on almost any surface: asphalt, gravel, dirt, even glass. If we are wearing the proper footwear we can hike in snow and ice, muddy fields, and creeks and rivers without ever getting our socks wet. And socks–well, all I can say is God bless the makers of SmartWool socks, the most comfortable material you can wrap around your feet. With the right shoes and socks I can walk all day in any kind of weather. I never have to actually feel what is going on around my feet. They are protected from discomfort and pain.

And thus my spiritual dilemma. I don’t like discomfort or pain. I want to be safe and warm and dry, especially when it comes to my soul. Oh sure, I can mouth words like, “I long for the dangerous God.” But when it come down to it, give me my SmartWools and Timberland waterproof boots, please. I say I want to be God’s hand extended to help those in need, but when that need is messy–dealing with someone in the throes of alcoholism, for instance, or caring for someone dying of AIDS–well, that is getting a bit much. Or let’s make it a bit more everyday. When a friend has lost his job, am I willing to reach into my pocket–which is none too deep itself these days–and give a good amount to see him through? Would I be willing to let my friend and his family move into my house when he loses his?

Walking barefoot allows me to touch this world as it really is, not as my soft-soled shoes tell me it feels like. And this world is a mess. There is a lot you will step in that is nasty and smelly if you go barefoot. There are rocks and sticks and thorns that will rip and tear your feet to shreds. It hurts to walk barefoot–and that is not bad. Leprosy patients have lost their sensitivity to pain and thus continue on when their bodies are telling them to stop doing something. They can walk for miles, for instance, in ill-fitting shoes, developing blisters that can become infected and perhaps costing the person their feet for good. Pain is an indicator that something needs to change.

But we don’t like pain and suffering. We buy books by the bushel that tell us God doesn’t want us to be in pain. We insulate our hearts against any kind of pain with conferences and sermons and songs that promise us unending good days. Yet without sensing pain, we do not know when we need to change something in our lives. If we are always wearing padded shoes, we will never feel the rough places in the ground, we will never learn to adjust our gait, we will never learn to walk–and run–with endurance. Pain may be telling us that we need to get off of this trail and take another. No, we are not to live in a place of pain purposely. But we need to be aware of what is causing the pain in order to take the proper action. And can we really feel that pain with shoes on our spiritual feet?

Walking is a big part of the description of our spiritual journey. God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. Enoch and Noah walked with God. Abram was told he would be blameless if he walked before God. Deuteronomy tells us to Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess. If we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t have to fear evil, for God is with us even there. Often the first thing a person would do after being healed by Jesus was to get up and walk. And perhaps the clincher: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. Or as Eugene Peterson renders 1 John 2:6 in the Message:

If someone claims, “I know him well!” but doesn’t keep his commandments, he’s obviously a liar. His life doesn’t match his words. But the one who keeps God’s word is the person in whom we see God’s mature love. This is the only way to be sure we’re in God. Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.

How do we walk as Jesus walked? I have a feeling it starts with taking our shoes off. In the second part of this, I’ll talk about the practicalities–and the pains–of learning to walk barefoot.


  1. The rankest quote of all time under the banner of Christianity?

    “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words” – Assisi

    How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? – Romans 10:14

    • Savannah says

      Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if that’s all you take away from this post, I believe that is rather sad.

      Do you realize that when the word “see” is used, it is not only used to mean what people literally “see”. We use the word “see” to often express realization, epiphany, etc.

      When the word “hear” is used, it is often used to denote understanding or acknowledgement of truth. What do you think that people mean when they say things like, “How you helped me out really spoke to me”? They are not referring to what was literally spoken, obviously.

      You could learn a lot from St. Francis. We all could.

    • From

      When did St. Francis say, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary”?

      This is a great quote, very Franciscan in its spirit, but not literally from St. Francis. The thought is his; this catchy phrasing is not in his writings or in the earliest biographies about him.

      In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

      A few years ago, someone used the Internet to contact some of the most eminent Franciscan scholars in the world, seeking the source of this “Use words if necessary” quote. It is clearly not in any of Francis’ writings. After a couple weeks of searching, no scholar could find this quote in a story written within 200 years of Francis’ death.

      • Matthew, this is not a free association exercise.

        Eric, thanks for clearing up the background.

        Now, please, can we all get back to the subject at hand? Or should I say, “Walk on!”

        Muchas gracias.

      • JoanieD says

        EricW wrote, “Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so.”

        I like that, Eric. I think there are a lot of people walking around “preaching” who do a dis-service to the Kingdom of God because they know nothing about what they are talking about and they are speaking without love. Thank God, though, that the majority of preachers are people who love God and love people and are seeking to do the will of God the best they know how.

        Jeff, when I was a young teenager I and my friends would walk all around town barefooted in the summer. We had to be careful not to step on glass or sharp rocks and sometimes the road would be REALLY hot! But as our feet got tougher, it was less of a problem. And the cool grass felt so wonderful. It does make you feel more connected to the environment, I think. I have lots of problems with my feet now. I have high arches and when I do a lot of work outside now (wearing shoes or boots), my feet ache terribly. I am considering investing in custom-made insoles, but then I will just have to keep moving them from shoes to shoes unless I want to spend a fortune to have many pair. All this to say…ahhhh, youth!

        And yes, it is very true that “Pain is an indicator that something needs to change.” It surely is hard to change sometimes, even when we have the Holy Spirit within and even when we have the desire.

        • Crocs. Yukon style (adjustable-length strap, can be worn as slip-on clogs or strap-backed sandals. $49/pair the last I bought them. Leather trim, don’t look like typical ugly Crocs. It’s a Men’s style. I have a black pair at work and a khaki pair at home.

          I slip those on at work every day and enjoy a back-pain-free day.

          But I’d love to go barefoot, esp. with the recent research showing that running shoes actually cause foot problems – the very problems they’re supposed to prevent runners from having or getting while running. Nike makes millions and billions and the masses suffer. 🙁

    • The guy who wrote Romans 10:14 also wrote I Corinthians 13. He did more than talk much more.

  2. Very important message. Not to supplant preaching, but to connect the preaching to real need. Interestingly, we recently offered money to an unemployed friend. She refused.

  3. If God wanted us to wear shoes He would have … uh … created shoe salesmen.

    Oh. He did? Okay, well, then, carry on!

  4. This is perhaps, the most important post I’ve read in the past week. Thank you.

  5. I suppose that God himself gave the ultimate example of “taking off the shoes” in the incarnation. But it’s not helping me. Well, I mean there’s atonement and all, but what am I supposed to do if I just simply have no tolerance for pain? I don’t suppose I really choose which pains I am afflicted with in this life. Would I choose any if that were the case? So when God strips me of my shoes, what am I to do?

    If you haven’t figured out that is currently my scenario. Been barefoot for four years now and I just want to sit down and quit. Or at least a cool patch of grass for a bit. I suppose it should be comforting to know that Christ has gone barefoot a million miles more than I ever will, but let’s just be honest here: I’d kill for a pair of shoes.

    Christ have mercy.

    • He does, Miguel. He does.

    • I pray that you will know the extravagance of Christ’s love and mercy. I too have been through a seven year ordeal which has been fraught with anxiety, lack, and pain. It has also been rich with grace and the deep abiding presence of God.

      Notice in Psalm 23 that the imagery is of our God setting a table for us in the presence of our enemies, indeed in the valley of the shadow of death. Not sneaking us past our enemies or smiting them all with fire from heaven. It’s as though the Lord has the audacity to say, “I know we are in the midst of hell right now, let’s sit down to a nice meal shall we?”

      His presence is the thing. Looking back on my ordeal, if I add up all I’ve been through I can quickly start to feel a little entitled. However, if I add up all the God has delivered me from and all the times I have felt the thickness of His presence or sensed the heat of His tears for me – then I actually begin to fear the good times. Will I know His presence like this during the easy times?

  6. I think John The Baptist mentioned Jesus’ sandals. Yet I agree – walking barefoot is always a trip.

  7. “But we don’t like pain and suffering. We buy books by the bushel that tell us God doesn’t want us to be in pain. We insulate our hearts against any kind of pain with conferences and sermons and songs that promise us unending good days.”

    Ouch. Do I feel something poking through a hole in my nice comfortable shoes?

    Sometimes when we’ve walked barefoot for awhile it’s so NICE to hold on to our padded shoes. The thought of voluntarily giving them up? Difficult. So then I think “Well, do I have to go REALLY barefoot, or can I just go yuppie barefoot (a la Vibram 5 Fingers ‘shoes’). Can I just pretend to be barefoot while still protecting myself?

    • You will want to read part two of this post (scheduled to appear tomorrow evening) for my Yuppie barefoot experience, Rea. I am still limping…

  8. Thanks for getting me thinking and meditating.

    My father, a lifelong missionary, wanted and now has the first part of Isaiah 52:7 etched into his gravestone.

    I hope that I can in some small way do what that verse describes. I hope that my walk, however painful it may be, can bring the reality of Jesus to others in some small way.


  9. I’ve always said shoes are of the devil — thanks for proving my point, Chaplain Mike!

    I read an eyewitness testimony that Mother Teresa used to go through all the shoes donated to her ministry, pick out the worst pair, and wear them herself so that no one else would have to.

    In this life we don’t have the option of separating ourselves from pain.

  10. “But we don’t like pain and suffering. We buy books by the bushel that tell us God doesn’t want us to be in pain. We insulate our hearts against any kind of pain with conferences and sermons and songs that promise us unending good days.”

    While I understand the spirit behind this post and this statement, I think of people who have endured pain and suffering for the majority of their lives, those who grew up without shoes, and look for those good days, praying that at some point, they be able to enjoy a pair of shoes of their own.

    • Thanks for pointing this out MW. I think it’s a valuable thing to say that the “taking off of one’s shoes” in this analogy would me purely voluntary.

      That’s the beautiful thing about the cross we bear when we decide to follow Christ – we take it up. It is not forced upon us. To the rich young ruler He says, “sell your belongings and follow me” To the poor beggar He gives food and healing. To the religious complaining about the extravagance of the prostitute’s display He defend’s her by saying that the poor will always be among you…

      In every circumstance He frees us from the slavery that the curse has forced upon us (riches, religion, poverty, sickness), and bids us, by our own restored free will to take up the cross and follow Him. The only thing to remember is that if you do not take up the cross (which will inevitably end in your own death) then you will cease to be with Jesus on this journey and that is where your freedom from the previous slavery will end. Granted your cross will look different.

      Sorry, I’m ranting. You obviously got the point of the post. In the long run I wanted to tell you thanks for pointing out that God is not calling us to suffering for suffering’s sake. He is calling us to life more abundant. I think we just need to change our ideal for what that abundance is. Maybe instead of a new pair of Nike’s, could it be that the abundance resides in our own awakening to what He has already provided i.e. taking off our shoes?

  11. An excellent Essay.

  12. Indeed, walking barefoot saves soles.

  13. “How beautiful are the feet of them that bring good news.” (Romans 10:15b) Some time ago I would read that verse and picture a well-bathed, well-manicured, downright angelic pair of tootsies.

    But later on I considered how runners brought news in ancient times. And now when I read that verse I imagine a runner traveling over rocky fields, across muddy stream banks, and through the bramble in an effort to deliver good news — perhaps a battle won, a peace achieved, a town saved — to an anxious people as quickly as possible.

    Under those circumstances, the condition of the runner’s feet would certainly be noticed. But what would make them so beautiful? Not their outward appearance — bruised, soiled, scratched — but rather because their condition would show that the runner was so propelled by the value of the news he was carrying that little else mattered.

  14. There is another advantage, both literally and spiritually, about going barefoot. You can feel something soft and living under your foot, before you step down hard.

    Anyone who has accidently stepped on a paw or a tail knows it well.

  15. SearchingAnglican says

    After two days, I’m still thinking about this post…and what it might mean for me to take the shoes off my spiritual feet. However, after spending a few days with the director of a Haitian orphanage in my community, hearing about those who literally have no shoes and are sleeping in tents as the rainy season descends, I’m catching a glimpse.

    Thank you so much for this meditation!