Walk a Mile In Their Shoes


Have you been following this?

There’s some great discussions going on in this blog series surrounding the 33 exercises from Portable Faith: Taking Church to the Community, which released at the beginning of the month. So far we’ve covered What If Your Church Burned Down?, Community Stations and Would You Let Your Families Intermix?

So this week…

From Portable Faith:

Most of us believe that the Bible was written with to convey God’s intended meaning, yet we may not always stop to think about how different people may respond differently to biblical passages. Of course people can interpret a verse or larger section of Scripture differently from a theological perspective. In this case, I’m not talking about doctrinal differences, as much as a person’s way of identifying with Scripture.

If you grew up in a middle-class white congregation, for example, as I did, you may have naturally identified with people or ideas in a story that people of another social or economic group may not relate to.

For example, as a child, when I heard the story of the paralytic [D1] whose friends let him down through the roof to see Jesus, I always envisioned myself as one of the people on the roof. I was not paralyzed, nor did I have any obvious physical challenge or sickness for which I would be seeking physical healing from Jesus. But I did believe Jesus could heal, and I could imagine myself going to extremes to help a friend gain access to Jesus.

You can imagine how surprised I was while attending an urban church in my early twenties, and the pastor preached the whole message from the perspective of the man who needed to be healed. It was clear that many in the congregation who experienced suffering and hardship, some of whom had physical ailments, were naturally drawn to this perspective. They could imagine themselves being lowered in front of the Savior by their friends.

Similarly, while I was attending worship at a homeless shelter, a person speaking referenced the story of the widow in Mark 12:41-44 who gives her last copper coins. I had always imagined sitting in a pew and watching this woman go forward to put in her last coins, but the other attenders at the shelter imagined themselves as the woman!

Does it change the meaning? No. Yet for me, in the first case, I was viewing the story somewhat detached, seeing myself as a middleman who felt appreciative of the way God healed those who needed it, but they were seeing Jesus as a healer, someone who could reach down and touch their broken bodies and heal them. And in the second case, I was projecting a sacrifice onto someone else while they were being challenged to sacrifice their own wages or savings.

When we speak about a passage, it might be a good idea to remember we shouldn’t assume that everyone in the audience easily relates to the same person we do.

The exercise that accompanies this excerpt provides a list of scripture passages and asks people to think about:

1. Who they identify with in the story

2. Who might identify with other figures

So what do you think?

There’s the saying you can’t understand another person until you walk a mile in their shoes. Could the same go for reading a book of the Bible through their eyes?

Is this useful for thinking about how we come to and connect with the Bible?



  • comment-avatar
    KC April 22, 2013 (9:40 am)

    I appreciate it when the pastor or teacher takes a familiar story and presents it from a different character’s viewpoint–and like you, Sarah, it has been a way for God to reach me.

    Our church is not a typical middle-class church, and I believe that they see themselves as the marginalized person in the story. For us, it is making the turn between seeing ourselves (individually) as the struggling person, as opposed to seeing our neighbor or loved one as the person in need of love. For example, I believe there are those in our church who struggle with poverty. But have we come to the point where, in our poverty, we can give to others? Or those who are struggling in deep pain from divorce or family situations. Can we reach out, through our pain, to love others in pain? Our challenge as a church is to learn how to love and minister through individual brokenness…and now that I say that, perhaps that is the challenge of all churches, regardless of demographics.

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    Ray Hollenbach April 22, 2013 (11:25 am)

    I think this exercise is a winner. In small group settings I’m frequently astonished (in a good way) by how many perspectives people have on the gospel stories. We seldom think there could be any other viewpoint.

    Your suggestion–to ask, “Who do you identity with?” is powerful because it does NOT ask people to be Biblical scholars or have a super-smart, super-cool interpretation. It simply asks people to enter into the discussion at an emotive level–so each person’s perspective is valid. I think this exercise would both open up the scripture AND open up relationships among people.

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    Rick Nier April 22, 2013 (11:46 am)


    I think this is the continuing challenge, not only to understand what it must have been like for everyone involved, but to also apply these truths to our own lives. Not everything from college has stuck, but I do remember the professors saying we need to ask what the scriptures meant to “them then and us now.”

    That’s a good thing for everyone to ask, not just pastors.

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    Todd April 22, 2013 (11:54 am)


    Fantastic! I absolutely love this one. I think anytime we can get people to re-imagine the world of Scripture that has become “formed” in their minds and think about the context of the people in the narratives, or first receiving the narratives, we have caused further growth in Christ.

    It is important for the church to see within themselves all of the places, whether as the giver, the receiver, or the bystander (as at some point they will need to be in each of those places). I love the questions and would even add one more for perspective – “How does the difference in identification change the way people view this story and our call to live it out? (i.e. is one “more appropriate”, “more comfortable”, etc.)?”

    I think this is an especially helpful illustration for younger people.

    Keep ’em coming!

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    Sarah Cunningham April 22, 2013 (12:07 pm)

    @KC Love your questions about how we can reach beyond our pain and poverty…

    @Ray I agree, it’s a way of inviting people into the story without arguing over it. ;) Who knew?

    @Rick I remember that too and agree. Information is pointless unless it invites transformation. Thankfully the Bible speaks to each party too…

    @Todd I think the book has a few additional questions, but yours is awesome. Hope I wrote one close to that idea! If not, it’ll go in the revision!

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    Eric Haynes April 22, 2013 (2:09 pm)

    One of the best tools we’ve used with people at Shoal Creek is Henri Nouwen’s book, Return of the Prodigal. He does an amazing job helping the reader encounter, understand, and see themselves in each of the major players of the story: the younger son, the older son, and the father. It isn’t always about which person in any given passage I relate to the most; sometimes it is also necessary to see how we may connect with every person in the passage.

    In your example, I need to consider how I would view the poor widow as if sitting in the pew AND how I am (or am NOT) the widow. After reading Nouwen and the story of the Prodigal, I recognized how I am at times the younger son, at times the older son, and how I am called to be like the father (not to mention receive the same grace from the Father). All can offer great insight.

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    Sarah Cunningham April 22, 2013 (2:21 pm)

    @Eric, I am really glad you mentioned Nouwen’s book. That is exactly right. Whether I am impoverished (financially) right now or not, when have I been or how am I experiencing poverty in other areas of life even when my finances are sufficient. Good add. Thanks.

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    Becky April 22, 2013 (5:08 pm)

    I LOVE this one! I think it’s my favorite so far. I find it interesting that while I was thinking about who I identified with in these stories, for the first it was the person in need of healing AND the others on the roof. Again I think is due to what I do everyday and how I see and work with so many people who are hurting and sick on the inside instead of having obvious physical ailments. In the second, I’m typically with you Sarah, I’m usually the person in the back row watching the widow go forward. That being said, due to changes in our families circumstances because of the economy, I am now fluctuating between feeling like the person watching the widow go forward and feeling like the widow because our finances are always so incredibly tight!!!

    I find it extremely freeing to look at situations from other people’s perspectives!

    • comment-avatar
      Sarah April 24, 2013 (3:08 pm)

      @Becky, I have been at both ends of the spectrum too and in those moments, the fact that there are multiple people engaged with Jesus from various vantage points has felt redemptive.

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    Hilary April 23, 2013 (12:02 pm)

    I have come to think that it is not our lack of empathy or perspective (walk a mile in my shoes), it is what we do based on that empathy deficit that could be a problem. We, as human beings, are hard wired to judge (and perhaps discriminate) sometimes for reasons of safety and survival, while other times it is so we can confirm to ourselves that we have made the right (superior) choices. So when we see a mother unable to control her toddler’s tantrum in a public place, do we think some combination of ‘thank God it’s not me’ and ‘she is a terrible mother.’? Or do we think, ‘she must be having a terrible day that it’s led to this.’? Whenever I encounter a situation where I’m inclined to quietly judge, I try to remember that I have no idea what’s going outside the tiny slice of that person’s life I am seeing.

    So, I think it is more productive to work on changing our own attitudes and behaviour rather than worry about whether we are empathetic. If our lack of empathy leads us to engage in negative behavior towards others, then we should focus on changing our own behavior. If we behave with empathy towards others than we will eventually adopt an attitude of more instinctual empathy.

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      Sarah April 24, 2013 (3:09 pm)

      @Hilary, I’m not sure if I understand *exactly* what you’re saying, but I think I hear you saying, don’t just think about it–> go do something about it. If so, I get that. My wonder with this is… do you think that some people don’t yet have the awareness/consciousness about need etc. to act upon? Is this a helpful starting point for some who’ve been raised in perhaps more closed faith traditions?

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        Hilary April 24, 2013 (4:45 pm)

        Yes – and that’s a really good point. Sometimes you do need to experience something in order to have empathy. My first time flying with an hysterical baby for example – now I have nothing but sympathy for parents traveling with little kids (and help if they need it). :-)

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    Doug Bradshaw April 24, 2013 (12:06 pm)


    As the person who every week who takes on the challenge of communicating what the Bible says, your exercise strikes me as my task. To teach from the Bible, about the Bible, to an audience that is diverse is a daunting undertaking. As I read your words about how you “saw” the Bible I remembered an interesting time in my development as a Pastor/Preacher. I was preaching about the story of the boy from Nain who was brought back to life by Jesus. I was remarking about how his mother had lost not only her son but also her husband and said something to the effect of how faith delivers us from our grief. Just after the sermon a grieving person came up to me and “set the record straight”. This person told me that faith is not God delivering us from grief, but God walking with us in our grief. It was one of those moments when you know a gracious God just spoke to you, and if you put into practice what he said you will avoid hurting people in this way again. I was reminded of this by your questions because my problem was that I had not lost anyone close yet and I did not consider that story from the perspective of a person who had. To this day, before I preach. I ask God to help me see and hear His word from the places in life I haven’t been yet. I think these questions reveal whether we care enough about our audience to see life through their eyes and experiences, or if we want them to see it our way. We will not reach those outside the church unless we care enough to spend the time to hear about life through them.

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      Sarah April 24, 2013 (3:10 pm)

      @Doug That is a humble and awesome prayer. So glad you take the time to be attentive about this as a pastor…

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    Carrie April 24, 2013 (2:24 pm)

    Wow!! What a great exercise. It’s one that I love to do in personal reading, but often don’t push others to go there. I love this!!
    I will say that like others I have tried to encourage people to put themselves in the narrative as I preach or teaach. I think the challenge for so many is that they have heard the stories so many times they cannot put themselves in it. But we have to do this! We must not assume that everyone has heard the same thing we have heard.
    Thanks for the continual push.

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    Sarah April 24, 2013 (3:16 pm)

    @Carrie, Thanks for participating in this. It’s so easy to talk from our own personal scripts. Even after developing some exercises like this and writing a book years later, I still find myself operating from my own narrow thinking without considering others sometimes. We all need reminders. :) Or at least I do!

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    Wes April 24, 2013 (6:21 pm)


    So, while I relate with your personal experience, I think I honestly find it hard to relate with those with whom I haven’t yet related with. It is honestly difficult to imagine what it’s like being in someone else’s shoes, without actually walking there yourself or being present/attentive/receptive to someone directly telling you s/he has been there her/himself.

    Above, the difference for Hilary with the baby on the plane and with Doug with the person who was grieving, it actually TOOK being in their shoes or being CONFRONTED by the actual person who had experienced those things, to really stir the transformation within.

    I think the way this exercise would be really effective for people like myself, would be to have people–if such bold and willing people could be found–share from their own personal experiences in front of a small group or congregation. Small group is probably better, because then it’s more intimate and can register more personally. And, perhaps, rather than trying to imagine what it’s like walking in someone else’s shoes, we would then walk BESIDE those who are actually walking in them.

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      Sarah April 26, 2013 (9:40 am)

      I like that idea, Wes. It has to start somewhere…with a rise in awareness. If it comes through listening to other people’s stories, thinking about and flipping ideas on their heads, confronting realities, it’s a win in my book. :)

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    Doug Bradshaw April 25, 2013 (10:40 am)

    With this exercise in mind thought you might like this. Author Wayne Dyer said on the Ellen show recently, “Compassion is the most important skill to teach our children. If we teach a new generation to put themselves in others’ shoes, the world’s social problems would disappear.”

    • comment-avatar
      Sarah April 26, 2013 (9:40 am)

      Wow. Great quote. That’s shareable.

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    Josh Cooper April 26, 2013 (9:04 am)

    This is a bit of a “hot button” for me as a pastor and teacher of Scripture. I’m pretty sure that the first book I write will highlight much of what is being said here. So, please forgive me if I ramble.

    What I truly appreciate about this topic is that it revolves around the a broader theme of exercising the imagination. Scripture is like a diamond that must be turned and examined from every possible angle and to do this well requires imagination. Imagination is a powerful tool for “getting inside” Scripture. One of my favorite quotes comes from a brilliant theologian named, Lesslie Newbigin, who said that the goal of reading Scripture is not just to understand the text, but to understand the world “through the text.” ”It is possible,” Newbigin says, “to undertake the most exhausting and penetrating examination of the biblical text in a way which leaves one outside of it. To understand the world through the text is to indwell it and from within it seek to understand and cope with what is out there.”

    Something happens when we get inside of the text and poke around. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the story of the “prodigal” son interpreted from a middle-eastern perspective. Nothing says: “I wish you were dead, dad,” like asking for your inheritance. Imagination is a powerful. I once preached a first-person sermon from the perspective of Nicodemus. Why? Because imagination takes the audience to a place that they have never been. Imagination makes reading Scripture fun! Yes I said it – FUN!

    I could keep going, but for your sake I think I’ll wrap it up by saying that I think we’re seeing a bit of a resurgence of imaginative preaching and teaching. I think we’re witnessing more biblical dramas being performed in churches and on stages that truly touch people at an emotional level, and this is encouraging to me.


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    Sarah April 26, 2013 (9:41 am)

    @Josh, these are great comments. I may just come back to you for a guest post on this. :) Thanks for the quotes and thoughts.

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    Doug April 26, 2013 (10:01 am)

    LOVE this discussion, and also really love @Josh’s idea about really turning the scripture around (from several directions) to see it with new eyes. As an artist, that is an automatic behavior (although, sometimes we get a little cozy with “our” perspectives on scripture passages, don’t we?)

    I think a great way to do what @Josh is saying is using a questioning method (one of the questions already discussed is: “how would I feel as that character in the passage?”). A great discipline is after reading a passage is to just to write down as many questions about the passage that you can think of. Scripture should always drive us to seek out more about God, and not settle for less. And, in doing this, to turn my tangent back to the discussion at hand, we can avoid getting in the way of other’s people’s journey to God–OR MISS THEM COMPLETELY–by walking around feeling like we got this whole “God thing” figured out.

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      Sarah April 26, 2013 (12:41 pm)

      Thanks, @Doug. So glad to hear your voice in the mix. Thought what Josh said was great. Michael Novelli is doing a piece for youth (Echo the Story) based on that idea…turning the diamond too.

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    Krista April 26, 2013 (2:41 pm)

    I love this exercise!
    At different points in my life each of the passages mentioned have spoken to me differently. For example, at one particularly difficult time in my life, I was really struggling, but I knew that Jesus was around, and in fact, he was answering my prayers for other people, but I was intensely crying out for him to answer my prayers for myself. During that time I felt like the paralytic. I was helpless and completely unable to reach Jesus myself to be healed of my physical and emotional problems.. But, I was desperate. This was the first time in my life that I actually sought out my friends to begin to lift me up in prayer. So, I understood this passage from the intense feelings of the person entirely helpless to do anything himself, but in desperate need of his friends to help him encounter Christ.

    Then, there are the times where I “give” tithe, and I even gift every month, but, I have never actually given until it hurts.. nor have I given my literal last… So, in that case I have always felt like one of the people standing by amazed at this woman’s sacrifice and dedication… not to mention faith!

    But, the different perspectives are why I love so much talking about the scriptures with other people. I enjoy hearing the various ways people are impacted and made new by something they have read, and then to discuss it and realize that everyone saw it differently and were all impacted in a vastly wide range of ways! Talk about alive and moving scripture!

    I think it is not only good and healthy for us to encounter and walk in other people’s perspectives of life, scripture, and God; but, I think it is essential in order to help us grow. I think that is why serving is so important, it forces us to encounter people in a different way, and then gives us no option but to honor them with our service, and care. These are the moments we grow so much more than we ever could on a Sunday morning week after week because it is the rubber meets the road kind of situation.

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    Vicki Hanes April 26, 2013 (4:42 pm)

    As an English teacher I find myself doing this all the time, especially in a small group discussion. I think it is part of the English teacher’s disease that you look at a story from a variety of angles but it isn’t natural for everyone.

    I do have a question and a thought: In this example everyone comes out looking fairly good. What if it were the Pharisees challenging Jesus? Would be willing to look at it from that angle? Would we be willing to ask hard questions of ourselves? Why were the Pharisees so against what Jesus was doing? Where did that come from? Do we have the same issues that might lead to the same danger. I think this is valuable, but also a little uncomfortable.

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      Vicki Hanes April 26, 2013 (4:44 pm)

      I needed to put my glasses and edit that a little better. I probably shouldn’t tell people I’m an English teacher.

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    Melinda April 28, 2013 (10:38 pm)

    Wow! This is an amazing point! I can’t believe I have never thought of it relating to the Bible! I think I see this in many ways throughout my life that there are different perspectives, but didn’t really think of people viewing Bible stories differently. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a sermon where the first half was one perspective & then the. Second half was a different perspective?

    I am a very big advocate when someone comes across upset, to be mindful that I haven’t walked in their shoes and reality is, I really don’t know what is happening in that persons life. There is often something else going on not even realated to what you are discussing with them that sets them off. I try my best not to get upset back, but realize there is more going on than appears. If we can learn to see different perspectives I think it would help us be more loving & gracious to each other!

    I love this point! Thank you for sharing it! I hope this helps!

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    Teresa B Pasquale May 1, 2013 (10:17 pm)

    This exercise reminds me of something Richard Rohr calls “beginners mind” as a frame and focus we should try to embody when looking at all aspects of our faith and the Bible especially.

    He uses this term to signify not a simplistic mind but rather the mind that can see things new and for the first time. He references secular people who have encountered Biblical texts and relayed their “fresh eyes” understanding of things in a way totally outside of the scope an “insider” could have.

    Often our enculturation of our religion and our denomination can flavor texts or stories in a way we can’t even see until someone with fresh eyes gives us their untouched perspective.

    This can be a rich thing for those of us without the fresh view and I think enrich that reading. I love the idea of this because it gives us the chance both as the person “inside” church to see things that a lifetime of reading and teachings and enculturation might have missed and the beauty therein as well as put us in a position to see the world (as the Bible) with new lenses…and understand the nature of the “seer” by looking at what and how they see the world and faith.

    It might change how we address them and how we address our own faith and understanding and begin to see the limitations found being too close to something and the beauty in finding and embodying our own “beginner’s mind.”

    Sorry if I got a bit abstract about it…but I love this one :)!

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    Benji May 3, 2013 (1:03 pm)

    Hey Sarah – Sorry I have been out of town doing some home builds in Mexico and I know I am late on joining in on this one, but I love this exercise! I have to say that the single greatest gift my college professors gave me was this: Context is everything! Context of the bible stories, context of the people reading them, context of the one teaching them. We all come from a context and until we understand the story behind/around the writer, teacher, listener, we will never fully grasp what is happening.

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    Amy Jones May 26, 2013 (11:25 pm)

    This would be a rich exercise because each individual brings their own experiences to the table as they relate and dialogue about the Bible stories. It is a beautiful way to reflect on Scripture and bring people to a visual of “walking in their shoes”. I have always related and admired the life Ruth in the story of Ruth and Naomi.