Self-Deception: Following Your Own Echo

Years ago, I jumped in my Olds Delta 88, turned on the radio, and took off for town. There was a preacher on the radio who, before I got around to changing the station, said something that caught my attention. I continued to listen because the fellow seemed to have something worth saying.

He went on to something else with which I agreed, and I thought, “This guy’s not bad.” Then he said something that took me by surprise. I not only agreed with it, but it was something that I had said myself. I had never heard anyone else say it, yet he phrased it exactly the way I do.

I glanced at the car stereo. It was not set to a broadcast station but was playing a cassette tape. Apparently, my wife had been listening to a sermon on tape. Suddenly, I realized that the guy I was listening to was me. It was a sermon I had preached years earlier.

It took me about two miles to figure this out. It was not because I was utterly lacking in self-awareness—not completely anyway. The church’s recording deck and the car’s cassette player apparently ran at different speeds, pitching my voice higher than it normally is.

I had a good laugh at myself. First, because I hadn’t recognized my own voice. Second, because it took me two or three miles to remember my own sermon. (And if I didn’t remember it, how can I expect the church family to do so?) And third, because I had been internally applauding my own wisdom, which I would have been ashamed to do had I known it was me.

But isn’t that just like us? We think other people are wise, whenever they say what we say. Our own echo always carries the ring of truth.

Isn’t that what is happening in our culture today, particularly on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? People scan their Facebook page looking to find voices that sound just like theirs. When they “like” some post on Facebook, they are frequently saying “Amen” to their own echo.

The Bible, particularly the Book of Proverbs, encourages people to seek counsel from many sources. But who does that anymore? We seek counsel from our own echo, as it bounces around social media in the form of memes, tweets, and “likes”.

Gregg Ten Elshof, Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, calls this “attention management.” We are likely to attend to the things that reinforce beliefs we already hold. And since, as William James noted, “Only those items I notice shape my mind,” we are apt not to notice the things that might undermine our truth constructs.

I have caught myself employing attention management. I have seen others, both religious believers and atheists, do the same. It is a universal problem. People who think that they have never done it are probably attention management’s most proficient users.

Ten Elshof illustrates attention management in his excellent book, “I Told Me So.” Some years ago, a study was performed in which subjects were presented evidence linking excessive caffeine use with breast cancer. After reviewing the data, subjects were asked if they found the evidence convincing. Women who consumed large amounts of caffeine found the evidence less credible than those who consumed little. Men, whether they were coffee drinkers or not, found the evidence persuasive.

In other words, people who might consider the hypothesis bad news were least likely to be convinced by the evidence. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this works itself out in debates about vaccines, masking, congressional spending limits, belief in the existence of God or, for that matter, which college football teams deserve to be in the championship playoffs.

This problem, rooted in the human tendency toward self-deception, is not going away. What can we do about it? A first step is to humble ourselves and stop being dogmatic. A second step is to give those with whom we disagree the benefit of the doubt regarding their motives. A third step is to listen to understand, not refute. This won’t cure the problem, but it may help control it.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Re-Story Your Life

The way we humans think – that we think at all – is a marvelous thing. There are, of course, different parts of the brain – the mind’s amazing instrument – which perform different functions in the collection, storage, and transfer of information. When the mind uses that information, it does so (in large part) by storying.

Humans use stories to categorize and contextualize information – information that would be practically useless without the God-given ability to make stories. Storying is an essential part of what it means to be human. When God “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life …” (Genesis 2:7), he became a living storyteller.

The way we process marital bliss and marital problems, vacations, flat tires, and personal conflicts is through stories. This means that if we categorize and contextualize information – including marriage problems and bad bosses – using the wrong stories, we will go wrong. A grateful and happy life will be simply impossible.

An illustration might help. A jet crash-lands on an island in the South Pacific. The survivors scramble off the plane and stand huddled together at a safe distance. And then someone shouts, “There are blankets, clothing, and food in the cargo hold!” As soon as the significance of that dawns on people, everyone tries to get to get to the provisions first, afraid of not getting their share. People are stuffing bread and pretzels and meat in their shirts and trying to get ashore without their fellow castaways knowing they have provisions. Everyone is afraid of starving.

Disgusted by the riot on the beach, a husband and wife decide to explore the island. What they find just over the first hill surprises them: there are cows and chickens everywhere – must have been brought by a shipwrecked vessel a decade ago or more. There are fruit trees and pineapples – the valley is filled with them. There are even cases of dried food rations that must have been left behind when those first castaways were rescued.

Instead of trying to stuff a chicken and a pineapple into their shirts, they return to the beach shouting the good news to everyone and sharing the things they’ve brought back. Why the difference? The one group is telling themselves a story of deprivation and hunger while the other is telling themselves a story of provision and plenty.

Now, one of the things to notice is that the panic the people on the beach felt was real even though the story they told themselves was false. That’s how the stories we tell ourselves work. They affect the way we feel and think. But it is even more than that: the stories are the way we think, at least in large part.

In these last few years of political turmoil and civil unrest, not to mention the calamity of Covid-19, the story many people are telling themselves is one of chaos, loss, and death. How will that affect the way they feel and think? The answer is obvious. They will experience feelings of anxiety, anger, and bewilderment.

Christians believe that their story – having been written into God’s story in Christ – is not one of calamity, loss, and death but of blessing, provision, and eternal life. This doesn’t mean that Christians don’t have troubles – a glance at St. Paul’s laundry list of hardships in 2 Corinthians 12 will convince anyone otherwise – but it does mean that whatever happens in our part of the story is being written into a bigger, better, story. It’s the best story ever, by the best author ever, with the best ending ever.

It is because St. Paul’s understood this that he instructed people to “rejoice always.” This will seem like outrageous advice to anyone who is oblivious to the larger context which Paul assumes. But if his assumption is correct, then his instruction is nothing short of life-giving.

It is time to re-story our lives. Instead of sickness, broken relationships, and political discords, we need to find a stable axis around which our lives can revolve. For Christians, this will mean interpreting and telling their story as part of the adventurous love story God is telling through Christ.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Absalom, Absalom: The Temptation of Power

In this sermon we dig into the story of King David’s son Absalom. We see how people can be lured away from the good life God has planned for them by the temptation to attain power illegitimately. We also see the wonderful power of true repentance.

Viewing time: Approximately 25 minutes
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Up, Up, but not Away: The Ascension of Jesus (3)

Prior to Jesus’s ascension, his disciples had assumed that he would continue with them in much the same way he had been with them before. But it was clearly not so. The great transition was taking place, and he had been taken from their sight. But he had given them work to do; they were to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. They had been commissioned.

Verse 10: “They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.

‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’.”

It’s as if they were saying, “What are you standing around for? You’ve been given work to do, and it will be a good thing if he finds you doing it when he comes back.” Like the disciples, we sometimes look for Jesus but cannot see him. We strain our eyes toward heaven, and still miss seeing him. But when we reach our hands to earth to serve the least of his brothers, we suddenly spy him there. That was his intention.

Verse 12: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath’s day’s walk (that is about 3/4 mile) from the city.” I wonder how they felt as they walked back to the city. I wonder what they talked about. There was something final about Jesus’s departure. I think they probably understood that they had entered a new phase of life, but how were they to live it? “Witnesses to the ends of the earth”—how were they to do that? What would it look like?

As they walked back to their accommodations in Jerusalem, I don’t think they had any clue about how to answer those questions. The future was a blank. They had no idea what their lives were going to look like. All they had was Jesus’ instruction.

The era into which they had transitioned – the witnesses-to-the-ends-of-the-earth era – has continued to this day. We, like them, do not see the Lord Jesus in the flesh. We, like them, carry on the commission to be witnesses, making disciples of every nation. We, like them, have the words of the Lord and the Spirit of the Lord to guide us.

Don’t forget that Jesus once said, “I tell you the truth: It is better for you that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”5 The coming of the Holy Spirit ushered in a new era. This was in keeping with God’s unchanged desire to live with people. He had lived with Adam and Eve until the rebellion, when their relationship was broken, and man and God were estranged, separated. Thousands of years of sacrifices, the building of the temple, the promise of a new covenant was all so that God could live with his people again.

He came to us in Jesus, who was Immanuel – God with us. But as a physical being Jesus could not be with ­a lonely old man in India, a young Christian mother in Ecuador, and you in your town all at the same time. The transition was necessary.  It was better for the disciples, it is better for us, that he went away.

Consider this: after the ascension, Jesus continues to show up all over the place – up, up, but not away. Because of the coming of the Spirit, Jesus could be everywhere. In chapter 2, verse 47 we find him bringing people into his church: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” It wasn’t the apostles and teachers and programs that added people to the church; it was the Lord Jesus. In chapter 9, verse 34 we find him healing people: “‘Aeneas,’ Peter said to him, ‘Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat.’ Immediately Aeneas got up.” In chapter 14, verse 3, we find Jesus working miracles among the Gentiles: “Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.” We keep seeing the same thing throughout the book.

And that theme continues. Jesus is here, living in his people, acting through them by his Spirit. His ministry on earth, his death, resurrection, and ascension were only the beginning of what he was doing and teaching. He is still at it, and we are invited to join him, to be a part of the kingdom he inaugurated.

5 John 16:7

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How to Read the Greatest Story Ever

Photo by Marta Wave on

My six-year-old grandson and five-year-old granddaughter have become writers and illustrators of children’s books. Most of their books feature animal characters like Blue Jay and Little Parrot. They compose the story themselves but ask their dad or mom to write down the text.

This past Sunday, I was the amanuensis for my granddaughter’s latest illustrated book, “Little Parrot Loses His Mom.” I was pleased to see that she, like her older brother, is beginning to grasp the basics of story writing.

For one thing, she gives us an interesting character in Little Parrot. Why is this little guy all alone? Will he be alright? Good stories depend on a protagonist that matters.

My granddaughter understands that her protagonist must have a problem. Little Parrot’s mother is missing. A absent mother is a big problem, both for little parrots and for little authors.

As Little Parrot tries to resolve his problem, obstacles arise. He is in danger of getting lost as he searches ever deeper into the forest. He encounters wild animals in the hope that they can lead him to his mother. But each new encounter ends in disappointment. In this way, the tension builds, and our interest is sustained.

Finally, my young author provides a resolution to the problem. After repeated failures, Little Parrot finds his mother, who has been gathering food for the family. The tension is relieved, the problem solved. Our protagonist is safe.

It occurs to me that the Bible does something similar. It gives us a story with a protagonist we care about, introduces a world-shattering problem, and narrates attempts to resolve the problem, along with the obstacles that arise to delay success. In the end, the problem is resolved, the tension relieved, and the protagonist succeeds.

People familiar with the Bible will recognize these components. There is a protagonist we care about, a problem that matters, obstacles that arise, and a final, glorious resolution, what J. R. R. Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe.” Most biblical authorities would agree that these elements are present, but they might not agree on their nature.

For example, on one reading of the Bible, the protagonist is human. One could even say that the protagonist is the reader, which makes this approach to the sacred text both humanistic and highly individualistic.

In this way of reading the Bible, the story is a quest, and the object is to reach heaven. The problem is sin, which destines people to hell, which is so unthinkably bad that it must be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, humans are ineluctably headed there. Then comes the eucatastrophe, when God sends his Son to rescue humanity through his own sacrifice, enabling people to enter heaven and live happily ever after.

There is much that is true and helpful about this reading. However, there is another reading that is more consistent with the biblical authors’ intent. It sees God, rather than humans, as the protagonist. The problem is still sin – or better, rebellion – which has derailed God’s plan to justly rule his creation through wise and loving human regents (this is Genesis 1:26-28).

God acts to restore his creation through a man (Abraham) and his family (the Jews), but – obstacle alert – they become enslaved in a foreign country. He frees them, gives them the wonderful gift of his law, but – another obstacle – they fail to heed it. He gives them a good king to rule them (David), but he and his offspring also fail, which leads to an enormous obstacle: exile and the dissolution of the nation.

It is in the light of this story that the coming of Jesus is good news in the biblical sense. It is the eucatastrophe, the sudden turn of events that ensures the protagonist – God – of his victory.

In this reading of the story, the quest is not man’s but God’s. The goal is not to escape hell but to restore creation, which includes in a fundamental way the remaking of humanity. This theocentric reading of the Bible retains all the key elements, including sin, humanity’s terrible plight, and God’s rescue through Christ. But it keeps the story centered where it belongs – on God.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Up, Up, but not Away: The Ascension of Jesus (2)

When Jesus was crucified, his followers despaired. When he was raised, they were astounded. They realized that something phenomenally important had happened, but they didn’t realize where it would lead. They did not understand that they were living in a period of transition. They assumed that their old dreams were still in play. So, they asked Jesus (Acts 1:6), “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The lexicon defines the Greek word translated restore as “to change to a previous good state.” The disciple expected Jesus to remain among them as he had before. They could only suppose that he would take his rightful place as the king of Israel, drive out the foreigners, and restore Israel to a place of national sovereignty. They looked at the future through the lens of the past.

But God had something else, something they could not imagine, in mind. The kingdom Jesus brought did not belong to Israel, but to God. The king would sit on a throne, but it would be in heaven, not Jerusalem. His royal attendants would not be known by titles like “lord” or “benefactor”, but by names like Peter, John, and Matthew. The power at their disposal would not be arms and armies, but radical, death-defying, life-giving, enemy-conquering, Holy Spirit-originating love. Instead of casting the Romans out of their earthly kingdom, that love would sweep Rome into God’s heavenly kingdom. Instead of bringing the Gentiles to their knees, it would raise them up to the heavens.

Now they had just asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”, and it was not the first time they asked a question like that.1 But I think there was another question in their minds they did not articulate: “Are we about to get our promotion to positions of authority?”

Now look at verse 7: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

They wanted authority, but they would receive power (or ability, as the word could be translated). And this isn’t what they were expecting. It was authority, after all, that was important to them. They dreamed about sitting on thrones. In fact, just before Jesus’ arrest, they had argued about which of them would be placed in the highest positions of authority. But Jesus had a different idea: instead of sitting on thrones as rulers, they would go into all the world as witnesses; instead of exercising authority, they would be given power.

When we think of a witness we usually think of someone who tries to persuade others to believe in Christ. That is a very good thing, but it is not what Jesus had in mind here. A witness is someone who has seen something and tells what he has seen. In this case, a witness is someone who has seen Jesus, and tells about it.

That was not really what the disciples had in mind. They wanted to be “lords” in Israel, not witnesses to the ends of the earth. But remember, they were entering a period of great transition, a fact which became clear to them almost immediately.

Verse 9: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” We read in verse three that Jesus had appeared to his people many times over a period of forty days in what are often called “post-resurrection appearances.” But verse 9 is a transition verse: instead of a post-resurrection appearance, we have a post-resurrection disappearance.4 He was hidden from their sight.

4 I am indebted to William Larkin for this phrase.

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Up, Up, but Not Away: The Ascension of Jesus

When really big changes take place – the ones that are destined to transform the world we live in – we often don’t notice.  We are unaware of their scope and power.  When the first Ford rolled off an assembly line in 1913, some people thought it ingenious, some thought it a novelty, but only a few recognized it as an era-changing event. The same could be said of the first mobile phone call made in 1973 by a Motorola engineer as he walked down the streets of New York City. Or one might mention the Internet Protocol Suite that was introduced in 1982.  It transformed the computer networks of a few eggheads into the world wide web. These were transforming events, but at the time most people missed their significance.

A transition of even greater import occurred during the days after the resurrection of Jesus.  St. Luke chronicles the story in the first chapter of Acts.  Look at verse 1: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.”

That former book, part one of Luke’s two-volume history of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian era, is in our Bibles.  We know it as the Gospel According to Luke.  It begins with the birth of John the Baptist and goes on to chronicle the entire life of Jesus on earth.  But here in the opening page of volume two, Luke writes that his first volume only dealt with what Jesus “began to do and to teach.”  By implication, this second volume (our book of Acts), is about what Jesus continued to do and teach after the ascension. 

Jesus didn’t become dormant after the ascension.  He continued to do and continued to teach, but under a different paradigm (and it is important we recognize that).  He is still doing and still teaching, even today, but the way he does so has undergone a significant transition.

In verse three Luke says, “After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”  The words, “he showed himself” translate a Greek word that means he “stood beside them.”  After his resurrection he stood beside them even when they were unaware of his presence.  Only occasionally did he (still verse 3), “appear to them.” (The Greek word is optonomai, from which we get our word optometry.)

When he did appear to them, he spoke about the kingdom of God.  Sometimes we get the idea that after the crucifixion the kingdom of God was no longer a relevant issue.  But Jesus thought it was, even after his crucifixion and resurrection. The kingdom theme begins in the Old Testament and runs right through the New.  Here in the very first paragraph of Acts we find Jesus talking about it, and if we skip ahead to the close of this history book, we will find that Paul is still talking about it in the very last sentence. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus opened the kingdom of God to us, and it remains open.

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You Are the Man – But God Is Still God

2 Samuel 12:1-7 (listening time, approx. 27 minutes)
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Do Not Judge Me by the Enemies I Have Made

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.” He may have drawn on the Arabian adage, “Judge a man by the reputation of his enemies.” It seems people have long defined themselves by their enemies.

In today’s climate, the part played by enemies in self-definition has expanded, and that is not good.  Jesus did not say that people would be known by their enemies, but “by their fruits,” which is a more accurate gauge of character. Besides that, if people define themselves by their enemies, they will always need enemies, very clear-cut enemies, and the more hostile the better.

That is where we find ourselves now. Enemies, whether political, ideological, or theological, are the instrument by which people are identified. And when we define ourselves by our enemies, the desire to demonize others and thereby sanctify ourselves is just too tempting to resist.

Americans stumble when they don’t have an enemy. They don’t know what to do without one. After the Revolutionary War, America needed an enemy. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans wanted to hold on to Britain, but Hamilton, Madison, and the Federalists thought that France better fit the bill. When both France and England became friends, Native Americans became the nemesis.

When decades of expansionism brought America wealth, power, and prestige around the world, she looked for an enemy closer to home. The new enemy lived on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. As Pogo of comic strip fame put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Before the Second World War ended, we had already found a new enemy in the Soviets. They had been allies in the war (rather like the French had been allies in the War of Independence), but were now the enemy to truth, justice, and the American way. For forty years, the Soviet Union filled that important role.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world changed, and we needed a new enemy. We quickly found one in Islamic Extremists. And so began the war on terror. It was no coincidence that George W. Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed within weeks of the attacks on 9/11.

Today, we are again hunting for a worthy adversary. North Korea has been hard for most Americans to take seriously. Iran is too provincial. China is an adversary that can keep us occupied for generations, but unless a Chinese version of Khrushchev threatens to bury us, they are unlikely to reach archenemy status. Until such a time, we will look for our enemies closer to home.

Conservatives found one in Barack Obama in 2008. Having an enemy empowered Republicans and gave them the energy they needed to take back the White House. In 2016, Donald Trump gave progressives an enemy extraordinaire, a role which Mr. Trump seemed to relish. Now Joe Biden is the enemy célèbre.

In the Bible, the psalmist longed to be delivered from his enemies. I’m not so sure that we do. We sense that we would be lost without them.

Jesus introduced his followers to a different way. He instructed them to love their enemies, not be defined by them—a command that was no less controversial when he first spoke it than it is today. But if we love our enemies, how will others know who we are? How will we?

The time has come to follow a better way, the Jesus way: to be identified by what we are for and who we are with rather than by what we oppose and who we are against. To put it another way, it is time to be identified by who is our friend rather than by who is our enemy.

Jesus told his disciples, “I have called you friends…” This extraordinary idea is at the heart of Christian theology. People are defined – formed, shaped, and finally judged – by who their friend is. So, I do not ask, like FDR, to be judged by the enemies I have made but by the Friend who has made me and loves me.

(First published by Gannet.)

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Uniquely His: The White Stone of the Revelation

What do people call you? A name, nickname, or maybe just, “Hey, you!” Or maybe “Mom” or “Grandma.” What will God call you – sinner or saint?

What other people call you matters little. What God calls you matters a great deal. One name God has for you, if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ and joined with him, is “Daughter” or “Son.” God also has a special name for you that no one else knows, a name that perfectly captures you in all your complexity. Jesus says in the book of Revelation, “To the one who overcomes, I will give … a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

That name, God’s special name for you, which only the two of you will know, will fit you to a T. That is because God knows you, knows you in a way no one else does, knows everything about you. He knows about the most embarrassing things in your past. He knows you love to sing. He knows what happened in your life when you were two. He knows what you thought at four in the morning on June 16th, 1977, when you couldn’t sleep. He knows your fears, your sins, and your strengths. He knows what you have done and what you would have done had things been different.

No one knows you like God knows you. He knows everything there is to know – absolutely everything: the good, the bad, the brave, the foolish – and knowing you like that, he loves you completely. Knowing you like that, he came in the person of his Son to rescue you. That is love.

You are absolutely unique—we all are. Your biological makeup – the length of your nose, the color of your eyes, the complexion of your skin, the intricacies of your brain – were written like software on your DNA.  

DNA is contained inside of chromosomes, and every human has 46 of them. The DNA nucleotides are strung around each other in two chains. There are 3.2 billion nucleotide pairs on all human chromosomes, and every one of those pairs can combine in four possible ways. 

What that means is the number of possible combinations in any one person is greater than the total number of atoms in the universe. The combinations that made up you (and me) are unlike the combinations that make up any other person in the world. Even identical twins are not identical: they have, just for example, different fingerprints. In fact, they are different from each other in a myriad of ways.  

There is no one else in all the world just like you. You was designed by God to be the one and only you – altogether unique. One in 7 billion. There is not another you on earth. 

Unique things are valuable, and God made each of us totally unique. The world’s most expensive car is a Rolls Royce Boat Tail. Rolls Royce builds only three of them and each comes at a price tag of $280 million. A Boat Tail has 1,800 individual components. But that does not compare to a human being, who has about 30 trillion cells in her body. And God didn’t make three of each person; only one.

Even a Rolls Royce will deteriorate and depreciate over time. But God made humans to become more than they were. They were made to develop in beauty and complexity. It is true that sin has caused us individually and as a species to deteriorate, but God has made it possible to reverse that forever.

Forever. A moment ago, I just wrote that God “made humans to become more than they were,” using the past tense. But God knows us in the present, “for all,” as Jesus once said, “are alive to him.”

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