The Banality of Evil

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith“And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.” (Matt 6:13)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the primal experiences in life is the experience of evil, yet in our postmodern world many people work to deny its existence and its ultimate manifestation in the person of Satan. By contrast, the early church routinely practiced exorcism as part of the baptismal service because “The exorcisms [meant] to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it.” (Schmemann 1973, 70-71)

Evil Personified

The proclivity to deny evil shows today in our attempts to define it away. We are not born in sin, as Augustine (Foley 2006, 9) argued; we are born basically good and able to live an righteous life. When someone points out an obvious sin, the blame is shifted away (he was poor, disadvantaged, in great pain, and so on). Even Adolf Eichmann employed this defense.

Many people avoid making decisions hoping that they can escape accountability. Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who, having escaped Nazi death camps before coming to America, was asked to report on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961) for the New Yorker magazine. Eichmann was the German officer during the Second World War who organized Adolf Hitler’s program of extermination of the Jews known as the “Final Solution.” Arendt attended the trial expecting to see a hateful, anti-Semite only to discover that Eichmann was more of a petty bureaucrat, someone unable to think for himself. In the case of Eichmann, the face of evil was that of someone unable or unwilling to think for themselves (Arendt 1992, 97–101).

The Eichmann trial changed Arendt forever. She devoted her life to studying the mind and no doubt out of anguish coined the term “banality of evil,” which speaks to the commonplace nature of evil (Arendt 1976, 3). In some sense, denying the reality of evil is intellectually on par with denying the existence of the Holocaust. 

Sin Defined

Sin and evil are birds of a feather. Sin is a broad term encompassing several related ideas: sin, trespass, and iniquity. 

In the Greek language where it comes from, sin is an archery term that means to fall short of the mark. When we strive, but fail, to do good, we sin. 

Trespass is a legal term that implies the breaking of a rule or law. Driving at 90 miles per hour on a road with a posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour is a trespass.

Iniquity, like sin, can also take a broad meaning but it is helpful to think of iniquity as failing to do something good. Watching someone drown when it is possible to throw them a rope, may not be illegal, but it is an iniquity.

Evil Defined

Evil is often defined today as the absence of good. When God created light, he declared it to be good (Gen 1:3). The absence of light, darkness, could be thought of as evil—the absence of good without the pejorative inference. But this definition for evil wishes away the problem of pejorative evil.

Viktor Frankl (2008) offers numerous tips to prospective concentration camp inmates during the Second World War on how to survive, such as:

  • Don’t draw attention to yourself from sadistic guards.
  • Shave daily, walk briskly, and stand up straight to look healthy enough for work.
  • Applaud profusely when sadistic guards read poetry.
  • In walking in formation, stay in the middle or the front to avoid those that stumble and the beatings that follow.
  • Offer free psychiatric counseling to guards in need of it.

The key term in this description is sadistic. Evil pollutes those that touch it encouraging further evil. True evil is never simply the absence of good.

The Importance of Purpose

James K. A. Smith offers an interesting ethical insight into the nature of evil—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view.  When it strays from its purpose, it commits sin and engages in evil.

He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith (2016, 89) observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (Smith 2016, 88). 

Satan in the Bible

Satan’s role in tempting us and promoting evil in the world is found throughout scripture. In the Garden of Eden, Satan is pictured as a snake who rebels against God and tempts others to sin by rebelling with him.⁠1 God later advises Cain to be good because, otherwise, sin will strike like a snake crouching at your door (Gen 4:7).

Another important image of Satan is given in Job 1 where Satan is depicted as a ruthless prosecuting attorney in God’s court. Satan’s cruel lies slander a righteous Job. Still, Satan cannot afflict Job without first seeking God’s permission (Job 1:6-12). In spite of Satan’s cruelty, Job remains faithful. In the end, God not only acquits him of all of Satan’s charges, Job is compensated for his losses (Job 42:10).

In the synoptic gospels, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert where the devil tempts him.⁠2 Much like Adam and Eve are tempted with food, the devil starts by goading a hungry Jesus into turning a stone into bread. The devil tempts Jesus three times. Jesus cites scripture in response to each temptation. In the final temptation, the Devil’s temptation starts by misquoting scripture, but Jesus corrects the deception and resists the temptation.⁠3

Like Job and unlike Adam, Jesus remains faithful to God’s will in life and in death. Jesus’ death on the cross then fulfills the prophecy of Satan’s defeat (Gen 3:15) and pays the penalty for sin—we are redeemed. Because the curse of sin is broken, the death penalty for sin has been rescinded (1 Cor 15:22). The resurrection accordingly proves that we have been reconciled with God.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus asks us to pray that we not be tempted and that we be delivered from evil. Because Satan must ask permission to tempt us, God can deny that petition and our deliverance is within his power. King David writes: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” (Ps 16:1) Jesus has promised us that when we turn to him in weakness our salvation is secure (John 10:29).

References

Arendt, Hannah. 1992. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1996. The Life of the Mind: The Groundbreaking Investigation of How We Think. New York: Harvest Book.

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Frankl, Viktor E. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946).[1] Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.

Kline, Meredith G. 2006. Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Schmemann, Alexander. 1973. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Footnotes

1 For example, Kline (2006, 302) writes about the people of God and the people of the serpent.

2 Mark 1:12-13 gives a brief overview while Matt 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer. The Luke version has the most detail. The second and third questions posed by Satan appear in different order in Matthew and Luke.

3 Each temptation Jesus faces is a challenge facing all Christians, particularly leaders. Nouwen (2002, 7–8) summarizes these leadership challenges as the temptation to be relevant (provide food), to be spectacular (show your divinity), and to be powerful (take charge).

The Banality of Evil

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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Giving Thanks

Photograph of Clouds by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Giving Thanks

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father,

We praise you for your compassionate presence, your redeeming love, and your boundless blessings.

For we are often absent when we are needed, unloving in our relationships, and grasping when we should be generous.

Forgive our sin; overlook our iniquities; redeems us from our own trespasses.

Thank you for hearing our confession, forgiving our wrongs, and healing our wounds.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

save us from ourselves; teach us to order our lives on your word; restore our sense of right and wrong,

that we might survive the storms of this life.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

Also see:

Prayer for Healing, Comfort, and Deliverance 

Prayer for Shalom 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2wVZtbb

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Prayer for Peace

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Twins
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty God,

Grant us shalom, your peace, which is more than just the absence of war.

Save us from ourselves, from greed, from selfishness, from hardened hearts and stopped ears.

May we never pray for peace, but harbor war in our hearts.

May we never pray for peace only when we have gotten our way.

Teach us how to be ashamed; may we learn again to blush.

May your ways again be our guide and your truths a joy to our hearts.

Teach us to order our lives by your word.

May we listen to your watchman and not ignore the trumpet.

Remove your stumbling block from our feet, the blind from our eyes, that we may no longer sin and perish.

Forgive the sins of our fathers and our temptation to repeat them,

That the day of judgment would not be today. (Jer 6:13-23)

In the power of your Holy Spirit, enter our hearts and cleanse them,

that we might be saved through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Prayer for Peace

Also see:

Prayer for Shalom 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Prayer of Faith

Cover, Life in Tension

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

I believe in Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead.

Come into my life, help me to renounce and grieve the sin in my life that separates me from God.

Cleanse me of this sin, renew your Holy Spirit within me so that I will not sin any further.

Strengthen my faith. Bring saints and a faithful church into my life to keep me honest with myself and draw me closer to you.

Break any chains that bind me to the past—be they pains or sorrows or grievous temptations.

May I  freely welcome God, the Father, into my life, who through Christ Jesus can bridge any gap and heal any affliction, now and always.

In Jesus’ previous name, Amen.

Prayer of Faith

Also see: Prayer to Increase Faith

Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2sqjfoR

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Augustine’s Confessions, Part 2—Sin

Augustine’s Confessions, Part 2—Sin

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 3; Goto Part 4)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Augustine writes the Confessions in thirteen books where the first nine book talk about his life, book ten talks about his motivations for writing, and the final three chapters reflect on the book of Genesis. In part two of this review, I focus on Augustine’s view of sin.

Memoir and Augustine’s Focus on God

 Memoir is an autobiography with a theme. Augustine’s theme is his call to faith and he begins his memoir with a profession of faith:

“GREAT ART THOU, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no number. And man desires to praise Thee. He is but a tiny part of all that Though has created. He bears about him his mortality, the evidence of his sinfulness, and the evidence that Thou does resist the proud, yet this tiny part of all that Thou has created desires to praise Thee.” (3)

Augustine is writing in Latin, which is obvious from the translation because of the use of Thou, Thy, and Thee in the English translation, borrowing from the archaic English forms found in Elizabethan English. Sheed comments on the decision to use these forms in translation arguing that they add beauty, express intimacy, and reflect the liturgical character of the Confessions (xi-xii).

Augustine’s Style

Augustine’s theology appears in this introductory paragraph which starts with divine praise, intimacy, power, and immensity, relates death to sin, and references Jesus’ emphasis on humility (e.g. Matt 5:3). The first sentence is also an allusion to the psalms which in a modern translation reads: “For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps 96:4 ESV)

Unlike a modern memoir, Augustine does not turn to his own life story until after laying out a significant treatise on his understanding of God. In his seventh section (about six pages later), he finally starts his own story:

“Thus, Lord, I do not remember living this age of my infancy; I must take the word of others about it and can only conjecture how I spent it—even if with a fair amount of certainty—from watching others now in the same stage.” (9)

In this context, we witness a very pious Augustine and get a sense of the liturgical character of this memoir.

Early Sin and Intercessory Prayer

Augustine is frequently associated with the doctrine of original sin, which is obvious when he writes:

“Thus the innocence of children is in the helplessness of their bodies rather than any quality in their minds, I have myself seen a small baby jealous; it was too young to speak, but it was livid with anger as it watched another infant at the breast.” (9)

We used to joke that original sin was two infants given one toy! Still, Augustine does not exempt himself from the influences of sin as he writes about his own infancy.

Augustine’s Youth

Augustine pictures later himself as an initially lazy student who received frequent beatings (10), but we are quickly introduced to a pious Monica, his mother, who seeing her son engaging in self-destructive and sinful behavior resorted to unceasing prayer:

“The mother of my flesh was in heavy anxiety, since with a heart chaste in Your faith she was ever in deep travail for my eternal salvation, and would have proceeded without delay to have me consecrated and wash clean by the Sacrament of salvation…” (12)

Still, it is paradoxical to observe one of the great philosophers of the church saying: “I disliked learning and hated to be forced to it.”(13)

Immorality

At age sixteen, Augustine found himself beset with sin. A besetting sin is one that you are aware of and pray for relief from, but find yourself addicted to. For Augustine, lust for women posed a besetting sin, as he famously wrote: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” (152)

Augustine writes that his pagan father, Patricius, and his Christian mother, Monica, reacted differently to his interest in women. Patricius looked forward to having grandchildren (irrespective of their manner of conception), while Monica wanted him to remain chaste until such time as he could establish his career (27-28).

Stolen Peers

In the midst of his discussion of lust, Augustine tells the story of how some of his friends lured him into steeling some peers, writing:

“The peers were beautiful but it was not peers that my empty soul desired. For I had any number of better peers of my own and plucked those only that I might steal.” (31)

The stolen peers became a symbol for his relationship with women and later taking of a mistress, who is never named but gives him a son (56). Fifteen years later he dismisses his mistress so that he might be formally married and finds himself so distressed in her absence while he waits for marriage that he takes another mistress. If this seems odd to modern ears, the editor notes:

“Marriage in the Roman Empire was viewed more as an institution of social promotion, political alliance, and financial stability than an act of love.” (327)

Assessment

While this may be true, Augustine viewed his immorality as a besetting sin and clearly motivated his later guidance for monks to remain celibate. In some sense, his weakness came to our benefit as the church worked to cleanse itself of pagan attitudes about immorality, which still dog the church today.

 

Also see:

The Christian Memoir 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2slSaTM

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Lenten Prayer

Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross

by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Holy Father,

In the night, I hear your voice and it gives me comfort,

for I know that you are near and need not fear the darkness.

In the morning, I see your light and I find strength for the day,

knowing that you have ordained it and I need only play my part.

In the afternoon, I hear your footsteps behind me and I do not feel alone,

for your hedge of protection is strong and reliable.

In the evening, I feel your warmth and take comfort in rest,

for you rested on the seventh day and declared it to be holy.

In the shadow of your cross, I confess that my good works are filthy rages in your sight and not all my works are good.

Forgive me, Lord, for the unholy things that I had done and the righteous things that I failed to do,

that I might never leave your presence.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant me the strength to forgive the sins of those around me.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Lenten Prayer

Also see:

Giving Thanks 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Lent-2018

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Heros and Children in the Faith: Confession of Sin

wedding-002Heros and Children in the Faith: Confession of Sin

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Also, El Shadai in DC, Manassas, Virginia, March 2, 2017.

Welcome

Welcome. My name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor and a Christian author.

Introduction

Today is Ash Wednesday which is the first day of Lent, which starts the 40 days before Easter. Because Christ died for our sins, traditionally Lent is a time of reflection over our sins and also over the spiritual disciplines.

The text for today, Psalm 32, focuses on the theme of confession of sin, which can be both bad things we do and good things that we fail to do. Iniquity, the good things that we fail to do, are normally the sins most painful.

Prayer

Let’s pray.

Holy Father. Thank you for your presences among us this morning. We give special thanks that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially clear in this moment and this place. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears to hear. In the precious name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Text

The scripture for today comes from Psalm 32:1-5. Hear the word of the Lord:

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps 32:1-5 ESV)

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Context

What should I confess? (2X)

During this past year, I wrote a memoir of my spiritual life of some 300 pages. This was the story of my youth, relationships, growing up, education, and professional life. In the middle of this life, I experienced many interesting things and also committed sins of various kinds. Many times the deepest pains of life came when I could not do good when the opportunity arose. This type of sin is described in the Bible as iniquity and, as North Americans, this is the sin that many times screams the loudest.

For example, as a young man of twenty-seven years, I was unable to accept the opportunity to be a missionary in Latin American because I did not have sufficient faith in God and paid too much attention to my personal life—I simply was not ready. In another context, I could not provide emotional support to a friend of mine after she was abused by her own mother because of alcoholism—I wanted to help but did not have the necessary emotional resources. In both cases, I was not obligated to do anything, but the opportunity to do something better in Christ was lost.

Many times iniquity is the most painful sin because we do not have the capacity to do good things when life requires a hero in the faith and we are still babies in the faith. For this reason, Lent also has a focus on the spiritual disciplines which help us to grow more capacity to do good things in Christ.

What do you need to confess? (2X)

Analysis

Psalm 32 was written by King David after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murdering of her husband, Uria the Hittite in 2 Samuel 11 and the disclosure of the Prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12. His confession is recorded in Psalm 51. But, in Psalm 32 described the experience of David with his confession.

So what did David Say?

In verse 1, David said that it is a blessing to be forgiving. But there is also an interesting sentence: “Whose sin is covered.” This is interesting because the sacrificial system did not cover intention sin, only unintentional sin.[1] God forgave David only because he prayed and his pardon was before the cross of Christ! Psalm 51 is a very important prayer.

What else did David say?

Dave uses different words for sin. Three words are most interesting: sin, transgression, and iniquity. Sin was taken from the word in Hebrew  (‎חֲטָאָֽה) which means to miss an objective like the archer whose arrows fall short of the target. Transgression (פֶּ֗שַׁע) means to break a law. Iniquity (עָוֹ֑ן) means to do something bad or fail to do something good. David’s sins—adultery and murder—were both transgressions of the Ten Commandments.

What elso can we learn from this Psalm?

In verses three and four, David spoke of his depression and guilt for trying to hide his transgressions. But even King David was subject to God’s Law and needed his forgiveness. And we see that his confession resulted in forgiveness and the blessing of God.

What do you need to confess? (2X)

Conclusions

In the context of the church universal, confession is a subjec that Roman Catholics manage better than Protestants perhaps because of their focus today on the spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, Biblical studies, meditation, and confession of sin. Confession, like forgiveness, makes room in our lives for relationships in the community of faith and makes room in the life for better relationships with God.

In the community of faith, confession means that our relationships in the community are more important than our personal guilt. In a competitive world this act of confession is immediately obvious and totally contra-cultural.

Confession is also very important in our relationship with God. Our lives in Christ grow because confession is the beginning of realization that we are not holy like God and we need him.

Consequently, the pain of confession appears in our lives like a sweet sacrifice before a Holy God and as a sign that community in Christ is possible in this time and this place.

What do you need to confess? (2X)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Holy Father:

Thank you for your love and for giving us the opportunity to confess our sins and be forgiven by means of the cross of Jesus. In the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to forgive the sins of our brothers and sisters in Christ and also the sins of persons that we see every day. In the precious name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

[1] David recognized himself that he had this problem:  “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” (Ps 51:16 ESV)

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27. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webHoly and Eternal Father,
We praise you for your mercy and grace through Jesus Christ who died for our sins before we were even born. We confess that you and you alone are holy. From our mother’s womb we have tried your patience and even now come to you with blood stained hands. Forgive us in our rebellion against your covenant and against your son. In the power of your Holy Spirit, cleanse our hearts and minds that we might become fit stewards of your mercy and grace to those among us who have not heard the good news or have rejected it on account of our sin and folly. Draw us to yourself today across the gaps that separate us that we might have new life in you, this day, and forever more. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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23. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webGod of All Compassion and Mercy,
Forgive me, Lord, for the sins of my youth where I fell short of the plans you had for me. When in your great compassion you were kind to me and patient,teaching me your law and demonstrating your grace. Forgive me, Lord, for the transgressions of my youth when I disobeyed your law when in your mercy you looked the other way and disregarded my attitude, teaching me forbearance and gentle persuasion.
Forgive me, Lord, for the iniquity of my youth when I failed to help those around me. When in your everlasting love you sent your son to die to me, atoning for my sin, my transgressions, and my iniquity so that I might grow to be a man mindful of compassion, mercy, and love that were modeled for me all the days of my life through the power of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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12. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webCompassionate Father,

Be especially near me this morning—blott out my guilt; hide my shame; cover up my sin.  Share an intimate moment with me though I be unworthy. Remind me of better times. Grant me a new day in the sunshine of your mercy—a day when I could loose myself in your love and extend your love to those around me without a thought.  Open a bridge over the gaps that separate us—the gaps of time and holiness and power—that I might spend more time with those around me, might share in your holy affections, might overcome my own weaknesses and bitterness and turn to you instead of into my pain that I may experience godly, redemptive grief. Through the power of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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