Christian, Digging Deeper, identity

A cure for condemnation

When I first started developing CFS/ME, neither me or my family worked it out for a while. I kept falling asleep when working, forgetting things, and getting behind in all my work. My academic studies were sliding, my room was becoming a mess, and I frequently forgot things I was supposed to do. For some months, we all believed I was just lazy. I lived under this constant weight of believing I was selfish, lazy, and needed to pull myself together more. Others believed this too, and told me so. I did not feel I could talk to others or ask for prayer, as it was myself that was the problem. As things started getting rapidly worse, we recognised that I wasn’t well, and started seeking a diagnosis. There was an immediate probable diagnosis, but it took about a year to be properly diagnosed.

In realising that I was unwell, I had a legitimate reason for my behaviour, and knew that my fatigue and forgetfulness had not been laziness… I was not the horrible, ungodly, selfish person I had come to believe I was. But I still felt under a crushing weight of condemnation.

Knowing that my circumstances weren’t just a result of my own laziness, I felt able to ask for prayer. The church had just had training in prayer ministry, and were eager to put into practice what they’d learnt. One of the comments that came up during the training was that sometimes, when God is healing, someone can feel heat in a specific place. One of the two ladies praying for me had her hand resting on my back between my shoulders. As they were praying, her hand got unusually hot, and the place on my back it was resting on. She asked me if that meant anything to me. Slightly puzzled, I dismissed it saying, “no, the problem wasn’t in my back”.

After praying, I left church with my family and continued with the day, but that heat between my shoulders remained. Eventually I went to my room, and just asked God “Is there something you are saying here?” As I looked up from praying, I saw these verses (among many others) stuck on my wall:

“The Beloved of the LORD dwells in safety. The High God surrounds him all day long and dwells between his shoulders.” – Deuteronomy 33:12

That was what the heat was about! God wanted me to know that He was dwelling between my shoulders.

Suddenly the condemnation lifted. Despite all I couldn’t do, despite others’ opinions of me, despite my own weakness and sinfulness, God called me His Beloved. He was with me! Dwelling in me! Surrounding me! The peace of his presence, and amazing grace of his approval rested on me and calmed my soul.

God knows the healing that we need. This was only the beginning of a long road of severe chronic illness, but the healing of my heart was his priority. I needed to know that His love for me was no less for all my limitations and failings. I am his Beloved when I sin and repent. I am his Beloved when I am needy and require help from others rather than give it. I am his Beloved when I can’t string together a prayer that makes sense. I am his Beloved when I fall asleep trying to read his word. I am His Beloved when I don’t keep up with all the things I should do. I am his Beloved when my room is a mess and I’m failing at my work. None of these things can lessen his love for me, or take away my identity as His.

Neither will he give up on you. Your failings cannot take away the place you hold in his heart or the value he places on you. Your sin cannot remove you so far from God’s presence that he cannot find you and redeem you. If you are His, then nothing else defines who you are… not your memories, your experiences, your scars, your boasts, your pain or shame, failings or fears, not others’ words or opinions, not the lies of the enemy, or the worth the world places on you. You are His – the Beloved of the LORD. And you dwell in safety; for the High God surrounds you all day long and dwells between your shoulders. He is with you… always.

Your Sister In Christ,

Hephzibah

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Betrayed by God?

Have you ever felt betrayed by God? When prayers you have desperately prayed, seem to go unheard and unanswered? When the promises you have clung to appear empty and without fulfilment? When the hope you have kept alive is finally dashed beyond repair…

“Has his steadfast love for ever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” – Psalm 77:8-9

Maybe your prayers have sounded like this at times… or your secret thoughts. What is it that causes that deep grief?

“This is my grief: that the right hand of the Most High has changed” – Psalm 77:10

To the psalmist’s eyes, God’s blessing had changed. The right hand signified blessing, and it seemed God had removed that or changed his character. This grieved him more than anything else. I think this is also what most deeply grieves us in any situation. It is not always the circumstances themselves that drive us to despair, but the fact that we cannot see God in them, and to us it seems that he has changed, failed, given up, or betrayed us.

God is unchangeable. He cannot lie. He cannot deny who He is. Yet there are things that we cannot and never will understand, things that we won’t be able to reconcile to a good God.

I think often our feeling of betrayal by God comes from our expectation. We read promises like “all things work together for good”, and “I will prosper the righteous”, and we imagine a life full of blessings, victories, and prayers answered how we want them. When this does not happen, we think God must be false to His promises, but maybe it is just that we never really grasped them in the first place.

I am not saying here that we should not live in expectation… of course we should! We have a great God who works to bless his people and we should have confidence in that… only that we should not define what that blessing is.

We so like to tell God what is best. Our idea of God’s best for us is health, a job or ministry we love, a happy family, good finances, and a bit of spiritual growth too. But look at the way He promises to care for us in John 15. He promises to prune us to make us grow and thrive. This means being cut back, experiencing frustration, disappointment, and loss. These may be big or little things, but He loves us enough to do whatever is necessary to make us grow, thrive, and produce an abundant harvest in Him, and that includes allowing pain and loss.

Another mistake we make is to tell God when and how. A good friend and role-model of mine said recently

When God gives you a promise, it’s because you’re going to need it.

That is so simple, but a truth very few of us grasp. If it is all going to happen now, what need is there for Him to have given a promise? When we receive God’s promises, we want to see it happen… now! But He gives us promises as hope to cling on to when it looks impossible. He gives us promises for things we are going to have to wait for. He gives us promises so we have a window into the goodness of God when we can find it nowhere else.

And this is the psalmist’s response. He cannot see it now, but he declares what he knows about God…

“I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What God is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people…” – Psalm 77:11-15

One thing I have discovered is that God fulfils every promise he has made… but the fulfilment of those is very rarely what I have expected. He answers every prayer… but his answer is not always how we want.

In the preface to her book “Joni”, Joni Eareckson Tada (a quadriplegic) wrote

“To rephrase this thought, I suggest that there are likewise only two joys. One is having God answer all your prayers; the other is not receiving the answer to all your prayers. I believe this because I have found that God knows my needs infinitely better than I know them. And He is utterly dependable, no matter which direction our circumstances take us.”

He is faithful. He is enough. He is all I need. But let’s be real about the pain and confusion that can make us question, and the times we feel God has let us down or betrayed us. May God enable us to embrace each joy He gives… through the answers we want, and the ones we don’t. And may He strengthen us to hold onto truth. To hold onto the promises He’s given us for the waiting. And to hold onto the memories of His goodness to us and the anchor of our Hope – Jesus crucified for us, and certain, glorious eternity with Him.

Press on, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Press on to receive that crown of glory He has waiting for you. It will be worth it!

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“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” – Philippians 3:8-9

Our identity in Christ is such a wonderful and glorious thing. It is wonderful just to be made in His Image, but this goes further than that. When we are His, we receive the identity Jesus won for us.

What does this mean? The way I picture it is this: when Jesus was hanging on the cross, a divine exchange was made. In that moment every sin, shame or wrongdoing, was nailed on Him, and He received the punishment for them. All our names of “Failure”, “Unwanted”, “Unlovely”, “No belonging”, “Sinful”, “Unworthy”, “Useless”, “Ashamed”, “Worthless”… He took on himself, and as He died, these died with Him. Forever.

And then He rose – our glorious, beautiful, powerful, holy, and righteous King! And with Him, we rose. The new you.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17

Jesus is Holy. In Him we are holy.

Jesus is righteous. In Him we are righteous.

Jesus is the Approved of God. In Him we are the Approved of God.

Jesus is God’s chosen one. In Him we are God’s chosen ones.

Jesus is the cornerstone. We are built on Him – living stones creating a temple, a dwelling place for God, a spiritual house.

Jesus is the head. We are His body, called to see, hear, serve, and speak, as he directs. And as He was broken and given out for many, we too are called to be broken and given, and through our wounds to minister the healing of His.

Jesus is the Beloved. In Him we too are God’s Beloved.

Jesus came as a servant. In Him our calling is as servants.

Jesus is the sacrifice that bought our salvation. In Him we are called to be living sacrifices, withholding nothing from God, and fully devoted to Him.

Jesus is the perfect high priest. In Him we are His holy priesthood.

You want to know who you are? You want to find your identity and calling? Look to Jesus.

Smash the mirror. Gaze at God.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 2:4-5

You Are. This is not an identity you work your way to. It is not for another point in your life when you are less sinful, more useful, have brought dozens of people to know Christ, cleaned up the mess in your life, sorted those habitual sins, have learned to control your temper, be more organised, and watch your tongue. It is not for the spiritual Christians, or the mature ones. This is for all those who are In Him.

Those names we mentioned at the beginning, and any others you have earned yourself, leave them in the grave where they belong. That is not who you are. That is not who He is creating you to be.

Look to Him and receive the names He speaks over you…

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” – 1 Peter 2:9-10

Hephzibah

Illustration by Valerie Martin

Bible, Christian, Digging Deeper, identity

In Christ

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Christian, Digging Deeper, identity

The disciple Jesus Loved

Identity – part 2

“That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!'” – John 21:7

I have always found that title confusing. It seems a bit arrogant, and too much like a claim to fame. I remember asking when I was a child about why the disciple John called himself this in his gospel, and I remember always being unsatisfied with the answer. I was told that John was the closest disciple to Jesus, and this was why he called himself “the disciple Jesus loved”. But this always seemed to go against the Christ-centred, kingdom-minded humility that is so valued in scripture.

On one of my many sleepless nights, at a stage when I was really struggling with losing my identity with the illness, these words “the disciple Jesus loved” kept going round in my head. As I meditated on this, I realised how little else John said about himself. The only things he seems to say are about his relationship with Jesus, and Jesus’ love for Him.

We do know that John was the disciple closest to Jesus. I am not taking away from that in any way. I’m just not convinced that that was why he called himself the disciple Jesus loved. Considering how little else John said about himself, it seems that in calling himself “the disciple Jesus loved” that he had said everything we need to know about him. But couldn’t the same be said of any follower of Christ?

Yes! If we are His, if we believe in Him and confess He is Lord, if we are following Him, abiding in Him, and obeying Him, then we are surely His disciples. And if we are His we already know that Jesus loves us!

What if this title is not a “claim to fame” but actually a humble declaration that He is no more or less than loved by God and a follower of Him. Nothing more needs to be said. He doesn’t need to tell us about the faith he had, any great acts he did, his piety, experience or role in building the church. It is enough to know that He is the disciple Jesus loved.

Is this enough for us? When you think of your worth, your identity, your qualifications to be used by God, is it enough for you to say simply “I am the disciple Jesus loves”? Before other believers, or the world, are we able to stand on these credentials, and not grasp for our own self-made boasts.

John recognised that there is no higher status than to be the disciple Jesus loved.

In my illness, uselessness, and struggle with what felt like everything I was being stripped away, God showed me that I, too, am the Disciple Jesus Loves. That this is all I need to be. This is all others need to know of me. This is at once, my status, my identity, my calling, my credentials, and my qualifications. I cannot become – through work, experience, service, accomplishments, or good deeds -any more than this… for there is no higher accolade! And as long as He holds me, leads me and loves me (which is forever as He is eternal) I cannot become any less. Nothing can strip me of this other than a decision not to follow Him.

So let us live out this identity which cannot be snatched or dimmed. What a glorious inheritance we have in Jesus!

Hephzibah

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Christian, identity

Who are you?

Who are you? You might answer this question by describing your job, family, abilities, or hobbies – I’m a piano teacher with 5 home-Ed siblings, I love music, dance, baking, bonfires and fairy lights, and I’m good at everything except passing driving tests… well perhaps not everything, and I have now passed my test… but you get the idea. We define ourselves by the things we do or like, the people in our lives, or a position we hold.

One of the things illness often robs from you is a sense of identity and worth. It takes away all those things we pin our identity on – our abilities, our character traits, our usefulness. Who am I when everything I am is stripped away?

As I became very unwell, losing all my abilities, and even basic things like the ability to communicate, think clearly, or feel normally, I felt I had lost myself. But God used this, this stripping away of all I was to show me more of who He is, who I am in Him, and what defines my worth and identity.

There is too much to discuss here to fit into one post of readable length, but I will start with looking at what it means to be made in God’s image.

Part 1 – Made in God’s image

What does it mean to be made in God’s image? How is this even relevant to identity or worth?

To be made in God’s image, is to possess, in your very being, a reflection and imprint of the eternal nature, character, and glory of God.

Take this in for a moment. Soak in it. Just in being, you are a reflecting the beauty of a Holy God… for no other reason than because He made you that way. If this is not relevant to identity or worth then what is?!

Different to animals, God has given us an eternal soul. Our bodies will die, but our soul is for eternity. This, in itself, is an imprint of God’s nature. But what defines whether we are made in His image?

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:27,31

It is in our creation that our worth is defined. When he created Adam and Eve, before they had done anything good or bad, he called them “very good”. They were made in his image, because that is how he created them. This means that there is nothing that can exempt someone from this.

“Spoiled” pots

“So I went down to the potters house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potters hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do…

‘Can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD.'”

– Jeremiah 18:3-4,6

There are passages in the Bible that describe God as being like a potter, creating each of us for unique purposes which He has chosen, some for wrath, some for mercy, some for honour, some for humble tasks, yet all are made by His hand, live by His breath, come into being by His word and at His command. Whether you believe in God or not, you are a reflection of his image, and bear the fingerprints of your creator. The God of the Bible is a hands-on God. Every person He has made carries the imprint of His fingerprints.

But what about people with disabilities – mental or physical, those who cannot understand, think, or interact with others normally? What about those living with broken bodies and physical abnormalities, or people who need care and are not as ‘useful’ as others? Is God’s image less in them?

Can a potter create something without touching the clay? No more can God give life to a person without leaving the imprint of His image on them. Yes, it is a broken image. But every one of us is a broken image! We all reflect the image of God, and in all of us it is broken and marred. I don’t believe it is any more so in those who are unwell or disabled.

Sometimes with disabilities we can feel spoiled, unfit for purpose. But God works us into other vessels, fit for different purposes, no less reflecting Him or valued by Him. Rather than wishing we were made differently, or had the same purpose as others, maybe we should ask more how to embrace the way He has made us, and discover the uniquely special purposes that He has for us.

Sin – smashed or remoulded

I believe a much bigger threat to God’s image in us is sin. Can an evil and wicked person destroy the image of God in them? Again in that passage in Jeremiah it describes God’s response to sin in our lives.

“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or kingdom that I will build or plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do it.” Jeremiah 18:7-10

Sin always mars and destroys, but when there is repentance, God remoulds us to be more like Him. There is hope! It gives the picture that we are vessels continuously on God’s wheel, and that He is constantly forming us. If we submit to His work, He will continue to work on us, increasing in beauty, preparing us for eternity. But in the next chapter he uses the analogy of a smashed flask to show what will happen when we refuse to repent.

“So will I break this people and this city as one breaks a potters vessel, so that it can never be mended.” Jeremiah 19:11

When people are in rebellion against God, His image is increasingly diminished in them until the final day when it is shattered. At this point there is no going back.

Honouring the image of God

A final important impact of being made in God’s image is the way we look at, and love others. When I am struggling with someone, I find it helpful to take time to see aspects of God’s image reflected in them and give thanks for these, and then reach out to them with the love I have for Jesus because they are, in some way, reflecting Him. When we are called to love and encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are being called to love image-bearers of Christ. When we are called to love and welcome those who do not know God, we are being called to love image-bearers of God. When we are called to love and pray for our enemies and those who abuse us, we are still being called to love image-bearers of God. When we are called to forgive, we are being called to forgive image-bearers of God. This makes every act of service, every act of love or kindness to another, an act of worship to God. For in all these things we are loving Him, seeing Him, and showing honour to Him.

Called to reflect

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

And so, as we are made in God’s image, we are called to reflect Him. There are three important aspects to this:

1. “Beholding the glory of the LORD.” We may not see God fully, but we can seek Him, come to know Him through His Word and Spirit, and behold – gaze at – the glory of the Lord that is revealed to us. In the same way a mirror can reflect brilliant light when it is shone on it, so as we turn our faces to gaze at God, we reflect the brightness of his glory more and more.

2. “This comes from the Lord who is Spirit”. Ultimately this is a work of God’s Spirit in you. You cannot increasingly reflect the image and glory of God apart from His power at work in you. When you are genuinely seeking Him and His ways, you can be sure that He is transforming you more and more to His image, even at those times when we cannot see it.

3. Obedience. When we choose sin, we are choosing to fall away from God, and so reflect Him less. When we choose obedience to God, we are turning towards Him, and so reflect Him more. God’s image is either buried under sin, or washed clean by Jesus’ blood to reflect Him more. But the fingerprints of our Creator remain indelibly on us.

Not until glory does this change, when, in those who have chosen Him, the brokenness is healed, the mess is washed away, and His image is perfected in us into unmarred beauty. But for those who do not know Him, what remains of God’s image is removed, and they become what they have longed to be, and yet not realised the horror of it – free from the imprint of their Creator. All goodness removed.

So seek Him while you still can. Grow in the image and glory of your Creator. Hope in that day when you will be transformed to be like Him.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who this hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 1 John 3:2-3

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The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” – Job 33:4

Breathing is something we often take for granted. Yet God brought home the truth of this verse to me during the more intense part of this illness. As I got more and more unwell, one of the symptoms I had was difficulty breathing. When seeking medical advice, I was just told, “your body is too tired to breath easily, the physical effort is too much. There’s nothing we can do.” So I would have to spend most of every day just lying down and breathing, focussing on each breath. I remember the vulnerability of this. Although I was never so I couldn’t breath, having so little energy that it took most of my strength for each breath felt too close for comfort!

But in those hours of breathing, sometimes praying for the next breath, I started to realise more and more how every breath is a gift. Knowing what it was to depend on God to give me the next breath, and the next breath, I found that each breath was precious. Every breath is a chance to live, every breath a chance to know God, every breath a chance to praise and give thanks, every breath a chance to live for him. This makes every moment worth living, even when it means chronic pain, being housebound and struggling to breath. I started to give thanks for them, one breath at a time… each one a gift of life, and an opportunity to live for him.

We are so utterly dependant on Him. Every moment is given, sustained, by Him. And when you realise this, the fragility and the preciousness of life, it begs the question: how shall we use it? It’s not enough to drift through life anymore. How will you use each breath… each day? Will you use your breath to praise or curse, encourage or criticise, to reach out and serve, or to serve yourself? Much of these daily choices are determined by your purpose. What are you living for?

The verses below describe God’s power, his gift of life to us, the way he gives each breath, and how he determines the boundaries of our lives. Then it also states what we are created for…

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God…”

Acts 17:25,27a

This should be our main purpose in life. Here I am not just talking about prayer or time alone with God (though it certainly includes this) but a constant seeking Him in everything. That every breath whether used to exercise, sing, speak to your family, communicate with others, encourage, pray, bless, challenge, serve, sustain, work, or rest is used with the one purpose of seeking God. God should not be confined to the “spiritual” part of your life. If He gives you breath for all these things, then surely He is in them. Surely the one who gives you each breath should be considered in the way you then use it?

With the purpose of seeking God with each breath, it impacts every part of our lives, changing the way we use our words, the way we spend our time, the things we count as important. Any moment spent seeking God is never wasted. Every breath is given by God, and we are free to choose how to use it… but we are created to seek Him with every breath He gives. Through so much of our day, we get on with life, and maybe touch base with God at some point, but throughout all those things we do He is supplying every breath, every moment of life. It is good to remember this… to remember in all the business and doing that even at the most basic level we are utterly dependant on the one who gives us life. That without Him we can do nothing, but with Him anything is possible.

I write this because I need this challenge as much as anybody. I would like to say God is considered in each word I say and each thing I do, but often he is not, and this is when I forget my purpose of seeking God, and live for myself. May God teach me and the rest of His church to fully live for Him, and use every breath to seek Him!

Today, as you go through life, remember the one who sustains your every breath. Give thanks for this day, this chance he has given you to love and praise him. Live with boldness using every opportunity. And seek Him as long as you have breath.

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!” – Psalm 150:6

Hephzibah

Illustration by Valerie Martin

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Every Breath

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Just and Justifier

“It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” – Romans 3:26

If God just excused or passed over sin, he could no longer be good or just. I hear so many people say, “I’m really a good person. When I die God won’t judge me for the things that I’ve done wrong.” Our hope of eternity is that there will be no sin, or the consequences of sin (pain, sickness, evil…). If God were to merely excuse sin, it would be to allow it to enter heaven. What hope is there in that!?

For God to be completely just and righteous and holy, and “he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13), he has to judge sin. This would leave us with no hope, but He also became our Justifier.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” – Romans 3:23-25

Jesus’s blood covered all our sin. He became the propitiation – the covering, the substitute, the sacrifice, the payment for every debt we owe. In this way, God stays consistent with His character, sin is forgiven but also paid for, eternity is kept sin-free and so remains a glorious hope, and salvation is made available to all who could not reach it any other way. Take a moment to reflect on the wonder of His unchanging, uncompromising character, and praise Him that He is both Just and your Justifier. We have a glorious God!

Father, I praise you for who you are, and that you do not change. Thank you for your perfect salvation and that makes me righteous through Jesus, and for the promise of eternity without sin. May I know you, worship you, and proclaim you as Just and Justifier of my soul.

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