Archive for the ‘self worth’ Tag

Breathing Again   3 comments

My spirit opened up last week like a hiker breaking into a wide, sunlit meadow after a steep, shadowed ascent.  Room to breathe, to get my bearings, to feel freedom from the hedged in trail.  I was inspired by the kindness of an author I read and began imagining myself living from such a generous spirit.  I journaled about my new inspiration to speak and live kindness into the world.  As I read back to Kimberly those two pages, I felt the shadows swirling back in.  The inspiration was sucked into the undertow of obligation.  The joy of it turned into duty, a gauge to measure my adequacy.

What had seemed life-giving was now a tick on my to-do list, and I couldn’t restore the magic.  Goading myself to be kind only deepens my legalism, and forced smiles are creepy, not uplifting.  But spotting the problem did not deflate it as usual, so I had to shake off the shackles by backing away from this new prospect.

On Wednesday my therapist led me through an enlightening self-reflection: I was raised to believe that the task is more important than the person, that the one who shirks obligations is of little worth.  When my worth is on the line, duty becomes a crushing weight.  These were not conscious thoughts, but the underlying tint, the blue shade of light by which I see my world.  My subconscious outlook shapes the way I feel about myself and God–in this case, I felt devalued.  Tearfully realizing that, I embraced once again the God of grace, and the dark curtains shrouding my soul were pulled back.

But haven’t I known about this for a long time now?  Why does it feel like a new revelation?  As Kimberly and I drove to the mountains yesterday for a hike, I tried to focus the blur.  After years of personal work, I no longer think my worth depends on fulfilling my duties.  So God was not judging me, but he still needed me to complete the to-do list.  That stuff mattered, mattered a lot, mattered more than me.  His focus on the task devalued me as a person, one who is of great worth apart from anything I do.  “Work before pleasure” was a core family value of ours.  We took care of the work before we took care of ourselves because duty mattered more–studies over sleep, devotions over breakfast, clean-up before rest.  Finish the task at all costs, then we have the right to consider our own needs and pleasures.

This turns truth upside down.  A task has no worth except as it helps us–we are what matters, the object of God’s whole heart.  We do not compete with tasks for his attention.  When I think that God wants to use me for his purposes, seeing me as a means to his goal rather than seeing me as the goal, I lose sight of his love and objectify myself (something God would never do).  Living under the weight of law ruins myself and the good I’m trying to do.

Then, instead of good work flowing from a deep rest in God and a discovery and joy in my gifting and beauty, I ignore my needs and belittle my worth, working against myself to fulfill a task that has now become not only meaningless, but damaging both to me and to the one I hope to bless.  I do little good to others with my forced virtue, while I do serious harm by reinforcing belief in an uncaring God.  Our impact on the world flows from our core beliefs, not from our carefully crafted behavior.

If my singular role is to spread God’s love as demonstrated in Christ, I can only do so by believing it for myself wholeheartedly.  “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).  May I rest in that truth more each day.

Posted August 8, 2018 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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My Angry Legalism   2 comments

I am not a gracious person by nature.  Among other flaws, I have a strong undertow of anger that side-eyes anyone who steps outside the bounds.  Just yesterday I accelerated from a stop light and then slowed into the left turn lane when a car darted out from a gas station to my left, forcing me to swerve.  He was trying to beat the traffic coming the opposite way, no doubt expecting me to keep accelerating so that he could swing in behind me.  He stopped, straddling lanes in both directions, and as I passed, I raised my hand at him and mouthed “WHAT?!”

As much as I treasure grace, it is not my default.  My go-to is still legalism and anger and judgment.  They are reflexive both in me and at others, and I have to talk myself out of it, like explaining for the hundredth time to a child why he shouldn’t chase the ball into the street.  It takes hundreds of explanations not because he misunderstands or disagrees, but because in that moment he’s fixated on the ball.  Unfortunately, some undercurrents in us are more complex or more rooted or more hidden.  Anger and blame were a moral right in our family when I was growing up so I don’t even have that self-conscious check in my spirit–it doesn’t feel wrong.  It wasn’t baked into my conscience as guilt inducing… or rather it was baked into my conscience as legitimate and righteous, unless it is excessive.

But if I conclude that my problem is simply an excess–that irritation is okay, but not spitting–then legalism wins.  I reduce everything to behavior and never bother to ask the vital question, “Why do I feel so angry?”  My anger or my expression of it is not the real problem, but the symptom, like a check engine light.

In this case, the diagnosis is complex.  I have bought into a legalistic system in which we all live within certain parameters, and we keep one another in line by penalizing line-breakers: shirkers, cheaters, moochers, and bad drivers.  I work hard to stay within the lines, knowing the whole system will collapse if we don’t all conform, so I am heavily invested in everyone following the rules.

I’m not curious about why they cross the line.  Perhaps they lay down the lines differently or they are dodging the opposite line or they don’t prioritize this line.  Maybe they are struggling too much to care about lines.  All of that looks like so many bad excuses to me–get back in line and then we’ll talk about your issues.  This overriding sense of legalistic suppression comes out against myself also in self-condemnation for crossing lines, especially if it hurts or inconveniences others.

I absorbed my dad’s view that it was personally insulting for someone to cross the line in a way that blocked our goals or intentions.  It showed that they disrespected us, not caring how their behavior impacted us, which poked at our insecurity in our behavior-based worth.  Since we were unaware of our anger except under occasional provocations, we blamed the other for “making us angry” as though anger came from outside and not from within as self-defense against a perceived slight.  Seen empathetically, my anger is a cry of fear that my very worth is being threatened by every assumed mistreatment–I must judge you to deflect my own sense of inadequacy.

Sadly, it is this very judging that maintains the legalistic system that keeps me running from my shame and away from grace.  Not only when I am mean, but every time I do something stupid or careless or off-kilter, I shame myself into better efforts because I am sure that doing it right is the measure of my worth.  And with that system, I judge the worth of others by what they do.  We are all trapped, and keep each other trapped, like crabs in a bucket that keep pulling down the ones trying to escape.  Grace is all of a piece–we all get it or none of us do.  When we start measuring out who is “worthy” of grace, we have slipped back into legalism again.  So giving grace to other drivers (or neighbors or colleagues), real grace, not forced and grudging but free and affirming,  is my best path to accepting grace for myself as well.  Let grace reign.

Posted June 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Of Ostriches and Eagles   5 comments

From my last post some might suppose that my imagery of a majestic, soaring eagle for my father and a silly, flightless ostrich for myself was in some way self-denigrating.  However, the analogy was not based on my own valuation of eagles vs. ostriches (or dad vs. me), but on how I think society views each.  The superiority of the eagle seems self-evident to Americans–it was not the ostrich (or more to home, the pigeon or crow) that was stamped on the Great Seal of the United States.

As a culture we lionize and value certain traits more than others–the one who talks is more admired than the one who listens, the fast more than the slow, the take-charge more than the let-be.  But all have their unique value and purpose as well as weakness and limitation–the eagle is as awkward on the ground as the ostrich is in the air.  Each person is vital in their uniqueness, an irreplaceable expression of God himself.

We tend to slot folks into winners and losers, successful and failures, saints and sinners, or we grade them high to low, but the most heroic in the Bible have their fatal flaws, usually as the shadow presence of their strength.  The Bible presents godly people as models for us all to follow… and then presents those same people as warnings to avoid: Abraham and Issac vs. Abraham and Hagar; David and Goliath vs. David and Bathsheba; Peter as The Rock vs. Peter as Satan.  The best among us are deeply flawed, and that must be a bedrock of our theology and spirituality.  I call it honesty, the truth about ourselves, which is just as fundamental to our heart health as the truth about God, and just as fundamental to true, healthy relationships as well.

We are all equally beautiful as God’s creations and equally precious to our Heavenly Father.  May we all be graced with the eyes to see one another’s beauty.

 

Posted June 10, 2016 by janathangrace in thoughts

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I’m Mad   1 comment

Irritation has been bubbling over for the last few days, quick sparks of anger at things and people that don’t work right.  This morning I wanted to heave the piece of 2×4 in my hand through the TV screen.  I pictured Kimberly seeing the broken set and asking what happened and my anger then turning on her.  I have too much sense to actually break anything valuable or start unnecessary quarrels, but my imagination runs wild with clubs and bricks, torches and car crashes.  And my anger, bridled and checked though it is, still leaks out in an unresponsive, tight face.

Ongoing irritation is always a tell that I’ve got a burr in my soul.  Sometimes I can find it and pluck it out, but other times it is hidden down in some forgotten niche.  A sharp emotional memory was poked, some reminder of past failures or insults, and it threw me into defensive mode to parry the assault on my sense of worth… but the picture faded before I recognized it and only the feeling remains.

Lord knows I have enough failings in my past to keep me trapped in shame for the rest of my days: memories that sting every time they rise up to my consciousness–people I have hurt or ignored, good advice I scorned, blindness to obvious faults, arrogance and criticism and foolishness of a hundred kinds.  I have discovered that I can only apply grace and forgiveness specifically, a balm for a particular wound.  For best results, I need to identify the thing that is niggling my heart and bring that to be bathed in God’s love.

A parent or spouse may say, “I don’t care what you have done, I love you anyway,” but we fear that if she knew THIS evil of ours, it would create a barrier to her heart.  Something whispers inside us, “She only loves me because she doesn’t know how bad I have been.”  We need to hear the words of God’s grace applied to each individual failing, for as many times as it rears its accusing head in condemning us.  It is so reassuring to show Him that fault with our doubts, and hear his resounding, “Yes, I love you still!”  Blanket forgiveness is a weak alternative to working through the details of our wrongs both internally and inter-personally.

But sometimes like today I don’t know the cause.  Perhaps it was a slowly accumulating list of smaller incidents or a subconscious sting, a dart that zipped through my heart leaving behind only the pain.  It is hard even to love myself if I don’t know what is blocking that self-compassion, to look that specific failing in the face and say to my heart, “Yes, you are still loveable in spite of your brokenness.”  Unlike shame, grace calls us to grow better from a place of full acceptance rather than out of a striving for acceptance.

I think part of my problem is failing to deal fully with each remorse as it occurs, but instead feeling bad about it and then letting it fade into the random fog of my emotional context.  I should rather recognize the full weight of it on my soul and take the effort to deconstruct and sort out the turmoil stirring beneath.  I will take some time to do that now with the last few days cache of self-blaming, a very bad habit of mine.

Posted July 26, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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Yes, It Is a Lie   6 comments

Addendum to clarify yesterday’s post

Working an unskilled, low-paying job makes me feel humiliated (as I shared yesterday), but that feeling is based on a lie.  I have nothing but respect for those who work such jobs, which are usually far more taxing and less rewarding than typical middle class jobs.  Minimum wage workers are usually treated like minimum worth commodities, used and discarded, so they have to survive in very difficult situations and are often treated with disrespect.  It is not the job which is inherently humiliating, but the false valuation of society.  I do not wish in anyway to lend credence to the notion that such jobs should be despised or devalued–it is a defect in myself, not in the work, which brings about my shame.  Yes, feel with me my shame in an understanding way, “I would feel the same in his shoes,” but also realize with me that such shame is misplaced.  Hard work is always a credit to the worker (unless the business is evil) and should never be seen as beneath us, beneath any of us.  Honest work should always be a source of pride, never of opprobrium.

[*by “pride” I mean self-satisfaction, not self-aggrandizement]

Posted April 28, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Subtle Power of the Subconscience   2 comments

This morning a cool breeze was blowing through the windows and the sun was bright and inviting.  I decided I’d like to walk the dogs on my favorite country road.  Kimberly asked if I wanted to use the new dog harness she bought for Mazie, and I declined, but while getting the leashes, I felt a sudden shadow settle over my soul from somewhere vague and indistinct.  As I loaded the dogs into the car, I tried to sort out the feeling.  Something about the new harness was upsetting me.  We recently got a second dog Mitts, and last week we bought him a harness that would inhibit his tugging on the leash.  They have clever designs that force a dog into a turn when they pull, and I told Kimberly that I could add the feature to Mazie’s harness so we would not need to buy her another one.  Two days ago Kimberly mentioned that I needed to do it soon because she was not able to control Mazie on walks, then yesterday she phoned to tell me that she had bought Mazie a new harness.  I kept quiet, but I was exasperated.


Neither of us spends much money (we don’t have much to spend), but I am more austere than she is, so minor conflicts like this come up on occasion, especially when I feel I can solve the problem for free.  Of course, that means she has to wait, especially if my emotions are dragging their feet.  She is pretty patient, but eventually she asks me to either finish the project or agree to spend the money.  This time there was little waiting, no discussion, and a unilateral decision. Naturally, she had every right since by agreement only large purchases require joint decisions. In fact, if we hadn’t discussed it at all, I would have been only slightly and briefly irritated because the bottom line was loss of money, not loss of self worth as it now felt.

As a child, I was highly sensitive, believing that others did not care about my feelings and latching onto anything that might be construed as evidence.  As kids do, I blamed myself, sure that I was unloved because I did not deserve to be loved.  I assumed my own inadequacy until it shaped my heart into a subconscious outlook, easily flaring up into depression as it bypasses any conscious thought process.  I don’t stop to make a rational conclusion: “He was impatient with me because I’m too slow… I shouldn’t be this slow… it proves that I am a failure as a human being.”   I  just feel bad without knowing why.  Sometimes even my emotions take time to settle in–my initial reaction may be a self-defensive anger covering over the sense of shame that gradually seeps in unrecognized to color my days.

As I walked, I started pulling loose the tangled threads of subconscious assumptions that triggered this current sense of worthlessness.  Simply identifying the source released a good deal of its hidden power to subvert my heart.  The next step was to validate my own worth independently of how Kimberly thought of me or treated me.  My value cannot rest on another person, even on one so vital.  My worth is anchored in the infinite and unconditional love with which God values me.  Then having found some level of security, I took another look at what Kimberly’s behavior meant… and decided that objectively it had nothing to do with her opinion of me.  She may have been acting from a sense of urgency or expedience or need for resolution.  Buying a dog harness was not a telltale sign that she didn’t care about me.  It was a sign that she wanted a dog harness.

MITTS

MITTS

Risky Grace   6 comments

This morning I was cruising down Lakeside Drive when a pokey car from a side street turned in front of me.  That’s one of my pet peeves.  If a driver feels some aggressive need to pull in front of me, fine, just go fast enough to stay out of my way.  I stepped on my brakes and would have forgotten it, except the guy slowed down even more, creeping into a gas station.  “REALLY!?” I ranted to my dashboard, “You had to cut me off ’cause you were in a hurry to… STOP?”

I can self-justify with the best, but I’m not so far gone as to equate my petty irritations with righteous indignation.  I knew I wasn’t channeling Jesus with my defensive driving.

This also suggests a serious limitation to that great advice to “be in the moment.”  Oh, I was in the moment, all right, totally in the moment, that scowling, growling, hand-clenching moment.  Sometimes you need to get out of the moment, be a little less present, to grasp the bigger picture.

So I tried to talk myself down.  I noticed that he was a geezer, and they do everything slower, everything.  But I’ve played that chess game with myself before, so I know all the moves.  I responded with, “Hey, driving faster takes no extra strength. Retirement ain’t gonna slow me down.  That’s no excuse.”  “Ah,” said my mental opponent, “And how many wrecks will your age-diminished reactions cause before you slacken your speed?”  Okay, that was a surprise, a new argument that sounded suspiciously like my wife.  How did she get in my head?  That’s totally unfair–two against one.

But her voice is the one I really want to hear, not because it is right, making me wrong and bad, but because it is gracious.  She wants to find peace through mutual acceptance of our weaknesses.  In contrast, I find that when everyone follows the rules, we all get along.  Legalistic happiness.  It’s pretty common in church.

The problem is when we screw up… and we all screw up.  The law has no margin for error, so it makes us all losers, and we scramble to escape that weight of condemnation.  Each time others break our rules, rules that ensure our safety, we feel slighted, devalued, and disrespected, and even small slights cut deeply because we already agree with them, we believe we deserve no respect.  When someone cuts me off in traffic, I feel less of a person, so I get defensive.  In my relationships I push others to change, to conform, to live in a way that does not tear open my self doubt.  Everyone, follow the rules!

The voice of grace sounds so small and useless against such visceral drives, and it calls me to abandon the very thing that is protecting my fragile sense of well-being: my ragged record of good, which is my only justification for squeezing others into line.  Grace whispers that we are loved regardless of our record, that we are valued fully even in our failures.  But I find it hard to trust.  Grace is like oxygen–once you let it in, it is available to everyone in the room.  If you allow grace to cover you as a loser, then it necessarily covers all losers, and then you have to drop your legalistic demands.  But their flawed conformity to rules is the only thing keeping me protected.  For all its defects and failures, the legal system looks pretty safe, and grace looks pretty risky.  No wonder faith is the only way into grace.

Posted February 16, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Spiritual Discipline of Idleness   2 comments

This is the unpublished conclusion to my post “The Spiritual Exercise of Shirking Duty”

I think God is telling me, “You’re going to keep spinning your wheels until you let off the gas.  You’re here to learn the art of idling.”

Idleness as a spiritual goal?  That sounds very wrong-headed.  I spent most of my life trying to maximize every minute, sleeping as little as possible so as to make the biggest spiritual profit for God.  Every activity, even entertainment, was scored on how useful it was.  If I read books, it must be for my growth.  If I took a vacation, it was at a monastery.  Every meal with friends was to “sharpen iron with iron.”  Pleasures without eternal benefits were wasteful and wrong, and slowly every simple joy was twisted into a duty.  I was driven by the fear that God valued me for what I did for him, and it was never enough.

atelaphobia

My beliefs have changed, but the shadow remains over those natural delights that would ordinarily bring me pleasure.  When I try to simply enjoy reading, writing, music, hiking, gardening, wood-working, and the like, this imperious gravity pulls me to turn each one into something productive, cutting off its wings and tethering it with a burden of obligation.  Since last winter my only sure escape has been solitaire, not because it is especially fun, but because it is especially profitless, and so I can’t use it for brownie points with God.  While shuffling cards, I’m doing nothing good for the world; I’m just killing time.  And as I’ve learned to trust God’s grace there in the middle of that uselessness, I have discovered pure grace, not “grace” in exchange for my good efforts.

DUTY: LOOKS GOOD, BUT TIES ME IN KNOTS

How can I rebuild my life around the joy of being who God created me to be instead of the slave-driven motive of duty? As long as I keep believing that God loves me more when I do more for him, and less when I do less,  I can never find rest in his grace.  To truly discover the riches of God’s full acceptance apart from my profitability, I may need to become more useless still in order to set my faith free from its false grounding in my own goodness.  “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

GOING OUT ON A LIMB OF FAITH

GOING OUT ON A LIMB OF FAITH

Posted June 15, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Is Selfishness Evil?   9 comments

The Giving Tree (for those who don’t know) is a children’s book that tells the simple love story of a boy and his tree.  As the boy grows, he loses interest in the tree except as it can benefit him, so the loving tree slowly gives itself away a little at a time to the boy–apples to sell, branches for a house, until finally…

Many see in Shel Silverstein’s book an example of unlimited, sacrificial love.  I see a brilliant example of co-dependence.  Is it a virtue to harm myself in order to help others?

A year or two ago I read a quote from Ayn Rand’s book “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and was intrigued by her siding with selfishness against altruism as our ethical necessity, our moral calling.  (She did not distinguish between selfishness and self-care, which is a complex contrast to untangle.)  Here is an example of her perspective, which rings true to a lot of my own life experience:

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit [i.e. selfishness] is evil….  Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life.  The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy: he has nothing to gain from it,  he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect.  He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself….  If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality—guilt, because they dare not reject it.

I had that guilt of never doing enough for others, but instead of cynicism I practiced and accepted the altruistic morality of denying my own needs (because the needs of others always trumped mine).  This conviction that my own needs did not matter left me with a sense of worthlessness.  Is selfishness evil?  Is it always virtuous to give?  I’d like to explore in a few blogs some of Ayn Rand’s views.

Posted September 11, 2012 by janathangrace in Reading, thoughts, Uncategorized

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Being a Nobody: God’s Love Letters #7   5 comments

Matthew 1:3 Perez fathered Hezron and Hezron fathered Ram.

Hezron and Ram have no stories, no histories, no parts to play.  They are nobodies, appearing in the Old Testament simply as names in lists of genealogies.  The vast majority of Israelites who lived then are not mentioned at all.  They plowed and played; they held one another as their crops failed and laughed with delight at their grandchild’s  first words; many worshipped God faithfully and walked with him daily but are completely unknown to us, very much like Hezron and Ram.

Since the Jewish Bible is primarily about the nation of Israel, the leaders of the nation and events that directed its course are inevitably featured.  Still, it seems that God considers the “movers and shakers” as the important ones, the ones to write home about, the role-models to recommend.  Compare how much we know of David in contrast to his brother Eliab, the firstborn.  If you want to be on God’s A-list, you have to make a big impact in the world, make a name for yourself in his kingdom.  And to do that, all you need is faith.

This view of the Bible seems oddly familiar to me.  When I was growing up, the heroes were folks like Lincoln, rising from an obscure log cabin to the White House, or like Einstein, stepping out from behind a clerk’s desk to become the foremost scientist of his time.  I grew up believing that I could be anything I wanted if I had enough self-confidence and commitment to the vision.  This is the American dream, and ours is the land of opportunity where the only limitations are our faith and determination.  This take on life provides a value system, a goal, and a means to that end, and without realizing it, I bring all of this to my reading of Scripture.

I measure the strength of my faith by the greatness of my deeds—am I like David?  The completeness of my commitment will make me a Daniel.  The weight of my godliness will get my name written down next to Job’s.  I can be one of God’s role-models for my generation.  If I simply make myself wholly available to God, he will make something great of me.  But what if I give it everything I’ve got and never make it out of the log cabin or clerk’s office?  Do I lack faith, is my commitment faulty, am I unusable?  Does God find me of little value?

Perhaps something is wrong with my perspective of what God wants, what is important, and what I should value and aim for in life.  I don’t think God was less pleased with the unnamed in Israel who sincerely followed him.  But this culture runs in my blood—I invariably measure the value of my contribution, for instance, by how many folks read and find benefit from my blog.  The engine is not more valuable than the engine mount bolt… without the bolt, the engine will fall off and the airplane crash.  Every role in God’s kingdom is vital, irreplaceable.  If that’s my theology, why do I so often feel like a loser?

It seems a still deeper issue clouds my view of what really matters to God.  Does he care more about what I do or who I am?  Why do I find myself so obsessed with doing rather than becoming or relating?  Why does accomplishment determine my value–“I may be only a bolt, but I’ll be the best bolt ever made”?  How drastically would my outlook and life change if my focus were rather on who I am and how I relate to others?  How would it impact my understanding and application of Scripture?  If it is David’s faith rather than his triumphs, skills, and leadership that is to inspire us, what would that faith look like in the life of a farmer, a seamstress, or a store clerk, in Hezron and Ram and me?  Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”  Considering how God filled the earth with “nobodies” instead of “somebodies,” he must value us a lot!  Or to put it differently, everyone is a very big “somebody” to someone else, even if that someone else is only God.  Did I say, “only God”?!

Posted July 8, 2012 by janathangrace in Bible Grace, Personal

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