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The God of Second Chances

20130107-125221Hands folded patiently in his lap, the figure in the tan coat stared fixedly out the window as the city sped past. Cars rushing commuters to work. Snowy streets, glinting in the early morning sun. The sprawling baseball stadium. The bustling train station. The famous St. Louis arch. Hungry eyes soaked it all in.

“It’s the little things I look forward to – going into the kitchen, opening the fridge, getting something to eat.” My fellow passenger spoke in a low voice, tentatively, as if it might not happen if he spoke too loudly.

“I grew up going to church,” he told me, glancing at the Bible on my lap. “But in my 20s I got mixed up in drugs…” A deep sigh revealed a bit of the pain of his choices. “That’s what landed me in prison.”

Suddenly he rummaged in the bag at his feet, producing a small black New Testament with a motorcycle on the cover. “I joined a recovery group in there – they talked about how to get out of my addictions. And they gave me this.” He held it gently, turning it over in his rough hands. “I’ve read the whole thing three times.”

“If I hadn’t gone to prison, I don’t think I would be alive. I was on a dangerous path.” A foot tapped the floor anxiously with the memories. “But if God can turn my life around, he can help anyone.” The gratitude in his weathered face spoke volumes.

“I’ve been up since 4am.” Chuckling, he tugged at the knit cap pulled low on his head. “I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep. This is my first day out.” Eyes weary with all they’d seen, and longing for all they’d not seen, now glimmered with faint hope. “I’m going to my sister’s house – I can’t wait to see my niece and nephew. It’s been a long time…. I’m ready for a fresh start.”

Do you feel it’s too late for a fresh start in your life? Our God is the God of second chances. And third chances. And one hundredth chances. You are never too far gone. All you have to do is quit running. Quit trying to fix your own life. Quit trying to put all the pieces back together. Let Him take over and give you a fresh start!

In this new year, why not give your past, present, and future to the One who knows it all? He loves you dearly and wants to make something beautiful of your life. And just like my friend on the bus, your story can be a story of hope to someone else who desperately needs to know the transforming and restoring power of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness!

Going Vertical!
MJ

“GOD made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him. When I cleaned up my act, he gave me a fresh start. … I feel put back together, and I’m watching my step. GOD rewrote the text of my life when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes.”
(2 Samuel 22:21-25 The Message)

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Getting Off The Judge’s Seat

gavel

“Court is now in session! The court presents the case of The World vs. Michelle, the honorable judge Michelle presiding.”

In the case of anyone who has ever offended me in my life, I am the self-appointed prosecuting attorney, testifying witness, acting jury, and judge. I imagine myself sitting on the judge’s seat on a huge elevated platform, in my black robe, curled and powdered wig firmly in place, as in paintings I’ve seen of Colonial Williamsburg days.

Bang! Bang! Pounding my wooden gavel on the podium, I call the first witness to the stand – myself.

“Your Honor, the accused has committed unpardonable crimes against Your Honorable self, which you will find listed on this record.”

A scroll is rolled out the length of the courtroom, the end finally bumping to a halt against the far wall. The prosecuting attorney reads the list of offenses aloud.

“The accused is charged with:
Insensitivity to Your Honor’s feelings,
Critical words,
Unacceptable behavior,
Failure to admit fault,
Lack of apology…”

“Guilty! Guilty!” scream the jury, before the list is even finished. The many faces of my own emotions scowl from the jury stand – anger, bitterness, wounded pride, fear of others’ opinions, self-righteousness, a critical spirit, desire for revenge.

“Order! Order in the court!” I pound the gavel to silence the crowd.

“In the case of The World vs. Michelle, the court finds the accused guilty and sentenced to a life of shame and condemnation, without chance of parole.”

Have you ever wanted to be the judge in the case of someone who has hurt or offended you? Have you been sitting on the judge’s seat in your own heart? What does that person “owe” you? What would your sentence be?

But what if the scene were to change, and I were the one being accused? There IS a supreme Judge over all mankind, who has every reason to condemn me to a life sentence without parole. The Bible says that we will “have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word” (Matt 12:36), and that “God will judge men’s secrets” (Rom 2:16). Nothing is hidden from him. And no clever defense attorney can talk us out of the due penalty for our sins. Our only hope is in our Advocate, Jesus Christ, who “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom 8:34).

The amazing, incomprehensible miracle of grace is that Jesus steps in before the gavel comes down, and says that He will take my sentence upon Himself. How can I refuse such an offer? And once I realize how much I have been forgiven, how can I possibly stand in judgment of another who has offended me?

As I mentally get up out of the judge’s seat, take off my powdered wig, and lay down my gavel, I return that rightful place to the Supreme Judge. I tear up the “sentence” of what the offending person “owes me” and lay it at the feet of Jesus. Forgiving doesn’t mean that person is off the hook. It just means they’re off MY hook. I’M not the judge. I’ll leave that job to the Creator of the Universe. For as I’ve been forgiven, I must forgive.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Luke 6:37 (NIV)

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Beauty For Ashes

20120912-132817Crunching metal and shattering glass were the last things Linda heard before she blacked out. When she opened her eyes, paramedics and police were hovering over her.

“Where’s my baby? Where are my boys?” Through the fog of regaining consciousness, the painful reality slowly sunk in. Though Linda and her two older boys had miraculously survived the head-on collision, her two-year-old son had been killed instantly.

Just weeks before, Linda had discovered her husband’s affair. She was devastated to realize it had been going on for years. Trauma Booklet.

“Why, God? Why did You take my baby from me? Why did my husband cheat on me? Why are You punishing me?”

Free From the Arrow of Depression. For the next several years she went through the motions of caring for her boys, learning how to be a single mom in the aftermath of her husband leaving. It was as if her heart had died that day of the head-on collision.

Years went by. Years of numbness and a deep ache that never went away. Then came the day when she got the news that her ex-husband was in critical condition in the hospital. Though Linda knew her boys had a right to visit their father, she didn’t want to see him or talk to him. She dropped them off at the hospital and waited in the car for them to come out.

That night in the quietness of her bedroom, Linda raged at God. “Why should I care what happens to him? After all he’s done for me, I don’t care if he dies.” Waves of hurt and painful memories came crashing over her again. Free from the Arrows of Anger, Rejection, and Shame

Forgive him. The thought came quietly, unexpectedly, after the storm of tears. “What? Forgive him? How can I? He’s never apologized! He’s hurt me so much!”

Forgive him. The message was gentle, persistent. “No! Never! I can’t ever forgive him for what he’s done! It’s too painful!”

Forgive him. Finally, in desperation, Linda quietly surrendered. “OK, Lord. Because YOU have forgiven me, I will forgive my ex-husband. But You have to help me! I don’t want to do it, but I will do it because You ask me to.”

Inexplicably, a deep sense of peace settled in Linda’s heart. The raging inner battle was over. Free to Forgive. It was in God’s hands now. And there was such sweet release – as if a huge weight had been lifted off her chest.

As Linda told my friend and I her story, she pulled out a small photo from her wallet.

“This was me fifteen years ago, after my husband left and my son was killed.” She pointed to a picture of a woman with deep lines in her face and great heaviness in her eyes. I couldn’t believe it. She looked fifteen years OLDER in that picture than she did now! I wouldn’t have even recognized her as the same person.

“God has given me back my joy!” Linda smiled, her face radiant. “When I forgave my husband and released the pain of the loss of my son to Him, He gave me such peace and freedom.”

Our Heavenly Father wants to do the same for you! Will you give your hurt to Him today, in exchange for His grace and peace? Only He can transform the deep pain of loss into a story of forgiveness, healing, and inexplicable joy! He is the only One who can give “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3, NIV).

Going Vertical!
MJ

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Called by a New Name

20120806-183746Balancing a stack of dirty dishes and silverware, I was on my way to the kitchen when Diego and Giovanni intercepted me.

“Let us carry those for you, Michelle,” Giovanni smiled, taking the plates from me.

“But it’s my turn to do dishes today,” I protested.

“Yeah, but we want the dishes to make it to the kitchen in one piece,” laughed Diego.

“I can always tell when Michelle is on dish duty,” jumped in Daniel, “by the sounds of plates breaking and glasses shattering!” The others in the dining hall of the Central American Bible school chuckled as my face turned red. Smiling weakly, I slunk into the kitchen, humiliated.

My clumsiness was a running joke among the students and staff. All eyes seemed to be on me when I was carrying something precarious, waiting for the inevitable catastrophe. “Don’t fall, Michelle! Don’t trip! Don’t break that!” my fellow students would call out. That only made me more nervous and self-conscious, and then I was more likely to fulfill their expectations!

Though I would laugh along when others made jokes about me being “accident-prone” or a “klutz,” I started to identify with those labels, accepting the fact that everyone expected me to fail.

But I’m not defined by others’ opinions. God has redeemed me out of that place of shame and given me a new name. I don’t have to identify with the labels of “clumsy” and “a klutz” anymore. He says I’m a beloved daughter, adopted into His royal family, given honor and treated with grace. Isaiah 6:2 says, “The nations will see your righteousness, And all kings your glory; And you will be called by a new name, Which the mouth of the Lord will designate” (NASB).

I still sometimes drop things, break things, spill things, or trip over my own feet. But now when friends laugh and make comments about it, I just smile and say I’m trying to slow down and be more careful. I’ve forgiven those in the Central American Bible school who labelled me a klutz, and I’ve rejected those false labels of shame and being untrustworthy. I’m learning to embrace my “new name” that the Lord has given me – “full of grace.”

Going Vertical!
MJ

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Don’t Clean Your Plate!

20120612-104818“La Basurera.” That was my nickname in Costa Rica when I was nineteen – “The Trash Can.” 

The nickname was solidified during our two-month outreach to Colombia and Venezuela. As the only “gringa” (American girl) in the group, I was the farthest from home, yet surprisingly it was my Costa Rican teammates who seemed to experience the most culture shock. They groaned about how much they missed their staples of “gallo pinto” (black beans and rice) and corn tortillas. And they struggled to finish the fish soup and baked plantains in the homes we visited.
That’s where “La Basurera” came in. In order not to offend, my teammates would politely nibble at their food until the hosts left the room. Then the undesired morsels would be discreetly piled onto MY plate, and I would dutifully polish off as much as I could before our hosts returned. Though my stomach protested at the mistreatment, I forced myself to eat far more than I should, considering it my duty to cover for my teammates.
However, over time, I started to become resentful towards my teammates and frustrated at myself. I fell into the “martyr syndrome” – sacrificing my own needs for others, so that people would applaud my noble efforts. The desire for others’ approval became more important to me than my own physical well-being.
Yet I don’t need to remain stuck in that unhealthy cycle of guilt, condemnation, and regret. Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants… instead I have called you friends” (John 15:15, NIV). Servants act out of duty and obligation. Friends act out of love and a free will.
So the next time I started feeling guilty about not eating every crumb of my meal, or realized that I was forcing myself to finish others’ leftovers, I began to evaluate my motivation. Am I doing this because I want to do it? Because I need to do it? Or am I trying to be the martyr? I don’t have to be “La Basurera” anymore. Even if I don’t completely clean my plate, Jesus will not condemn me. He is more interested in the state of my heart than the state of the food on my plate.
“Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.” (I John 3:20, NLT)
Going Vertical!
MJ
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A Junior High Tale

20120524-001212“Who do you need to forgive?”

Our youth pastor’s question hung in the air as we shuffled our feet and looked at the ground. Someone coughed. A girl in the back giggled. No one knew how to respond.
Thinking this message didn’t apply to me as a “mature” fifteen-year-old, I’d been only half-listening when suddenly a face and a name popped into my head from a couple of years earlier in junior high.
Charlotte.
I was the new kid in a new school in that seventh grade year, shy and awkward. Charlotte, with the permed blonde hair and glasses, was one of the first to sit with me during lunch, partner up with me for volleyball practice in P.E., and pass notes during history lectures about cute boys in our class. A bit older than me, Charlotte started to introduce me to some of her friends, who all seemed much cooler and more popular than me.
One day as Hannah, a spunky red-head from my class, and I walked into the classroom together, I could feel the eyes of Charlotte and the other girls on us. Giggles, whispered comments, and averted eyes made it clear that Hannah was not on the “approved” list of cool people in seventh grade.
“Why are you hanging out with her?” one of the older girls asked me, followed by snide comments and jokes aimed at Hannah, and, by association, at me.
I looked to Charlotte, waiting for her to stand up for me. But she nervously laughed along with the others, avoiding my gaze. Hannah shot back a retort in our defense and stormed out of the room, pulling me with her.
“Don’t pay attention to those girls,” she fumed. “They’re stupid.”
But I was stunned by Charlotte’s deliberate snub. I kept replaying that scene in my mind, trying to understand what had happened. How could she completely reject me overnight like that? From that day on, Charlotte acted as if we’d never been friends, avoiding me and refusing to talk with me, joining in the other girls’ mocking laughter of Hannah and me.
I had tried to forget that painful seventh-grade year, but now as I sat in the high school youth group several years later, the hurt Charlotte had caused seemed very real again.
I knew that I had to do something. Feeling a bit foolish, I whispered an urgent prayer. “God, I want to forgive Charlotte for rejecting me and turning her back on me and mocking me…” By now the tears were coming. It still hurt more than I had realized.
“I choose to forgive Charlotte right now in Jesus’ name! I’m not going to hold on to that hurt any more!”
As I said the last words, I had a strong sensation of a physical weight being lifted off of my shoulders. I felt so much lighter! I hadn’t realized how much weight I had been carrying around until it was released. And now I felt so free!
Though it may seem insignificant, though you may brush it off as something that happened “a long time ago” and doesn’t matter, though you may have tried to bury the memories for years – every hurt you’ve experienced is significant. Identify the source of those hurts and decide to forgive the offending person today. Don’t carry around that unnecessary weight a minute more!
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
John 8:36 (NIV)
Going Vertical!
MJ
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THE BLAME GAME

20120515-224532It’s hard not to blame myself. I thought I was doing the right thing.

Mornings are always hard for my 100-year-old grandmother. It takes her awhile to wake up and figure out what’s going on and get enough energy to sit up and ease out of bed. But this recent Sunday morning she was moaning every time I touched her right leg or tried to move it. It’s her bad side, affected from all the strokes, further weakened by the fall and hip surgery she had earlier this year. And some days are worse than others. So this morning when she was reluctant to move her leg at all, I gave her some liquid pain medicine we’ve received from the home health nurses for that purpose.

Finally we managed to get her up and dressed and ready for church – it was Mother’s Day, so we didn’t want to miss the service. But she was falling asleep at breakfast and hardly ate any cereal or drank any of her orange juice – unusual for her. Even after a four-hour afternoon nap, Grandma still couldn’t stay awake long enough to finish chewing a couple bites of cracker with tuna, or to swallow sips of her favorite chocolate-flavored protein drink.

It wasn’t until late in the day that I figured out the problem. Apparently this pain reliever is much stronger than I realized, and Grandma’s only supposed to have a quarter of the recommended dose on the label. The medication I gave her this morning was the cause of the extreme drowsiness all day. And I’m kicking myself for not knowing that.

Too many times I’ve done what I thought was the right thing in a certain situation, only to find out that I’d committed a social faux pas or done something culturally unacceptable in that context. I’ve opened my mouth and put my foot in it many times by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. And then I dwell on what I should have done or shouldn’t have done for days and weeks and months… and sometimes for years.

“Why did I SAY that? That was so stupid!” “I can’t believe I did that! What was I THINKING?” “Why do I DO things like that?” Conversations replay in my head in the middle of the night like a movie stuck in an endless loop, as I relive awkward moments and painful scenarios. And I just can’t and won’t forgive myself for what I did.

But beating myself up about my mistakes only leaves me sleepless and miserable. Just like it doesn’t do any good to feel guilty for giving the wrong dose of medicine to Grandma. I learned from my mistake and marked the bottle accordingly for next time. And Grandma was fine. She was sleepy, but we just let her go to bed early that night and the next day she was back to her normal self.

Are there regrets and mistakes that keep you awake in the middle of the night? Are you having a hard time forgiving yourself for things you’ve said or done that you shouldn’t have? Quit the cycle of shame and blame. Our God is always willing to forgive. Give it all to Him and let Him help you have a fresh start today!

“Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” I Peter 5:7 (NLT)

Going Vertical!

MJ

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HEART EXAM

20120506-1632281By day five, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Once again I woke up with a headache, stuffy nose, chest congestion, and deep hacking cough. I’d already missed almost a whole week of work. And even after staying in bed most of the day for several days in a row, I still felt miserable. I was ready to be done with it all.

So I finally gave in and went to see a doctor. He listened carefully as I gave a description of my symptoms, punctuated by coughing fits.

“What you described sounds like that nasty virus that’s been going around,” the doctor said. “This antibiotic may or may not help. You may just have to let the virus run its course. And that could possibly take 2 to 6 weeks. In the meantime, get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and don’t go to work yet. You’re contagious.”

Even though the diagnosis wasn’t encouraging, I left the doctor’s visit feeling strangely relieved. For days I had been feeling lazy for wanting to stay in bed, feeling guilty for calling in sick, and wondering why in the world I couldn’t dredge up the energy to do simple tasks. Now there was an official medical diagnosis – a physical explanation for it all. I have doctor’s orders to stay home from work and sleep!

I remember the last time I felt this way. In 2008, when I returned to the US after four intense years in Asia, I was burnt-out and depressed. All I wanted to do was sleep for days and weeks. I had no desire to see friends or go out of the house. And if anyone asked me about how my time had been in Asia, I would burst into tears. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t “get over it.”

When I met the Fresh Start team in 2009, Pastor Steve and the others helped me do a “heart exam” to find the root of the problem. I finally realized, to my shock, that I was harboring bitterness and unforgiveness against my leaders for hurtful decisions they had made. Only after I identified the main offense, admitted how it had affected me, and chose to forgive and let it go, could the healing process begin. It was a huge relief to recognize the source of my anger, hurt, and frustration. It wasn’t an instant cure, but it was the beginning of the cure.

Do you struggle with anger, fears, shame, guilt, rejection, or depression? You can try to mask or minimize the symptoms, but they won’t go away until you find the cause.

The psalmist David says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Ask the Holy Spirit to do a heart exam and discover the root of the problem. He will lead you “in the way everlasting” – the road to freedom!

Going Vertical!

MJ

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NOT THE SAME GIRL

20120502-164425Pulling into a space in the familiar parking lot, I turn off the engine and lean back in my seat. I don’t want to think about how many years it’s been since I’ve walked those halls. Yet looking at the brick and cement building looming before me, I feel all that painful awkwardness of being seventeen and on the outside of the popular circles. Sitting at the “outcast” table at lunch. Knowing that everyone was going to a party that I didn’t get invited to. Wanting to hide in the bathroom and never come out. High school was not the happiest time for me.

Now, years later, I’m back at my old school. But this morning I’m going to be speaking about forgiveness to the 300 high school students. And all at once I feel like that painfully shy, terribly insecure, completely uncool kid again. “They’re going to laugh at me,” I tell myself. “They’re going to think I’m stupid.” I briefly consider driving back out of the parking lot and giving the whole thing up.

I shake my head to dissolve the old memories. “Snap out of it, Michelle. You’re not in high school anymore. This isn’t about you anyway. It’s about the message God has given you for these kids. So get over it!”

Gripping the steering wheel, I slowly let out my breath. “God, you’re gonna have to help me do this. Speak through me today.” 

Standing in front of the assembly of 300 students, I share about a difficult friendship and the hurt I suffered from it, The rustling and fidgeting quiet down as the students get wrapped up in the story.

“I was holding on to a list of what this person ‘owed me’,” I explain, holding up a sheet of paper. “I thought she owed me an apology. Saying she was sorry. Admitting she was wrong. Undoing the damage she caused. Changing her behavior. But when I made the decision to forgive, I was choosing to cancel that debt and let it go.” I begin ripping the paper into smaller and smaller pieces. “She owes me nothing.” I throw the pieces on the floor. 

Something’s happening to me as the pieces of paper flutter to the ground. I’m finally letting go of those long-ago hurts from when I was in high school – the rejection of being left out, looked down on, and made fun of. God, I’m letting it go, I pray silently. It has no hold on me anymore. I’m a new person.

“This was a message we needed to hear today,” the principal says to the assembly as I take my seat. “The Holy Spirit has spoken to our hearts, and we’re going to take time to respond.” Though it’s already past time for chapel to end, he announces that they’ll be breaking up into small groups for discussion and application, using the steps laid out in “Processing The Issues of Your Heart.”

I’m so thankful I didn’t drive off earlier this morning when I was confronted with those doubts and insecurities from so many years ago. I’m not the same girl I was in high school. My confidence is not in myself, but in Christ. And it’s only because of what He has done in me that I can share this hope and healing with others.

Going Vertical!

MJ

“This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” II Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)

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WHAT’S TRIGGERING YOU TODAY?

20120425-110029Bounding up the stairs in a hurry, I was reviewing my ever-expanding mental “to do” list when a sudden sharp pain in my right foot made me stop and suck in my breath. Mission forgotten, I hunched over, gently massaging the top of my foot.

I thought I could ignore the discomfort, heading outside to bury vegetable peels in the garden and bring in the laundry from the clothesline. But as I dug the hole and covered it up again with black earth, my foot was protesting. And by the time I had taken down the last t-shirt from the line, I was hobbling and wincing from the shooting pain.
Plopping down in a recliner, I tentatively rotated my foot in small circles, trying to stretch out the band of tendons that were throbbing in that all-too-familiar way.
“It’s been almost two years!” I groaned. “Why is this still bothering me?”
A fall down some cement steps over a year and a half ago has had long-lasting effects. Though the sprained foot healed eventually, every once in a while a minor mis-step or too-quick movement will make the injury flare up again.
My heart often acts like my injured right foot. Someone I run into in a restaurant, the aroma of a certain food, or a song I hear on the radio will sometimes “trigger” long-buried and seemingly forgotten hurts or painful memories. The hurt seems as real and fresh as when it first happened.
In that instant, I have a choice in how I respond. I can ignore it, pushing through the discomfort, until I end up limping and can’t go on anymore. I can wallow in the memories, nursing those grudges and embracing the bitterness, burying myself deeper in the hole of unforgiveness, and becoming immobilized. Or I can recognize the issue and address it – purposefully going through the steps of Processing The Issues Of Your Heart to deal with any lingering unforgiveness.
Today when my right foot reminds me of the sensitivity from that previous injury, I will take the time to stop and stretch it out, building up the muscle strength again. And today if I’m “triggered” by someone or something that reminds me of past heart injuries, I will choose to address those emotions. I will choose to forgive again. I will choose to release the pain to Jesus. And, though it’s sometimes slow going and there are setbacks and obstacles in the process, I will choose to walk in freedom and healing!
Going Vertical!
MJ
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.” Isaiah 58:8 (NIV)