Reflections on Guilt, Shame, and Neurosis

This morning I listened to the ever-delightful Econ Talk podcast, this time featuring Mike Munger speaking with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk.

I commend the entire episode to you, as it’s a delightful little romp on the topic of how economists view morality. (Okay okay fine, I’ll give you the quick version: economists view morality as a simple set of fixed preferences. Roberts and Munger argue that we can change our preferences, and in fact, have an obligation to. In short, we have an obligation to become better people who do not merely “respond to incentives” but rather “create their own objective functions.” [That’s fancy econ-speak for “choose to desire better things.”])

Anyway, in the discussion, Munger mentioned something that caught my attention, and I think is worth repeating and elaborating on.

Munger gives two examples.
• Imagine you do something wrong. You feel bad about this.
• Imagine you do something wrong and someone finds out. You feel bad that someone found out.
Munger then calls the first guilt, and the second shame.
The conversation quickly moved on, but I kept thinking about it.

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Do You Understand The Plan?

In April 2019 and again in April 2020 General Conference, President Dallin H. Oaks offered members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints an insight into one of his assignments as a member of the First Presidency.  President Oaks said in his April 2019 talk on repentance:

My message today is one of hope for all of us, including those who have lost their membership in the Church by excommunication or name removal. We are all sinners who can be cleansed by repentance.

A year later in April 2020, President Oaks said in a talk on the Plan of Salvation:

In conclusion, I share the conviction that has come to me from many letters and by reviewing many requests to return to the Church after name removal or apostasy. Many of our members do not fully understand this plan of salvation, which answers most questions about the doctrine and inspired policies of the restored Church. We who know God’s plan and who have covenanted to participate have a clear responsibility to teach these truths and do all that we can to further them for others and in our own circumstances in mortality.

In light of what President Oaks said here, do we understand God’s Plan? Obviously there are a lot of aspects of it that we can’t understand, but what are the things we can understand from scripture, from prophetic teachings, and from our own experiences? The following is a set of questions we can ask to gauge our level of understanding of the Plan of Salvation.

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On Secret Combinations, Conspiracy Theories, and Looking to the Prophet of God

I’ve been listening to the Maxwell Institute’ Brief Theological Introduction Series on the Book of Mormon which is all available in audiobook form on Deseret Book’s Bookshelf Plus. I really wanted to read these books but could not justify spending the money for each one, so I am so grateful that I get the chance to listen to them all now. I have really enjoyed the series and I just finished Kimberly Matheson Berkey’s book on the Book of Helaman and hers is definitely one of my favorites so far.

Berkey offers a really poignant critique of the topic of secret combinations in the Book of Helaman. Berkey notes that so many modern readers approach the Book of Helaman trying to identify secret combinations that are external to us. And when we find them, we normally identify them in our political or social enemies. We therefore use the fear of secret combinations as a form of self-justification. We indulge in conspiracy theory thinking. And we therefore create division, partisanship, and fragmentation.

But that is not what the Book of Helaman is calling us to do. Rather, the prophets in the book are directing us to self-examine and probe our own weaknesses. We are to turn inward rather than outward in our examination.

Berkey points out one serious danger with the outward search for secret combinations. When the sign of the coming of Christ begin to be fulfilled, the people of Nephi are skeptical not towards the forces urging them to doubt, but towards the very prophets who God has placed as guardians on the watchtower.

This past year I have observed a very alarming trend among more conservative and formerly stalwart members of the Church. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic so many members embraced conspiracy theories regarding the evils of masking or the perils of vaccination. Accordingly, when our Prophet is vaccinated or apostles urge us to wear masks, people respond with hostility or skepticism. People are also so politically attuned to their own favorite pundits that when an Apostle of Christ declared Black Lives Matter, people respond with derision and a hard and skeptical heart. I have even seen people suggest that the Prophet is part of the “deep state” or has fallen pray to the ways of the world.

In the Book of Alma (in Alma 30) when Korihor argues that the servants of Christ are working to manipulate and trick the people into bondage, few people initially seem to embrace that idea. By the end of the Book of Helaman (in Helaman 16) roughly 70 years later, the greater part of the people rejects visible signs and angelic manifestations by concluding that the prophets of God are trying to keep them into ignorance. It is as if in this period of Gadianton Robbers and conspiracies the people have grown more skeptical not towards the wicked institutions that ensnare them, but against those called of God.

The Book of Helaman calls us to question the things that we hold certain in politics and social policy and instead to look to the Savior and to His Prophets as they reveal God’s will to us in our days. It is only if do so that we can truly be kept safe from the snares of the world.

Avoiding Spiritual Burnout

With all of the variety of things we are asked to do in our church service, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.  We have

  • Our callings
  • Our ministering assignments
  • Requests to help out with our kids’ youth activities
  • Special assignments for ward activities
  • Encouragements to participate in missionary work
  • Encouragements to participate in temple and family history

…and more. It’s very easy to see these things as an impossible stack of chores that constantly looms over us and drains the joy out of our discipleship. And we know that church commitments are not supposed to be as high on our priorities list as our families and our employment, but it’s hard to draw those lines clearly sometimes when other people draw their lines differently and sometimes even apply social pressure to mirror the way they draw their lines. Sometimes we just need to say no to things, for the sake of our own well-being and that of our families, and it’s hard not to feel guilty in those situations.

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Notes on Murder Among the Mormons

“But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.” (D&C 10:37).

For believing-and-sustaining Latter-Day Saints, the Netflix special Murder Among the Mormons is a lot to process.  I was already familiar with the story from hearing it in various venues over the years, but for church members who operate with culturally-formed assumptions of prophetic infallibility, this series is going to be a hard dose of reality.

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The Reliability of Divine Revelation

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the question of how we can know truth. I have had a few friends and acquaintances recently move away from the Church for a variety of reasons. But there has been a common thread.

Unsurprisingly, I am not persuaded by these arguments.

Each has come to believe that their past spiritual confirmations and experiences were too subjective or unreliable to form a continued foundation of belief. They have each described reliance on these experiences derisively as simply relying on emotion and feeling. Rather than relying on these experiences, they point to some other foundation that they see as more sturdy or immovable be that logic and reasoning, or the words of the Holy Bible.

I recognize that human emotion and feeling can be highly subjective and manipulated. But I reject the suggestion that is all that divine revelation is or can be. Rather divine revelation is a force that is beyond ourselves which pierces through the darkness and sheds true light.

In reaching this conclusion I rest on my own personal experiences with divine revelation and the experiences of others.

One of my favorite accounts of the reception of divine revelation comes from Oliver Cowdery.

In early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, we learn about Oliver’s wrestle to know if the spiritual experiences he had were truly from God. He had been led by what he felt was a revelation to meet Joseph Smith and began to assist as a translator. But he was unsettled. He wondered whether he truly was following God’s will.

In a series of revelations through Joseph Smith, the Savior spoke to Oliver’s concerns.

In Section 6, the Lord blessed Oliver for seeking revelation and for following what he had felt. He reassured Oliver that the feelings of enlightenment that he had experienced had come from God.

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time. Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth;”

The Lord further explained to Oliver that the feelings that he had felt were from him and that he could know that because God had spoken peace to him and had addressed his concerns.

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the        matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? And now, behold, you have received a witness; for if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?”

In Section 8 it is nevertheless clear that Oliver is still struggling with these same concerns.  The Lord assures him:

“[T]hat assuredly as the Lord liveth, who is your God and your Redeemer, even so surely shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit.Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

God also warns Oliver that he will need to rely on his revelatory experiences because they will deliver him “out of the hands of [his] enemies, when if it were not so they would slay you and bring your soul to destruction.”

From these verses (and others in these sections), it is obvious that Oliver struggled with many of the same questions that my friends have struggled with. He wanted to know whether he could truly rely on past revelation or whether it was possible that he was being deceived. He had powerful experiences but was worried that he was being led astray by his emotions.

But soon afterwards in May 1829, Oliver Cowdery had an experience that changed his feelings towards the power of revelation. On May 15th Oliver and Joseph retreated to a spot near the Susquehanna river in Harmony Pennsylvania and prayed to know the Lord’s will concerning baptism. John the Baptist appeared to them and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood.

Writing after this experience Oliver Cowdery described the impact of this revelatory visitation on his doubts.

And as we heard we rejoiced, while His love enkindled upon our souls, and we were wrapped in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!

Oliver spoke of how this vision was an answer to his “anxiously looked for message” and contrasted his feelings with the world which “was racked and distracted” and where “millions were groping as the blind for the wall” and “resting upon uncertainty.”

Because of his experience, Oliver realized that the spirit of revelation was precisely the antidote that God had given to cut through that uncertainty. He understood that human reasoning, rhetoric, and eloquence could deceive and distract. But that God could cut through all of that noise with “the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow-men, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave; but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the mind.

I love these words so much. That has also been my experience with divine revelation. The joy peace and wisdom that I have received from the Holy Ghost is far beyond anything that the world offers. When one truly experiences divine revelation there is no room for doubt. Rather, revelation causes doubt to flee or to whither into insignificance.

It makes so much sense to me that God would primarily speak to his children through direct personal revelation. The scriptures are incredible treasures of divine wisdom. But they were received in a particular time and place and in response to the spiritual needs of their audience. And when we read them we bring our own preconceptions and experiences. Reasoning and logic are wonderful tools. But when we reason we do also do not do so objectively. Rather, we bring our own biases and world view. More often than not, we interpret facts in a way that satisfies our own desires or confirms our opinion.

Moreover, these tools are not universally accessible. For instance, so many people lack the training, education, and access to truly understand the scriptures. But God loves his children wherever they are in the world and whatever their education and background. If God really wants to speak to us we should expect him to do so through a universal language that cuts through educational barriers and cultures. That universal language is divine revelation.

But Oliver’s experience does show that perhaps we might be falling into a bit of a trap as well in how we talk about revelation especially with investigators or those looking into the Church. Oliver had many spiritual experiences before his May 1829 experience. But yet he had many doubts and wondered whether those experiences were really from God. He kept asking and seeking until God gave him a greater and more concrete answer to his prayers.

Sometimes we are content with encouraging people to rely on their initial feelings of peace and joy that they receive from going to Church or reading the Book of Mormon or meeting with the missionaries. Oliver’s experience shows us that these feelings are real, but that they are insufficient. The kind of revelatory experience that God wants each of us to have is the kind that Oliver had with John the Baptist in May 1829. That isn’t to say that we will experience a divine visitation like Oliver did. But we can all receive the kind of manifestation of the spirit that cuts away all doubt.

I have been the recipient of such divine revelation and I cannot doubt or deny it. You could sooner convince me that 2+2=5 or that the sky is purple than convince me that this was merely wishful thinking or my own emotions. Those moments of divine revelation swept away doubt and replaced them with confidence and hope. And I now that if God gave me those experiences that he also wishes to give them to everyone else. Because he is no respecter of persons but loves all of this children. 

If you feel that you have never had such an experience, I encourage you to never give up and continue to seek such an answer. Rely on the answers you have felt and keep seeking greater truth and light. If you have received a powerful answer that swept away your doubt, cherish that memory. Do not allow skepticism and doubt to wipe away what you felt. If it was true when you experienced it, it remains true today. 

What is Discernment?

How can I tell when my thoughts and feelings are my own, or revelation from God? How can I tell if an emotionally-satisfying narrative or activity is good for my soul, or would lead me away from God?

The answer to both questions is discernment.

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You can have exactly what you want, forever.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.

C.S. Lewis, the Great Divorce

The purpose of God’s plan of salvation is to show us — and God — what we really desire, so that God can give that to us. The caveat is that if we want any kind of life that is not God’s life, we will not feel comfortable in the presence of God, in the society that God inhabits.

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Twenty reasons for the Restoration

           D&C 1 is the Lord’s inspired preface for his book of covenants and commandments. This section was received through revelation by the Prophet Joseph Smith and is an inspired introduction to the material inside the Doctrine and Covenants. Like any good introduction, this section begins by laying out the intended audience (the members of the Church and the whole world), explaining the need for the contents of the book (the spiritual state of the world), and describing the key reasons for the restoration.  Starting in verse 17, the Lord reveals at least twenty reasons why it was necessary to have a restoration:

  1. To save the world from calamity
  • “Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth”

The restoration emerges out of an urgent need. God warns that the world is spiraling into catastrophe. Because the teachings of Jesus Christ have been abandoned or forgotten, there is great wickedness. Everyone is seeking idols after their own image. There is strife and anger. And ultimately there will be destruction. The restoration of God’s Church and Kingdom on the earth is a critical counter measure to prevent this destruction and desolation.

2) To fulfil prophecy

  • “[A]ll this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets”

The restoration was foreseen long ago. Christ’s apostles knew that there would be a falling away from truth followed by a period of renewal and rebirth. They promised that the fullness would once again be restored. Their prophetic warnings and promises could not be left unfulfilled. The same is true for the Book of Mormon Prophets who saw our day with particular clarity.

(We sometimes assume that Peter or Paul knew precisely what would happen with the apostasy and the restoration. I rather suspect that they were given more general revelation concerning an apostasy and restoration. But regardless, their prophetic promises were inspired and were fulfilled by the restoration).

3) To empower everyone to speak with power and authority

  • “But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;”

           One of my favorite things about full-time missionary service when I served in Novosibirsk Russia was wearing a name tag which declared to the world that I was an Elder and a representative of Jesus Christ and his Church. It is remarkable that every male member of the Church can hold the priesthood of God, and every sister can similarly speak with power and authority in the name of Christ. This democratization of power and authority is one of the triumphs of the restoration. Revelatory power and spiritual gifts are not reserved for a select few. Instead, everyone is able to access that power and to speak in the name of God the Lord.

4) To teach about Jesus and Heavenly Father

  • “But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;”

Another way to read that same verse is that we are empowered to teach with power the nature God and of the Savior. The restoration was intended to bring greater understanding as to their nature and character. Through the restoration we know of the God who weeps with us and of the Savior who calls us his friends and fellow servants. We understand their perfect and infinite love so much better. And we are therefore able to teach and invite others to come to truly know them.  

5) To bypass the wisdom of the word and to work through the meek and humble

  • The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones”

Just as Christ was born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem and recruited from the lowly and despised of society, so to was the Church restored through the meek and humble of the world. Joseph Smith was not learned but he had great wisdom that was far greater than the wisdom of the world. Eloquence is not a prerequisite to spiritual power. God wants to show us that the things that the world prioritized by way of power and prestige are not the same things that we ultimately prioritizes

6) To increase faith

  • “That faith also might increase in the earth;”

           Because Christ’s Church was restored to the earth, there has been an increase of faith in the earth. We live in a time of growing skepticism about religion and doubts about God. So it was vital that a restored Church be established on the earth to help us to have pure faith in God and Christ. One of the main ways that I see this manifest itself in my life is the Church’s focus on personal revelation and the need to seek spiritual conviction for myself. This kind of active faith is transformative and transformational.

7) To reveal the fullness of the gospel

  • That the fullness of my gospel might be proclaimed


One thing that has really struck me in the past few years as I have listened to our inspired Prophet President Nelson is that the restoration is still ongoing. There is so much more that will continue to be revealed as the restoration unfolds. That promise of greater light and knowledge is deeply empowering. But we also can have confidence that God has revealed everything that we need to know for our exaltation and our eternal happiness.


8) To help us gain understanding

  • “These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”

The restoration and the many revelations and commandments that come from God are ultimately intended to help us develop wisdom and understanding. This is different than mere knowledge. The restoration rather is a call to action to apply the principles of faith into our lives.

9) To allow for missionary work to the whole world including to kings and rulers

  • That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.

It is remarkable that these words were received in 1831 when the Church of Jesus Christ was in its infancy and had less than 1,000 members all contained in a small portion of the United States. But from the start the restoration was a global project that was intended to reach the whole world. When reading Saints Vol 1 and 2 I have been amazed again and again at how quickly the Church sent missionaries out to all part of the world. It is a message that is direct to everyone who will hearken to the will of God.


10) To (re)establish God’s eternal covenant 

  • That mine everlasting covenant might be established;”

Covenants form a major part of the restoration project. Covenants provide divine promises and assurance which bind us to God and to our families and church community. At the time when this revelation was received, God was slowly restoring ordinances and covenants. Today we are blessed to be able to go to the temple and make sacred covenants and to enter into eternal relationships.



11) To establish the true and living church on the earth and to lay its foundations

  • “And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased”

The Church is true because it contains authoritative priesthood authority and keys, and it is living because it is led by continuing revelation through a prophet. There are many other great Churches and incredible believers in God and Christ (or wonderful people who believe in none of these things). There are many great institutions on the earth that perform benevolent works or edify and uplift. But there is only one Church that contains God’s priesthood power and that is led by him through continuing revelation. That makes all of the difference.



12) To bring forward the Book of Mormon

  • “And after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., might have power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon.”

Restoring the Book of Mormon to the earth was a major goal of the restoration. The writers of the Book of Mormon knew that it would come forth in our day from the dust of the Earth. This book contains a pure and powerful witness of Christ and it is the keystone of our faith. God knew that we would need this powerful book for our day.

13) To empower people to have the companionship of the spirit

  • And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord of Hosts.”

This verse speak of individuals losing light and the presence of the spirit. But the necessary corollary is that we can gain light and enjoy the presence of the spirit when we are repentant. One of the remarkable fruits of the restoration is that every member is able to enjoy the presence and companionship of the Holy Ghost. This is a gift that is available to anyone who is repentant and humble.

14) To prepare the world for Christ to come and rule on the earth.

  • “And also the Lord shall have power over his saints, and shall reign in their midst, and shall come down in judgment upon Idumea, or the world.”

The ultimate goal of the restoration is to prepare the world for the second coming of Christ. I love how even though we do not know the exact date and time of Christ’s second coming, this concept places the agency on us to act. We are not to passively wait for Christ to come again. Instead, we are working hand in hand with God as co-laborers in this project of restoration and preparation.


15) To humble people and teach them to trust in God.

  • “[T]hat man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh”

We must ultimately not rely on our own fleshly abilities and aptitudes but instead we must come to rely on God and trust in him. This is a humbling process and it is truly a challenge for each of us. We must learn to use our divine given skills and talents in the way that God would have us use them rather than in pursuit of our own selfish goals and desires. In the restored Church, we are pushed to learn to do this through our service in callings and also in our own personal family relationships. For me, nothing has taught me humility and pushed me to try to rely on God more than being a husband and a father. I daily encounter reminders of my own fallen and imperfect nature.


16) To inspire confidence that God speaks through Prophets and Apostles in our day

  • “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”

           I have seen a lot of debate and discussion of the meaning of this verse lately. I read this verse as suggesting that God’s word will be fulfilled whether he speaks in his own voice or in the voice of his servants the Prophet and Apostles. This does not mean that every single thing that the Prophet says is exactly equal to the word of God. But the restoration of prophetic leadership is intended to give us confidence that God will speak to us through those that we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators, and that the promises that they extend to us from God will ultimately be fulfilled.


17) To encourage repentance

  • And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent”

The restoration is a call to shake off the chains of complacency and sin and to repent. From my own experience, it is easy to put off making needed spiritual changes and to rationalize away the things we are doing wrong. The restoration provides both a sense of urgency and a call to action. This comes through the promptings of the Holy Ghost, through the teachings of the Prophet and Apostles, , through our church experiences and callings, and many other ways.

18) To prove that God is no respecter of persons

  • “For I am no respecter of persons, and will that all men shall know”

The restoration is universal and global. God wants us to know that he is no respecter of persons. While the Church began in North America, it is intended to be a global religious that does not know boundaries of race, ethnicity, or culture. We have a long way to go until we achieve that inclusive and diverse vision. But it is one that we are called to strive towards.

19) To warn that the second coming “speedily cometh”

  • For I am no respecter of persons, and will that all men shall know that the day speedily cometh; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand, when peace shall be taken from the earth, and the devil shall have power over his own dominion.

Early church members were focused heavily on what they saw as an impending second coming. Several generations later, it can honestly be difficult to have that sense of purpose and focus. But the restoration is intended to point our attention towards that second coming. This is intended to further spur us to action and to urge us to avoid complacency.  

20) To prove that all of God’s words shall be fulfilled

  • “Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled. What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled,”

Finally, the restoration of the Gospel of Christ is intended to show us that God’s prophecies and promises will in fact be fulfilled. What began as a tiny church has indeed spread to fill the earth. We can therefore have confidence that God’s promises and prophecies in our own day will also be fulfilled. God’s word is true and faithful. All will be fulfilled in time. Sometimes it may not come in way that we expect or anticipate. But we can have confidence in God.