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Cotton Mather: Prayer and Fasting

But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting. Matthew 17:21

“The town is become almost an hell upon earth, a city full of lies, and murders, and blasphemies, as far as witches and speeches can render it so: Satan seems to take a strange possession of it, in the epidemic rage, against that notable and powerful and successful way of saving the lives of people from the dangers of the smallpox. What can I do on this occasion, to get the miserable town dispossessed of the evil spirit which has taken such an horrible possession of it? What besides prayer with fasting for it?“

Cotton Mather in his diary entry dated 24 August 1721 as recounted in “When Cotton Mather Fought the Smallpox“.

The town for this outbreak was Boston. The disease was smallpox. The year was in 1721. Mather wanted them to try inoculation, a primitive form of vaccination and took lots of heat for it. He also want them to fast and pray.

As we find ourselves locked down around the world, fighting COVID-19, a disease we can’t see, we should be open to both medical treatments and committed to spiritual remedies.

So where does generosity come into view?

When I read this story, I could not get over the way in which the outbreak caused people to fight against each other. Prayer and fasting changes all that. It humbles us and brings is closer to God and each other.

As we face a foe we cannot see, let’s devote a generous amount of time to prayer and fasting.

Pray for the sick, health care workers, the vulnerable, the unemployed, ministry workers, family, and friends.

Fast for your neighborhood and nation, for renewal and revival. Ask God to intervene in His grace and goodness.

The more I look through church history, the more I see that every generation faced some sort of disease, outbreak, or plague. The question for this generation is what does a generous response look like?

Some facets of a generous response may vary from steward to steward, but all of us, regardless of our age, social or economic status, can commit to prayer and fasting.

Join me, my church, and Christians around the world for a day of prayer and fasting on 29 March 2020.

God, deliver us from this disease. Draw the world closer together and to You. Work by your Spirit. Hear my prayer in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon: Secure and Refreshed

“Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.” Psalm 91:9-10

“At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardor to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions; but, soon, I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it.

I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up in a shoemaker’s window in the Great Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore, in a good bold handwriting, these words:

“Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.” Psalm 91:9-10

 The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvelous power, I adore the Lord my God.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) in The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon: Selected Books, Sermons, and Other Writings, ed. Daniel Partner (Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2009) 105-106.

The plague was getting the best of Spurgeon.

Sickness and death linked to the cholera outbreak of 1854 surrounded him. Notice it was not a sermon but a simple note in a window with Scripture written on it that lifted his spirits. The truth of that Scripture gave Spurgeon the security and refreshment he needed.

What can you do to lift the spirits of those around you with Scripture? Send a text? Write an email? Post a note in your window?

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon: Wasted the Opportunity

For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6:2

“That man, in his lifetime, had been wont to jeer at me. In strong language, he had often denounced me as a hypocrite. Yet he was no sooner smitten by the darts of death than he sought my presence and counsel, no doubt feeling in his heart that I was a servant of God, though he did not care to own it with his lips. There I stood, unable to help him. Promptly as I had responded to his call, what could I do but look at his corpse and mourn a lost soul? He had, when in health, wickedly refused Christ, yet in his death-agony he had superstitiously sent for me. Too late, he sighed for the ministry of reconciliation and sought to enter in at the closed door, but he was not able. There was no space left him then for repentance, for he had wasted the opportunity that God had long granted to him.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) in The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon: Selected Books, Sermons, and Other Writings, ed. Daniel Partner (Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2009) 107.

In 1854, when Spurgeon was a young minister, the cholera outbreak in London took the lives of many. Today’s post recounts a person who had once rejected the message of the gospel and called for Spurgeon too late.

As COVID-19 progresses slowly but widely across the planet, the sad reality is that many people will contract the disease and some of them will die. So, now is the window of time for everyone to get right with God.

So what does generosity look like today?

We must not waste this opportunity. Share toilet paper. Give richly to church and charities. Distribute food and games. And encourage everyone to get right with God. “Now is the time of God’s favor. Now is the day of salvation.” Give the gift of eternity!

Father, forgive us our sins and heal our world. Spirit, guide us to people before it’s too late who have yet to experience Your grace and unconditional love. In your mercy, hear our prayer in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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Evagrius Scholasticus: Guided by the Good Pleasure of God

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy! I look to You for protection. I will hide beneath the shadow of Your wings until the danger passes by. Psalm 57:1

“The ways in which the disease was communicated, were various and unaccountable: for some perished by merely living with the infected, others by only touching them, others by having entered their chamber, others by frequenting public places. Some, having fled from the infected cities, escaped themselves, but imparted the disease to the healthy. Some were altogether free from contagion, though they had associated with many who were afflicted, and had touched many not only in their sickness but also when dead. Some, too, who were desirous of death, on account of the utter loss of their children and friends, and with this view placed themselves as much as possible in contact with the diseased, were nevertheless not infected; as if the pestilence struggled against their purpose. This calamity has prevailed, as I have already said, to the present time, for two and fifty years, exceeding all that have preceded it. For Philostratus expresses wonder that the pestilence which happened in his time, lasted for fifteen years. The sequel is uncertain, since its course will be guided by the good pleasure of God, who knows both the causes of things and their tendencies.” 

Evagrius Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 4.29 (A.D. 431-594), trans. by E. Walford (1846). Here’s a header photo from my home office during this lockdown. It’s my prayer map of the world with pins in place I have taught (compliments of my daughter, Sophie).

Evagrius was writing about the horror of the Justinian Plague. The outbreak was named after the emperor in power during the outbreak, around A.D. 541-542. It claimed millions of lives over many years. Why consider this excerpt from this church historian as today’s post?

As we experience lockdown on a global scale, we must be careful where to pin the blame and where to place our hope. The most generous thing we can do with our neighbors is give grace, and toward those in power we should lavish an abundance of prayers.

This is hard when it is actually the people around us that can infect us. And while none of us have lived through a pandemic, everyone has opinions on what needs to be done. We are quick to point blame. Imagine getting the plague named after you. Bummer to be Justinian!

Notice also that Evagrius reports that the plague struggled against the purpose of those who served the sick for the wrong reasons. Those who aimed to join the deceased were foiled. Why? God is working in all this, and the only right answer for all of us is to humble ourselves before Him.

Evagrius adds this powerful point about the plague then, which relates to COVID-19. The “course will be guided by the good pleasure of God, who knows both the causes of things and their tendencies.” God is at work for good on a global scale so however this plague touches us is for good.

Let’s resolve to humble ourselves before God, pray for those in authority, and extend grace to our neighbors. And with David, the psalmist, let us hide not so much from the disease but beneath the shadow of God’s wings. To do that, we must draw near to Him. Have mercy on us, O God, have mercy!

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Martin Luther: Submit and Serve

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:16

“Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another. First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor. I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh. Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner.”

Martin Luther (1483-1546) in “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague” from Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–138.

As the world adapts to the shutdown of most normal social activities, the opinion of Luther nearly five centuries earlier seems as appropriate and relevant as ever.

God has allowed this global crisis to chastise us, shake us, and wake us to our sin and position us to respond in humility and repentance, faith and love. Will we?

The disease running rampant is of the evil one for sure. But God has allowed it for our good, to reset our focus to submission and service whatever days we have.

I never dreamed my word for the year, compassion, would be so timely. God, help us leave cowardice behind and choose compassion in response to the plague. Amen.

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Ulrich Zwingli: Plague Hymn

The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Psalm 18:2

The Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, contracted the black death while caring for the sick in 1519. Like many who suffer today from COVID-19 which tends to cause difficulty breathing and take weeks to beat, he thought the plague might claim his life.

Christian History reports: “His famous “plague hymn” recounts his sense of trust and then his joy at regaining health. Stanzas 1–4 were written as the disease first struck, stanzas 5–8 as his health deteriorated. Upon his recovery he finished the final four quatrains.”

1. Help me, O Lord,
My strength and rock;
Lo, at the door
I hear death’s knock.

2. Uplift shine arm,
Once pierced for me,
That conquered death.
And set me free.

3. Yet, if thy voice,
In life’s midday.
Recalls my soul,
Then I obey.

4. In faith and hope
Earth I resign.
Secure of heaven.
For I am Thine.

5. My pains increase;
Haste to console;
For fear and woe
Seize body and soul.

6. Death is at hand.
My senses fail.
My tongue is dumb;
Now, Christ, prevail.

7. Lo! Satan strains
To snatch his prey;
I feel his grasp;
Must I give way?

8. He harms me not,
I fear no loss,
For here I lie
Beneath thy cross.

9. My God! My Lord!
Healed by the hand.
Upon the earth
Once more I stand.

10. Let sin no more
Rule over me;
My mouth shall sing
Alone to thee.

11. Though now delayed,
My hour will come.
Involved, perchance.
In deeper gloom.

12. But, let it come;
With joy I’ll rise,
And bear my yoke
Straight to the skies.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) battled with the black death at age 35 and survived. His work was not done. He would lead the reformation of the church in Switzerland and meet the Lord at age 47.

I pray this hymn touches you deeply as it did me. I can do nothing but pray after reading it over and over. Join me.

Father in heaven, hear our prayer for help as pains increase all over the world. Though death snatches many, we fear not. We will bear our yoke and serve others, including the sick, with joy in our hearts. Our confidence in Christ’s love and work for us and the promise of heaven sustains us. Bring deliverance by your Holy Spirit. But if not, we fear no loss for we are secure at the foot of the cross. In your mercy, come to our aid. Amen.

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John Calvin: Call the Church to Fast, Pray, and Confess

“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16

“When pestilence begins to stalk abroad, or famine or war, or when any other disaster seems to impend over a province and people, then also it is the duty of pastors to exhort the Church to fasting, that she may suppliantly deprecate the Lord’s anger. For when He makes danger appear, He declares that He is prepared and in a manner armed for vengeance.

In like manner, therefore, as persons accused were anciently wont, in order to excite the commiseration of the judge, to humble themselves suppliantly with long beard, dishevelled hair, and coarse garments, so when we are charged before the divine tribunal, to deprecate his severity in humble raiment is equally for his glory and the public edification, and useful and salutary to ourselves. And that this was common among the Israelites we may infer from the words of Joel. For when he says,

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. (Joel 2:15)

he speaks as of things received by common custom. A little before he had said that the people were to be tried for their wickedness, and that the day of judgment was at hand, and he had summoned them as criminals to plead their cause: then he exclaims that they should hasten to sackcloth and ashes, to weeping and fasting; that is, humble themselves before God with external manifestations.

The sackcloth and ashes, indeed, were perhaps more suitable for those times, but the assembly, and weeping and fasting, and the like, undoubtedly belong, in an equal degree, to our age, whenever the condition of our affairs so requires. For seeing it is a holy exercise both for men to humble themselves, and confess their humility, why should we in similar necessity use this less than did those of old? We read not only that the Israelitish Church, formed and constituted by the word of God, fasted in token of sadness, but the Ninevites also, whose only teaching had been the preaching of Jonah.

The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Jonah 3:5-9

John Calvin (1509-1564) in The Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.17 (Grand Rapids: CCEL) 758-759.

Calvin was impacted by the plague his entire life. Scholars note that it was probably the cause of his mother’s death at 3 years old, and what likely motivated him to leave Noyon for Paris to study at 14. His hometown had been hit. His actions, however, do not reflect fear or selfishness, but appropriate care and concern.

We can trace that Calvin had no fear of the disease throughout his life but exercised both compassion (my word for the year) and care. He visited the sick in many instances. He also established a hospital in Geneva and appointed deacons to care for the sick in isolation (see The Ecclesiastical Ordinances, 4th Order).

While the practical approaches Calvin took toward the plague match the care people are taking in modern times, we must not overlook the spiritual counsel of Calvin as the plague afflicted people throughout his life. Whenever the plague raged, he called the pastors to tell the churches to fast, to pray, and to confess. He wanted them to call to God for helpin humility.

As I read from the Scriptures he referenced from Esther, then Joel, and then Jonah, I was touched deeply.

In Esther we learn that when crisis impacts everyone, the right response is to call for a fast. From Joel we learn to engage in this practice together. Perhaps “the sacred assembly” can take place with appropriate social distancing. And from Jonah we learn that, interestingly, both the people and the animals fasted. I find that especially fascinating because coronaviruses normally impact animals, and this one is afflicting people too.

Why fast, pray, and confess?

I can speak to this. They are the spiritual priorities that God has led me to have the staff, board, and regional facilitators of Global Trust Partners to call people to practice all over the world. Again, why?

They are the three practices that God’s prophets called God’s people to practice to humble themselves and ask for divine help. They are the only path of deliverance from the financial corruption that has ravaged churches and ministries worldwide. And, related to COVID-19, they mark the way to find physical relief during a plague.

The crisis we face is beyond our pay grade. We need God’s help. Not as a last resort but as a first priority, let us get our focus off ourselves (like God said to Jonah) and call the Church to fast, pray, and confess, asking God for mercy for people who need to repent and for safety for the animals too (as God loves animals).

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” Jonah 4:10:11

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Cyprian of Carthage: Don’t Be Blown Away

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 2 Corinthians 4:17

“The fear and faith of God ought to make you prepared for everything, although it should be the loss of private estate, although the constant and cruel harassment of your limbs by agonizing disorders, although the deadly and mournful wrench from wife, from children, from departing dear ones; let not these things be offences to you, but battles: nor let them weaken nor break the Christian’s faith, but rather show forth his strength in the struggle, since all the injury inflicted by present troubles is to be despised in the assurance of future blessings.

Unless the battle has preceded, there cannot be a victory: when there shall have been, in the onset of battle, the victory, then also the crown is given to the victors. For the helmsman is recognised in the tempest; in the warfare the soldier is proved. It is a wanton display when there is no danger. Struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth. The tree which is deeply founded in its root is not moved by the onset of winds, and the ship which is compacted of solid timbers is beaten by the waves and is not shattered; and when the threshing-floor brings out the corn, the strong and robust grains despise the winds, while the empty chaff is carried away by the blast that falls upon it.”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, writing during the plague in North Africa (c. 251) in Treatise VII, On the Mortality, 12, in Treatises in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 5 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899) 472.

As we continue reading the words of the bishop in the midst of the plague, we are reminded that “struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth” or in plain terms, it shows our true character and colors.

Let’s not be blown away by this current adversity. On this Saturday, let us pause with gratitude that “the fear and faith of God” makes us ready for anything. We might lose everything or even our lives.

Look around you. Everything you see is temporary. Don’t let your current troubles rob you of the reality and assurance of future blessings. Keep living, giving, serving, and loving generously. This is our moment to shine like lights in a dark world. We’ve got this because God’s got us.

Remember Noah and his family weathered the storm for 40 days. But they did not get out of the ark to begin life anew for a whole year. This COVID-19 tempest may last a similar length and the aftermath may take a year or more to sort out. Only the Father in Heaven knows.

May “the fear and faith of God” not only help us from being blown away like chaff, but may it be our greatest witness to a struggling world.

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Martin Luther: Social Solidarity and Physical Distance

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

“Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly refuse. Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me, and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Martin Luther in The Annotated Luther, Pastoral Writings, Volume 4, ed. Mary Jane Haemig (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016) 404. Special thanks to my GTP colleague, Ruthie Cristobal, for redefining “social distance” with the terms “social solidarity” and “physical distance.” That’s the posture I am recommending from snow-covered Colorado.

During the plague of 1527, Martin Luther describes the unselfish act of keeping “physical distance” from others which is to avoid unnecessary contact with people to who may be infected and if infected to avoid unknowingly spreading disease to others. Again, this practice is being prescribed virtually all over the planet in this COVID-19 crisis.

Rather than complain about what the authorities are doing or worrying about what we cannot do, consider what you can do to show love for God by loving others with “social solidarity.” Call or text your neighbor to check in. Discourage foolhardy behavior, and always include love with whatever you do because perfect love is the only thing that drives out fear.

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Cyprian of Carthage: True Worshiper of God

But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold. Job 23:10

“Job, after the loss of his wealth, after the death of his children, grievously afflicted, moreover, with sores and worms, was not overcome, but proved; since in his very struggles and anguish, showing forth the patience of a religious mind, he says, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, naked also I shall go under the earth: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; as it seemed fit to the Lord, so it hath been done. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [Job 1:21].

And when his wife also urged him, in his impatience at the acuteness of his pain, to speak something against God with a complaining and envious voice, he answered and said, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women. If we have received good from the hand of the Lord, why shall we not suffer evil? In all these things which befell him, Job sinned not with his lips in the sight of the Lord” [Job 2:10]. Therefore the Lord God gives him a testimony, saying, “Hast thou considered my servant Job? for there is none like him in all the earth, a man without complaint, a true worshiper of God” [Job 1:8]…

Righteous men [and women] have ever possessed this endurance. The apostles maintained this discipline from the law of the Lord, not to murmur in adversity, but to accept bravely and patiently whatever things happen in the world; since the people of the Jews in this matter always offended, that they constantly murmured against God, as the Lord God bears witness in the book of Numbers, saying, “Let their murmuring cease from me, and they shall not die” [17:10].

We must not murmur in adversity, beloved brethren, but we must bear with patience and courage whatever happens, since it is written, “The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a contrite and humbled heart God does not despise” [Psalm 51:17]; since also in Deuteronomy the Holy Spirit warns by Moses, and says, “The Lord thy God will vex thee, and will bring hunger upon thee; and it shall be known in thine heart if thou hast well kept His commandments or not” [8:2]. And again: “The Lord your God proveth you, that He may know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul” [Deuteronomy 13:3].”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, writing during the plague in North Africa (c. 251) in Treatise VII, On the Mortality, 10-11, in Treatises in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 5 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899) 471-472.

We are living in challenging times. My prayer for everyone reading this is that God will enable us to come forth as gold and appear as true worshipers of God. That means we accept joyfully the struggles and suffering without murmuring.

Before I offer some practical suggestions, let us learn from the bishop and his use of Scripture. Notice that to inspire Christians facing difficulty, he drips Scripture. He reminds them that God tests and us and what He looks for, that God notices servants like Job as well as grumblers. He sees all.

God sees us in our self-quarantines and our social distancing. How will we function? I suggest you call one or more people daily. Check in. Ask them how they are doing? Many are in crisis. They were just laid off or furloughed from their job. Offer to assist them as you are able.

Some may be doing well. The COVID-19 crisis may not be impacting them much yet. If so, invite them to join you in reaching out to others and offer the same care. Cyprian knew that if their hearts were focused on trusting God rather than complaining, that people would see Christ in them.

It worked then. It caused the gospel to spread, and it can work now. It’s one thing easy to live generously in good times, but what we do in moments like this can best reveal our Christian faith to a hurting world. He knows the way we take. When He has tested us, may we come forth as gold.

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