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Appendix: The People Of The Parables

4: The Parable Of The Sower

A Vital Parable

The records of this parable have a common three part sequence: firstly, the actual parable, secondly a discussion concerning the principles of Christ's parables, and finally our Lord's interpretation of the sower parable. The fact that the explanation concerning the importance of parables occurs in the sower context suggests that Christ saw this parable as an epitome of all those he told. The principle of interpreting each major element of the parable within a similar context is eloquently demonstrated by the Lord's unravelling of his story about the sower. Because of this, it is understandable that Jesus should be so concerned at the disciples' inability to grasp this principle: "Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?" (Mk.4:13). Our Lord's enthusiasm for us to interpret the sower parable for ourselves comes out well in Lk.8:8: "When he had said these things (the parable with the interpretation), he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear". The disciples' response "What might (indicating intellectual desperation?) this parable be?" (Lk.8:9) would have been a cutting anti-climax for the Lord after his impassioned plea. As a further motivation to understand this parable, Jesus comments that "many prophets and righteous men (who had spent a lifetime associated with God's word) have desired to see (understand) those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them. Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower" (Mt.13:17,18). The things which those Old Testament worthies so desired to understand were the principles concerning the operation of God's word which the sower parable explains. Grasping the fact that our understanding of these principles is something that Enoch, Samuel, David, Jeremiah etc. longed to be honoured with, but were denied, should give a special verve to our desire to "hear...therefore the parable of the sower". Jesus cited correctly understanding this parable as an example of "more abundance" being given to those who already had a basic grasp of the Gospel (Mt.13:12).

The Sower And The Seed

"The seed is the word of God" (Lk.8:11), i.e. the word of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Mt.13:19). The parable gives the impression that the ground was in a certain condition when the seed was first sown; there seems no hint at the possibility of changing the ground, although we will see later that there is a sense in which this is possible. The stony ground, for example, is in that state as soon as the seed lands upon it. It seems that Jesus is showing us how God looks down upon the preaching of the Gospel to various people, seeing that He speaks about things which are future as if they are already (Rom.4:17). He knows the type of ground which each of us will ultimately be. Therefore, as far as God is concerned, we are good ground, or whatever, at the time of our first encounter with the Gospel, even if we are initially stony or thistle-filled.

The types of ground clearly represent those who hear the word, sown by Christ as the sower. However, our relationship with Jesus through his word is not confined to our initial receipt of the basic Gospel. The sower kept on sowing (so the Greek tenses imply), showing that all through our spiritual lives we continually hear the word and have the opportunity to respond to it in the various ways which the sower parable describes. Thus the parable finds just as much fulfilment at a fraternal gathering where the word of Christ is spoken, as at an open air preaching meeting or in a mass distribution of tracts. Sometimes a facet of God's word takes a permanent hold on part of our life, bringing forth regular spiritual fruit in this aspect; other things which are taught by the word go only skin deep, and for various reasons "bring no fruit to perfection".

It should be noted that "the word" in the parable evidently refers to the word of the Gospel. This shows that the powerful, new life-creating power of God's word is through an understanding of the basic principles of the Gospel. Everything which we read from the word is part of the Gospel in this sense; our responsibility to God does not therefore just reach a fixed point at baptism, after having known the basic principles, but increases with our continued understanding of the word. In this sense there is no division between the "first principles" and the strong meat of the word. The "strong meat" is related to the first principles. Abstract, Bible-related philosophy which is unrelated to our first principles will therefore not result in real spiritual growth. It is for this reason that other churches which hold false basic principles are unable to grow spiritually from their Bible study. A proper appreciation of this would silence the reasoning that 'people in the other churches' seem so 'spiritual', therefore their doctrinal basis cannot be fundamentally wrong.

On the contrary, "seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth (accepting the basic doctrines)...see that ye (continue) being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God...and this is the word which by the Gospel (true basic doctrines) is preached unto you" (1 Pet.1:22-25). Note the continuous tense of "is", remembering that Peter is writing to those already converted. The once off act of intercourse and begettal, whereby the seed or sperm initiates new life, is here spoken of in the continuous sense. Similarly, a sower sowing seed is a once-off act, yet the parable has an ongoing application. Human "seed" and begettal is "corruptible" (1 Pet.1:23)- i.e. the offspring does not have the exact character of the person from whom the seed originated. Yet God's seed is "incorruptible" in that it will eventually result in our being brought forth in the exact image of God after the judgment, when we are fully born of Spirit nature. This is because "the word (seed) of God...liveth and abideth for ever", i.e. God's word can have constant intercourse with us, constantly creating us after the image of our spiritual Father. In like manner our relationship with Christ throughout the eternal ages of the Kingdom is described in terms of a wedding feast and subsequent consummation. Both those actions are desperately finite and time-bounded in our experience; but the intensity of fulfilment of those moments will go with us throughout the Kingdom. There will not be a peak of joy experienced at our initial acceptance at judgment which then slightly tails off; this will be a constant joy and level of fulfilment such as we can only momentarily experience now.

"This is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you" shows that the language of preaching can be used concerning our relationship with God's word both before and after baptism. Likewise, the sower parable has dual reference to the preaching of God's word to both believers and unbelievers.

The relationship between the basic doctrines of the Gospel and "the word of God" which comes to us through them has a number of practical implications. Study of the basic doctrines should be a regular feature amongst us; weekly Bible lectures provide an ideal opportunity for this. It has been correctly noted that "a good lecture does us as much good as an exhortation". Those who bleat "But we know all this!" evidently fail to understand the relationship between spiritual growth and the fundamental elements of the Gospel. Those who give the public Bible addresses need to spare the time to make their presentation flexible, so that in the absence of those who are unfamiliar with basic doctrine, the ecclesia can be led into a deeper analysis of those doctrines, whilst drawing associated devotional lessons. A few simple examples should make the point:






Unity of God

Corporeality of God; His nature; God manifestation

Personal relationship with God as a Father; the wonder of it.


His human nature

The Divine and human sides of Jesus.

Reality of forgiveness; Jesus' sympathy for us.


Bible teaching contrasted with false conceptions.

Job's satan- an Angel?

God the source of our trials- no other power can touch us.


Soul/ spirit;

Differences of soul and spirit "spirits of just men"?

Reality of resurrection; personal recognition in the Kingdom?

Primary Application

The Gospel records give more information about the day on which Christ told the sower parable than concerning almost any other in his ministry, with the exception of the crucifixion (compare Mt.12:22-13:23; Lk.11:27; Mk.4:10). Various types of people heard his words; the immediate context in Mt.13:2 is that "great multitudes were gathered together unto him". The parable of the differing types of ground which were for the most part unresponsive to the seed therefore refer to the various reception given to Christ's sowing when he first "went forth to sow" in his ministry.

Jesus spoke the parable of the sower so that the Jews "by hearing...shall hear, and...not understand" (Mt.13:14), which is quoting from Is. 6:9,10 concerning Israel hearing the preaching of Jesus during his ministry. This would explain the present tenses in Mk.4:14-20: "These are they by the way side...these are they...which are sown...". The picture of fowls coming down to take away the seed is firmly rooted in a host of Old Testament passages which speak of fowls descending on apostate Israel (Is.18:6; Jer.7:33; 15:3; 16:4; 19:7; 34:20). These birds taking away the seed are interpreted as "the wicked one" (the Biblical devil) 'catching away' the word. There must be a thought connection here with Jesus' comment that from him who would not understand the sower parable "shall be taken away even that he hath" (Mt.13:12). Those who would not make the mental effort to grapple with Christ's parable had what understanding they did have snatched away by the Jewish devil. "The wicked one" responsible for this easily connects with "the devil" of the parable of the tares which follows; this parable has frequently been interpreted with reference to Jewish false teachers of the first century. "The wicked one...catcheth away" the seed/word, as the Jewish wolf "catcheth" the sheep (Mt.13:19; Jn.10:12). This association of the first century Jewish system with the wolf/ wild beast/ devil/ wicked one is probably continued by some of the beasts of Revelation having a similar Jewish application in the first century.

In his justification of confusing the Jews through the sower parable, Jesus twice lamented that they did not understand(Mt.13:13,14). He was basically saying that the Jews were the bad ground in the parable; the fowls snatched away the seed because they did not understand (Mt.13:19). By contrast, those on the good ground did understand (Mt.13:23). Those who heard the word "and anon with joy receiveth it" only to later fall away (Mt.13:20,21) approximate to the Jews who initially rejoiced at the word of Christ preached by John and later Jesus himself (Jn.5:35). "The care of this world" (Mt.13:22) must primarily refer to the Jewish world. It is quite possible that our Lord's sad prophecy of the disciples being offended because of having to identify with his sufferings looked back to this parable, concerning those who impulsively respond to the word in joy, but are offended because they have no deep root (Mk.4:17 = Mk.14:27; Mt.26:31). The fact that the disciples became good ground after this encourages us that we can change the type of ground which we are on initially receiving the seed.

The practical outcome of all this is that the attitude of natural Israel to God's word and the preaching of Christ can be our attitude, if we approximate to the bad types of ground. The Jews knew some true principles, reading the word often (Acts 15:21; Jn.5:45); but they failed to let the message penetrate more than skin deep (Lk.16:29; Jn.5:39), so that the word of God meant nothing to them in practice.

It is our attitude to God's word which is the fundamental indicator of our spirituality. The sower parable teaches this by its equation of the seed/ word and the types of ground. In the next (but related) parable of the tares, "the good seed are the children of the Kingdom" (Mt.13:38)- i.e. the seed/ word is people. In the sower parable, we read of "He which received seed by the way side" (Mt.13:19), connecting the believer with a type of ground which receives the seed, whilst Lk.8:12,13 speak of the people as the seeds rather than the types of ground: "Those (seeds) by the way side are they...they on the rock are they...". Mt.13:19 speaks of people receiving seed by the way side, but Mk.4:15 likens their heart to the way side, where the seed was sown. In God's sight, a person is his heart or way of thinking (Prov.23:7); and to God, a person's attitude to the word is his mind. Conscious self-examination of our attitude to God's word should surely be an outcome of studying this sower parable- or, better, the parable of the types of ground.

Seeds By The Way Side

"Some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up...when any one heareth the word of the Kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart" (Mt.13:4,19).

This proves that sin, in its various manifestations as a 'devil', can be resisted through an understanding of the word. When there was no understanding of the word, then the devil came. Likewise 1 Jn.5:18-20 teaches that those who are born again by a true understanding of the word are not even touched by the "wicked one". Mere knowledge of the word will not necessarily stop the spiritual temptations; the word must be hid in the heart to stop sin (Ps.119:11); not just left on the surface of the soil. Those on the good ground both hear and understand it (Mt.13:23), corresponding in the first instance to those who heard the parables and understood them. There is no doubt that a degree of intellectual effort is required to understand the word, not least the parables. The Jews generally did not "hear with their ears"- they did not respond or recognize the basic message of the word, let alone go on to understand it. The fact that those by the way side heard the word but did not go on to understand therefore indicates that this type of ground refers to those who are in some sense knowers of the truth. We will see by and by that there is good reason to apply all the types of ground to those who in some way respond to the Gospel, rather than to the world at large.

A closer look at the Greek suggests more reason for thinking that those by the way side were once believers, rather than just fascinated receivers of a preaching tract. The fowls "devoured...up" the seed by the way side, the Greek meaning literally 'to eat down', showing that the seeds had started some paltry attempt at growth. The wicked one therefore "catcheth away" or 'pulls up' (Gk.) that which "was sown in his heart". However, the fact that "Satan cometh immediately" to do this shows that the time span is not long (Mk.4:15). It is possible that the three bad types of ground refer to the speed at which the new convert falls away; those on the way side fall quickly, those on stony ground last a bit longer, enduring "for a time" (Mk.4:17), whilst those among thorns do actually mature, only to be choked by their surroundings.

The reason for the way side growth being so short lived was that the seed was "trodden down" (Lk.8:5). This is a Biblical idiom for disdain and contempt (Jud.5:21; Is.14:19; 18:7; 28:3; Dan.8:13; Mic.7:10). A half hearted response to the word, not really taking the truth seriously, is effectively to tread it down in contempt. Yet such is the word's power that even a partial response to it results in some growth- although in the final analysis, even this is unacceptable. Mark's record goes on to include the parable of the birds living in the big mustard tree, soon after this of the sower. The tiny grain of mustard seed "is sown in the earth", connecting with the sowing of the word/ seed. If it is in the right ground, it develops into a huge tree "so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it" (Mk.4:31,32). The connection with the wicked "fowls of the air" in the sower parable is evidently intentional. Surely the message is that if we will only let the word/ seed develop in our lives, those things which threaten to take away our faith (i.e. the devil/ fowls) will then be completely subordinate to us. Yet that tiny seed of the word is so easy to despise, its potential power so heard to imagine and believe.

The fowls taking away the unfruitful plant is the first of a number of connections with the true vine parable of Jn.15, where the ideas of Divine husbandry, fruitfulness due to the word and purging recur. In Jn.15:2 the fruitless branch is taken away by God; in the sower parable, the birds remove the fruitless plant. The conclusion is that God sends 'birds' of various kinds to remove the spiritual deadwood from His ecclesia. It is in this sense that false teaching (e.g. the Judaist "fowls" of the first century) is allowed by God. Thus Lk.8:5 literally translated speaks of "birds of Heaven".

Seeds On Stones

"Some seed fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth. And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away...he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended" (Mt.13:5,6,20,21).

Unlike the wayside ground, this person had partial understanding of the word, as well as just hearing it. He "received" the word, which a comparison of Mt.13:23 with Mk.4:20 indicates refers to understanding. The abnormal speed of growth was "because they had no deepness of earth".This quick springing up is interpreted by Jesus as "joy". The emotion of joy is probably one of the most deceptive. The implication is that the plant on the good ground grew up slower, therefore having a less ecstatic joy to begin with. True spiritual joy therefore takes a long time to achieve. The kind of joy Jesus speaks of here must be in some ways different from the instant joy of the man who finds the treasure of the Gospel for the first time (Mt.13:44). There is a place for this ecstatic joy- "unless a man is emotionally moved by the truth, he is not of the truth" (R.R.). But the stony places man failed to realize that this alone would not tide him into the Kingdom. Those who seek to keep the ecclesia on a permanent level of this ecstatic joy would do well to realize that true spiritual joy is only developed by a prolonged growth based upon the word; and this joy cannot be forced upon others. In practice, a sensitive choice of songs and hymns in ecclesial meetings could help to achieve a happy medium.

The ecstatic joy was due to having "no deepness of earth". The Greek for "deepness" is normally used concerning spiritual deepness. Ecstatic joy is more often associated with a lack of this, according to the parable, than with a depth of faith. We can have a certain joy whilst still being stony ground. By the same token, true spiritual depth will be expressed by a slow growth of true joy. We each need to ask ourselves whether our joy is really growing. "Earth" usually refers to the flesh; the seed of the word must penetrate deep within the flesh for there to be true growth and joy. The word only going skin deep will mean that there will be a lack of moisture in drought (Lk.8:6). Rain is a symbol of doctrine, i.e. the word (Dt.32:2; Is.55:10). By letting the word/ seed sink deep within our flesh, we will have more spiritual reserve of the word to draw upon in times of difficulty. There may be the implication that soon after conversion, there will be spiritual temptation- as happened to Israel after their Red Sea baptism, and as has been proved true in so many probations.

Luke's record says that the seeds "fell upon a rock" (Lk.8:6) but failed to put down deep roots. This idea of failing to build deeply upon a rock sends the mind racing to the parable of the wise and foolish builders (Mt.7:24-28). The quick-build shack on the sand connects with the unusually fast growth of the plant on stony ground. The reason for the quick construction was a failure to hear Christ's sayings and do them, through hacking away at our stony heart to let the word penetrate. The same parable puts the stress on hearing and understanding, whilst the parallel parable speaks of hearing and doing. We can conclude that true intellectual understanding of the word must inevitably result in action. Having "no root in themselves" (Mk.4:17) is equated with not making the effort to hack away at our stony heart to let the word of God build a foundation. The root is therefore another symbol of word; it is quite possible to show superficial spiritual development without this root being put down at all. "The root" is a Biblical symbol for the inner self (Rom.11:16,17; Mt.3:10; Job 19:28; Is.14:29). Our very inner being, the root of our consciousness, must be the word. This is unachievable without hours of back-breaking hacking away.

The house built on sand was destroyed by a flood, an oft used type of the second coming and day of judgment. The equivalent in the sower parable is "when the sun was up...they were scattered" (Mt.13:6). The sun is a symbol of both Christ's return and also of "tribulation or persecution! (Mt.13:21). It seems that Jesus is teaching that our response to the word now is in effect our judgment seat; if we do not properly grow by it, in time of trial (the sun rising) we will spiritually die. Therefore when "the sun of righteousness" arises (Mal.4:2) at the day of judgment, we will be "scorched" or 'burnt up' (Gk.). There are other examples of where a man's attitude to God's word in this life indicates his position at judgment day (e.g. Acts 13:46). In the same way as we call upon a reserve of word-developed spirituality in time of trial (the "moisture" of the parable), so we will at judgment day.

"Because they had no root, they withered away" (Mt.13:6) is alluded to in Jn.15:6 concerning the branches of the vine withering as a result of God's word not abiding in them. The connection between the plants of the sower parable and the branches of the vine is further evidence that the sower parable mainly concerns the response to the word of those within the ecclesia.

Choked By Thorns

"Some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up, and choked them...the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful" (Mt.13:7,22).

Thorns were symbolic of false teachers in the Old Testament ecclesia (Ez.2:6; Is.33:12-14). It is a repeated theme that thorns are devoured by fire (Ex.22:6; Ps.118:12; Ecc.7:6; Is.10:17), looking ahead to the destruction of all false elements of the ecclesia. The thorns easily equate with the tares of the next parable, which represent false teachers (primarily the Judaist infiltrators of the first century ecclesia). It would seem from this that some members of the ecclesia are never right with God, but exist purely for the spiritual trial of others; although it cannot be over-emphasized that it is quite wrong to attempt to label individuals as this 'thorn' element. Thus Jesus pointed out that grapes (the true Israel) and thorns can be apparently similar (Mt.7:16), but "Ye shall know them by their fruits". The thorns of the sower parable and those they influenced were "unfruitful". However, seeing that "the thorns sprang up with it" (Lk.8:7), there was some genuine spiritual growth, matched by the appearance of this among the thorns too. Heb.6:8 likewise speaks of the thorns as believers who grew up within the ecclesia. This indicates the dual-mindedness of those who only partially commit themselves to the word; knowledge like this should play an active part in our self-examination. Because the thorns outwardly look like true believers, having an outward appearance of spiritual growth even more zealous and strong than that of the plants which they choke, it is impossible to personally identify the "thorns"; but there can be no doubt that, according to the parable, they must be present among the ecclesia.

The seed "fell among thorns" (Mt.13:7), showing that this thorn category were already within the ecclesia when the person who was to be choked was converted. We have shown that Biblically the thorns are false teachers; yet Jesus interprets them as "the care (Gk. 'divisions'- the double mindedness of serving two masters) of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches" (Mt.13:22). The conclusion to be drawn is that the false teachers are responsible for the new convert being choked by these things. Mk.4:19 says that these lusts enter into the convert's heart. Therefore the thorns must influence the person's thinking, so that he follows after these things until "he becometh unfruitful". The Greek for "choked" is from a root meaning 'association, companionship'. Marshall's Interlinear renders the Greek text of Lk.8:7 in keeping with this idea: "Growing up with the thorns choked it". Thus it is through close association with the thorn element already in the ecclesia, that the new convert who enters it is corrupted. We each have to ask 'What type of ground are we as an ecclesia? Do I have thorn elements to me...?'

"Choked" implies something ongoing, a process. This is further proof that the sower parable is not concerning any one-off incident of preaching, but speaks of the on-going response to the word in the heart of the believer. In practice, we can each have 'thorny' elements within us personally, not least through failing to appreciate the great influence which our example has over new converts. Subconscious pressure to take a high flying job, the careless use of alcohol, the display of wealth in the name of spirituality, all these are expression of thorn activity. There are no shortage of examples of believers in high pressure jobs, saddled with hefty mortgage payments and demanding wives, whose attendance at Bible class slips, whose personal study of the word slips into once a week, then just to knock out a Bible class, then just a dive into a commentary when an address comes up. The word is choked, "and he becometh unfruitful", partly due to the subtle pressure of others in the ecclesia upon him. The same slippery slope could be outlined for sisters, indeed for all of us in the various stages of life. We can never underestimate the influence of each other upon our response to the word.

The word becoming unfruitful in Mt.13:22 is matched by it yielding "no fruit" (Mk.4:7) and no fruit being perfected in Lk.8:14. The conclusion from this is that spiritual fruit which is developed but does not remain is not really fruit at all. There is the constant temptation for us to recognize just a bit of apparent 'growth' within us, and feel satisfied with it- rather than taking on board the concept of the word having a fulness of effect upon every part of our lives. Given the lesson of the thorns, there is no doubt that one must watch their friends even within the ecclesia. "Thorns and snares are in the way of the forward: he that doth keep (the Hebrew for "keep" is often used in Proverbs about keeping the word) his soul shall be far from them" (Prov.22:5). The language of thorns must connect with the curse upon Eden; the ecclesia, the paradise of God, must always have its thorns in order to spiritually exercise Adam, the spiritual gardener. As our brother's keeper, we need to be aware that after conversion, a whole gamut of new temptations face the convert. After he has heard the word, he is choked with the cares, riches and pleasures (Lk.8:14). Yet these things existed before he heard the word; the point is that they became new temptations after his response to the word. A concerted effort to understand, with Biblical guidance, the pressures upon new converts might help save a few more of the many which are being lost.

The Good Ground

The word/ seed which fell into good ground produced fruit. Thus connects with Jn.15:5,7, which says that the branches of the vine bring forth fruit through the word abiding in them. Likewise the good ground keeps the word and continually brings forth fruit (Lk.8:15). It is common for us to learn something from the word, apply it for a few days, and then forget it. Yet surely the implication is that if our hearts are truly open to the word, it will have permanent effects upon us, if the word abides in us. For this reason it is necessary to pray at least daily for our minds to be good ground for the word, and to retain what we already comprehend. Those on the good ground who hear and understand in Mt.13:23 are described as those who hear and keep the word (Lk.8:16). True understanding of the word's teaching is therefore related to an ongoing practical application of it. We may read a human book and understand it at the moment of reading; understanding God's word is quite a different concept. Truly understanding it means keeping it in our heart and therefore in our lives.

The seed fell on good ground, "sprang up, and bare fruit"; indeed, it kept on bearing fruit (Lk.8:8,15). The plant being sown was therefore a repeating crop. True response to the word will lead to wave after wave of spiritual progression. Again, we see that the sower parable is describing an ongoing response to the word- it keeps on being sown by the believer keeping the word, and fruit is continuously brought forth. Mk.4:8 adds the significant detail that it was the fruit that the plant yielded which "sprung up and increased". The picture is of a plant bringing forth seeds which themselves germinate into separate plants and bear fruit. This can be interpreted in two ways:

1) True spiritual development in our lives is a cumulative upward spiral; successfully developing spiritual fruit leads to developing yet more.

2) The new plants which come out of our fruit refer to our converts, both from the world and those within the ecclesia whom we help to yield spiritual fruit. There is another link here with the parable of the vine bearing fruit: "I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain" (Jn.15:8,16). This connects with Christ's command to them to go into the world preaching the Gospel and thereby making converts. In this sense our spiritual fruiting is partly through our bringing others to glorify God through the development of a God-like character. It is in this context of using the word for preaching and personal spiritual development that we receive the glorious encouragement "that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he (will) give it you" (Jn.15:7,16).

Every believer who truly strives to bring forth fruit to God's glory, both in preaching to others and in personal character development, will find this promise constantly true.