The pull of consumption

There’s nothing quite as bleak as a city street the morning after Mardi Gras. The steam of the morning humidity rises silently over asphalt, riddled with forgotten doubloons, broken bottles, littered cigarettes, used condoms, clotted blood, and mangled vomit. This sight was, where I grew up in my coastal Mississippi town, a parable for the more committed evangelicals about what was wrong with a culturally accommodated Christianity. I wasn’t so sure.

My quirky little strip of home, Biloxi, was an outpost of a Catholic majority situated right at the bottom of the Bible belt of the old Confederacy. We were more New Orleans than Tupelo, and I lived in both worlds. Half my family was Southern Baptist and the other half Roman Catholic. I could see the best sides of either and the dark sides of both. I saw Catholic casino night fund-raisers and Baptist business meetings, and neither seemed to look much like the book of Acts. When it came to the ecclesial divide between Catholics and evangelicals, I was sure there must be some big differences that resulted in something as historic as the Protestant Reformation, but day to day those differences seemed to my friends and me to amount to little more than who had a black spot on their foreheads once a year and whose parents drank beer right out in the open. For the grown-ups, though, at least for the grown-ups outside my mixed-together family, these differences seemed to matter a lot. Much of that was summed up in Mardi Gras.

I loved (and love) Mardi Gras. I suppose that’s because all I saw were the traditions and rituals—king cakes and parades and candy—rather than the full Bourbon Street experience. Drunkenness and immorality are indefensible, of course, but at its most innocent level, Mardi Gras replays something of God’s provision for the prophet Elijah who, like Jesus, went out into the wilderness to fast for forty days. Before he went, the angels gave him “a cake baked on hot stones.” After his feast, the prophet “went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:6–8).

But some of the older Baptists at my church downright hated the whole idea of Fat Tuesday. They knew that Mardi Gras was the day before the beginning of Lent, the forty days of fasting rooted, in part, in Jesus’ time without food in the wilderness temptations, and they saw this party as blasphemy. “Those Catholics—they just go out and get as drunk as they want to, eat till they vomit,” I remember one neo-Puritan naysayer lamenting. “They’re just getting it all out of their system before they have to get all somber and holy for Lent.” It never made an anti-Catholic out of me because I never saw any of my devout Catholic relatives or friends behaving that way. But it made sense to me that gorging and getting drunk the day before Ash Wednesday probably wasn’t what the Lord meant when he said to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

As the years have gone by, though, I’m realizing that we Baptists had a Mardi Gras, too. Mardi Gras Protestantism didn’t celebrate the day just on a yearly calendar, though, but, much more importantly, on the calendar of a lifespan. The typical cycle went something like this. You were born, then reared up in Sunday school until you were old enough to raise your hand when the teacher asked who believes in Jesus and wants to go to heaven. At that point you were baptized, usually long before the first pimple of puberty, and shortly thereafter you had your first spaghetti dinner fund-raiser to go to summer youth camp. And then sometime between fifteen and twenty you’d go completely wild.

Our view of the “College and Career” Sunday school class was somewhat like our view of purgatory. It might be there, technically, but there was no one in it. After a few years of carnality, you’d settle down, start having kids, and you’d be back in church, just in time to get those kids into Sunday school and start the cycle all over again. If you didn’t get divorced or indicted, you’d be chairman of deacons or head of the women’s missionary auxiliary by the time your own kids were going completely wild. It was just kind of expected. You were going to get things out of your system before you settled down. You know, I never could find that in the book of Acts either.

I never really went through the wild stage. But years later, having lived a fairly upstanding life externally, I found myself envying a Christian leader giving his “testimony.” This man described his life of mind-blowing drugs, manic sex, and nonstop partying in such detail that, before I knew it, I was wistfully thinking, Wouldn’t that be the best of both worlds? All that, and heaven, too. I’d embraced the dark side of Mardi Gras in my own mind. As much as I thought I was superior to both the drunken partiers on the streets and the dour cranks condemning it, I had internalized the hidden hedonism of it all. I was under the lordship of Christ but, if only for that moment, wishing for the lordship of my own fallen appetite.

The first temptation of Christ is all about this. When Jesus walked out from his baptism into the desert, the Bible tells us he was tracked down by the Devil, the old serpent of Eden. And, just as in Eden, Satan offered Jesus food. “If you are the Son of God,” the Devil said, “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). What Satan prompted Jesus to do was to provide for himself, to feed himself, or, rather, to use the power of the Spirit to feed himself. It was the pull to consumption, to self-provision.

Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).


This article excerpted from Tempted and Tried.

A Bible Study based on Tempted and Tried is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

Why is it so difficult to love others?

In certain stores you will find a section of merchandise available at greatly reduced prices. The tip-off is a particular tag you will see on all the items in that area. Each tag carries the same words: as is.

This is a euphemistic way of saying, “These are damaged goods.” Sometimes they’re called slightly irregular. The store is issuing you fair warning: “This is the department of Something’s-Gone-Wrong. You’re going to find a flaw here: a stain that won’t come out; a zipper that won’t zip; a button that won’t butt—there will be a problem. These items are not normal.

“We’re not going to tell you where the flaw is. You’ll have to look for it.

“But we know it’s there. So when you find it—and you will find it—don’t come whining and sniveling to us. Because there is a fundamental rule when dealing with merchandise in this corner of the store: No returns. No refunds. No exchanges. If you were looking for perfection, you walked down the wrong aisle. You have received fair warning. If you want this item, there is only one way to obtain it. You must take it as is.”

When you deal with human beings, you have come to the “as-is” corner of the universe. Think for a moment about someone in your life. Maybe the person you know best, love most. That person is slightly irregular.

That person comes with a little tag: There’s a flaw here. A streak of deception, a cruel tongue, a passive spirit, an out-of-control temper. I’m not going to tell you where it is, but it’s there. So when you find it—and you will find it—don’t be surprised. If you want to enter a relationship with this model, there is only one way. “As is.”

If you were looking for perfection, you’ve walked down the wrong aisle.

We are tempted to live under the illusion that somewhere out there are people who are normal. In the movie As Good As It Gets, Helen Hunt is wracked by ambivalence toward Jack Nicholson. He is kind and generous to her and her sick son, but he is also agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive, and terminally offensive: If rudeness were measured in square miles, he’d be Texas. In desperation, Helen finally cries to her mother: I just want a normal boyfriend.

Oh, her mother responds in empathy, everybody wants one of those. There’s no such thing, dear.

When we enter relationships with the illusion that people are normal, we resist the truth that they are not. We enter an endless attempt to fix them, control them, or pretend that they are what they’re not. One of the great marks of maturity is to accept the fact that everybody comes “as is.” — John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).


This article excerpted from The Discipleship Course.

The Discipleship Course is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

Slaughterhouse Drive

There was something rhythmic, almost soothing about the soft clatter of it all. The soothing repetition sounded kind of like a summer thunderstorm coming up from the coast or a rickety old midnight train off in the distance. I had no idea that what I was listening to was the rhythm of cattle marching to a slaughterhouse. It turns out what I’d happened upon, kind of randomly driving in my car, was a public radio program about factory farming. The broadcast was about how to kill cows, but with kindness.

Actually, it wasn’t really about the cows. They were just sort of the backdrop. The segment instead profiled a highly functioning autistic scientist who had learned through years of research how to register which stimuli produce which animal sounds and how to track what scares or stresses livestock. It turns out that the beef industry was willing to pay for this information, and not entirely due to their humanitarian goals. High stress levels in animals can release hormones that could downgrade the quality of the meat.

Some of the largest corporations in the world hired this scientist to visit their meat plants with a checklist. She said her secret was the insight that novelty distresses cows. A slaughterhouse, then, in order to keep the cattle relaxed, should remove anything from the sight of the animals that isn’t completely familiar. The real problem is novelty. “If dairy cattle are used to seeing bright yellow raincoats slung over gates every day when they enter the milking parlor, there’d be no problem,” she counsels. “It’s the animal who’s seeing a bright yellow raincoat slung over a gate for the first time at a slaughter plant or feedlot who’s going to balk.”

Workers shouldn’t yell at the cows, she said, and they should never ever use cattle prods, because they are counterproductive and unneeded. If you just keep the cows contented and comfortable, they’ll go wherever they’re led. Don’t surprise them, don’t unnerve them, and above all, don’t hurt them (well, at least until you slit their throats at the end).

Along the way, this scientist devised a new technology that has revolutionized the ways of the big slaughter operations. In this system the cows aren’t prodded off the truck but are led, in silence, onto a ramp. They go through a “squeeze chute,” a gentle pressure device that mimics a mother’s nuzzling touch. The cattle continue down the ramp onto a smoothly curving path. There are no sudden turns. The cows experience the sensation of going home, the same kind of way they’ve traveled so many times before.

As they mosey along the path, they don’t even notice when their hooves are no longer touching the ground. A conveyor belt slowly lifts them gently upward, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, a blunt instrument levels a surgical strike right between their eyes. They’re transitioned from livestock to meat, and they’re never aware enough to be alarmed by any of it. The pioneer of this technology commends it to the slaughterhouses and affectionately gives it a nickname. She calls it “the stairway to heaven.”

Jesus knew, long before the meat industry, that livestock are better led by voice than by prod (John 10:3). And Jesus knew that the leading voice must be familiar, not novel; gentle, not yelling. Alarmed livestock run (John 10:5). Jesus also knew these principles don’t apply just to farmed animals but to human beings as well. This is why, picking up on the prophets before him, he used the imagery of humanity in general and Israel in particular as sheep, a flock needing feeding and protection and direction. Jesus likewise warned there would be those who would “shepherd” in a way that leads to death.

Here’s what this has to do with your temptation. Sometimes the Bible uses the language of predator and prey to describe the relationship between tempter and tempted, but often the Scripture also speaks of temptation in the language of rancher and livestock. You are not just being tracked down—you are also being cultivated (e.g., Ezekiel 34; Zechariah 11; John 10). Those headed toward judgment are spoken of as lambs led to the slaughter (e.g., Ps. 44:22; Jer. 5:26; 50:17).

Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).


This article excerpted from Tempted and Tried.

A Bible Study based on Tempted and Tried is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

Five Ways to Grasp God’s Word

The “Word Hand” shows us the five methods of “getting a grip” on the Bible:

  • Hearing the Word taught by pastors and Bible teachers.
  • Reading the Bible to gain an overall picture of God’s Word.
  • Studying the Scriptures to make personal discoveries of God’s truths.
  • Memorizing God’s Word to help guard against sin and make the Word readily available for witnessing or helping others.
  • Meditating on God’s Word—thinking of its meaning and application to our lives.

You can use the hand illustration to explain to a new Christian how to absorb God’s Word into his life.

1. After explaining what each of the fingers symbolizes, try to hold a Bible using only your little finger (“Hearing”). Point out that it’s difficult to get a good grip on the Bible only by hearing others teach from it.

2. Add the “Read” finger and show how it helps to stabilize your grasp of the Bible. Ask the other person to take the Bible away from you—he should be able to do it easily.

3. Add the remaining fingers one at a time, commenting about how each additional finger (“Study” and “Memorize”) provides a firmer grasp on God’s Word. With each step, have the person snatch the Bible from your hand.

4. Finally, grip the Bible with all four fingers and the thumb. Show how adding “Meditation” significantly strengthens your grip on the Bible—and makes it very difficult for anyone to take the Scriptures away from you. — Discipleship Journal, Issue 51 (May/June 1989) (NavPress, 1989).


This article excerpted from The Discipleship Course.

The Discipleship Course is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

Tempted and Tried

At the core of the gospel message is Jesus, who was tempted and tried in every way we are but who was never anything but triumphant. He is a high priest who shares our nature, who can pray for us and with us. He is, as God announced right before his testing, the “beloved Son” of God. But he is not by himself. He is “the firstborn,” to be sure, but he is “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). Because we have a sympathetic High Priest, tempted in every way as we are, we are able then “with confidence [to] draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). And what are we to pray? “Your kingdom come, your will be done. . . . Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:9–13 niv).

Quite simply, following Jesus isn’t just a metaphor. His first disciples literally “followed” after him all across the map of first-century Palestine. Jesus told them, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36). He says the same to all of us who have recognized him in the two thousand years since. We will “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). This “suffering” the Bible speaks of isn’t only political persecution or social marginalization or difficult circumstances, as we often tend to think. It is also the suffering of temptation, as God walks us through the place of the powers.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor recounts going to a seminar where a presenter talked about taking student groups out into the wilderness to experience in hiking and rafting “the untamed holiness of the wild.” Brown writes that a participant raised his hand and asked whether “there are predators in those places who are above you on the food chain.” The wilderness guide said that there weren’t, of course, because he wouldn’t take his students to a place where they would be so jeopardized. “I wouldn’t either,” the audience member replied, “but don’t lull them into thinking that they have experienced true wilderness. It’s only wilderness if there’s something out there that can eat you.” There’s some wisdom there. For Jesus, there was something dark and ancient and predatory out there in the desert.

Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).


This article excerpted from Tempted and Tried.

Tempted and Tried is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

It is not about making smarter sinners

Many churches evaluate spiritual maturity solely on the basis of how well you can identify Bible characters, interpret Bible passages, quote Bible verses, and explain biblical theology. The ability to debate doctrine is considered by some as the ultimate proof of spirituality. However, while knowledge of the Bible is foundational to spiritual maturity, it isn’t the total measurement of it.

The truth is this: Spiritual maturity is demonstrated more by behavior than by beliefs. The Christian life isn’t just a matter of creeds and convictions; it includes conduct and character. Beliefs must be backed up with behavior. Our deeds must be consistent with our creeds.

The New Testament repeatedly teaches that our actions and attitudes reveal our maturity more than our affirmations. James 2:18 puts it bluntly: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (italics added). James also said, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior” (James 3:13 NASB). If your faith hasn’t changed your lifestyle, your faith isn’t worth much.

Paul believed in connecting belief and behavior. In every one of his letters, he drives home the importance of practicing what we believe. Ephesians 5:8 (LB) says, “Though once your heart was full of darkness, now it is full of light from the Lord, and your behavior should show it!” (italics added).

Jesus said it most succinctly of all: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16). It is fruit, not knowledge, that demonstrates a person’s maturity. If we don’t put into practice what we know, we foolishly “build a house on sand” (see Matt. 7:24–27). — Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).


This article excerpted from The Discipleship Course.

The Discipleship Course is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

Are most church goers disciples?

First, let’s consider the data.

A 2012 Gallup poll illustrates about three out of four Americans (77 percent) still identify as Christian. And about 137 million Americans, or 44 percent of the population, say they are part of a specific Christian congregation, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. Most weekends, tens of millions of worshippers still attend churches. Even the lowest estimates show that about one in five Americans—or about 60 million people—show up in worship every week.

But I think we’d all agree that fewer follow Jesus. Fewer let their faith shape their lives or have deep spiritual resources to draw on when life gets hard.

Why is that?

I suspect many churches have forgotten their main calling: to make disciples. Instead, we believe drawing a crowd of people on Sundays is enough. We invite people to come to church or to be good people—but not to follow Jesus.
Sociologists like Christian Smith say many Americans follow something called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief in God that’s mainly focused on being a good person and having a positive self-image.

That kind of religion feels good. But it doesn’t have staying power. And it doesn’t motivate people to act on their faith in areas where it costs them.

Take giving, for example. Empty Tomb, a Christian nonprofit that studies church giving, looked at donations from members of 23 of the largest Protestant groups in the U.S. and found the average church member donated 2.3 percent of their income in 2011. That’s down from 3.1 percent in 1968.

“Is the issue that the church is not providing an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset?” asks Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb, in an interview with Religion News Service. “Over a period of time, if the church isn’t providing more of an authentic alternative, the church will lose.”
Churches can also suffer from what’s known as the 80/20 rule—the idea that 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the people. In their book The Other 80 Percent, authors Scott Thumma and Warren Bird say many church members see themselves as spectators today. They hold certain beliefs and often show up at church, but they don’t make a connection between faith and everyday life.

“Faith in Christ is not widely perceived as an active lifestyle that one attempts to live out every day in all one’s actions,” they write. “Rather faith has become something that one can assent to but does not live, believe but does not follow, and belong to but does not support or participate in.”

In essence, Thumma and Bird suggest the word Christian has come to mean “someone who believes things about Jesus” rather than “a disciple who believes in and follows Jesus.” http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/43298-christian-it-s-more-than-just-a-label


This article excerpted from The Discipleship Course.

The Discipleship Course is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

Is Spiritual Growth automatic?

Spiritual growth is not automatic with the passing of time, either. The writer of Hebrews sadly noted, “. . . though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again” (Heb. 5:12). Millions of Christians have grown older without ever growing up.

The truth is this: Spiritual growth is intentional. It requires commitment and effort to grow. A person must want to grow, decide to grow, and make an effort to grow. Discipleship begins with a decision—it doesn’t have to be a complex decision, but it does have to be sincere. The disciples certainly didn’t understand all of the implications of their decision when they decided to follow Christ; they simply expressed a desire to follow him. Jesus took that simple but sincere decision and built on it.

Philippians 2:12–13 says, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Notice that it says “work out,” not “work on,” your salvation. There is nothing you can add to what Christ did for your salvation. Paul is talking in these verses about spiritual growth to people who are already saved. The important thing is that God has a part in our growth, but so do we.

Becoming like Christ is the result of the commitments we make. We become whatever we are committed to! Just as a commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission will grow a great church, it is also the way to grow a great Christian. Without a commitment to grow, any growth that occurs will be circumstantial, rather than intentional. Spiritual growth is too important to be left to circumstance.

Spiritual growth that leads to maturity begins with the kind of commitment described in Romans 6:13 (LB): “Give yourselves completely to God—every part of you—for you are back from death and you want to be tools in the hands of God, to be used for his good purposes.” Later, I’ll explain how to lead people to make this kind of commitment. — Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).


This article excerpted from The Discipleship Course.

The Discipleship Course is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

C.S. Lewis’s conversion story

C. S. Lewis writes about this kind of experience in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis had been wrestling with the claims of Christ, and as God pursued him, gradually he came to believe in Christianity more and more. Still, he had not yet fully accepted the deity of Jesus Christ. Then one day it happened. Lewis writes: “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion.… It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.” — Philip Graham Ryken, Luke, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, vol. 1, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 445.


This article excerpted from The Discipleship Course.

The Discipleship Course is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

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