That Which Is Behind

God is infinitely self-sufficient; He doesn’t need our worship or our service. He is perfectly complete and content in Himself.

Even so, there is something God lacks, which He may only obtain through us: affliction. (Col 1:24) God would not afflict Himself, or cause Himself grief or suffering: this only comes to Him through sin.

This suffering in God is not at all for God; it is for us; it is the vehicle through which God chooses to reveal His infinite nature and character to the universe (Ro 9:22-23), and the elect are the primary beneficiaries of this.

And it may very well be that the primary way God suffers is by allowing His children to suffer innocently at the hands of the wicked. When believers are persecuted, Jesus Christ takes it personally, as if He Himself were being persecuted. (Ac 9:4) This is a gift He gives Himself through us and for us, and also a deep privilege he bestows upon us. (Php 1:29)

Perhaps it is only in this mindset that we fully rejoice in difficulty (Ja 1:2) and tribulation (Ro 5:3): suffering not only works patience and holiness in us (He 12:10-11), but will eventually serve to glorify God immensely. (1Pe 1:6-7) If God is allowing others to afflict Himself through us, for a glorious eternal purpose, we can glory in this as well for His sake. (Php 3:10)

There’s something about God’s suffering that will vindicate and glorify Him one day. The nature of His enemies will be open to the universe, impossible to hide, since He’s given them liberty to pursue their own free will. Most all of what they have done will have been perpetrated against His own, whom the world hates because it hates Him. (Jn 15:19) In that day, in the context of the suffering of God, there will be no just complaints, no excuse for the wicked. (Ro 1:20)

Let’s be ready and willing to suffer for God as He wills (Ga 6:14), to let Him suffer in and through us. (Ga 2:20) This light affliction, for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. (2Co 4:17)

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A Fearful Thing

Any basic misconception about the nature of God can be detrimental; to the degree that our expectations of God are misaligned with reality, we’re deceived, captive to the devil (2Ti 2:25-26), and prone to bitterness and resentment. (He 12:15)

As a simple test of our alignment, consider the following parable.

As the aircraft is pummeled by turbulence, thrashing violently up and down, back and forth, the poor man is more than distraught, taking drinks one after another, trying to calm himself.

From his first class seat, he notices a little girl back in coach playing with her doll, as calm as can be.

“Stewardess! Another drink, please!” He keeps trying to sedate himself … but it isn’t working. He’s terrified. Yet every time he looks back, the little girl is still playing happily with her doll. Her peacefulness is both an invitation and a rebuke, but he can’t translate, he’s just too upset.

Finally he can’t take it any more. Glaring back at her as the plane plummets again, he sputters: “Little Girl! Why aren’t you worried?” 

The little girl pauses, looks up sweetly and says: “Mister, see that cockpit up there? My daddy’s the pilot, and he knows I’m back here. He’s not going to let anything happen to me; he will get us home.” Then she goes back to playing with her doll.

How heartwarming! What a picture of divine love, of how we should rest in our Father’s care! (1Pe 5:7)

But isn’t something amiss? Isn’t this half-truth?

To be complete, she needs to add something like,

“But … even if he doesn’t get us home, Daddy doesn’t make mistakes. If this is my last day, or if I get hurt, that’s OK. I trust him, no matter what.” 

Moral of the story? Believing God will always keep us safe and protect us, that He’ll never let anything terrible happen to us, is unrealistic, deception, a false hope: it’s not what God promises.

When suffering does come and we don’t have the whole picture, we become bitter, cynical and resentful, turning from God as if He’s unfaithful or evil.

But the problem isn’t with God, it’s with our wrong perception of God: the problem is idolatry — the false, nice, safe little gods we’ve made up for ourselves, and that we’re still clinging to. (1Jn 5:21)

Not only does God not promise to keep us safe, what He does promise is quite the opposite, and so much better. He promises to scourge us (He 12:6) and chasten us; it’s for our good and we all need it. He afflicts us faithfully (Ps 119:75) to conform us to the image of His Son. (Ps 119:67) Though it seems awful to us at the time (He 12:11), it’s part of His plan to glorify Himself in us. (Ep 1:12)

What God promises is that He’ll never leave us nor forsake us (He 13:5); He will be suffering with us and in us through anything He allows in our lives. It’s a precious gift if we’re living for Him. (Php 1:29)

God promises that all things work together for good to those who love Him (Ro 8:28); He’s able give us grace to walk worthy of Him in every circumstance of life. (2Co 9:8)

God is faithful to establish us, to keep us from being overcome and destroyed by evil and suffering (2Th 3:3), and to present us faultless before Himself with exceeding joy. (Jud 1:24) We are His workmanship (Ep 2:10), and He will complete the work He has begun in us. (Php 1:6)

Rather than pleasure and convenience, God offers us something vastly superior: Himself. But we can’t receive and enjoy Him without holiness (He 12:14), so He will do the needful, whatever it takes, to produce His likeness in us.

God is good, but He isn’t nice: God is not safe. (He 12:29) It’s a fearful thing to fall into His hands (He 10:31), yet there’s no better place to be.

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Everlasting Punishment

Fear of suffering eternally in Hell should move us (Jud 1:22-23) to seek the Lord earnestly, striving to enter the Way (Lk 13:23-24), until we know we have eternal life. (1Jn 5:13) The infinite cost of failure here makes any other outcome entirely unacceptable to the rational soul.

But is Hell, the second death, actually eternal? What if, as some teach, Hell has an explicit finality to it, where souls don’t suffer forever but are rather extinguished, annihilated, such that they cease to exist? Wouldn’t that be more consistent with a loving God?

Annihilationism is the claim that as the wicked are destroyed (Mt 10:28) they cease to exist, that spiritual death is final and complete, an eradication of body, soul and spirit, producing a state of non-existence. The motive is to frame God as more reasonable and compassionate when eternal torment is not perceived to be justifiable. (Ro 11:33) After all, how could a loving God torture souls eternally? 

To begin, observe that we can destroy something without annihilating it, say, by smashing a computer or a car and rendering it inoperative, incapable of fulfilling its intended purpose, forcing its components into an altered, unusable state.

Similarly, in death (separation of spirit and soul from body) spirit, soul and body continue to exist; none are annihilated. (Lk 16:22) So, verses including death and destroy do not, in themselves, imply Annihilationism.

Further, Annihilationism assumes sin has a finite degree (making infinite punishment unjust) and no benefit in eternal torment (making it unnecessary). But if Man’s unchecked sin is indeed infinite, in both intensity and duration, and if eternal suffering would bring glory to God, prompting worship in the righteous by uniquely revealing the nature of both God and Man, then Annihilationism is problematic. To verify this, let’s search the Scripture.

The Word states, as clearly as anything can be stated, that most souls will suffer consciously for eternity. (Re 14:11) This is not surprising, since we all, when left to ourselves, love darkness rather than light, because our deeds are evil. (Jn 3:19) This is deeply offensive and dishonoring to God. What should He do about it?

Conventional teaching has been that God angrily casts the wicked into a furnace of fire (Mt 13:42), consigning them there forever because they did not believe on Him in earthly life. (Jn 3:36) This punishment seems so harsh that many struggle to understand how this could possibly be consistent with God’s love and mercy, even if we see it in Scripture. Can anyone truly deserve such an end?

How can God impose this kind of fiery punishment for eternity and yet be loving and just? It is impossible to rightly understand these kinds of things without the proper context; as with many other theological problems, the resolution lies in a full comprehension of the nature of Man.

Everlasting, infinite punishment would only be unjust if the wicked were not infinitely so, if their rebellion were finite in either intensity or duration. Yet, Annihiliationism would explicitly hide this reality from us, such that we could never experience the timeless nature of either God or Man. But isn’t this God’s explicit purpose in Creation, to reveal and glorify Himself? (Ro 9:22-23) If so, how then might eternal punishment reveal and glorify God?

When God has suffered the indignity of our sin long enough, suppose all He does is simply unveil Himself (Is 25:7), showing us all Who He is and what He is like, unfiltered, exactly as He is. (Re 20:11) This will distill every place in the universe down to only one: the immediate presence of Almighty God. Infinite depravity will then begin to fully and intimately engage with infinite holiness, justice and love.

This simple unveiling of God changes everything. Whatever is in God and of God is fulfilled and completed (Col 2:10), home at last, while all outside God is incapacitated (Mt 15:13), shaken to the core (He 12:27), unable to function as designed: destroyed.

As this climactic event unfolds, a permanent standoff develops: the wicked remain opposed to God and at enmity with Him (Ro 8:7), while God remains infinitely holy, just and loving. These two natures are entirely irreconcilable; they cannot abide in harmony together, not even a little bit. Each side is absolutely intolerable to the other (Pr 11:20), and they clash with unfathomable violence and intensity. God’s indignant fury fills the wicked with terror (Na 1:6), yet there is no place to hide. The damned begin to suffer the real, ultimate consequence of their rebellion, destroyed by the very glory of the God they despise (2Th 1:9), the inevitable result of their own willful choices and nature.

Since God does not change (Ja 1:17), the only way this stalemate will ever end is if the wicked find it within themselves to repent and turn to God (Je 13:23), otherwise their punishment will indeed be everlasting (Mt 25:46), infinite in both degree and duration, according to their own nature. (Is 33:14)

So, as the wicked stubbornly continue in their unbridled rebellion, drowning in inextinguishable holy fire (Mk 9:43-44), they put their hatred for God on universal display (Ps 21:9), permanently showcasing themselves before God’s throne for the righteous to observe and contemplate. (Is 66:23-24) They are held by the cords of their own sin (Pr 5:22), in perpetual shame and everlasting contempt. (Da 12:2)

In this state, what should God do? Must He annihilate His enemies in order to be loving and just?

What if the holy arms of a loving God remain forever open (Ro 10:21), even to those in Hell (Re 22:17), offering mercy and pardon to any who will repent and turn to Him? (Is 55:7) And what if we begin to observe, in age after incredible age, that the damned will never return to God (Ps 81:15), not a single one (Ps 14:2-3), no matter what immense suffering their own relentless, stubborn blasphemy (Re 16:9) continually draws down upon their own heads? (Pr 27:22) If God ever does do such a thing, and the wicked play their hand as predicted, who could ever rightly complain against Him? (Re_15:4)

And if God did annihilate His enemies, how would we ever know how infinitely evil human nature truly is (Je 17:9), when God gives us up to fully pursue our own way?

Perhaps it is only then, as we actually experience eternity itself, that we will be enabled to fathom more and more the infinitude of our God (Ps 145:3), to glory in His infinite mercy (Ps 103:11), to experience the true nature of unregenerate Man (Ro 8:7), and agree that it’s inexcusable. (Ro 1:20) Perhaps this will enable us to begin to perceive the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through His Son (Ep 2:7), as we explore the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Ep 3:8)

The eternal, infinite, willful, voluntarily self-imposed suffering of the damned will be a continual, tangible reminder of what we all are like without God, and what we all deserve. There will be no self-glory in His presence. (1Co 1:29) We will never forget what our Father has done for us. (1Jn 3:1)

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I Am Thy Servant

Those who wrote scripture claimed to be slaves of Christ, to be His loyal servants. (Ro 1:1) Sounds admirable, even holy, so should we be saying the same? Or is it a bit presumptuous for normal people like ourselves to do so? (Ps 119:125) How can we tell?

Well, a loyal servant is always seeking to please their master, never deliberately or carelessly disobeying, consistently doing their best to serve, looking for ways to make their master as happy as possible. Is that your attitude towards Christ?

If not, if there are areas in your life that are off-limits for God, where you are able to obey Him but are knowingly and deliberately refusing to do so as a manner of life, then, no, you are not a servant of God. This defines one as a child of disobedience. (Ep 2:2-3)

Or, are you simply living life for yourself, with little regard for whether you’re pleasing God or not? That’s not much different; those who live like this are Christ’s enemies. (Php 3:18-19).

Those who neglect to obey Christ don’t love Him (Jn 14:21), and those who don’t love Jesus Christ don’t belong to Him (1Co 16:22)

So, yes, every child of God should heartily claim to be a servant of Jesus Christ (Col 3:24), and this won’t just be empty words, it will express the reality of our daily lives. As we choose Christ as Master we are choosing to be His slaves, to gladly do for Him whatever He bids us do. (Lk 6:46) We’re members of Christ (1Co 12:27), part of His very Body; He’s living in and through us — we’re His hands and eyes and feet on Earth: called, chosen and faithful. (Re 17:14)

But it’s also true that our very best may not actually be very good at all. If we’ve not been careful to follow after holiness, purging our hearts and minds of lies and deception, much of what we offer to Christ may, in fact, be wood hay and stubble, consumed in the fire of God’s discerning judgement. (1Co 3:12-13) Pride, ignorance and arrogance can pollute everything we do, such that we’re largely ineffective for Christ.

Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling (Ps 2:11), continually asking God to show us His Way (Ps 25:4), revealing Himself until we might see Him as He is (1Jn 3:2), and we’re transformed into His image. (2Co 3:18)

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Build Bulwarks

God can do anything He wants whenever He wants, and no one can do anything better than He can, so when He tells us to do something, it isn’t because He needs our help; He’s giving us an opportunity to become, to grow, to be transformed.

So, I find it very interesting that God tells Israel to conquer cities outside the Promised Land (De 20:15), to besiege any city that doesn’t surrender without a fight (De 20:12), and to design and build engines of war, bulwarks of timber, to subdue it. (De 20:20) In each of these battles, God fights for Israel (De 20:4), yet there’s evidently always danger involved, where He might allow some of His own people to die. (De 20:5)

God could easily move everyone seek Him and obey Him, such that there’s no need for conquering cities; He could just as easily drop the city walls, like He did at Jericho, so there’s no need for long seiges; and God could easily arrange each battle such that no one from Israel ever gets killed. (Nu 31:49) So it makes me wonder, what’s He up to here?

I see it here as I do everywhere: God delights in fully engaging us as He does His will, working in and through our will both to will and to do according to His pleasure.  (Php 2:13) God does not fight our battles for us while we sit passively by and watch; He fights within us and through us, transforming us into His likeness through the challenge of adversity as we pursue His commands. So, how does building bulwarks to overcome God’s enemies serve to form the image of God in us?

For one, building devices to safely breach the massive walls of ancient cities took ingenuity, collaboration and tenacity. Every situation was different, and the army was always entirely volunteer (De 20:8); the constant stream of real-life challenges fueled the forges of brotherhood, forming bonds among men as only can be formed in the stress of battle. We learn and grow as much or more from struggling and failing as we do in our success, as long as we are all in, and not halfhearted in our quest. Putting our lives on the line, and the lives of our neighbors, in pursuing the commands of God together inevitably moves us to holiness and godly fear, a gift like none other.

In the final analysis, the goal of a spiritual battle isn’t simply to win it; God could win the war all by Himself without any battles; the ultimate outcome is already known. Yet it is in the crucible of battle that God forms our hearts after His own (He 5:8), and equips us to be workers together with Himself. (2Co 6:1)

While we may not live in the old promised land, and we may not participate in physical battles in spreading the kingdom of God upon the earth today, there is still a very real parallel in the spiritual realm, in the fierce battles for minds and souls, of which the physical ones were merely a type. In these, the need for unity, determination, discipline, holiness, wisdom and strength, the gift of brotherhood in seeking victory in God together, are no less real.

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The Creature Waits

Creation, all created things, evidently have a common consciousness: God says the whole creation groans together (Ro 8:22); created things are aware of being part of a sin-stained cosmos, and are waiting, earnestly expecting the resurrection and manifestation of God’s children. (Ro 8:19)

Since the individual animals with this expectation are constantly dying, just like we are, the implication here is that all created things are excitedly aware that they will all experience the resurrection of the dead together in all its glory along with us, sharing a common eternal destiny. (Ro 8:21)

Interestingly, Albert Barnes says of this text: Perhaps there is not a passage in the New Testament that has been deemed more difficult of interpretation than this; and after all the labors bestowed on it by critics, still there is no explanation proposed which is perfectly satisfactory, or in which commentators concur. It appears that reluctance to accept its plain, apparent meaning might lie in contradicting science, which we ought not allow. (1Ti 6:20-21)

Yet recent scientific discoveries in the paranormal are indicating this very thing, that all life forms, plants and animals, are connected in a common consciousness across time, and even that inanimate objects participate in this. Perhaps they are indeed struggling together with us under the stain of sin, in a universe infected by Man’s rebellion (Job 25:5), waiting for the adoption of the saints. (Ro 8:23)

What if God has temporarily silenced the creature (Ro 8:20), to allow men to rebel against Him with less obvious incrimination for a time? (Ro 11:32-33) If all Creation were free to proclaim God’s praise now (Lk 19:40), where would hatred and rebellion hide until wickedness is to be exposed? (2Th 2:7-8) And what if, in that final glorious day, all of creation will join with us in praising our living, transcendent, almighty Creator … together!

This insight puts Creation in an entirely different perspective, and encourages us to both treat it with respect, and also to enjoy the miracle of God’s expression of Himself through it all so much the more.

The heavens declare the glory of God, may be much more than metaphor. (Ps 19:1) It is truly for His pleasure that they are, and were created. (Re 4:11)

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Intercession for Us

When a truly righteous person offers to pray for me, I feel honored, hopeful God will hear them. Appealing to the Supreme Power of the Universe on my behalf … what an unspeakable privilege!

What then do I make of the fact that God Himself prays for me? The Spirit of God Himself appeals to the Holy Father on my behalf, making intercession for me! (Ro 8:26) How can the Holy Ghost pray amiss, or not be heard? He Who knows and loves me better than I know and love myself always prays according to the perfect, unique will of God for me! (Ro 8:27) Wow!

And not only this, but the very Son of God also joins with the Spirit of God to intercede for me to His Father! (Ro 8:34) Two-thirds of the Godhead are already praying for me, perfectly, flawlessly, right now, without ceasing! Can I imagine that they will not be heard? That their prayers will be in vain? About anything?  Not a chance!

What else could I possibly need spiritually! Victory is in hand, not because of me,  or anything I can do or have done, but because God is doing everything that needs to be done to save me and sanctify me (Jud 1:24); He Himself is living out victory in me. (1Co 15:57)

How can I be depressed? How can I be defeated? How can I be lost? Who can lay any charge against me, when it is God Who justifies me? (Ro 8:33) Who can condemn me when Christ has died for me (Ro 8:34), quickens me (Jn 5:21), gives me eternal life (Jn 17:2) and lives in me? He’s everything I need: my wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. (1Co 1:30) How could I ever glory in myself, or in anyone else but Him? (2Co 10:17)

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Continual Sorrow

What’s the proper response to all the sinfulness and brokenness about us? When others aren’t walking with God, asleep in dead works, should we be concerned that they’re heading for an eternal, fiery Hell?

Clearly, sorrow and concern is warranted: Paul felt great heaviness and continual sorrow over Israel’s rejection of Messiah (Ro  9:1-3), and wept over the worldliness of false teachers. (Php 3:18-19) But there’s a vast difference between grieving over sin, and grieving over God’s response to it; the former’s a concern for the pleasure of God, the latter an indictment of His character.

The godly grieve over wickedness (Je 13:17) as God’s Law is violated (Ps 119:136), but not over God condemning and punishing rebellion. Those in Heaven aren’t weeping over the suffering of the wicked (Re 19:1-2), knowing God’s perfectly righteous and just in everything He does (Ps 55:15); the problem is with Man, not God. (Re 15:4)

All the works of God should move us to worship (Ps 145:10), even His response to the lost. (Lk 10:21)

Concern for others springs from love, praying that they’ll turn from their ways unto God.  God is grieved when people neglect Him, and invites all to come to Him. Father, help me weep for the lost, and to do so for the right reason.

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Him Will I Confess

Christ says whoever confesses Him before others, He will also confess before His Father in Heaven (Mt 10:32); and whoever denies Him before others, He will also deny before His Father. (Mt 10:33) We either belong to both God the Father and the Son, or to neither; we cannot have one without the other. (Jn 17:10)

The word confess is from the Greek homologeo, meaning to speak the same thing, to be in agreement. Christ claims as His own those who agree with what He did and said, who are willing to stand with Him against the world; He’s ashamed of (Mk 8:38) and disowns everyone else. (Mt 7:23) Our eternal welfare hinges on what we think of Christ: there’s no middle ground.

Confessing Christ, agreeing with Him, is thus to find Christ, to belong to Him and obey Him. To know Him is to love Him supremely, to cling to Him above all else (Mt 13:45-46), to esteem Him exceedingly precious (1Pe 2:7), and to agree with Him that this world’s system is evil. (Jn 7:7) This implies a willingness to give up everything for Him. (Lk 14:33) We cannot have Christ and hold on to the world: He doesn’t give us this option. (Mt 10:39)

It’s a lie that we can be safe in God while loving this world (1Jn 2:15); to have Him we must let go of the world (Mk 10:21-22), we must be willing to count all things but loss for Christ. (Php 3:8) If we’re still focused on this life, if the temporal is our constant preoccupation rather than the eternal, if we’re denying His name as a manner of life for earthly benefits, then we haven’t found Him yet (Lk 14:26); we’re still His enemies, headed for destruction (Php 3:18-19), accursed. (1Co 16:22)

The world so hates Christ and His way (Jn 15:18) it moves them to despise those who know Him. (1Co 4:10) But my question to the world is this: What do you have that’s better than Christ? What fault do you find in Him? (Jn 18:38) Based on what standard? Don’t you mock because you’ve no rational defense for your hatred?

Though God’s given us all assurance in the historical fact of Christ’s Resurrection, the world blindly rejects its only treasure, the only One Who can satisfy our longing for perfection, beauty, significance, and purpose. (Col 2:3) Apart from Christ, the world has nothing worth having; of this I’m absolutely certain.

Being friends with the world makes us God’s enemy (Ja 4:4); yet from that darkness we can’t help it find the light. When knowing God is the most important thing to us, when we’re crying after knowledge, then we’ll find Him (Je 29:13) and be able to help others do so. (Ac 26:18) He rewards all who diligently seek Him. (He 11:6)

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Abound in Hope

Lately things have been rough at work; I’ve been cringing when my phone signals a new email, suspecting bad news or a political trap to sort through. I fight the sense of worry, anxiety, but emotions are hard to control. They reveal beliefs in the context of life; by observing our feelings we can tell what we really believe; they reveal our faith.

I’ve not been filled with joy; I’ve not been abounding in hope; so, I’ve been living in denial of God’s faithfulness, that whatever happens will turn out for my good and God’s glory. (Ro 8:28) I’ve had no peace, no rest in my spirit (Php 4:6-7), struggling with fear, not trusting. This isn’t where I’m supposed to live (He 13:5-6); it’s contrary to the gospel. (Ga 2:14)

But the God of hope calls me, to fill me with all joy and peace in believing, that I may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Ghost. (Ro 15:13) There is then a connection between abounding in hope, and believing God unto joy and peace.

It’s not that I will never suffer or be in trouble (2Co 1:8); I’m to believe the world is unable to harm me spiritually; nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ (Ro 8:38-39); no matter what comes I will always be more than a conqueror through the grace of God. (Ro 8:37) 

I will overcome (1Jn 5:4), because Christ overcame (Jn 16:33), and He will do so again in me. (Col 1:27) This is all the hope I need: in the end, I will be found a good and faithful servant. (Mt 25:23)

I believe God will help me live for Him; He will work in me to seek His face until my dying day (Jud 24) … for this is what He’s always been about in me. It’s His work (1Co 1:30), and He will continue to perform it until the day of Christ. (Php 1:6) Of this I am confident … I believe … and the truth of His Word is producing hope in me, even as I write it out.

How about you? Are you abounding in hope? To continue building up our faith (Jud 1:20-21) is to find more and more hope, to the anchoring of our souls (He 6:19) … ’till we’re abounding in hope through the power of God.

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