CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God and Niceness

Feb 10, 2017

In an age where mankind reigns supreme, and God – if he is thought to exist at all – is merely an appendage to us and our whims, the biblical gospel is very easily and so often dumbed down into a bowl of humanistic mush. Our message then becomes just so much sentimental, syrupy slush.

And God of course takes a real hammering in such scenarios. He becomes our buddy, our pal, our heavenly butler who exists only to do our every bidding, and exists to keep us happy. He is a “nice” God in other words. He would not harm a fly, and he is ever ready to keep us pleased.

Needless to say that such a picture of God is nothing like the biblical picture of the One True God. God is called many things in Scripture, and he is described in various ways, but a nice God he is not. He is labelled in various ways, such as holy, just, righteous and almighty, but I am not aware of him being called nice.

And there is a good reason for that. If we simply take a moment to consider what the word ‘nice’ means, you can see how it is not exactly an apt description of the Lord of the universe. One online dictionary had this to say about the word:

adjective
giving pleasure or satisfaction; pleasant or attractive.
“we had a very nice time”
Synonyms: enjoyable, pleasant, pleasurable, agreeable, delightful, satisfying, gratifying, acceptable, to one’s liking, entertaining, amusing, diverting, marvellous, good…

While a relationship of faith, repentance, obedience and trust may well give the child of God some of these things (eg., satisfaction, enjoyment), it is pretty hard to see how God lines up with such terms. Yes our God is attractive, in a sense, and yes we are to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ and so on, but the notion of a nice God is mainly a human idol, not a biblical reality.

Certainly God is loving and gracious and merciful and patient, etc., and we thank him for these attributes or qualities. But he is also a holy God, a righteous God, a perfect God, and a God of justice. So we dare not take him for granted, treat him lightly, or pretend he is just like us.

I have written about such matters before, as in: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/10/03/not-nice-gospel/

And here: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/08/no-more-mr-nice-guy/

And Christians should not try to present such a watered down and humanistic God to the surrounding culture. But so often that is just what believers do, usually to make him more ‘palatable’ and ‘acceptable’ to non-Christians. But that is a big mistake.

We need to present God as who he is, instead of a watered-down, Hollywood version. Leading people to a false god made in their own image will save no one and help no one. So it is time we cease and desist here. But examples keep cropping up of this very thing.

One recent case in point is an outdoor church advertising board. It had this simple message for passers-by:

“God is nice and (s)he likes you”

Pymble Uniting Church

niceness 1Now I am not trying to pick on just one church here. And I am aware that these things can easily be photo shopped. But I did look up the church in question and the building and the outdoor sign are certainly identical. So it could well be that they posted this particular message.

Given that so many Uniting Churches are sadly so theologically and politically liberal nowadays, this sign could well be accurate (please correct me if I am wrong on this one). And as I say, plenty of other churches and church leaders would think the same way as this one does.

That this poster is so very wrong on so many levels should not be difficult for any biblical Christian to understand. As I just mentioned, one can describe God in various ways, but calling him nice may not be one of them. Especially given how most folks today think – that they are owed everything in life, that we should never be upset, offended and caused any discomfort, etc – this is the last thing a church should be telling them.

Folks are already inundated with the woolly lifestyle and worldview of ‘nice’. They need to be jolted out of their self-centred narcissism and life of comfort and ease, and come back down to the real world. And they need to hear about the God who is there, not one invented by fallen humans.

Indeed, if we simply look at how sinners are viewed in Scripture, we really should not be telling them that God is nice and that he sits up in heaven smiling a lot and winking at us like a doting grandfather or a celestial Santa Claus. Some of those verses about what we are as sinners would include these. We are:

-spiritually sick (Luke 5:31-32)
-rebellious children (Luke 15:11-32)
-lost (Luke 19:10)
-in darkness (Acts 20:18)
-under the power of Satan (Acts 20:18)
-slaves to sin (Romans 6:22)
-spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:4-6)
-God’s enemies (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
-objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3)
-dead (Ephesians 2:5)
-darkened in their understanding (Ephesians 4:18)
-separated from the life of God (Ephesians 4:18)
-in the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13)
-alienated from God (Colossians 1:21)
-his enemies (Colossians 1:21)
-idol worshippers (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
-held in slavery (Hebrews 2:15)
-not a people who had not received mercy (1 Peter 2:10)
-sheep going astray (1 Peter 2:25)

And does God “like” us? Well, yes and no. He obviously is a God of great love if he died for ungrateful sinners like you and me. But he is also a holy and just God who hates sin and can have nothing to do with those who persist in shaking their fists at him, refusing his offers of forgiveness.

If we simply ran with one rather clear and forthright text about all this, we would see how very hollow and deceptive this church board really is. I refer to Psalm 7:11 which says, “God is angry with the wicked every day”. Hmm, I wonder if this Uniting Church will ever dare to run with this text on its outdoor display.

As to God being a she, the simple truth is this: God has chosen to reveal himself overwhelmingly in masculine terms, and we should not be so glib in dismissing this or seeking to change this self-revelation of God. While God is beyond gender, and is a sexless spiritual being, how he chooses to describe himself and reveal himself is very important indeed.

All in all, this was a rather foolish, and even harmful thing to post outside of a church which presumably claims to represent Jesus Christ, the God that exists, and the Word of God. Far better to stop trying to be cute, to stop being so keen to please men, and seek to start pleasing God instead.

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17 Responses to God and Niceness

  • Interesting point. “Niceness” relates to the promotion of pleasure. So :

    2Ti 3:4 traitors, reckless, puffed up, lovers of pleasure (niceness) rather than lovers of God….
    2Ti 3:5 having a form of godliness, but denying the power of it; even turn away from these.

  • A timely article Bill. In our short lifetime living in the West ‘niceness’ has been elevated to one of the leading Christian virtues. Permit me if I may to introduce your readers a person who describes herself as having a personality that is something between a buzz saw and a blowtorch. She has an enlightened video on this subject and argues it is ‘niceness’ that is singlehandedly bringing the U.S (and the West) down then signs off with “I am Ann Barnhardt and by God’s grace I am not a nice person”. I have heard it many times and I echo her sentiment.

  • Thank you, Bill. This is such a good reminder & also forthright clip. Having a somewhat “Celtic” temperament, I try to err on the side of niceness. And it is always apparent to me when I have been in error: the viciousness and vitriol when one is not treading on eggshells around someone. Considerate behaviour, humility, gentleness: all good things. But being “nice” to appease an aggressor is something that Christian parents often seem to encourage. I have been guilty of that: “think the best”, instead of the more apt balance of wisdom and innocence. The latter two come from the Holy Spirit. The former (appeasement) is fear of man. I’ve had to desist from the way I was raised (in this one respect) because it is the very opposite of freedom.

  • I like Karen’s point that ‘niceness’ is often about appeasing – our God does not appease sinners and smile down on us while we remain in unrepentant sin.

    I am reading Bonhoeffer’s book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ and his first chapter on ‘Costly Grace’ really fits with this article. He calls ‘Cheap Grace’ the ‘deadly enemy of the church.’ This ‘nice’ God concept is trying to push that God has done it all for you so you don’t need to do anything – God likes you just the way you are. Some words from Bonhoeffer regarding this ‘Cheap Grace’: ‘Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite … It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. Intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins… Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has… Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.’

  • Recently I had a letter published about the British Medical Associations’ memo to staff that it is not nice to say ‘expectant mother’ when trans genders might want to have children please now say ‘pregnant person’. I concluded ironically (not sarcastically) with “Aren’t the British nice!” To my surprise a sincere Christian was deeply upset. I have been thinking about this. Much of the above observations could be in play here. The evangelism by which people have come into the church and the emphasis on Gods’ kindness in the face of personal problems are factors. What is missing it seems, is a clear understanding of His holiness which is His beauty and our joy. Lets’ remember that Eden was – the planting of God – the garden of delights! It was a place of holy pleasure. Humanity is missing that garden. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the complete reconciliation with our Creator by the Cross death of His Son, the Beloved would inspire the joy and power of pleasure in Him for which we were created. We need to take care when reading material such as Bonhoeffer, certainly grace is costly to God but not to me. Grace is not cheap – it is free. That is the true freedom of grace-holiness. Anything else is works of the flesh which in effect nullifies the grace of God. So I am in full agreement with you Bill regards the sign on Pymble UC which is an abomination, but I think believers need more Biblical insight into the pastoral issues of mankind in his ontological search for pleasure. It is a creational drive which we do well to take into account, which is sanctified – only – by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all – the perfect sacrifice that sanctifies forever all who come to God (and thus into the fellowship of the church) by Him this is the grace that disciples Paul says in Titus. Astounding grace how sweet the sound how holy-pleasurable. God bless!

  • I don’t believe that Bonhoeffer encourages work-based righteousness. I believe that he just wants to highlight the real link between grace and true discipleship and that these two things must go together. Grace is both free and costly at the same time. It is free, because, “…while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). So we did nothing to deserve it. As Paul rightly says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8,9). Works based-righteousness requires us to see our good works as contributing to our salvation. But Bonhoeffer quotes Luther as saying, “after all, nothing we can do is of any avail, however good a life we live.” And he also states that Luther made the point that we cannot do a work for God without it containing a selfish motive. Therefore all of our “good” works are tainted with sin and cannot in anyway contribute to our salvation. As God so rightly said about us all: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6). But grace, while freely given, is also costly. Because “we have been bought with a price” therefore we are told we must, “honour God with [our] bodies.” (1 Corinth 6:20). “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” (Romans 6:22). As slaves of God (but also loved children), we have become part of the body of Christ and a follower of Christ. As such, we are called to be His hands and feet in this world, and this is discipleship. And Jesus told us this is costly and we should count the cost. “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”(Luke 14:33). As God’s workers here on earth, we are called to obey His call and direction in our lives. This does not earn us salvation, but is the truth of being a disciple of Jesus that we must obey him. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). Of course we will fail, but again God is gracious because as we live in continual repentance God promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:9). But as justified sinners, we are still so woefully weak and sin taints everything we do and will do so until we are given new bodies in the next life. So the grace comes in that God will perform His works through our stumbling attempts to follow Him. He will also give us the will and the power of His Holy Spirit, “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13). And also, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”(Eph 2:10).

  • Thanks guys. What Bonhoeffer said about cheap grace was certainly spot on, and his words are needed today as much as ever. See here eg:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/26/lessons-from-bonhoeffer/

  • Thank you Bill. I will certainly read your post you suggested. I am grateful for the Godly wisdom.

  • G’day Bill,

    Goodonya again. As always.

    Reminds me of CS Lewis in ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.’ The children have not yet met Aslan, the Great Lion, who is definitely not a tame lion.

    ‘Ooh!’ said Susan, (to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver) ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver, ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’

    That’s the Bible Jesus. Not ‘safe’, not ‘nice.’ Good, yes. The king. Great. Awesome.

    Andrew Campbell
    Stanborough

  • Yes Bill, the ‘Nice’ teaching, is more dangerous than the ‘Prosperity’ teaching.
    Anne Barnhardt is the most feisty christian on the planet, even more than Walid Shoebat! Both of them not nice at all.

  • Hi Bill, I’m not going to go into all my reasons that I put the message up outside our church (I did enough of that on the Facebook post from John Dickson, from which I assume you took the photo) but allow me to defend these words a little.
    1. It is a quote from Adrian Plass, British conservative Christian author, in his attempt to counter the widely-held idea that God is cruel and doesn’t much care for people. As such I think the comment “works” in our culture, not as the entire view of God, but nevertheless an accurate one. “Pre-evangelism” if you like.
    2. How did the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners feel when Jesus shared his table with them? – the action that so infuriated the religious leaders (Luke 15:1-2). I think they would have felt that this God was nicer than the religious leaders made out and that he “liked” them. In the gospels, Christ’s love and acceptance of people always come before any call for repentance. In fact in his dealings with people he doesn’t often address their sin – just loves them. His harsh words are always reserved for the religious. Maybe the church could learn something here about prevenient grace.
    3. As noted above God is a spirit and beyond our ideas of gender, that is why all language about God is metaphor – we can only approach God and say what God is like as we read in the Bible and learn from our experience. The bible has many examples of female metaphors for God. Yes “Father” is the dominant metaphor, (as we’d expect in a patriarchal society) but not the only one. Scriptures, Old and New Testament liken God to a nursing mother, a caring mother who would gather her chicks…, a mother in labour, and more. God is not a father in the sense that he has sired us – it’s a metaphor; and because of that we can also say, God is like a mother to us. Indeed many will be able to understand God better in using those words.
    I don’t expect to change your mind, but don’t be so dismissive of a sign that is aimed at engaging our community for the sake of Christ.

  • Thanks Steve. Needless to say, I knew nothing about the church in question or who the pastor was. Now I know – nothing personal! But a general rule of thumb applies here: when someone makes a very public statement about something, this rightly allows for a public response. If you read my article carefully you would have seen that my beef was not so much with a particular church or pastor, but with the rather fuzzy thinking as exemplified and represented in the sign. Thus it was a much more generic discussion, at least on my part.

    1. One could quibble over just how conservative Plass in fact always is, but that is not the issue. Indeed, going on about him would be to simply commit the genetic fallacy. The real issue is not who said it, but whether it is a helpful saying. I thought it was not, and that of course is why I penned my article.

    2. That Jesus hung around with sinners was of course the only course available to him, since everyone he encountered was a sinner! And I don’t really buy the idea that repentance was in a sense at best a secondary matter or some sort of follow-up thing for Jesus. Repentance is throughout the gospels and Acts the very heart of the message of Jesus, and he made it quite clear that his actual acceptance of sinners was fully conditional upon their repentance. Jesus loved people, but always with a view of addressing their sin. That is exactly how he loves sinners: by offering them forgiveness and restoration by means of repenting of their sin. It works no other way. Otherwise they still remain under the wrath of God (and Christ). And of course he spoke more about hell and judgment to come than any other person in all of Scripture. So getting the biblical balance right here is essential in my view. And given that this sign seemed to be unbalanced, that is why I bothered to spend time on it in the first place.

    And because I too am very concerned about how we reach the lost and present Christ to others, I think the advice ascribed to Luther is fully appropriate here: “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not professing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.”

    That is, if we want to best reach people in the surrounding culture, we need to tell them what they most need to hear at the time. In my books the West is pretty much steeped in the notions of God that I discussed in my article: a nice celestial Santa Claus or butler who just wants us to be happy. Thus our urgent task as ambassadors of Christ is to remind folks of the real nature of God. As I said, he isn’t “nice,” at least as the world thinks. He is loving and gracious, but he is also holy and just. Thus to run with a “nice” God when most people need to hear about the real deal does not seem all that helpful to me, and I think this is not going to release many folks from their faulty and idolatrous views of God.

    That the church – that is, you, me and all Christians – can learn more about grace goes without saying. And I think we all can learn a lot more especially about cheap grace as well, and why it is so dangerous. As to speaking to religious leaders, I presume you would consider yourself to be a religious leader! In which case, with your very public statement, broadcast to the whole world, I hope you do not think you are somehow exempt from public comment.

    3. I already discussed the gender issue of course so no need to belabour it much more. Suffice it to say that the several examples you provide of feminine metaphors for God are nearly all the main ones that there are in Scripture! It would be far more accurate to say that while some examples of this (not many) exist, the overwhelming and consistent self-revelation of God is in the form of the masculine, the father, and so on. And this is integral to who God is and his revelation to us, and not merely the product of a “patriarchal society”.

    Nor do I expect to change your mind, but don’t be so dismissive of brothers in Christ who dare to offer a different point of view for the sake of Christ!

    But thanks for commenting. Blessings.

  • Churches are no longer places where holiness is preached and practiced.

    I have gone into many churches in my 40 years as a Christian. These days they are embracing ecumenism, universalism, Gnosticism, mysticism and a host of other false gospels. Peter spent a whole chapter talking about the blackness of darkness which is reserved for teachers of false gospels. He was scathing, and left no room for repentance and forgiveness. Paul told the Galatians that false teachers were twice accursed. John told us that even greeting a false teacher causes you to share in his wickedness.

    Our family were caught in a Christian cult for 15 years. These men were not ‘nice’. They formed God in their image, a psychopathic murderer who cannot be appeased. They were spiritual butchers who destroyed families and shipwrecked the faith of many. Their gospel was ‘do what the elders tell you or you are not going to heaven’. When we left that ‘church’ we began to look for another in which we could heal. None of the pastors we spoke to wanted to hear our story. Most of them didn’t even believe it, others just turned away. It wasn’t ‘nice’, it was ugly and our wounds were pretty fresh, so we were basically gibbering idiots who could not even open our bibles without being triggered by every well known phrase that was used against us.

    Some who left that cult ended up bathing themselves in the ‘niceness’ of the emerging church theology which wants an androgynous hippy God with no identity but love. They read “The Shack” and got sucked in. Understandably, they needed to know that they were not damned forever. They needed the true gospel, but they had been immunised against it. So they embraced “God can be whoever you perceive him to be, as long as you don’t perceive him to be the God of the Bible. We don’t want that God anymore, that God is a fundamentalist God who died a long time ago.” They are right. My God died over 2000 years ago. But He rose again and lives in me. “If the Spirit of Him who raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in you…” THAT is true life, true revelation, true transformation. That God heals the brokenhearted.

    These ones who want to transform God into their own comfortable household idol had better go back to the New Testament and read what lies in store for idol worshippers. The last book kind of gives it away. “He who endures to the end will be saved”. There is much to endure. But many are the afflictions of the righteous, He delivers us out of them all.

    Here is our testimony. The true gospel is powerful, the Word of God never changes and Jesus saves. Many who left the Christian cult we were part of have lost their faith. In fact, they are worse now than if they had never heard anything about God. I saw a young man who left the church and his family the other day. He was born into the cult, lived his whole life there. He looked like a drug addict. No, he wasn’t on drugs, but the emotional and psychological damage done by those wolves was devastating. I will never forget his white face, sunken eyes, jumpy demeanour. He was a total wreck. I remember when this precious young man was born, I was the one who led his mother to the Lord (pre cult). Yet his mother and family are still in the cult, still destroyed in ignorance and deception.

    I will forever preach to my dying day that the true gospel saves, but false gospels destroy. They destroy silently, deeply and ravage the souls of those who are more interested in playing nice than standing up and declaring the truth. HOLY is the Lord. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts, His lamb, His sacrifice, His mercy is poured out to us ONLY through the cross of Jesus Christ, NOT through being good nice little Christians. We are not good, we are made acceptable by the blood of the Lamb, NOT by our own self-righteous acts or understanding of who God is. Certainly not by making God in our own image which so many of the emerging church liars are doing.

    If that is not what we preach in our churches, we are simply religious clubs with believers in a false gospel who congregate with others of like mind because it is nice. It is comfortable, it is fun, you get to network and have a great social life, you get to feel comfortable and at peace. And false gospels along with the tares get sown into these congregations without anyone even being aware of them.

    We can’t go into a church now, and we have frequented mostly Baptist churches, without being deeply concerned and distressed at the utter and total lack of discernment from so called pastors. These people are mostly not even saved, and I don’t say that lightly. Anyone with so little concern for their congregation’s spiritual lives that they allow wolves and liars to teach and speak at their churches has not been transformed by the power of the gospel.

    We are, I believe in the last days before the end comes. If we don’t wake up to the idiocy of ‘nice is better than honest’, or ‘any gospel is as good as the gospel of Jesus’, we will be lured into accepting the antichrist as Christ himself. In fact that, I believe, is the agenda behind the “God is Nice’ approach. This is seeker sensitive rubbish, it is NOT the gospel which saves. The next step is, there is no hell, there is no judgement, everybody gets to go to heaven, even Satan.

    We are heartsick at the many and varied forms of false gospels out there. It is hard for others to keep up with all of the twists and changes which are coming at us. The internet is great for information, but even the so called ‘watchman’ websites can be biased according to their own denominational theology. In these days, those who are aware need to pray for those who aren’t. We are thankful for websites like this one who have done much to warn and expose the lies.

    Keep up the good work, your steadfast witness has helped many with backgrounds like ours to come back to the true gospel!

    And thanks for reading our story.

  • Wow Bill – love that lengthy, necessary reply – thank you for refuting such FALSE doctrine – How evident is the Holy Spirit in your Work.
    Praise & Glorify God’s Holy Name in gifting you with His Amazing Wisdom through the written word.

    Wow Anita – What a testimony……….My heart aches for you BUT God has blessed you with AMAZING work to do in His Holy Name, Blessed be Our Savior & Lord, Jesus Christ.

    Father God, May your Eternal Truth set ALL the captives free.
    May we learn to listen, BE STILL and KNOW YOU ARE GOD.
    Thank you for your Sovereignty, Righteousness, Judgement & Astounding Love, Grace & Mercy.
    Holy Spirit Heal Our Land,
    In Jesus Mighty Name, We pray.
    Amen

  • The “stream” of Christendumb is a polluted well; the waters of Living Water have long since ceased to flow from there. You may find an occasion group of believers that meet in a building that have a precious fellowship and service around and to the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, they are rare, and nowhere easy to find. The New Age Movement has bumped the Bible out of the Center of thinking, teaching and practice. Now if it is used at all, it is nearly always in an effeminate version that lacks the substance of the Scripture. Gender-neutral Bibles (including the RCC New Jerusalem Bible, New Century Version, Contemporary Version, to New Living Translation) and stories such as The Shack, have only furthered this confusion. As for this Pymble Uniting Church, anyone going there that wants truth should jump ship. That Titanic has already sunk.

  • God is not gender fluid or gender neutral. While there are some feminine metaphors in the Bible to illustrate how He nurtures us, He remains “Our Father” and not “our Mother”. Even a Child could tell us that.

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