The Spiral of Sin and Salvation

Since his spectacular public disgrace last year, the once-powerful evangelical preacher Ted Haggard has not returned to New Life Church, the Colorado megachurch he founded. However, a few days after confessing that the allegations laid against him were true, he arranged to have a letter read to his former congregation in which he admitted his guilt and asked for their forgiveness:

Please forgive me. I am so embarrassed and ashamed. I caused this and I have no excuse. I am a sinner. I have fallen. I desperately need to be forgiven and healed.

Haggard’s wife Gayle also wrote a letter to the flock:

“For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case,” she wrote. “My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful.”

She said Haggard believed “with all his heart and soul” the lessons he taught New Life.

“He is now the visible and public evidence that every man needs a Savior,” she wrote.

Some people call this a moving demonstration of Christian love and forgiveness in action. I call it something different, and a glimmering of why can be seen in Gayle Haggard’s last sentence. Yes, Ted Haggard disgraced himself, and by extension the entire evangelical movement. Yes, he has produced yet another blotch on his faith that will no doubt be remembered for a long time along with the other glaring examples of hypocrisy among powerful Christians. Yes, his actions deeply hurt and saddened many people who followed him or looked up to him. And yet, in a strange but important way, he has done them a service. He has provided them with powerful validation of the entire evangelical worldview.

By imposing unrealistic, impossible-to-follow strictures on its followers, Christianity sets them up for failure. And when that failure inevitably happens, it produces guilt and shame among those followers, reinforcing the teaching that all human beings are incorrigible sinners and encouraging them to cling even harder to Christianity for salvation.

I don’t mean that these strictures are impossible to follow in the Christian sense, that human beings are hopelessly wicked creatures unable to refrain from committing evil acts. Rather, Christianity does violence to human nature by teaching people to suppress basic human instincts and motivations, calling them sins that must be battled. (Consider Matthew’s teaching that a moment of sexual desire is equivalent to adultery (5:28), and that a moment of anger or frustration puts one in danger of eternal damnation (5:22)). These instincts are part of what it means to be human, and if we act responsibly and maturely, they are healthy and harmless.

If, on the other hand, we try to deny human nature and suppress these instincts altogether, pressure builds up until they explode. This is what happened to Haggard, just as it happened to many other famous fundamentalist hypocrites. But instead of taking the right lesson from this, Christianity assumes the answer is to try even harder next time. As part of this, many Christian groups attempt to take away people’s access to the information they need to make responsible decisions – abstinence-only sex education being a prime example – making the likelihood of a poor outcome even greater.

This is a very effective and insidious tactic. As I’ve written before, it’s like convincing people that they are sick in order to sell them the cure. But in this case, the cure makes you feel even sicker and sets up a vicious cycle of dependency. Taught by Christianity that they are sinners in need of forgiveness, believers perpetually return to Christianity for the forgiveness they believe only it can give them. Believers can become “addicted to forgiveness”. This is a very common theme in deconversion stories, where former Christians testify how their terror of damnation led them to repeatedly ask Jesus for salvation, out of fear that they hadn’t done it right the last time or had committed some grave sin since then. Religious authorities who promise forgiveness for a price are the pushers in this scheme, and like Haggard, some of them use their own product. (The price need not be monetary – it often includes contributing to a religious leader’s preferred political causes.) And over time, as with all drugs, the effectiveness of the forgiveness “drug” wanes, impelling believers to become even more rigid and dogmatic in their devotions to win the same feeling of relief.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this endless spiral of sin and salvation – a twelve-step plan of sorts. But it is not the twelve steps of religious organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, whose first step is to believe that you are powerless over your own life and that only God can help you. That attitude is not a cure, but rather the very addiction we are seeking to solve.

The best treatment for this particular addiction is to go cold turkey, and that is exactly what atheism provides. In contradiction to the religious worldview that teaches its adherents to view their own natural instincts as sinful, atheism offers the freedom to accept humanity for what it is and guide your own life as you see fit. In place of constant pleas for forgiveness to an unseen dictator and his self-proclaimed earthly representatives, atheism opens the way to a rational, humanistic standard of morality, where our accountability and our responsibilities are to each other. After bearing the crushing burden of superstitious guilt, many ex-believers will testify to the relief it is to breathe the free air of reason and to live a life of fearlessly self-directed independence at last.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    That is one of the things I have noticed about Christianity. It has its own built in defense mechanisms. Evidence that is contrary to scripture is merely the devil’s trickery or God testing your faith. Then there are lines like the one in the NT that say the the fool sayeth there is no God. Surround yourself with hundreds of people who think the same way, and it is very hard to break out of that mindset.

  • James Bradbury

    A very insightful article!

    An Ex-Catholic told me that the phrase “Sinning in thought, word or deed.” was particularly pernicious for the inclusion of “Thoughts”. Trying really hard to avoid thinking anything bad is only going to cause your brain to throw up lots of suitable examples.

    Makes you wonder if these ideas were consciously designed to ensnare people, or whether the parasitic meme just survived because of this nasty mutation. The other, “Do as you please, God loves you anyway” religions just faded away along with the one held by some fictional characters: “This man has taken a lifelong vow of celibacy, just like his father and his father before him…”

  • Ric

    I enjoyed your comments about AA. I have long thought something similar myself: that something is deeply wrong with having an organization that aims to cure your addiction through spiritual mumbo-jumbo and self-debasement, and that it is so widely accepted as the best way.

  • http://www.agnosticatheism.wordpress.com HeIsSailing

    “If, on the other hand, we try to deny human nature and suppress these instincts altogether, pressure builds up until they explode. ”

    It ain’t just Protestants – I have to tell you I sometimes feel pity for Catholic clergy. They have to forever renounce something as natural as sexual desire so they can do what they most desire – serve God and mankind. And look at the results, manifest many times in terrible abuse of youngsters. Those natural desires have been repressed for so long, they have no idea how to deal with it anymore, until it all explodes in something that is harmful and truly immoral.

    Great article.

  • rob

    I’m not trying to stand up for Christianity, and maybe I’m the last person to say this having engaged in some of this behavior myself, but “Don’t do meth and pay for sex” is not exactly the highest moral standard, and it’s certainly not one that religious people alone advocate

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    The meth and pay for sex stuff is the blowing up.

    He should have let off some steam…. you know. In a committed gay relationship.

    That there is no distiction in the moral absolutism of the New Life Way between meth and gay hookers and just plain being gay… that’s the problem.

    If Haggard was going to hell for looking at a dude’s ass and coveting it…. he might as well go whole hog.

    Herein lies the destruction… all sins are absolute and require infinite hell or infinite forgiveness…. There is no acceptable path for a man with a normal (but minority) sexual variance.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    I’m not trying to stand up for Christianity, and maybe I’m the last person to say this having engaged in some of this behavior myself, but “Don’t do meth and pay for sex” is not exactly the highest moral standard, and it’s certainly not one that religious people alone advocate

    It’s not the gay sex and drugs that bothers me. As far as I’m concerned, everyone should be free to do both of those things if it makes them happy. What bothers me is the hypocrisy. This is a man who stood up in front of thousands of people every week and told them this is exactly the sort of thing they shouldn’t be doing.

  • rob

    So his sin is hypocrisy. That’s fine. But there are plenty of men in committed gay relationships who nevertheless pay for sex and do drugs. There are also plenty of people who know that drugs and promiscuity are wrong because of the toll they have taken on their lives and their loved ones, yet find themselves unable to stop those behaviors.

    Personally I think haggard is a vile bigot or a vile despot or both (probably both). The greater sin of religion in this context is that it allows people like him to gain power and relevance through hate and fear mongering, but to assume that Haggard’s personal foibles are the result of his faith is pure guess work. I’m already predisposed to dislike the guy, but he could just as easily be a sick human being who would have weaseled his way to power however he possibly could in a world without religion and still engaged in destructive behavior. Frankly, I don’t want to grant him the excuse that he’s repressed. Maybe he’s just a narcissistic liar.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Siamang has it exactly right. Ted Haggard and others like him preached that the only acceptable sexual activity is within marriage, and that gay people have no right to be married. By his own standard, then, he has no outlet whatsoever for sexual expression. When you try to put a policy like that into practice, it’s no surprise that this is what results. If he had instead held to a belief system that had allowed him some healthy outlet, this might not have happened.

  • rob

    I really don’t see how you can claim to know that, given that people who don’t preach that and don’t believe that still do these exact same things. Haggard has probably been having sex on the sly and using drugs for years, because he’s a manipulative bastard who believes if he can get away with it, then it’s perfectly fine because he can just go home and say “Sorry Jesus” and it’s like it never happened. He just happened to get busted this time. I think the number of openly gay men who are drug addicts and use prostitution, not to mention straight men, tells us that this very easily could have happened regardless of his religion or lack thereof.

    I’m far more concerned with the effect his ignorance and bigotry has on his flock than his on his sex life, which I believe he has a right to conduct however he sees fit, provided everyone involved is a consenting adult.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “As I’ve written before, it’s like convincing people that they are sick in order to sell them the cure. But in this case, the cure makes you feel even sicker and sets up a vicious cycle of dependency.”

    Have you read the Mormon guidelines to overcoming masturbation? I just heard them for the first time two nights ago (at a porn reading, in fact). They’d be hilarious if they weren’t so appalling. And they’re a perfect example of what you’re talking about here. Their suggestions for preventing yourself from masturbating — and talk about an activity that harms nobody and is nobody’s business but your own! — are almost an ironclad guarantee that you won’t think about anything else, ever. Whereas if you just have a nice guilt-free wank, you can get on with your life.

    And to the people here who seem to be agreeing that paying for sex is immoral: Why, exactly, do you think that? Except in the cases where the prostitutes are either underage or are forced into the work (which does happen but isn’t the norm), it would seem to me to be a perfect example of consenting adult sex. The problem in my eyes isn’t that Haggard patronized prostitutes — it’s that he (a) did so while in a supposedly monogamous relationship, and (b) was a hypocrite about it, condemning other people for doing what he was doing.

    I think it’s difficult to say whether Haggard would have still been visiting prostitutes if he hadn’t been in the closet. People visit sex workers for a lot of different reasons. But certainly one of the more common ones is the desire for privacy/ secrecy.

    Oh, for the record: AA does have groups for atheists and agnostics.

  • Mickey S.

    On the mark re. Christianity.
    Missed the meak re. AA.
    AA is not a Religious program but a Spiritual one. Do not have to believe in a god, just a power greater then oneself. This power can be Love, Nature, the AA group, etc.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    This religious mindset, with respect to women, is called the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Either a woman is chaste or she is a slut. There is no room for sexual expression of any kind that falls between virginity and promiscuity. Even masturbation, which is a safe outlet for sexual urges, is condemned as sinful, as Greta pointed out above.

  • Tim

    I have yet to read the most important point to be drawn here. Having listened to the Evangelicals’ rationalizations (“This just proves everyone needs God, everyone’s a sinner!”) we’ve forgotten why this happening to Haggard is particularly significant.

    It is significant because it should thrust upon the Evangelicals the following point: Being an Evangelical, and an extremely high ranking one at that, does not guarantee for a moment that the person in question has higher moral standards than does an atheist.

    Furthermore, though the atheists have no specific dogmatic prohibitions against such activities, still many do not engage in such activities for their own reasons, (referring to drug-taking, anyway). Atheists can beat Evangelicals in the morality contest, even when they themselves (atheists) do not see the rules they follow as divinely inspired.

    The Evangelicals are then forced to step back and say, “Well, only through Christ can one be saved and forgiven,” etc, etc. This reduces the Evangelical position to the following: It doesn’t matter what I do, because I can ask forgiveness and I’m saved, but you, as an atheist, are more culpable than I am, even if my “sins” are greater, because you won’t give yourself over to Christ.

    This leads me to believe that the Evangelicals are, at best, not demonstrably superior to atheists in realms of morality, and, at worst, are willing to absolve themselves of guilt for any crime no matter how egregious.

    Faith-based morality? Yikes.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Hello All,

    …Christianity does violence to human nature by teaching people to suppress basic human instincts and motivations, calling them sins that must be battled. (Consider Matthew’s teaching that a moment of sexual desire is equivalent to adultery (5:28), and that a moment of anger or frustration puts one in danger of eternal damnation (5:22)). These instincts are part of what it means to be human, and if we act responsibly and maturely, they are healthy and harmless.

    It is uncommon to interpret these scriptures in this way. In 20 years in many different churches, I have never heard it taught that these passages mean that the sudden impulse or desire is being addressed. The more traditional interpretation of the sort of lust described in Matthew 5:28 goes well beyond the natural impulse of sexual feelings that one feels when he/she sees another attractive person. I believe the prohibition is against the willful act and not the spontaneous feeling.

    The greek word used in the passage supports this understanding. It means “to set the heart upon” or “to long for”. It does not connote a passing impulse but a willful desire. (Definitions from Strong’s exhaustive concordance of the Bible, 2001)

    The same concept applies to anger. It is not the sudden flare of feelings but the willful cultivation of anger which is understood in the great majority of Christian circles.

    All the best,

    Matt R

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    One other thought,

    I have found that instead of being plunged into guilt and fear by the high standards set by Jesus, I have been elevated to a higher level of morality. Those of you who read my comments know that I attribute this in part to the divine help of God. This is the point of Christianity, in my experience and according to the Bible, that people would be transformed and changed, not dwell in guilt. The teachings of Jesus come as an admonishment, not a condemnation, or at least that is how it seems to me.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    … and finally,

    I am very amazed that anyone could consider it “okay” for people to take drugs, considering the disastrous effects it has on so many. I think this is the flaw of the “whatever makes you happy” morality system. Some things make people happy that are very, very bad for them and bring them to their demise.

    What do you think?

    Matt R

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello Matt,

    It is uncommon to interpret these scriptures in this way. In 20 years in many different churches, I have never heard it taught that these passages mean that the sudden impulse or desire is being addressed.

    I suggest that may be a function of which churches you attended. There are many Christians who believe that this passage does refer to the sudden impulse, such that even a moment of sexual desire is considered a damnable trespass. Here’s one example:

    Committing adultery even in your heart by looking at someone walking by, you have broken God’s holy law and are guilty before him.

    Or this one:

    Even looking at someone with a lustful heart is adultery.

    Or this one:

    God wants us to be able to look on members of the opposite sex with love rather than lust. (my emphasis)

    Or this one (this site, admittedly, supports your interpretation – but they are criticizing a very popular pair of Christian preachers who don’t).

    The greek word used in the passage supports this understanding. It means “to set the heart upon” or “to long for”. It does not connote a passing impulse but a willful desire.

    That is one possible meaning, but not the only possible meaning. The Greek word is epithymeo, and in addition to the meanings you cited, it can simply mean “to have a desire for”. (Strong’s reference).

    In any case, I don’t think your argument is supported by the text. Right after saying this, Jesus advises his listeners that Hell is so terrible that they should gladly pluck their eye out if it would save them from going there. If your argument was correct and the mere lustful glance is not a sin, then why would Jesus – even if only metaphorically – advise people to tear their eyes out to stop themselves from doing it?

    The same concept applies to anger. It is not the sudden flare of feelings but the willful cultivation of anger which is understood in the great majority of Christian circles.

    Again, this may be the liberal interpretation, but it is not supported by the text. The text says nothing about willful cultivation of anger, only that “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hellfire.” That is something that could just as easily be blurted out in a moment of fury.

    I am very amazed that anyone could consider it “okay” for people to take drugs, considering the disastrous effects it has on so many.

    Skydiving, auto racing, mountain climbing, motorcycle riding, and many other means of recreation can also have disastrous effects on people. Should we ban those hobbies too?

    As it happens, I do think drug use is dangerous and ill-advised, and I would discourage people from trying it. But I don’t consider it to be my right to overrule other people’s own decisions if they make a choice that I think is wrong. That would be arrogant. It’s not my business how others live their lives and I don’t expect everyone to have the same value structure as me. If there are drugs that by their very nature make the user violent or otherwise dangerous, that’s a different story.

  • http://www.blakeclan.org/jon/greenoasis/ Jonathan Blake

    Greta Christina,

    I can add a personal witness to Mormonism’s unhealthy attitudes surrounding masturbation.

    I may be alone in this, but I feel empathy for Ted Haggard. He seems like a deeply conflicted man trapped by his own convictions. His hypocrisy doesn’t seem like the calculating kind. He seems like he is still in denial. I hope he finds his way out of this trap. I also hope the same things for all those who have been harmed by his dysfunctional teachings.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “I am very amazed that anyone could consider it ‘okay’ for people to take drugs…”

    Really, Matt. Does that include the occasional glass of wine with dinner? A cup of coffee or tea in the morning?

    The problem is not drugs, but drug abuse. And it seems clear to me that problems with drug abuse are made worse by hysterical misinformation that exaggerates the danger of some drugs while ignoring or minimizing the dangers of others — or even refusing to acknowledge certain drugs as drugs.

    Drug use seems to be a basic human activity. It exists in almost every human society on the planet, and has for thousands of years. Any sane and rational drug and drug education policy needs to start by acknowledging that.

    P.S. Jonathan, I’m not completely without sympathy for Haggard. But my sympathy for the tormented and confused goes down drastically in proportion to the amount of damage they’ve done. And I think he’s done huge amounts of damage.

  • http://www.common-man.net Jerry

    Yes. Pastor Ted is a hypocrite. And people that were “disciples” of Pastor Ted were idiots. And I’ll agree that suppression of natural instincts will lead to failure. But Pastor Ted and his type do not teach the true historical Christianity. They teach a modern feel-good version that allows us the ability to work our way to heaven. True Christianity requires repentance, not suppression by force of will. As the prophet Ezekiel was commanded by God, “Son of Man, dig!” If you need to go and prove something is worthless and empty, go do it or learn from the experiences of other, don’t suppress it. That is where modern Christianity falls on its face!

  • Polly

    Hello Matt,

    It is uncommon to interpret these scriptures in this way. In 20 years in many different churches, I have never heard it taught that these passages mean that the sudden impulse or desire is being addressed.

    I suggest that may be a function of which churches you attended. There are many Christians who believe that this passage does refer to the sudden impulse, such that even a moment of sexual desire is considered a damnable trespass

    Hi Matt R. – I am married to one of the people Ebon is talking about and I’ve heard of one woman who left her husband because he committed the sin of lust according to the referenced verse from Matthew. Though my wife wouldn’t go that far, she does consider lust, including a momentary fleeting feeling, to be almost equivalent to adultery. Her fears that I would inadvertantly commit adultery have, in the past, weakened our marriage to nearly the breaking point. This, and other extremist teachings of Jesus, are one of the reasons I am usually reluctant to endorse him as a great, Human, moral leader. I realize the passage is ambiguous, but instead of trying to make his point by being melodramatic, he could have saved us all a lot of heartache by just being CLEAR; that, would have been the moral thing to do.

    With respect to Drugs: Not to pile on here, but I also feel that drug use ought to be a personal choice. My reasoning is along these lines: If drugs really are as disastrous as they are made out to be, then most people will learn to avoid them, while those who are willing to take the risk, will find them no matter what. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that children (

  • Polly

    (…continued) 18 or 21, I’m flexible) be allowed to take drugs, drink, smoke, etc. But, at some point society has to decide to cut the chord.
    I’m pretty certain that drug prohibition enforcement, including imprisonment for mere possession, and the rise of powerful gangs due to the lucrative black market for drugs has resulted in far more wasted lives and resources than individual users could’ve ever caused.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Regarding drug use:

    Clearly drug use in general has benefits, medical and otherwise. I think the term “drug use” carries a connotation of the more serious addictive drugs and it was in that sense that I was using it. I oppose legalized use of the more addictive drugs because I am informed of their devastating consequences. I have friends who have been impacted and in the Army I was involved in drug prevention. I think the dangers of drugs outweigh their benefits.

    Certainly there are many sports and other recreational activities which are dangerous, but I think the negative effects on the individual and society of illegal drugs is far greater than that of extreme sports. I wager that far more lives are ruined and lives lost due to drugs than dangerous sports.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    Of course there will be those who disagree with me, but to paint all of Christianity or even the vast majority with the broad strokes in the post is not accurate.

    In any case, I don’t think your argument is supported by the text. Right after saying this, Jesus advises his listeners that Hell is so terrible that they should gladly pluck their eye out if it would save them from going there. If your argument was correct and the mere lustful glance is not a sin, then why would Jesus – even if only metaphorically – advise people to tear their eyes out to stop themselves from doing it?

    I see no reason to understand from “avoid sin at all costs and remove it from you life” that Jesus is expounding on the nature of what lusting in one’s hear is. I think a more reasonable understanding is that lust is very bad and one should remove it from his or her life.

    It is noteworthy that removing one’s eye actually does not prevent one from lusting.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Polly,

    I am sorry to hear the stress that this has put on your marriage. I wish there was something I could say or do to help, but I know there is not, so the best I can do is say that I care and that I recognize the trouble that has come to you because of this. If I provided some resources that explained a more reasonable understanding of the passage, do you think your wife would be inclined to read them? I would be happy to help if you think it would do some good.

    Best wishes,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse.

    Of course there will be those who disagree with me, but to paint all of Christianity or even the vast majority with the broad strokes in the post is not accurate.

    I apologize for using such forceful words here. I do not intend to inflame, but when I read what you wrote I could not help thinking of so many people who really do not believe those irrational unreasonable things. I felt like it would be good to let you and the others here know that there really are real people who are Christians who do not think that way. I guess the truth is that it is hard to see things written about those whom you know which you do not think are true.

    This explains why the tensions ran so high in the Falwell discussion. There, I was the one saying things about people who others knew which they did not think were true. So now I understand OMGF’s perspective a little better. That’s what I like about coming here. It always expands my mind. Thanks.

    Great Site,

    Matt

  • Polly

    Matt,

    Thank you for your concern and the offer. I doubt it would change her mind, though, even if it came from Dr. James Dobson himself…or someone of similar outstanding reputation within Christian circles.
    Anyway, most of the heavy emotion is in the past. We’ve crossed our rubicon, I think. :)

    Peace,
    Polly

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    No need to apologize, Matt. There are plenty of good Christians out there, and it never hurts to be reminded of that. You keep us honest. :)

    However, I’d like to bring up a point I’ve made before. Yes, there are many churches and believers who don’t support the one-lustful-glance-equals-instant-damnation interpretation we’ve been discussing. But as we’ve seen, there are others who do. The text itself doesn’t decide for us; it can support either interpretation. Who is right, and how do you know? There’s no test you can run, no evidence you can gather to adjudicate among the competing interpretations, and if God has a preference, he sure isn’t saying. It comes down to the opinion of individual believers, and since these are based on faith, it’s all but impossible to convince someone of the other group that they’re wrong.

    My point is that this is itself the problem with taking your morality from scripture. Beyond the issue of specific evil acts which the Bible condones, there’s a more general problem of the text not being able to decide among competing opinions. As long as we cling to the idea that morality can only be gotten by interpreting the Bible, we’re never going to get past this, and the intolerant people who believe that God endorses their particular prejudices will continue to do so. What we really need to do is to stop trying to wring blood from a stone, and instead base our morality not on faith and opinion but on empirical facts and reasoning that anyone can examine. That’s the only way to end these otherwise endless debates, and it’s the only workable method of convincing the prejudiced that their prejudices are wrong.


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