Integrity seems almost mythical in our current culture. Suspicion runs deep—largely because of a history of lying and deception. At some points, our culture celebrates this sort of slight in order to gain the upper hand. This problem isn’t novel; we may use a variety of “guarantees” to back up our words—for example, “I swear …”, “On my mother’s grave …”, and so on. But often we fail to be people of our word.
However, Jesus says that Kingdom living leaves no room for deception. As recipients of the truth, disciples must live a life of truth. In this episode of the podcast, we bring you the audio from our most recent live event, in which Dr Tony Payne leads us to discover discipleship without deception.
Links referred to:
- Watch the video from this event
- Works by Tony Payne:
Runtime: 1:01:57 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: Integrity seems almost mythical in our current culture. Suspicion runs deep—largely because of a history of lying and deception. At some points, our culture celebrates this sort of slight in order to gain the upper hand. It’s not a novel problem, of course; there are many “guarantees” that have been established to back our words—like, “I swear …” or “On my mother’s grave …”, etcetera. Jesus says that Kingdom living leaves no room for deception. As recipients of the truth, disciples must live a life of truth.
Today on the podcast, we bring you the audio from our most recent live event on deception. As with other events that we’ve had, we’ve decided not to include the Q&A in our podcast audio, so I hope that as you listen, you’ll enjoy the first two-thirds of our recent live event.
Chase Kuhn: Good evening. We’re very glad to have you here this evening. Those of you who can join us in person, it’s lovely to have you. For many of you who are joining us online, welcome to you as well.
My name is Chase Kuhn and I have the privilege of directing the Centre for Christian Living here at Moore Theological College. The Centre for Christian Living exists to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and tonight, we’re continuing in a series that we’ve dedicated this year on “Commanding the heart”—that is, teaching from Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 on the law. Our particular focus this evening is on deception.
As we think about the law in the Christian life, we often think about walking a tightrope. It feels like we’re either going to fall off on one side into legalism and on the other side, into licentiousness. Instead, we need to reframe the way we think about the law and the way Jesus teaches on the law. Tonight, I’m very thankful that Tony will help us think about the righteous living we’re called to in the kingdom.
We’re going to be thinking about not just avoiding swearing falsely, but also that we should avoid swearing at all. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:33-37:
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
In view of what I’ve just read in the Scriptures, I invite you to pray with me.
We are grateful for what the Lord Jesus taught us about living in your kingdom, about true righteousness.
As we think about the way that we use words tonight—the way that we make promises or commitments, and the temptation to make oaths or to deceive in other ways—we pray that we might learn tonight, that we will be corrected in any way, and that we will be reinforced in gospel truth.
We pray that you will give Tony words that are faithful, clear and true, and that we might listen carefully and attentively so that we might faithfully walk in this Christian life.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let me introduce to you our speaker for this evening. He’s no stranger to the Centre for Christian Living: Dr Tony Payne is writer-in-residence and staff trainer at Campus Bible Study, a ministry of the Anglican Chaplaincy at the University of New South Wales. It’s an Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES) ministry, for those who are familiar with it. He’s also the former director of the Centre for Christian Living. In other words, he used to have my job and probably did it a better job of it than me, actually. I’m still trying to fill some very big shoes. But I’m very grateful for Tony’s work ahead me and what he’s done to pave a way for me to serve in this role, and the continued partnership we share.
Tony has written many books that many of you will be familiar with—the most popular, of course, probably being The Trellis and the Vine or its sequel, The Vine Project. He’s also been quite involved in other materials like Two Ways to Live and other very familiar gospel tracts.
I’ve invited him this evening not just because he’s a friend of mine and a former colleague here at the college, but also because he has real expertise in thinking on the significance of speech for Christian fellowship. I’m really looking forward to what Tony will present to us this evening, and me growing as well as I hear him.
Let me give you a plan for our evening: we’re going to have three sections. The first is that Tony is going to present on deception and what the Bible says about this, especially focusing on Jesus’ words and how we can think about deception in the Christian life. Following this substantial section, Tony and I are going to have a conversation on the stage together about some of the practicalities that we should be exploring together as we think about living our Christian life in view of the teaching we’ve heard. Finally, we’ll have a time—and I’m going to commit to you right now without deceiving you; I will commit to you that we will have a good duration of time for Q&A. How good the questions are is up to you. You can submit questions for us through the Sli.do app and the code for this evening—bless my assistant Karen—is “chicanery”.
For those of you who are wondering, “What is that?”, it’s trickery or deception by quibbling or sophistry. Or a second definition is “a quibble or subterfuge used to trick, deceive or evade”. You get to learn something right away tonight with using the code for the questions!
I think it’s time to get to our program. I’ll invite you to welcome with me Dr Tony Payne. [Applause]
Part 1: Commanding the heart: Deception
Tony Payne: Thanks everybody! It is great to be back at the Centre for Christian Living. As Chase said, it’s a place that I’ve had something to do with in the past, and I have a great deal of fondness for.
I bumped into Mark Thompson earlier on in the foyer, and he confirmed to me what I had thought was the case. We always have prided ourselves at CCL on getting experts to speak on different subjects—world experts, if possible—and when they thought on lies and deception, they thought immediately of me [Laughter]. So I speak to you tonight as an authority on this particular subject.
1. Deception: We’re against it …
There’s a famous old Bob Newhart sketch. I don’t know if any of you remember Bob Newhart. He plays a sort of grumpy, rather neurotic psychiatrist, and he has very simple and efficient advice for all those who come to him with anxiety disorders. His clinical treatment of them consists of just two words: “Stop it!”
“Is that all?” they ask.
“That’s it,” he says. “What do you want to be? Terrified all your life? Just stop it!”
At one level, the simple and obvious truth about our subject tonight—“What should be our attitude to lies, deception, falsehood, broken promises and general duplicity?” is, well, “Stop it! Don’t do that sort of thing!” It’s very hard to speak on deception, lies and falsehood without saying upfront that we’re kind of against this sort of thing. Lies and deceit and falsehood are just not on. They’re wrong. But that’s about as satisfying as Bob Newhart as a psychiatrist, because life’s more complicated than that and we’re more complicated than that.
After all, what, exactly, is a lie? Have you ever thought about that? Well, “not telling the truth”: that would be a very simple and obvious definition. It’s just not telling the truth. But is it a lie if I intend to mislead you through my deceptive intention, but in my ignorance, actually tell you the truth? Have I lied to you or not? Or what if I tell you the truth, but in my deceptive heart, deceive you because I haven’t told the whole truth? Or I’ve told you a truth in order to deceive you? Truth and lies are complicated, because we’re complicated, and our interactions with each other and our circumstances are tricky and messy.
Of course, when you discuss the subject of deceptions—particularly when you look into the ethics of lies and falsehood—it’s not very long before the Nazis come knocking at the door. The illustration of what you do when the Nazi comes to the door and asks you if you have Jews hidden in your cellar is a standard trope of all discussion of truth and lies. It raises an interesting question: is it morally permissible to lie or cheat or dissemble and otherwise deceive the Nazis at the door? If so, is it permissible sometimes to lie in other circumstances for a righteous or greater good?
And if so, where does one stop with that line of reasoning? Is it okay to tell my wife that her haircut is fantastic—it’s lovely to welcome my wife into the room tonight, by the way; lovely to have you here, sweetheart!—is it okay to tell my wife that her haircut is fantastic when I really think, “Mm, maybe it’s not the best one she’s ever had”? I’ve learned by bitter experience that in the evaluation of haircuts, there should only be three grades, starting with “Great!” and moving upwards to “Fabulous!” and “Gorgeous!” [Laughter] But when it comes to speaking about haircuts, is it okay to just lie a little bit to spare someone’s feelings?
Well, the good thing about this series is that it takes Jesus’ teaching as a point of departure. So we’re going to start there—with what Jesus says about this subject. We’ll discover possibly that our questions might be answered, or maybe not: maybe Jesus will challenge and critique us, and suggest our question should go in a different direction.
Let’s see what he has to say.
2. What is Jesus for and against in Matthew 5?
a. For integrity
Chase has already read the passage for us in Matthew 5. It’s a passage about the taking of oaths.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matt 5:33-37)
Now, it’s interesting that this passage is not about lying in general or deception theoretically; it’s about a particular kind of false speaking. It’s about oath-taking. It’s about making some kind of promise or vow and then swearing by some higher power that “I will perform what I have promised”. Jesus says, “It was said to those of old” and he gives this quote. That quote is almost like a bit of a combination of a number of Old Testament teachings. It’s very similar to Numbers 30:2, for example, which says that, “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
Straightaway, Jesus is twisting our perceptions a little bit. When we normally think about lies and deception, we often immediately think of false or misleading statements about what has happened, or what the current state of affairs is. We say, “It wasn’t me. It was him” or we say, “No, I’m not late. I’m sure we said three o’clock” when we know very well that wasn’t the case. Or we might say, “Your haircut looks fabulous”. These would be transgression of the ninth commandment—not to bear false witness—not to say something that’s untrue about what has happened.
But what Jesus is talking about here is more in the realm of the third commandment—not to take the Lord’s name in vain or for nothing—not to call upon God as a guarantor that you are going to do what you said you were going to do, and then not to perform this thing that you have promised.
So interestingly in these verses, he’s not talking about lying or deception about a current or past state of affairs so much as a future state of affairs—as to whether what I say and intend will match with what I’m actually going to do and intend to do.
Now, the two are obviously related: both involve deception, whether we’re talking about the past or the future. But here, it’s interesting: Jesus is particularly talking about faithfulness in performing what we have spoken. What he’s driving for and commending and wants his people to seek is clear enough: he wants them to seek a simple integrity between the words and intentions of their minds, and their future actions.
In the original Greek of this passage, there’s a really interesting phrase in the way it’s put: after saying, “Don’t bother with all these sneaky oaths” (and we’ll talk about the sneaky oaths in just a minute), he says at the end of the sentence, “Just for you, it shall be ‘Yes, yes’, ‘No, no’”‘. That’s all there is in the Greek—just “Yes, yes” and “No, no”.
Now, whether the doubling of “Yes” and “No” like this is meant to intensify it—as if to say, “It should just be ‘Absolutely yes’ or ‘Absolutely no’”—or whether it’s like James (who appears to quote this episode ) says in his epistles, “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (Jas 5:12)—either way, the idea is very clear. There’s to be no duplicity or doubleness. There’s to be no discrepancy between saying “Yes” and performing “Yes”—between saying “No” and doing “No”. Jesus is commanding a simple, straightforward, unvarnished integrity between our words, our intentions and our actions.
That’s what he’s for. What is he against?
b. Against Pharisaical “righteousness”
He’s against the alternative approach that is captured in the attitude and approach of Pharisaic righteousness. So are all the examples in Matthew 5, as you probably know. The whole passage is about how the righteousness of the kingdom that Jesus is bringing must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. In fact, you won’t enter the kingdom, he said, unless your righteousness is of a different order to that which the Pharisees practised. The word “again” in Matthew 5:33 shows that here’s another example of the same thing: you have heard it was said in the past, “Don’t swear falsely”; this was the ancient command of the law. But how is that being played out in Pharisaic righteousness? That’s what verses 34-36 are about. When he says these strange things—
“Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” (Matt 5:34-36)
—what’s he going on about here? Why would people swear by these different entities, when they swear their oaths—by their heavens and earths and Jerusalems and heads?
The answer seems to be so as not to have to fulfill your oath. We get a window into the cultural practice of oath-taking later on in Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 23, where Jesus, in more detail, gets really stuck into the Pharisaic approach to oath-taking. He says in Matthew 23,
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. (Matt 23:16–22)
In other words, what the Pharisees had gotten into the habit of doing is to cover over the deception that they wished to practise with a legal patina of righteousness. The oaths that they provided—the oaths that they made to heaven and to Jerusalem and to other things—were a means by which the demands of the law might be kept. It was a means by which I could swear an oath and say that I’ve kept a certain legal requirement to that oath while, at the same time, wishing to practise and do falsely. It was a means by which they were able to say, “I haven’t actually sworn falsely, although I didn’t follow through on my promise, because the particular kind of oath I swore isn’t always and necessarily binding”. In other words, as in much of the Pharisaic righteousness, it was an attempt to have a form and an appearance of righteousness and of law-keeping while denying its substance.
This approach is well known to us. It’s familiar to our own hearts—so much so that we even call it “Pharisaical” when we believe and practise in this kind of way; when we make fine, external distinctions and so downplay the actual substance and content of the law; and when we have a fake kind of skin-deep appearance of righteousness, like a whitewashed tomb. Jesus is clearly critiquing that and saying that his righteousness—the righteousness that he brings—is far different and superior.
c. Against the law?
So Jesus is against the Pharisaic approach. But is he also against the law itself? The law says here that you should swear truly and perform that which you have sworn. But Jesus says, “Don’t bother swearing oaths at all; just keep your word”.
Jesus has already said that he’s not abolishing the law; he’s come to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17ff). But he seems to be saying something here that is above or beyond the law. He seems to be saying something different from what the law said. The law said, “Perform your oaths”; Jesus is saying, “Don’t bother with oaths at all”. What’s going on? What’s Jesus’ attitude to the law here, and how does his apparent critique of the law relate to what he’s saying about deception?
To answer that and to understand the kind of substructure of what Jesus is saying about truth and deception here, we’ve got to go back and look to what was said to “those of old” (Matt 5:33). Jesus is referencing the law—the Old Testament. We’ve got to go a long way back and find out the background. We have to go so far back, in fact, that we end up at the creation of the world.
3. What was said to those of old
a. God, truth and the world
I’m just going to reassure you: we’re not going to do the whole Bible here. We’re not starting with Genesis and going all the way through. But unless we understand how and why God created the world in truth, we won’t really understand what Jesus is driving at in Matthew 5, because, as Psalm 33 puts it so beautifully,
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
God is the creator of a real and good world—a world that is full of his steadfast love. What God loves, the Psalm tells us, is righteousness and justice. So the faithfulness, uprightness and goodness of the Lord–of the creator—is reflected, bound into and woven into everything he has made.
As Proverbs 8 says, the world was crafted with wisdom as God’s workmen, who shaped and ordered the world according to the infinite wisdom, goodness and knowledge of God’s mind. We see this because God creates the world with words—with language. He’s the first speaker, I guess you’d say, and all his speech is true, good and righteous. He thinks and speaks into existence a world—a world that is ordered, shaped and directed towards purposes that express his mind through the language he speaks. The world perfectly corresponds to the speech of God, by which he created it. His speech is always upright, righteous and good. So the world, in its design and its order, is constructed according to the righteousness and goodness of God.
Now, this is perhaps not new to any of you that this is the way God made the world. But have you ever thought that this is what makes true speech possible within our world? The possibility of true communication is based on the fact that God created an intelligible, understandable, righteous, good, ordered world, and that he created us with the ability to understand and speak like him about this world, to communicate with him and with one another, and to understand the world through language. The world was made through language, and we were made to participate in the world through language.
In fact, the responsibility that Adam and Eve were given—the responsibility we have as humans—to live in, fulfill, multiply, be fruitful in, rule over, care for, develop and work the world that God has put us in is only possible through language. The human project, if you like—what God has given us to do in his creation—is a linguistic project. It’s about naming, understanding and participating in a world that is shot through with words and ideas—with intelligibility and something that can be understood.
So when our speech matches and accords with what is real in the world—with its order and with the action that we’re performing within it—we call that speech “true”. It matches with something beyond ourselves and the world beyond us and in relations beyond us that are fitting, appropriate and right. It represents what is there, or, at least, what I think and perceive to be there.
When we say something true—when we say, “Yes, actually, it was me. I did do it” or “It’s my fault that I was late” or “I think you need a new hairdresser”—when we say something true, as we promise to do something truly, we’re depending on the fact that it’s possible for our words to accurately represent something—a reality beyond ourselves—a reality that’s knowable and communicable—that you can say something true about or lie about.
Now, all of this may seem blindingly obvious and, in a sense, it is. But it’s not blindingly obvious in our culture at present, or in our society. In fact, Western society has been rebelling against this idea for most of the last 150 years. When we deny God as creator, and the world has been doing that for quite a while—when we deny him as creator and the world as a good created reality that has an intelligibility, order and goodness bound into its very self objectively—something we can know and communicate about—something that invites us to know it and to speak about it—if we deny all of that, then what are we left with? What are words? They’re just words. If nothing is objectively real, true or good beyond my perception of them, and my chatter about them, therefore truth is really just an entirely personal construct. You can have your truth and I can have my truth. What is truth? Language becomes a game—a self-referential game—a game we play with each other, with conventions and rules, like the rules of Monopoly that we make up and stick to, but which don’t refer to anything beyond the game. There’s nothing real out there that our speech might actually correspond to.
Such is the direction of modern philosophy—of enlightenment philosophy in its late corrupt form that we call postmodernism. There’s nothing that my words correspond to. They’re just words. Therefore, truth is subjective and personal, not objective and real.
But of course, it doesn’t work as a philosophy, because the world isn’t like that. We know that in our experience of it. We rely on the possibility of truthful communication every day—of telling you something that actually accords with the reality beyond the fact of my speaking about it—something we can both understand and act upon. To deny this and suppress this truth about how things are is to deny the truth of reality, the truth of God. That’s, of course, what we do as rebellious humans: we deny that truth and suppress it, and find ourselves given over to a debased and foolish mind (Rom 1:18-22)—in this case, a mind that refuses to accept the possibility, in theory, of truth.
The world was made with language—with God’s language. It has the intelligibility of God’s mind and language built into it, and the world thus invites us to use language within it truthfully and truly. We do a number of things in this language: we represent the world to each other. We describe and articulate the nature of the world to one another. The world invites us to do that. Language points to something beyond itself, and represents it in our minds and to each other, whether that’s a current thing or object or a state of affairs, or a future state of affairs we imagine and plan together. Language allows us to act. In fact, language is an action. Language is how we do things in the world—how we develop; how we promise, explain and plan; how we command, plead and tell; how we ask, answer and rejoice. Language is the chief form—or one of the chief forms—of our action in the world in the project of the world that is before us.
Furthermore, all of it is social: language is how we commune with each other in the world and with God. Language is the currency of relationship and community. It’s the means by which we reveal ourselves to each other, know and trust each other, and make promises to each other.
In all of this, we act like God. We act like the one who acts and relates to us by speaking; who describes and represents what is real in the world through true language; who creates through language and who promises and acts through his speech and word as well. His speech is always true:
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
The quote, of course, raises the possibility of not speaking truly—of doing what man habitually does in this quote—that is, lie, dissemble, fail to fulfill what we’ve said. Our rebellion or rejection of God’s purposes—one that went way, way back to the garden—is a rebellion against the right use of language. So we do wrong to one another now with language instead of goodness.
b. Lies and law
Now, we won’t look at Genesis 3. I said we weren’t going to work our way through the whole Bible. But you remember: it’s full of lies, half-truths, evasions, blame-shifting, and all the usual ways we misuse speech for our own purposes. Human sin, in other words, is profoundly linguistic. Instead of using language to serve God, to serve each other and to participate in the world rightly through speech and language, we use language as a weapon in our rebellion against God and in our mistreatment of each other. So our human community and our relationships disintegrate.
So when God redeems his people and saves them—when he brings them out of Egypt, and when he redeems them from Egypt, saves them and draws them to himself, and gives them a law to guide their renewed, redeemed life as his people, he wants their holiness to include a holiness of speech. We have commandment #3: don’t take my name in vain. Don’t swear falsely. We have commandment #9: don’t bear false witness against each other. We have Numbers 30:2:
If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
The laws express what God wants for his people—what it looks like to return to him and to live the way we were created to live. The laws express what it looks like to use our speech to speak truth, to do good and not to do the alternative—not to lie, not to bear false witness, not to deceive, not to fail to follow through, and all the other multiple different types of evil speech.
But in many ways, though, the laws assume and work with the sinful dishonesty that exists in the world. They seek to identify it, regulate it, correct it and hem it in. After all, when you think about it, why do we even need oaths? Why do we need to invoke a higher power—even the Lord himself—to guarantee that at least in this instance and at least on this occasion, I’m actually telling you the truth and I will actually follow through? Why do we swear on the souls of our grandchildren, as The Godfather did, that this will happen or not happen? Because the expectation is that the rest of the time, we lie continually, and hardly ever follow through on our promises.
Oaths are a way of differentiating our supposedly really truly really truthful speech on this occasion from what you know to be the pack of lies that we normally tell. That’s what an oath is. If you do take an oath, says the law, in the Lord’s name, you’d better fulfill it, because you’re taking it in the name of the Lord. You’re calling upon him to be the avenger if you tell a lie, because lies and dishonesty are abhorrent to the Lord. He’s the God of truth, who loves truth and righteousness. This comes out in multiple ways as well right through the Old Testament, for example:
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,
but those who act faithfully are his delight.
There many sayings like this right throughout the wisdom literature and the rest of the Old Testament.
It’s interesting, too, in Proverbs 12:22, how, once again, lying and faithlessness are kind of paralleled. To tell a lie about what has happened or to lie about what you plan to do, or to fail to act faithfully in line with the words we have spoken, all these are abominable to God. They’re all of the same kind of thing and should also be abhorrent to us. These practices destroy the possibility of what we were put on the earth to do—that is, to love, use, enjoy, develop and participate in the good reality of the world in loving communion and relationship with each other and with God. Deception and false speech destroys all of this.
c. The ongoing problem
Of course, although the law did stipulate the standard of truthfulness and sought to regulate the true speech of Israel—the lying lips of Israel—it never worked. The story of the rest of the Old Testament is the story of the lies, deceit and faithlessness of God’s people in their speech, for example, Jeremiah 9:4-6, which, like everything in Jeremiah, is pretty cheery stuff:
Let everyone beware of his neighbour,
and put no trust in any brother,
for every brother is a deceiver,
and every neighbour goes about as a slanderer.
Everyone deceives his neighbour,
and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongue to speak lies;
they weary themselves committing iniquity.
Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit,
they refuse to know me, declares the Lord.
There’s a kind of an habitual, learned, implacable commitment to falsehood that Jeremiah is indicting his people for. The result of it is a lack of relationship not only with each other (you can’t trust each other), but a lack of relationship with God who speaks and requires the truth.
Psalm 12 says much the same:
Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone;
for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.
Everyone utters lies to his neighbor;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is master over us?”
Notice verse 2: the expression “a double heart” is interesting. Augustine, who wrote some very interesting treatises on lies and deception, built his understanding of falsehood and lies on this idea of the “doubleness” of heart—on duplicity, an inner duplicity. To lie, said Augustine, was to have two things in your heart: what you believe or know to be true (or what you believe or know you intend to do), and then the other thing that you’re deciding to tell your neighbour instead. For Augustine, the essence of lie was this doubleness: I’m aware of a truth. I understand fully what I plan to do or what the current state of affairs is. But what I tell you is different from what I know. I’m going to deceive you on the basis of what I think I know and what I’m going to tell you, because doing that in some way, you think will be to your advantage.
We know this about lies—even the small ones we tell day by day that just make life easier. We know in our hearts what the truth is and we kind of want to say it. But we know in another part of our hearts that if we say that truth, it will get us into trouble—either trouble with the other person or trouble with the future. So we dissemble. We lie. We evade. We lie.
But I think Augustine and Psalm 12 are on to something: the problem of lying and false speech goes very, very deep within us. It goes to the heart—into the fundamental problem with the human heart. It goes to a problem that the law is powerless to fix.
4. But Jesus
a. The truth of the world has come into the world
That, of course, brings us to Jesus, the truth of the world who has come into the world:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:9-10, 14)
God’s language became flesh and dwelt among us. God sends his Son into the world to be a fully and completely true human, and a truthful human. He is, in no sense, a rebel against God, the truth of God and the truth of the world. In fact, he is God himself—God’s own speech made flesh to reveal the truth about God to us, to reveal the truth about the world to us, and to redeem us from falsehood and lies. In doing this, God fulfils his promise, the promise to which the Law and the Prophets pointed forward, of redeeming for himself a people who spoke the truth and who lived in the truth.
This is why Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matt 5:17). “I’ve come to do what they were always intended to do. I’ve come to fulfil what their purpose was: to bring a kingdom in which people spoke the truth to one another from the heart.” That’s how God created us to be. That’s what we fell from. That’s what the law pointed to, regulated, pointed forward to and promised. Now, says Jesus, this is what’s happening in me and my arrival. We no longer speak from a double heart, but tell the plain and honest truth to one another, including the truth about what we are going to do.
b. Judging and saving from deceit
So we find ourselves back in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5—back to the Pharisees and their legalistic trickiness, by which they sought to cover over the corruption, which was a corruption of their heart. It’s out of the heart of man that all these evils come, Jesus said elsewhere:
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)
The problem is within. In that sense, Augustine was perfectly correct. Jesus comes both to judge and condemn this Pharisaic foolishness of seeking to cover over the corruption of the heart with a patina of righteousness. He comes to condemn the lying and deceptive heart all over again. But he also comes to do and bring something radically new: to redeem for himself a people who would be his subjects in a new kingdom in which integrity of speech from the heart would be the norm, and where there would be no need for oaths to guarantee that we weren’t lying, because the members of that kingdom would seek a whole different level of righteousness in which there is no doubleness of heart, but just “Yes, yes” or “No, no”. Jesus comes to do that which the Law and the Prophets pointed to but didn’t achieve in themselves.
c. A new community of truth
Now, all of this is kind of embryonic here in the Sermon on the Mount. There’s so much more to happen: Jesus is going to die on the cross to redeem us from our unrighteousness. He’s going to rise from the dead as the king of this kingdom. He’s going to pour out his Spirit on his people to recreate them and regenerate them as his people, and give them a new heart. He’s going to create a new community of his people who, by the power of his Spirit, speak the truth to one another in love. That’s what we see unfolding in the rest of the New Testament in passages that speak about this new community of truth:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:25)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3:9-10)
Falsehood and lies belong to the old self, the old way, the old man, the old dominion, not in the new way of the kingdom that we’ve been granted entry to. So cast away and put off falsehood, lies and deception like old, dirty, filthy clothes that we’re glad to be rid of, because our redemption and renewal in Christ is a renewal of our speech. It’s the sanctification and redemption of our speech—of our language. Christians learn a whole new way of speaking—a whole new language—as members of God’s kingdom—a language of truth and righteousness, as opposed to falsehood and lies.
It’s interesting that in these two verses, that are two slightly different but related motivations. In Ephesians 4, we’re to speak the truth because we belong to one another: we’re members of a new body. So to lie to a brother is to lie to ourselves. It’s to cheat ourselves, because we’re all connected. We’re part of a new body—a new community that God has grafted us into in Christ. In Colossians, the motivation is that we’re part of a whole new person. We’re not an old self and an old man; we’re a new man and a new person, a new creation that is being “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10). In other words, it’s what we’ve seen in this big sweep from God’s purposes in creation through to what he’s doing in Jesus. We’re becoming what our creator intended us always to be: people who lived in, spoke in and participated in the truth, and for whom truth was the beating heart of their language and interaction with each other, just like it was for his Son, in whose perfect image we’re being renewed.
This is the kingdom to which Jesus ascended as king, and this is a kingdom he calls us into and gives us entry into through his death and resurrection—a kingdom of righteousness, a kingdom of truth.
5. Seeking the righteousness of integrity today
So going all the way back to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has redirected our focus, as he always does. We might have come tonight thinking about “What constitutes a lie? Are lies always wrong? Is my speech really lying or is it okay if I do that?” We often come to these questions with a sense of negotiation: what is possible or allowable to do? When would I be in the wrong? When I would be in the right? Perhaps it would be the ultimate irony if we spent our time tonight trying to come up with a classification of what might be acceptable forms of speech for Christians that passed the test of truth, and what might just fall on the wrong side of the line and be constituted as lies, because that’s exactly the approach that Jesus is critiquing in Matthew 5: one that looks for loopholes or bypasses so that we can shape the world around ourselves and our convenience.
The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teaching points us to a radical new approach to truth-telling and to language—a whole different level of seeking a righteousness in our speech of integrity that belongs to the kingdom. It’s to bring about that sort of righteousness that Jesus came. That’s the kind of kingdom he invites us into: one that seeks that level of truth from the heart, that longs and loves truth, and that casts off falsehood. It casts it away from us with a kind of abhorrence that it’s cast away from God, who hates lying lips.
Now, “What do you expect?” you might say. “You want me to be perfect?” Well, yes! That’s exactly the standard: we aspire to no lesser standard than perfection because it’s what Jesus calls us to on the Sermon on the Mount. “Be perfect,” he says, “as my Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). One day in God’s time when the kingdom finally dawns in all its fullness, we will be perfect. That’s exactly what we’ll be like.
So in the meantime as we wait, we seek a perfect righteousness—a perfect righteousness of that kingdom with all our heart. We’re totally dissatisfied with mealy mouthed tricky, deceptive kind of ways of getting away with what we can get away with in our speech, and with tricky attempts to craft a surface honesty that, in fact, covers over a dissembling or selfish heart. Because we look to that perfect righteousness and we seek it, and we know that that’s our kingdom and our future, we have nothing to do with lies and deceit. We cast it off.
All of us find different forms of deceit and falsehood that we need to cast off. For some of us, we like to spin narratives—maybe slightly exaggerated or slightly false narratives about ourselves to make ourselves look good or to excuse ourselves, or to win the favour of our boss, or to win the favour of those around us. Some of us throw out promises and intentions like confetti, with no intention to keep them and no real bother about whether we’re held to those words. “Must have you over for dinner sometime”, “Call you next week”, or the worst one of all, “I’ll pray for you”. We’ll think further about these in parts 2 and 3—about the practicalities, and you can ask your questions about what particular manifestations of that heart of deception that you find most difficult and most besetting.
For now, I want to conclude by saying, as Christians, we live a new life in a new kingdom, one that radically repudiates the common human standards of lies, deceit and faithlessness by which we used to live and by which the world around us now continues to live, and in fact, regards as normal and even approves of. We seek a quite new and radical righteousness, the one that Jesus himself embodied, the one that God created us for in the first place, the one that the Spirit prompts and enables us to adopt: the righteousness of integrity.
How about we have a little pray and then we’ll move to our next section.
We do thank you for the challenge that Jesus brings us—how so often, he cuts to the heart of our own personal defensiveness about ourselves, our legalism, our desire to carve out for ourselves a space where we can do what we really want to do, or get away with what we want to get away with, and how he calls us to repent of all of that and seek a new kingdom and a new righteousness.
We thank you that by your death and resurrection—by the death of your Son and his atonement in our place—we can enter that kingdom, and have our lies and deceit paid for and wiped away. We pray, Father, that as you call us now to live a life of truth—of radical truth-telling—that you would work in our hearts to call us to that—to cast off white lies and falsehood, and instead, to put on the truth that speaks to one another in love.
We pray all this in Jesus’ name, Father. Amen.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I want to tell you about some more resources for your Christian life. First, I encourage you to browse the Centre for Christian Living website, where you’ll discover a wealth of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our events, and essays on important topics. Head over to ccl.moore.edu.au to find out more.
While you’re on our website, I encourage you to register for our final live event in 2022. As we conclude our series of events looking at “Commanding the heart” in Matthew 5, we’ll look at the topic of vengeance. From the dawn of time, systems of justice have demanded recompense for wrongs. The most fundamental systems have been kind for kind—that is, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, and so on. In fact, this sort of rudimentary justice system is biblical and lies at the foundation of much of the law in Scripture. But in the Kingdom, Jesus tells us that there is no room for vengeance. Indeed, life in the Kingdom demands forbearance and forgiveness.
What does this mean for us practically? Is there any justice? I invite you to join us on October 19 as Dr Andrew Errington leads us to discover how Jesus transforms our expectations and pursuits of justice, and leads us away from vengeance. Head over to ccl.moore.edu.au to register.
I’m really excited about the events we’re planning in 2023 for the Centre for Christian Living. The year will focus on virtue in the Christian life, and we’ll be looking at things like love—in fact, the distinctive of Christian love; virtue in an age of virtue signalling; self-control in a time of self-actualisation; and perseverance in the midst of hardship. I think it’s going to be a rich year as we continue to explore ethical themes for Christians as they seek to follow after Jesus. Stay tuned to our website where you can register for our events.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Part 2: Discussing practicalities
CK: Now we’re going to have a conversation. What I want to do is just keep greasing the wheels of thinking about how what Tony’s just taught us lands in our lives and our experience together in community as a church or even just in our homes or other relationships that we have. Tony and I are going to talk about opening up some of the things he’s talked through now.
The motivation to deceive
CK: You talked about the motivation that comes out of what Paul’s writing on, in particular, and what motivates us to tell the truth. I want to know what motivates us to deceive. Can you unpick common areas where we’re tempted to deceive?
TP: Sure. It’s the opposite of love. The new kingdom of Jesus and the new life can be summed up as love—as a desire for the other person and their benefit, interest and well-being in the goodness that God gives and the goodness that God is. Love focuses me on your interests, not my interest.
The opposite of love, you could say, is “hate”, but it’s kind of “pride”. The opposite of love is an inward turn, a turn that says that my interest and wellbeing is what matters most. That’s what drives all deceit. The doubleness of heart comes from “I have an interest. It’s against your interest, or your interest might threaten mine. I’m going to speak falsely to you because I want to protect myself. I want to grow myself. There’s something I want to achieve that you’re a means of achieving.”
Deception is part of the power we seek to exercise over one another for the sake of ourselves. Rather than exercising my power for your benefit, I seek to exercise power over you for my benefit. That’s the essence of sin. We do it with language, so deception is just the common currency of that power move that happens in all sorts of different ways.
CK: That’s fascinating. You talked about love being a motivation to tell the truth, and I guess that builds upon certain expectations of what could happen if we invest in that. Yet fear seems to keep us back from that.
Deception and control
CK: One of the dynamics I’m wondering about is how control comes into this equation. If I’m afraid of something—if I’m afraid of telling you the truth or if I’m afraid of losing something—then I’m going to deceive you in a way to try, it seems, to control my circumstances, control your life, maybe control mine or some outcomes that I’m looking for. How do you think we pursue control through deception?
TP: Cleverly or badly [Laughter]. I think that’s perceptive, Chase: it’s not just that I want you to do something for me, and so I manipulate you through speech. But I’m afraid, because the little kingdom I’ve built for myself in my rebellion against God is a fragile tinpot kingdom that is constantly under threat and constantly in danger of collapse. That’s where our underlying anxiety about our lives comes from. So sometimes the control we seek is a control to keep fear at bay. I’m worried that if I tell you the truth about who I am, you won’t accept me. You won’t like me. In fact, you might take advantage of me even more. If I tell you something true that you could use against me, I’m worried that you will.
CK: I’ll give an anecdote: I knew somebody who was catfished—somebody who had an online profile created by someone to deceive them into thinking they were somebody else. A relationship was pursed online. It was tragic! This person was deceiving this friend in all sorts of ways. One of the things that surprised me was the persistence of this friend in keeping that relationship. What kept them was the breadcrumbs—these little gifts that kept coming that kept baiting them along, like, “Oh, maybe if I just hang on a little longer and a little longer”.
On the end of the person being deceived, they’re always worried about looking the fool. Yet there’s always the promise of truth and there’s always a promise of some reward. The other side is afraid of giving the truth and so, they keep baiting people to keep believing the lie to keep something secure that’s false all the way along, right from the beginning. It’s a really tragic way of thinking about a totally false relationship. It’s not real community; it’s a fake thing.
TP: It’s an interesting example of how linguistic deceit can be a whole narrative of deceit, but it actually contains lots and lots of nuggets of truth, and gains its plausibility and its power through saying true things in order to, at the large level, deceive. Good deceivers do that: good deceivers give you enough truth that you believe them.
CK: Yeah, that’s what the devil does in the Garden.
TP: Yeah! Almost true enough—just enough to believe. Some true things to lead you along the path, breadcrumb-style. But you’re part of a whole narrative that is false and double-hearted in this massive way. It is tragic.
Deception and authenticity
CK: I think about authenticity today and how important it seems to be in our culture. The most virtuous thing we can do is be the authentic version of ourselves. And yet, there is pressure to present something almost that you wish you were, rather than what you actually are. How does Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and what we’ve been considering tonight relates to the way we think about ourselves and our identities in relationship with others?
TP: There’s two things you raise that are interesting: the authenticity thing is fascinating, because we do value authenticity really highly—almost for its own sake, whether or not it represents something true about the world. Sometimes authenticity, or authenticity as it’s used in a worldly sense, has to do with bringing to the surface and laying out absolutely everything that’s going on in me, or everything that I perceive or feel, and by virtue of simply doing that, it’s true.
It’s true, in one sense, that it does represent what’s in my heart. It’s not double-hearted. But it’s not true in the sense that very often, it doesn’t match with reality. So if truth is not just a matter of my own heart, but how my heart interacts with the real, true reality that’s out there and how I represent it, speak of it and work with it, an authenticity just in and of itself—that is, the unfolding of who I am, and I’m just letting it all out there and showing you exactly who I am—I may be totally deceived about myself and about the truth about myself. So the authenticity thing is fascinating: it’s a desire for truth, but without wanting to admit there could be a truth beyond me that critiques me.
The second thing you talked about was in an Insta kind of world where I’m crafting my image, how does authenticity fit into that? Well, it’s airbrushed authenticity. Authenticity is “If I am myself, then you’ll accept me just for who I am, if I really let you know. But I’m going to present a curated version of myself that I think you’ll like, or the version of myself that I wish I was”. It’s kind of a sad reality.
CK: I like what you said before about not setting up too many rules for us. I noticed you combed your hair today. You didn’t just get out of bed and turn up and say, “Accept the real me!”
TP: I did! Yeah, yeah. [Laughter]
CK: You’ve curated an image, in one sense, in combing your hair. In other words, you’re not saying it’s not okay to wash your face, brush your teeth or comb your hair to present. But there are ways we can deceive people into thinking we are somebody we are not to try to garner some kind of support, or who knows what.
Deception and mental health
CK: Just on that, how do you help people with mental health issues who may not actually perceive reality well? You could take a real extreme example of somebody who is anorexic who is really struggling with their own body image. They cannot mentally grab hold of reality about their condition. They’ve been deceived, in one sense—self-deceived. How do you speak truth to people who have been deceived in that way?
TP: This is a really huge question to do with the interaction between what happens when something goes wrong in our minds—when the processing equipment goes wrong? That’s sort of what mental illness is: the processor has developed the fault in some sort of way so that a stimulus comes in and the processor should work with it and spit out a reaction or a perception. Instead, it spits out the wrong thing and we react wrongly.
Why does that happen? It’s a normal day, but I feel incredibly sad for absolutely no reason.
CK: I’m really worried about this thing. It may not even be a real thing, but it’s a thing I’m worried about.
TP: Exactly! You’ve got all the complexities of what happens when this thing that’s your body and your brain start to malfunction, and we don’t process things properly. How is that thing connected with the fact that we’re also very self-interested, self-focused, sinful people, who want to build a world around ourselves? People with mental illness do that just as much as people without.
It’s very complicated, because you’ve got to deal with this other issue that’s going on in that person’s health, life and mind that doesn’t enable them to process and think accurately and faithfully with what’s really going on. At the same time, you want to bring the truth of the gospel to that situation as well, and speak the truth into that situation and not live the lie along with them. So in a sense, reassure them that their false reality is true so that they don’t feel worried—
CK: —is deceiving them in another way.
TP: Yeah! It’s really hard.
Deception and oversharing?
CK: What about oversharing? I’m an American, so I classically overshare [Laughter]. I feel like I should have no secrets from anyone. I have to tell you everything about me.
TP: You should let your “No” be “No” more often, Chase.
CK: Thank you very much, Tony! Is it deceitful to not tell everyone everything? In other words, is it appropriate to not share true things?
TP: Of course.
CK: And if so, when does it become deception?
TP: It’s very often helpful and loving not to share true things. Proverbs says often “The wise man keeps his mouth shut. He guards his tongue”, because the more your speak, the more likely you’ll get into trouble, the more likely you are, inadvertently or foolishly, to commit yourself to something that you can’t follow through on, or to mislead someone.
It’s one of the strange things about lies and deception, when you think about it: it’s one of the only forms of sin that we do almost casually and inadvertently before we’ve even realised we’ve done it. It just happens. We’re in a context, we’re talking, and all of a sudden, out it comes, and you think to yourself, “Why’d I say that? Where did that come from? I’ve just told them that I was somewhere else for no reason to try to get out of the fact that I wasn’t here late,” etcetera. I’ve just said this thing to protect myself. You don’t inadvertently, casually, almost without meaning to rob a bank or commit adultery or something like that. These are things that tend to require a bit more forethought and intentionality. But it’s amazing how easily and quickly the words spill out and we misspeak.
It’s because language is how we exist in the world. We find it goes wrong all the time. It’s why Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and other places wisely say, “Just watch your mouth”. Think twice before you speak, because the criteria is not “I’m telling you something true about the world”; the criteria is, “As I speak the truth to you in love, how can I say something that helps you, serves you, builds you, encourages you, possibly rebukes you, possibly teaches or challenges you, supports you?” How can I say something that, as a community, builds us and grows us? It’s not about me and me sharing; it’s about you and you growing. It’s not about saying as many true things as possible; it’s about saying the true things that serve and grow you, and casting off the false things that mislead, discourage and tear you down.
CK: Well, oversharing can often play up the self a lot more than it needs to. You’re right. As you were saying about the ways we often lie just without thinking, it reminded me of a really silly thing that may be helpful: it’s like when the little kid picks up the phone for their parent and their parent’s really busy and doesn’t want to talk to whoever’s calling: “Hi, is your mom there?” [Laughter] “I’m not here!” “What was that?” You’re almost forcing the child to lie on your behalf at that point.
I’ve never known anybody to do that. [Laughter]
TP: Did you see that on TV or something? [Laughter]
CK: I’ve never seen that in any home I’ve lived in. Not my wife!
But we don’t trust the other person when we feel we have to deceive them. In Christian community, that’s a real sad thing. So what if, in that instance, as silly as it is, you just pick up the phone and say, “Hi. I’m sorry. I’m really busy right now. I’ll speak to you again later”? We’re actually trusting them with the truth at that point. So respond to us kindly, rather than having to deceive them as if we’re not present and therefore stuck and trapped. I think we often feel worried about the outcomes of what will come because of the truth, and therefore don’t trust the other person, and therefore feel we must deceive.
TP: It’s especially the case in Christian community when we want to please one another. We want to please other people, because we feel good when we please other people and when they think positively towards us. So our garnishing of things, our false promises, our over-promising when we promise to do something we know we can’t deliver—we do it all usually because we want to be thought better of by somebody or by the community, because that makes us feel good.
Very often, we do a kindness and a gracious thing for other people to show them that we’re thinking hard about the integrity of our words and our actions with them. It matters more to me that I speak truthfully to you and that I care for you than that I promise something that I’ll never deliver, or that I try and impress you in some way.
I remember in one of our other CCL events some time ago, Chase, you talked about Christian community and how, within Christian community, a community that’s built on justification by faith—by this profound humility we share, that we’re all one and justified before Christ and we’re completely okay and blameless because of Jesus’ death—it does free you to an honesty about your life. I don’t have to pretend about my life anymore, because we’re all forgiven sinners here. So rather than trying to impress one another that we might feel better, we can confess our sins to one another, that we might be healed—that we might pray for one another and avoid those things.
Being of the age and generation I am, I tend to dislike pop psychology in all its forms.
CK: All millennials love pop psychology!
TP: They do, I know. I’m reluctant to raise the term “vulnerable”, as in “vulnerability”, which is a very popular pop psychology sort of thing: “We all need to be more vulnerable”. But the truth that it’s pushing into is this truth: the truth to be able to be honest about the frailty and weakness that we have. We’re not trying to deceive people about the sin we inhabit and we suffer from, because it’s so very often an encouragement and a blessing to others to support you, to encourage you in your failure, and to pray for you, rather than to try and hide it and deceive them about it.
CK: That’s lovely.
CK: Would you please thank Tony with me. [Applause]
It’s been great to have you back, Tony. I’m thankful for your ongoing partnership with the centre and for your ongoing work.
Please pray with me as we conclude our evening.
You’ve established the world in truth and you’ve even sent the truth into the world—that your Son has come to us. Now we live as his people and we pray, Lord, that we will keep step with your Spirit, who will lead us in all truth with wisdom on how to use our words, when to withhold our words, and when to speak words of truth with love.
Keep us from deception in our hearts, in our actions, and in our words and in any form where untruth and unreality would be expressed. Instead, Lord, as gospel people, help us to be confident in the truth and to walk in the light of the truth as we are able together. Do this, Lord, in us so that we might honour Jesus.
We ask it in his name. Amen.
I want to thank you for joining us this evening for this event. Make sure you take a look at our next event, our last for the year on vengeance. We’d be glad to welcome you back here or online. Thank you for joining us!
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
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As always, I would like to thank Moore College for its support of the Centre for Christian Living, and to thank to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for her work in editing and transcribing the episodes. The music for our podcast was generously provided by James West.
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