Living skilfully 01: Finding wisdom

Proverbs 1:1-7

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth— Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.


Today we are starting a new mini-series on wisdom. Here is why I think this series is very important. All of us, without exception, are on a journey heading somewhere. Everyone is on a path. You might be a student, you might be an employee, you might be a married couple, you might be a grandparent, but you are on a path leading to a destination. We are moving in a direction. Even when we feel stuck and it feels like we are not moving at all, we are still going somewhere. Life is a journey, and the journey leads us to a destination. But the journey not only leads us to a destination, but it also turns us into something. Here is what we must get. There are two possibilities at the end of our journey: we are becoming wise or we are becoming foolish. And every moment of our lives takes us closer there. So, the question is, is the path we are on making us wise or foolish?

The book of Proverbs is the number one book in the Bible on wisdom. If we want to be wise, we must know what Proverbs says about wisdom. How many of you realize that life used to be much easier when you were younger? When I was a teenager, I hardly went shopping. My mom bought me pretty much everything I wore. Until something happened. In my first year of Bible college in Dallas, my parent visited me, and my mom bought me a white tee with a writing on it. I didn’t think much about it, and I wore it the next day to morning chapel. I was in the middle of worship, lifting my hands to God, when one of the student leaders called me out of the chapel to speak with me. He asked, “Is that a new T-shirt?” “Yes, my parents just came from Sydney and they bought it for me. What’s wrong?” “Do you know what it says?” I read the writing on my tee, “I love intercourse.” He asked, “Do you know what intercourse means?” I looked at him innocently and said, “Intersection?” Then I was told to go back to my room and change my T-shirt. I didn’t realise I was worshipping God with the writing “I love sex” on my T-shirt. And ever since that day, I started buying my own clothes. But shopping got harder with time. There was a time when I only needed to go to one store for all my clothes supply: ZARA. Now I must consider many choices: Zara, Uniqlo, MJ Bale, SABA, Massimo Dutti, etc.

Today we live in a world with countless possibilities. What used to take a minute to decide can take a few hours now. Especially if we live in a city like Sydney. We are faced with millions of choices everywhere. For example, deciding where to eat after church. If we live in a small outer suburban area, we don’t have many choices. It is easier to decide. But if we live in Sydney, we have hundreds of choices of where to eat and it makes it harder to decide. We also have other more important choices to make. “Which universities should I go to? What major should I take? Where should I work? Should I stay in this company? Should I try a different job? Should I start my own business? Should I pursue further study? Who should I date? Should I marry this person? Should I live in Sydney, or should I move elsewhere?” Every day we are bombarded with choices to make. And here is the thing about choices. Every choice is like a fork in the road. And once we make it, we can’t undo it. We can’t undo our choices and there are consequences for every choice. If we make the wrong choices, we can never go back. If we don’t make good choices, it can be very destructive. Bad choices have bad consequences for us.

Think of how often we mess up with our choices. Have you ever said hurtful words you know you shouldn’t to people you love? Have you ever been hurt and instead of forgiving the other person, you talked bad about that person behind their back? Have you ever made a big investment because someone convinced you that it was easy money, only to lose your savings? Have you ever dated someone you know you shouldn’t and experienced months and even years of heartbreak because of it? Our choices have massive consequences on our lives. So, the question is, what does it take to make good choices? The answer is wisdom. If we don’t want to make an absolute mess of our lives, we need wisdom. We desperately need wisdom to navigate our way through life and live skilfully. And this is what we are going to look at for the next few weeks. Today is the first part of a four-week series. I am not going to answer everything you want to know about wisdom today. Today is just the introduction. You need to be here for the whole series. Today we will talk about finding wisdom. Next week we will look at growing in wisdom. Then in the third week, we will talk about walking in wisdom. And on the last week, we will look at the foolish wisdom.

I have four points for my sermon tonight: what wisdom is; why wisdom is important; why wisdom is a problem; where to find wisdom.

What wisdom is

Proverbs 1:1-4 – The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—

King Solomon is the main author of the book of Proverbs. There are other authors who contributed to Proverbs, such as Agur and King Lemuel. But Solomon wrote most of the wise sayings in Proverbs. And right off the bat, Solomon wants us to know what wisdom is. One of the best ways to define wisdom is to look at the synonyms Solomon used for wisdom. The first synonym is words of insight. What is insight? It’s the Hebrew word ‘biynah’, and it is a word that means to notice differences, to see fine distinctions other people can’t see. Let me give you an example. Does anyone love the Sherlock Holmes TV series? Not the movies with Robert Downey Jr but the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch. I love it. It is one of the best TV series ever. Whenever Sherlock walks into a crime scene, it’s all a mess. All the other detectives can see is just a mess. They probably can find two or three clues from that mess. But Sherlock is different. Where other people can notice two or three, he sees 20 or 30 different clues. He sees clues everywhere. He realises that the coffee mug is not where it should be, the painting is slightly tilted, the pen is missing from the drawer etc. He sees all the irregularities that no one can see, and he suddenly knows what happened. That’s insight. That’s wisdom. So, if we say, “I look at my situation and there are only two things I can do,” a wise person says, “That’s not true. You have ten things you could do and here they are.” So, wisdom is insight, the ability to see clearly where other people just see a blur.

The second synonym is prudence. The word prudence comes from the Hebrew word ‘ormah’ which means practical and strategic. It means to know how to get things done, how to make a goal into a reality. So, it is not simply knowing about something but bringing that thing into reality. It’s like this. There is a difference between playing a game to win and having a game plan to win. A manager of a soccer team can say that he wants his team to play and win the game. The manager of my team, Manchester United, says that before every single game. But wisdom knows better than simply getting into the field and hoping that they will win somehow. Wisdom draws up a game plan that will enable the team to score more goals than the opponent. And that game plan needs to take into consideration every little detail from the conditions of the players to the opponent’s strategy. Another way to say it is wise people not only have insight but also foresight. They don’t just diagnose the problem, but they also know how to solve it. And the third synonym is instruction. We are not going to talk a lot about this tonight because we will talk about this next week. But it is the Hebrew word that means depth of character.

So, let’s put it all together. What is wisdom? One Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, put it this way. “Wisdom according to the Bible is competence with regard to the realities of life, competence with regard to how life really works.” I love that. Wisdom is competence with regard to how life really works. This means that wisdom assumes knowledge, but wisdom is not the same as knowledge. If we do not know anything about a subject, we can’t be wise about that subject. But knowing a lot about that subject does not mean we are competent about that subject. My dad often says that wisdom is not only knowledge; it is knowing what to do with what we know. Because we can be knowledgeable and dumb. We can have all the knowledge we want in the world, and still make an absolute mess of our lives. But we can’t be wise if we do not have the knowledge of how life really works.

For example, do you believe that there is a God who made the universe? Because that knowledge will affect everything. If there is a God who made the universe and you decided to disobey him, that is not just wrong; that’s dumb. If there is a law of gravity, and you decide you do not believe in the law of gravity and you jump off a building, that is not just wrong; that’s dumb. So, wisdom assumes knowledge. Wisdom assumes we are in touch with reality, on how life works. But knowing alone is not wisdom. Wisdom is competence with regard to how life really works. Wisdom is not less than knowledge; it’s more. Wisdom is knowing the right thing to do with what we know. It is the ability to read a situation and make the right decision. If someone says, “I have two job offers. I’m a Christian. The Bible doesn’t have anything against either job. Which one should I take?” It wouldn’t be a sin to take either job. And yet if that person takes the wrong job, there will be consequences to pay. Or let’s say a poor family comes to us and seeks our help. Is it wrong for us to help them financially? Of course not. Our desire to help is good. And the Bible does instruct us to help the poor and the needy around us. But if we are not wise, the way we help the poor family can lead them into further destruction. If we don’t have the wisdom to help them properly, our good desire can backfire and destroy that family. Can you see why we need wisdom? Yes, we have to be knowledgeable to be wise. We have to be in touch with reality to be wise. But we can be both and still be really dumb. Because we are not competent with regard to how life really works.

Why wisdom is important

Proverbs 1:5-6 – Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.

Here is the truth about all of us. None of us are born wise. Wisdom is not something that comes naturally to us. It is something that we must grow into. A wise person is someone who knows he or she has not arrived. A wise person is someone who continuously grows in wisdom. How do we grow in wisdom? We grow in wisdom as we listen to the words of the wise. Daniel Akin puts it this way. “The truly wise will have the humility to know that they still need to listen to counsel instead of having arrogance to think they have arrived. The wise recognize that no one graduates. We all need to hear the wisdom of Proverbs again and again throughout our lives. Wisdom is not a goal to attain; it’s a pursuit that you spend your whole life on.” Wisdom is not a goal to attain but it is a pursuit. This is important. In the book of Proverbs, there are three kinds of people: the wise, the simple and the fool. And since no one is naturally wise, we are either the simple or the fool.

Let’s talk about the simple first. Simple is a word that describes young, naïve people who don’t have what it takes to make smart decisions because they are going with the crowds. Think about it. When we were young, we cared so much about what our friends think of us rather than what’s right. Isn’t that true? Our worst nightmare was for our friends to think that we were not cool. We wanted our friends to like us. And because we cared so much about what our friends thought of us, instead of doing the wise thing, we did the popular thing. We put that cigarette in our mouths. We used a curse word in every few sentences to sound cool. We ditched classes to go to the beach. And now that we are older, we look back on our younger years and we say, “What on earth was I thinking? Why did I ever do that? Why was I so dumb?” It’s because we were simple. We were blinded by the people around us.

The fool, however, is the opposite. The fool is a person who is wise in his own eyes. So, if the simple is a person who cares too much about what other people think, the fool is a person who does not care enough about what other people think. He thinks he has it all figured out. He is the master of his own life. He is stubborn, self-righteous, opinionated, and despises correction. He doesn’t listen to what other people say. He is wise in his own eyes. And this is the problem with Adam and Eve, isn’t it? God prohibited them from eating the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? Because God wanted them to depend on God for what is right and wrong. He wanted them to trust God to determine what is good and evil, not for them to decide for themselves. However, they disobeyed God and decided to determine what was right and wrong for themselves. That’s foolishness. And the same applies to us. We know what the word of God says but we always think we are the exceptions. “I know God wants me to be faithful to my spouse, but God has no idea who my spouse is. I am sure God does not want me to be miserable.” Or, “I know I shouldn’t cheat on my tax, but the government is really ripping me off. I am sure God won’t mind if I cheat on my taxes as long as I give some of the money to my pastor.” We think we know better than God. We are wise in our own eyes. That’s foolishness.

Here is the thing about both the simple and the fool: they are both out of touch with reality. Wisdom is competence with regard to reality. Wisdom acknowledges that this world is a fallen world tainted with sin. A wise person looks at God’s truth and the brokenness of the world and says, “What is the wisest thing to do in this situation?” The simple and the fool don’t do that. The simple is not in touch with reality; he is in touch with people around him. The fool is not in touch with reality; he is in touch with his own pride. What it takes to be wise is to be in touch with reality. And it is not easy. Because oftentimes, there is no black-and-white answer. Let’s say you face a really difficult situation involving someone who is a fool. What do you do? Should you confront him? Should you warn others about it? Or should you let it go? Should you just keep your mouth shut and mind your own business? Let’s take a vote. How many say we should confront the fool? How many say we should leave the fool alone? Okay. Do you want to know what the book of Proverbs says? Here you go. Proverbs 26:4 – Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. So, Proverbs tells us to not answer the fool. Leave him alone. But look at the very next verse. Proverbs 26:5 – Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. Now we are told to confront the fool. We read it and we say, “Okay, so which is it? Do I confront or do I ignore?” The answer is, it depends. These two verses are not contradictory. What Proverbs teaches us is that there are times we have to answer the fool, and there are times we have to keep our mouths shut. Wisdom is knowing when to confront and when to ignore. Do you see? Many Christians do not know how to read the book of Proverbs because they read it as a bunch of instructions and promises. But it is not. Proverbs is about wisdom. It is about how life actually works.

That’s why to have wisdom is very important. Listen to what Solomon said about wisdom. Proverbs 8:10-11 – 10 Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, 11 for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. Solomon is saying that wisdom is far more important than all the wealth, all the fame, and all we may desire in this world. Having what we desire in life is nowhere near as important as having wisdom, having the ability to deal with whatever situation is in front of us. Let me give you a case study from the Bible: Simon Peter. One time Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter had the right knowledge about Jesus. He knew who Jesus was. Then Jesus immediately started talking about the cross and how he had to die. Peter then said to Jesus “Jesus, what are you talking about? You are the Son of God. You can’t die on the cross. You are the Messiah.” And do you remember what Jesus said to Peter? “Get behind me, Satan!” What happened? Peter had the right knowledge, but he did not have wisdom. He did not know the right thing to do with the information he had. That’s why he came to the wrong conclusion and was rebuked by Jesus. And that’s many of us today. The reason we are extremely frustrated, the reason we have that sinking feeling in our stomach, the reason we are sleepless at night, is because we are in a situation where we don’t have the wisdom to deal with it. It’s not that we don’t have the knowledge. We have the knowledge, but we don’t have the wisdom. Can you see why wisdom is very important?

Why wisdom is a problem

Here is why wisdom is a problem. And I got this from Tim Keller’s sermon. One of the world’s most renowned child psychologists by the name of Jerome Kagan said that there are three basic habitual reactions to threats. It doesn’t matter who we are or what our culture is, there are three different ways we respond to a danger. He calls them: the anxious, the aggressive, and the philosophical. When the anxious face a danger, they instinctively say, “Let me out of here. I don’t want to be here, and I need to get out of this situation as soon as possible.” Their natural reaction is to escape. When the aggressive face a danger, they say, “Let me get in there and deal with it. I am going to tackle the situation before it gets to me.” Their natural reaction is to attack. On the other hand, the philosophical tend to say, “Relax. Let’s not do anything rash. Let’s evaluate the situation first. Let’s wait and see.” Jerome said that all of us are wired for one of those responses. One of those responses comes naturally to us and feels wise to us. It happens instinctively. We do it without thinking. Just out of curiosity, how many are the anxious type? How many are the aggressive type? How many are the philosophical type? So which type works best in dealing with a problem? Do you know the answer? It depends. But Jerome said that in most situations, our natural response is inappropriate.

Anxious people are best in situations where the danger is really high. Imagine you are facing a wild lion. What do you do? Your best chance to survive is to get out without spending a lot of time thinking about it. If you say, “Let me get that lion before it gets to me,” good luck. If you say, “Let’s wait and see what the lion would do first,” see you in the afterlife. The anxious response is the best response for highly dangerous situations. Aggressive people are best when it comes to mid-level danger. If the danger is kind of middle-size, sometimes your confidence, “I got this,” actually works. Even if it doesn’t work, it won’t be lethal. Philosophical people are best in situations that look worse than they are. If you’re in a situation that kind of looks dangerous but actually not, the philosophical says, “Let’s slow down. Let’s analyse it first.” Here is the point. Whatever seems the most natural way for us to deal with the danger is usually wrong. If we face a high level of danger aggressively or philosophically, it is going to destroy us. If we face a low level of danger in an anxious way, we are going to make it worse. A wrong response to a situation can be lethal.

The point in saying this is we are all naturally foolish. The way we are wired naturally is often not the best way to deal with the situation in front of us. We are in touch with our temperament, but we are out of touch with reality. We don’t know what’s the wise thing to do. Listen. Foolishness is natural, but wisdom is acquired. If we just be ourselves, we are going to be a fool. We all see the world in a certain way. However, because all of us were born in sin, none of us can see the world rightly. It’s like someone who is colourblind. Someone who is colourblind can only see a few colours. They can’t tell the difference between most colours. They don’t see the world the way it actually is. As a result, unless someone else helps them, someone who is colourblind will make poor fashion decisions. That person can wear a red shirt, yellow pants, and green shoes. That’s what happened to us because of sin. We don’t view the world the way it really is. We are not in touch with reality, so we make wrong decisions. And the fact that we live in a Disney culture that tells us to follow our hearts is extremely harmful. The last thing we want to do is to follow our hearts. Why? Because the Bible tells us that our heart is extremely deceitful. Doing whatever our heart desires is the recipe for disaster.

So, wisdom is not something that comes naturally to us. We must learn wisdom, and that takes years. It takes years of training. It takes years of humbling ourselves. It takes years of not being wise in our own eyes. It takes years of being corrected by people. It takes years of getting to know the word of God, getting to know God, and getting to know our own hearts. It takes years and years of pushing ourselves out beyond our comfort zone, pushing ourselves out beyond our natural temperament. It takes years to develop wisdom. The pursuit of wisdom is a long process of hard work. But if we don’t do it, we are going to make bad choices and destroy our lives. There is no shortcut for wisdom. But here is what I realise about us. What we want is not wisdom but a shortcut.

I have had people come to me over the years and say, “Yos, I need your help. I have a very important decision to make. I need to discern God’s will. Should I do A or should I do B? I want to know what God wants me to do.” That sounds very spiritual, right? But here is what they are actually saying. “Tell me how I can be sure if this is what God wants me to do. What’s the guideline? What’s the secret technique for me to be sure that I am doing what God wants me to do? Or maybe you can pray for me and tell me exactly what God wants me to do.” So, they were treating me like a fortune teller. And my answer was often not satisfying. Because I told them, “You do not become a wise person overnight. You do not become a wise person when you have to make a big decision in your life. You become wise through years of training. Through years of obeying God’s word in the little decisions of life. Through years of learning about God and your own heart. Through years of suffering and being instructed. You become wise through a long process. Then when you have to make a big choice in life, pray about it and choose what you think is best. Wisdom is not a technique. Wisdom is competence with regard to realities of life.” Do you see? We want a shortcut. But there is no shortcut for wisdom. If we have never spent time studying the Bible, if we do not do the hard work of learning about God and our own hearts, if we do not go through the pain of being corrected and instructed, we won’t have wisdom. We do not acquire wisdom overnight; it is a long process. Which leads me to my last point.

Where to find wisdom

Proverbs 1:7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. The word beginning here does not mean something we do and then we leave behind. But rather the first and controlling principle of all wisdom. To have wisdom, we must fear God. But what does it mean to fear God? At first, it sounds strange to us because most of us associate fear with something negative. But the fear of God is not a negative fear, but a positive fear. For example, there are two ways for us to be afraid in the presence of someone. If the person in front of us is someone who is mean and nasty, someone who might say something very cruel to hurt us, someone who might hit us, we feel negative fear toward that person. We distrust that person and we do not want to hear what that person has to say. But there is another way for us to be in the presence of someone and feel fear. Have you ever found yourself in the presence of someone you really admire, someone you really look up to? I have, well, almost. It was in 2020 when I attended a conference in Kuala Lumpur. Tim Keller was one of the main speakers. I really wanted to get close to him and take a picture with him or have him sign my Bible. I don’t even mind if he signs my forehead. I just wanted to get close to him and tell him how much God has used him to shape my life. I was waiting patiently for my opportunity. But then I heard from someone who worked with Keller that Keller did not like it when people did that. He did not enjoy taking pictures with people who admired him or gave his signature. So, one time during a lunch break, a friend told me that she saw Keller at a restaurant in the mall I was in. That was my one opportunity to get close to Keller. But I did not do it. Why? Because I revered him so much that I did not want to do anything that he did not like. That’s a positive fear.

Has that ever happened to you? The negative fear is we are afraid someone is going to hurt us. The positive fear is we are afraid we are going to hurt them because we honour and appreciate them so much. The negative fear is selfish. “I’m afraid I am going to get hurt by this person.” The positive fear is all about the other person. “I don’t want to do anything that will dishonour or grieve this person.” That’s the fear of God. Listen. The fear of God is not being afraid that God will condemn us; it is being afraid that we might do something that hurts God. It’s like this. Let’s say someone asks you to drive his brand-new Ferrari. That Ferrari is worth more than everything you have combined. What do you feel? You are afraid, right? You would not say, “Let me see how fast this car can go” and drive 150 in 80 zone. You would instead drive 60 in 80 zone. Why? Not because you are afraid that the Ferrari will hurt you. You are afraid you are going to hurt the Ferrari. The fear of God is a joyful fear with such awe and wonder that we don’t want to do anything that might grieve or hurt God. We don’t want to do anything that dishonours him.

And this is different from how most people think about God. Do you know what kind of fear comes to people’s minds when they think of God? Negative fear. Most people obey God out of negative fear. They say, “If I don’t obey God, then God will not bless me. If I make God upset, he is going to thunder strike me from heaven.” But this is not the kind of fear Solomon is talking about. This kind of fear will not make us wise. It will only make us hide from God. But if we have a positive fear of God, it will make us wise. Think about it. If we have a positive fear of God, we wouldn’t be simple. If we love and revere God so much, if we are in awe of God, we would not care what other people think of us. We only care what God thinks of us. We would not follow the crowd. We would not seek people’s approval. We don’t have to look cool in front of others. And we also would not be fools because we don’t care what we think anymore. We don’t have to be right. We don’t have to insist on having our way. We can freely acknowledge that we don’t know what is right, but God does. We have humility. And this fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

So, how do we get this positive fear of God? There is only one way. We have to be absolutely sure that God will not condemn us for our foolishness. As long as we still think that God is out to get us, we will be afraid of him, but we won’t be in awe of him. And this is the difference between religious Christians and gospel Christians. Religious Christians have a negative fear of God. Only those who understand the gospel have a positive fear of God. How so? Psalm 130:3-4 – If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. For many years, I did not understand this verse. How does God forgiving us of our sins lead us to fear God? It didn’t make any sense at all. That’s because I was thinking of negative fear. But the Psalmist is talking about positive fear. If we know how God has forgiven us, we will fear him. We will be in awe of him. The question is, do we know how God forgives us of our sins? He doesn’t forgive our sins by overlooking our foolishness. If he does, he is not a just God and we can’t trust him. We can’t trust his ways. We can’t trust his words. But if he does punish us for our foolishness, who can survive? We will experience the wrath of God’s justice for eternity.

So, what’s the solution? How can God forgive our foolishness and keep his words at the same time? The answer is the cross of Jesus Christ. It is at the cross we see God forgive us of our sins. And how did he do it? By trading places with us. Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God, took our sins and died a foolish death. Every other wise man says, “This is how you should live to be wise.” But the wisdom of God says, “This is how you should live but you cannot. But I have lived the life that you cannot so that you may find wisdom.” When Jesus went to the cross, the world saw foolishness. But when we see that Jesus went to the cross for us, to take the punishment that we deserved so that we might have life, what we see is not foolishness; what we see is beauty. And if we see Jesus did that for us, it produces a positive fear of God. We are so in awe of what he has done for us that we do not want to do anything that dishonours him. And this fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Unless we have this joyful fear of God, we will not have wisdom.

So, if we want to find wisdom, here is what we must do. Look at the cross. Look at the only wise man hanging there for us. Look at him and look away from ourselves. Look at him and keep looking at him until we see how much he loves us. Look at him until our pride melts. Look at him until we are so certain of what he thinks of us that we do not care what others think of us. Look at the crucified Saviour and we will begin to grow wise. Let’s pray.

Discussion questions:

  1. What struck you the most from the sermon?
  2. Which one describes you more: the simple or the fool? Why?
  3. Out of the three different ways people respond to danger, which one is your default mode? (the anxious; the aggressive; the philosophical). Can you see the weakness of your default mode?
  4. In your relationship with God, are you driven more by negative fear or positive fear of God?
  5. How does the gospel produce the fear of God?
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