Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving Day (in the United States), a day set aside for us all to remember the things in life we are grateful for.   Fortunately, Nicole and I started the process of gratitude earlier this week when we finished writing and mailing our thank-you notes for the useful and beautiful presents we got by agreeing to spend the rest of our lives together.

All of us have been supported by other people in many ways, or we would not be alive.  All of us should be grateful more often for those things.  Those of us who believe in God have the privilege of also having someone to thank for the blessings of life that don't come from other human beings, such as the sun and moon, stars and trees, happy coincidences, good health and harvests, etc.  Even when the good things come from other people, we can still accept it as ultimately coming from the hand of God, who has, after all, provided those other people with the ability and conscience to help us.

But what about when bad things happen?  Is it consistent to attribute everything good that happens to God, but then turn around and say that God has no responsibility for any of the bad things that happen?  Should we blame God for the bad as we praise him for the good? If religious folk thank God even for the indirect results of God's providence, that are mediated through human choices, why should we not take the same attitude for bad things caused indirectly by God?

Some people say: God does not cause evil, he only permits it.  This idea can be comforting to those who have suffered greatly, because then they don't have to deal with resentment towards a God who inflicts suffering as well as joy.  Others may find this a pedantic distinction, saying that God is equally responsible for the evils he permits.

The Bible, on the other hand, doesn't seem to refrain from attributing sorrowful events to God:

When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?  (Amos 3:6)

When the evil comes from other people, this is in one sense a violation of God's will, who has most definitely commanded us to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18), strangers (Lev. 19:34), and enemies (Ex. 23:4-5, Prov. 24:17-18, 25:21), and who has set a day of judgement in which wrongdoers will be punished.  When a woman is raped, this horrible crime arises not because God approves of rape, but because God allows the will of wicked men to affect other people.

Nevertheless, God does allow it, and the Bible is not shy about describing such things as being (in another sense) God's decision and will.  When the righteous St. Job loses everything, including his children, to a combination of "natural" disasters and bandit attacks, what does he do?

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.  (Job 1:20-22)

Job attributes the disaster to God's "taking away", but he does not blame God by charging him with "wrongdoing".  What gives?  How is it possible for God to do something evil without being evil?  The key is what the patriarch St. Joseph says to his brothers, when he forgives them after they had sold him into slavery:

“Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)

One and the same act can be both evil and good, depending on whose intentions we consider.  The selling of Joseph into slavery is evil as done by his brothers, because they intended to harm him.  It is good as done by God, because God's intentions were different: God did it in order to save lives.  (I am not trying to make any comment about free will here; presumably if Joseph's brothers had freely chosen not to sell him into slavery, then God would also have chosen something different.)  Thus God can condemn what people do, while simultaneously using it for his good plan.

That must be why, after the Apostles were flogged for teaching about Jesus, they were

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.  (Acts 5:41)

Why on earth did they take this attitude?  St. Paul explains it like this:

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  (Romans 5:3-5)

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)

The idea that God does not cause bad things to happen is a superficial teaching.  It evades the cross and forgets the gospel message that we are to rejoice and thank God for everything that happens to us.  That is why St. James tells us to

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.(James 1:2-4)

But perhaps James was just copying his brother's idea:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12)

In conclusion, it doesn't make any sense to thank God for the good things in life and absolve him for the bad things.  No, we should also credit the bad things to God, and give thanks for them as well.  Not because the evil is imaginary, but because he intends to use it to build us up into more loving people, for the sake of the salvation of the world.

But perhaps your last year was actually quite pleasant, as mine was.  In that case, let's not forget to thank him for the obvious blessings as well.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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7 Responses to Giving Thanks

  1. The Reluctant Prophet of Irony says:

    I wonder, is the benefit of giving thanks solely available to those who believe that there is something in particular to whom thanks are due? Is the benefit derived from being thankful substantially different from the benefit of being thankful to someone in particular? To be genuinely appreciative, must I appreciate the giver or the gift? The substance or the manner of the giving?

    I am also troubled by what seems to be the simplification of the argument of omnipotent responsibility. I am not sure I believe that there can be such a neat distinction between "willing" and "permitting" for an omnipotent being. Such a distinction is even blurry for us poor humans, since passivity is a choice, and an especially difficult one at that. There is something in us that quails at the thought of standing by and doing nothing while we watch evil being done to another person, whether that person is known or not, something that feels deeply irresponsible about not acting when we have the power to act. But there is a greater difference. We have things that are beyond our control, limits to our power. We can will that a thing not happen, but still have to deal with the reality of it happening. We can permit something to be done to us, without willing it to be done, but neither of these is the case for God, since God's will shapes (or, perhaps more accurately, is) reality.

    There is something else troubling about the idea that we suffer for the sake of a greater good, for while I am on board with the idea that the most complete sort of compassion comes from understanding, and that understanding comes only when you yourself have suffered, I had the good fortune to endure troubles which bent me instead of breaking me. But I know that there are shattered people, whose ordeals have not made them stronger, who have not come away burdened with an overabundance of empathy, to whom I could not in good conscience say "Relax! Your suffering is for the sake of ultimate good! Be grateful for the agony!" To say this seems somehow repulsive, as though I were ignoring the disproportionate nature of their situation. Some suffering is no doubt crucial to our formation as good people, but too much of a good thing is still too much.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Reluctant Prophet, I'm glad you've provided a counterpoint here, to what I had expected would be a deeply controversial post. Without people like you, I would have to log on as various pseudonyms to rebut my own posts, and that's way too much work for a blogger with a day job, even if his job only consists of thinking about physics all day.

    Unfortunately, in one respect I have to simply deny the relevance of your critique. I never said that there was a "neat distinction between `willing' and `permitting' for an omnipotent being"; in fact I deny it. That's why I started the sentence in question with "Some people say:", and then called the idea "superficial" in a later paragraph. I do say that God does not endorse e.g. rape, in other words God disapproves of the act of rape, and wants us to try to eliminate it. It does not mean that he is absolved from responsibility for creating a world in which rape occurs.

    Instead I claim that his intentions in bringing evil down on us are good. You accept the idea that suffering can build character, but point out that sometimes it seems not to. I agree, at least, I seem to have encountered people who have become narrow and crabby by their suffering. Perhaps it only has this effect on people who choose to accept the suffering in a particular way. In any case, Christians don't claim that suffering in general leads to spiritual healing, but that suffering alongside Christ does it---a particular guy nailed to a particular piece of wood. It is God's sufferings that are redemptive.

    It seems to me, that to be completely appreciative one must appreciate both the giver and the gift. At least, that's what people normally aim for when they give presents. But it may well be possible to have a diffuse sense of gratitude, which is not attached to any giver in particular. Just as it is possible to have erotic feelings that are not attached to anyone else in particular. However, the addition of a relationship can transform the passion into love, which is quite different. I think that an atheist who feels gratitute for the existence of the world has entered into a latent or implicit relationship to God: something that could be developed into religion but hasn't been yet.

  3. The Reluctant Prophet of Irony says:

    Ah, my friend, you must forgive me. I did not mean to sound as though I was disagree with you. I was not offering a critique, only another path to a similar answer. I think where you and I really begin to differ is in our response to this idea. While you have the fortitude to observe a world in which God permits, nay, wills that suffering occurs and find it in your heart to lift your voice in praise, my reaction is not so gracious. If a man were to tell me that he had observed a rape, that he had the power to stop it, and that he chose not to, either so that the rapist could damn himself or the victim could somehow benefit from the experience of suffering, he'd be looking for his teeth when he woke up. The idea of having the power to prevent an evil of that magnitude and electing not to exercise it would make me furious, all the more so if one were to claim that he was failing to prevent that evil for the sake of the victim. As you point out, it is not as though every sort of suffering leads to spiritual healing, and it is also not the case that God has limited the potential suffering to only those kinds which can be spiritually fulfilling. I am afraid I cannot simply go along with the pleasant notion that people are made narrow and crabby by suffering - surely this happens, but also we surely recognize that far worse happens. I am far less concerned here with the endurable sorts of suffering bestowed upon those of us who have grown strong enough to benefit from them, and far more concerned with those who suffered too early or too much (or both) and have lost the capacity to gain anything spiritual from their suffering.

    Perhaps we ought to address this distinction between God disapproving of an act and willing it to be possible. I have a deep suspicion that this enters into the question of free will, and a lurking fear that I will be told that free will is mutually exclusive with a reality that includes safeguards against suffering more than can be borne.

    Also, I am not entirely sure what you mean when you say suffering "alongside" Christ. Do you mean something more than that in your pain you say to yourself "God suffered to redeem me"?

    Can you be grateful for things that are not gifts? Or is choosing to see something as a gift a way of viewing the world through a lens of gratitude? That is to say, it sounds strangely arrogant to look at a sunset and call it a gift, as though it existed for the sake of my enjoying it. I don't think this is what you are suggesting, but rather that you are electing to see what is there and taking the opportunity to let beautiful things work upon you. Or do you mean something else?

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Ah, I see I misinterpreted your phrase "I am also troubled". I should have realized that someone like yourself with impeccable reading skills would not have misinterpreted my point so. My apologies.

    >If a man were to tell me that he had observed a rape, that he had the power to stop it, and that
    >he chose not to, either so that the rapist could damn himself or the victim could somehow >benefit from the experience of suffering, he'd be looking for his teeth when he woke up.

    Quite so. But your sentence says "man", not "God". I believe that God has the moral authority to do things that no human has the right to do. The situation is not strictly disanalogous to human experience, since human parents or judges do have some authority to cause limited amounts of suffering for good purposes. However, passively permitting rape does not fall under their preview. Any argument from analogy must proceed not by equivalence but by a proportional ratio, saying not "God must have authority like a father", but "fathers have some authority, how much more authority must God have."

    There are, after all, relevant distinctions between God and us. Creator of the Universe and Unfathomably Wise are aspects that come to mind. You do agree that some suffering is beneficial---so how confident are you that you know what amount is "optimum" when creating a world? Trust comes in: the question of whether the maker of spiral nebulae and butterflies knows what he is doing. If a human being claimed to have a clear and distinct understanding of why the world was impoved by the possibility of rape, we would know, being human ourselves, that he was full of it. About God's reasons we are less certain. I find it reasurring, however, that when God tells us what to do he generally makes it quite clear that we are to protect the innocent whenever can.

    I will deny however that God's primary goal is ever the damnation of anyone: "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23)

    >I am...far more concerned with those who suffered too early or too much (or both) and
    >have lost the capacity to gain anything spiritual from their suffering.

    Who are you to say that any person has lost the capacity to gain anything spiritual from their suffering? Surely this is just as presumptuous as to claim to know why people benefit from suffering.

    I agree, however, that "narrow and crabbed" is not the worst people can get. But I also find it relevant that those who love the most have frequently also suffered the most. Sometimes this world does seem designed for the spiritual benefit of a small number of people, but then I remember all the regular folks who just hang on and get through somehow when bad things happen, and I'm not sure the "minority" is so small after all.

    >Perhaps we ought to address this distinction between God disapproving of an act and willing
    >it to be possible. I have a deep suspicion that this enters into the question of free will, and a
    >lurking fear that I will be told that free will is mutually exclusive with a reality that includes
    >safeguards against suffering more than can be borne.

    If I did tell you that, what would you say in reply?

    The Bible seems to be all over the map when relating God's will to human actions. One moment God is hardening people's hearts and inexorably bringing his plans to pass, the next he's kvetching that no one ever does what he wants them to, or turning aside his wrath when prophets intercede for the people. In my Bible study with St. Nicole yesterday, in one and the same chapter God says: "I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions", and also "He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man that he should change his mind" (1 Sam 15).

    >Also, I am not entirely sure what you mean when you say suffering "alongside" Christ.
    >Do you mean something more than that in your pain you say to yourself
    >"God suffered to redeem me"?

    Yes. I do mean more. I mean that Christ is himself the chief Victim and Sufferer, that in some sense God bears all the travails of the world together, so that it is not as though he were telling us to bear any pain that is not already his pain. If true, would that make a difference to you?

    If Theism is true, then life is a dialogue, rather than a monologue. I do think things like sunsets should be taken as gifts. God may have ten thousand other reasons for producing the sunset besides ourselves, but if we are there to appreciate it, then he has ten-thousand-and-one reasons for doing it. On the other hand, I think God probably would create the sunset whether we were there or not, so in that sense we are entirely unnecessary. Certainly God himself exists for his own sake, not ours. Yet he has nevertheless freely offered his own self to us in Jesus.

  5. Nina Mangan says:

    I would like to add my far less educated two cents to this discussion - something acomes to my mind as I consider both of your conversations regarding the value of suffering - after 911, there were people saying "Where was God when the towers fell?" And the Christians (by which I refer to the absulute definitition of "followers of Christ" and not any particular doctrinal dogma) were able to affirm from personal experience - He was right there in the smoke and the flame and the horror. He stood with each sufferer, comforing those that already knew Him and reaching out to the ones that did not. He was there in their presence and experiencing and enduring it with them. He was beside each new widow and orphan. I recall someone once telling me that because of Free Will, God does not stop the rapsit by rolling back the sky and throwing His thunderbolt, but that He is there all the same, pleading with the spirit of the criminal and holding the sufferer...

    I can tell you that my own experiences with suffering have always ended in God's lap, knowing that whatever happened to me He knew about it, that "I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope," (Jeremiah 29:11) and that even when I did not know how I would endure the next moment, God did. And that He wanted the best possible outcome for me, and that I would eventually be told the whys of what was happening and be able to see how He was intervening for me when from this point of view it could not be seen. I was told this as a young teen, but I have lived it and tested it and found it to be true.

    Just saying.

  6. The Reluctant Prophet of Irony says:

    While we are clearly in agreement about the idea that authority simultaneously confers power and responsibility, I think we differ somewhat on the question of whether moral license varies between humanity and divinity. My understanding of moral license is absolute, and the injunctions of that absolute exist irrespective of an individual's particular power or knowledge. Now, I understand that you do not class humanity and divinity together, and while you obviously agree that no human can stand by and watch evil happen without being obliged to act, it seems that you do not attribute to God that same responsibility.

    You say:
    "Any argument from analogy must proceed not by equivalence but by a proportional ratio, saying not "God must have authority like a father", but "fathers have some authority, how much more authority must God have.""

    Instead of using the word "authority" in that final proportion, I would substitute the word "responsibility" - and I am not sure that the fulfillment of this vastly greater responsibility is manifest to me.

    As to the question of God's pleasure at our damnation, I am not imagining that God is pleased with the reality of it so much as pleased with the possibility of it. If the capacity for good and bad actions is one and the same, that is to say free will, I am not sure I see a way to separate pleasure in one possibility but not the other, if indeed free will is pleasing to God (which, and I realize I am making the bold assumption here, I think it is - unless free will is a necessary evil... ooooh, that could be fun...).

    You say:
    "Who are you to say that any person has lost the capacity to gain anything spiritual from their suffering? Surely this is just as presumptuous as to claim to know why people benefit from suffering."

    I am a man, albeit somewhat young, who watched his mother wither and die in agony, who saw her suffer horribly and be twisted by that suffering into a caricature of her worst elements, not because that was the truth of who she was, but because she lacked the strength to stand up to that sort of suffering. I saw nothing redeeming in her pain, no way in which she became better, healthier, or more good, and I saw her die in that reduced state. So, to answer your rather pointed question rather pointedly, I am no one. And I am afraid I am so presumptuous as to claim that I have a handle on what it is about suffering that can make people better. I was, as you can imagine, deeply damaged by what I have described, and I was sufficiently fortunate that I could use that experience to look at people around me and for the first time really begin to empathize with people who were in emotional pain. I understood, first hand, that desire to lash out against whatever happened to be nearby, not as an intellectual exercise of imagining it, but actually feeling that emotion. That understanding led to empathy, and empathy to compassion, and now I am slower to judge and happier to forgive when people fly off the handle. I know what it's like to have a really bad day, and I am a better person for that experience.

    I am equally puzzled by what seems like both God's shifting reactions and his claim that he is unchanging, and I have never been able to make heads or tails of that. As to the question of the mutually exclusivity of free will and safeguards, it seems like this may be exactly where the breakdown between our first analogy occurs. Fathers may be like God, but fathers have to take a much more direct hand in preventing their children from doing stupid things that will hurt them. But fathers act from love, and God fails to act, presumably, from love, and so I remain confused.

    I guess I am still not sure what it means to suffer alongside Christ. Do I say "I am suffering this pain, but God is suffering this pain with me, so really I am suffering this pain alongside God"? I'm not sure how this helps one cope with pain. I'm familiar with the idea that shared suffering is easier to bear, but usually I imagine that this is because you have someone to talk with and listen to, and can reach out to that person when you are struggling. Perhaps one's relationship with God can develop to that point, but the still, small voice has yet to speak a word to me, much less offer a satisfying conversation. In the absence of that, I have come to rely on people, and found them not simply satisfactory, but excellent companions. People I can relate to, God I cannot. Even if it were true that God "suffers", a proposition I think I ought to call into question, I am not sure that this makes God easier to relate to.

    Actually, can we go into that a little? If by "suffer" we simply mean "feel pain", then I imagine it might be possible for God to suffer, but if we mean "be made worse, be injured, become diminished" then it does not seem like these things can happen to God, and so it seems like perhaps there is a part of the human experience that is unavailable to God except through Christ. But even then, God is not diminished by the suffering of Christ, nor does God become less morally good through the pains that Christ suffered, and so I am not really sure that our (the human and the divine) experiences are equivalent or even proportional.

    Thank you, Nina, for joining us. Please do not feel that the amount of education you have, no matter how great or small, should prevent you from voicing your honest reactions. I deeply appreciate any and all help I get, and every perspective is helpful.

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Reluctant Prophet,
    I've been thinking and praying hard about how to reply, and I'm not sure whether you'll find my answers satisfying, but I'm going to have a go at it anyway.

    Instead of using the word "authority" in that final proportion, I would substitute the word "responsibility" - and I am not sure that the fulfillment of this vastly greater responsibility is manifest to me.

    Resposibility and authority go together, I think. I do believe that people with greater authority can rightfully act in ways that people with lesser authority cannot normally do. I think we all acknowledge this principle in certain respects, at least. For example, a human judge is legally and morally permitted to fine, imprison, or (if one believes in the death penalty) even execute people for wrongdoing, but it would be bad if I attempted to do these things by vigilante justice, except in unusual circumstances. The limited powers we assign to judges are based on our assessment of the judge's character, together with his role in our system. But I believe that God's character (perfect wisdom & justice) plus his role in the universe (creator & owner) give him the authority to use any means to accomplish what is good. His responsibility to us (which stems from his love for us rather than any external lawgiver) is to use this unlimited authority in whatever way is best. I hope that wasn't too confusing; I may try to explain my views in greater detail in a post sometime.

    As for God's fulfilment of this responsibility not being obvious to you, I quite agree. I'm afraid that my counter-argument will be that God has no moral obligation to explain himself to us. At least, he didn't explain himself to Job. He judges us; we are in no position to judge him. As C.S. Lewis says in the eponymous essay of God in the Dock:

    The greatest barrier I have found is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin....

    The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches the judge. For the modern man, the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is in the Bench and God is in the Dock.

    I do not know why God permitted you and your mother to suffer so. You seem to think it benefited you but not her. It may be that she will receive benefit in a future life, or it may be that she had more of a choice then you give her credit for, or it may be something else which I cannot think of. I am conscious of the fact that no intellectual explanation for human suffering can ever seem quite adequate in the face of a story like the one you tell, but I think this may be in part because we're looking for more than just an intellectual kind of reassurance.

    Regarding whether one can talk to Christ about our sufferings, if one believes then the necessary resources for communication are already there. The words of Christ are written in the Bible. Faith says it is as if he spoke them directly to us. You can speak your deepest concerns into the darkness at any time. Faith says he hears them. Both directions of communication are present, even without the "voice".

    I am someone who has heard the "still small voice" many times---and I know others who have heard it when they had no expectation it was possible---but I have also gone for long periods of time without that kind of direct reassurance. It can be emotionally painful. It sometimes only takes me about two weeks to go from a state of "God just spoke to me!" to "How come God never talks to me?", so I guess I don't have very much faith. But I do feel that the process of learning to trust is spiritually valuable.

    Regarding the use of other people, C.S. Lewis again:

    Some of you may feel that this is very unlike your experiences. You may say, "I've never had the sense of being helped by an invisible Christ, but I often have been helped by other human beings. That is rather like the woman in the first world war who said that if there was a bread shortage, it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread, there will be no toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. He works on us in all sorts of ways, not just through what we think our "religious life". He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences which seem (at the time) anti-Christian....But above all, He works on us through each other....

    [But w]e must go on to recognize the real giver. It is madness not to. Because if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings. And that is going to let us down. The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die. We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them. But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand; but do not try building a house on it. (Mere Christianity)

    The main point I wanted to draw out with this was that Christ also communicates with us using other people, sometimes.

    I am equally puzzled by what seems like both God's shifting reactions and his claim that he is unchanging, and I have never been able to make heads or tails of that.

    I was trying to highlight the seeming contradiction, but I'd be remiss not to mention that I also find this biblical picture of God strangely compelling. I think most of us, when we imagine a Perfect Being, are liable to imagine something rather inert. But although the "living God" of the Bible may conceal himself, the point of every story is that he is in some way approachable. All the crude seeming pictures in the Old Testament, of God smelling the sweet aroma of burnt sacrifices, dwelling in a tent, appearing above the Ark of the Covenant, and regretting his decisions, are on a trajectory. It ends with an incarnate Christ, who insists that the Father will give good gifts to those who keep on asking.

    Yes, the divine nature is not itself diminished by the suffering and (temporary) destruction of Christ's human nature. As the lament of the afflicted man says: "They will perish, but you remain: they will all wear out like a garment. / Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. / But you remain the same, and your years will never end." (Ps. 102:26-27). What is important is that the divine being shares in our human sufferings, including even the sense of abandonment by the unchanging divine nature: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22:1)".

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