What Was Cain’s Problem, Anyway?

Cain and AbelWhy did Cain kill Abel? What was his problem? How did his envy turn into murder?

More questions. Why was God so hard on Cain? Why was Abel’s sacrifice pleasing to God, but Cain’s was not? Didn’t they both offer goods from their livelihood? I don’t read anywhere in that context that somehow an animal sacrifice was more acceptable than a sacrifice of produce, do you?

Until recently, the only passage in the Bible that satisfied my personal sense of justice was in Hebrews 11:4: “By faith, Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.”

Since faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17), before Cain and Abel made their sacrifices, God must have told them what would please Him and what would not. It’s subtle, but that explanation partially satisfied me.

However, a recent reading of the text gave me a different insight into the real problem. It wasn’t only Cain’s gift that displeased God, it was his attitude.

Both Cain and His Offering

Genesis 4:3-5 reads,

So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. (NASB)

Note the “and” in verse 5: “…but on Cain and his offering he had no regard.” It wasn’t merely the offering that didn’t please God, it was also Cain! His offering – maybe not even the best of his crop – was not acceptable to God. But Cain’s offering was only a reflection of his weak character. Cain’s response to God’s warning indicates that – because of Cain’s attitude– any gift he gave wouldn’t have pleased God.

Cain’s Fatal Flaws

Because we’re also subject to human passions and foibles, we would do well to note the flaws in Cain’s character that led him to do the unthinkable – murder his younger brother.

  1. Cain compared himself to Abel and came up short. “And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard”  (Genesis 4:4-5). God’s favor upon Abel and his gift had nothing to do with Cain. God’s displeasure with Cain had nothing to do with Abel. God could have been pleased with both gifts! Yet Cain saw only that Abel’s gift was accepted while his was not.
  2. Cain had a short temper. “So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell”  (v. 5). Cain’s first response? To become angry and make sure everyone knew it. He didn’t ask God what he could do to please Him. Self-absorbed, his only thought was that he had been slighted. How could his younger brother be acceptable while he was not?
  3. Cain wouldn’t listen to God’s instruction. God gave Cain a second chance. If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?”  But Cain didn’t want to do well. He didn’t want to listen or to change. He wanted God’s favor without doing what was necessary.
  4. Cain wouldn’t heed God’s warning. “…if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” God warned Cain that if he didn’t stop focusing on his imagined hurt and decide to do what was right, his desire to sin – to do wrong – would take over.
  5. Cain allowed his anger to turn to hatred and then to murder. He allowed jealousy and hatred to take over his senses. “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’”
  6. Cain showed no remorse. When God pronounced his punishment on Cain, Cain’s only concern was for himself. “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (vss. 13-14).

Sin’s Desire for Us

None of us can imagine that our envy would ever turn to murder. But Jesus taught that we don’t have to commit murder to be guilty of it, we have only to hold on to our anger.

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell (Matthew 5:21-22).

Let God’s warning be a warning for us: Sin desires us as much as it desired Cain. We also can lose our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong if we give in to our baser feelings. We also can give God mediocre service, supposing He will reward us anyway. We can compare ourselves with others and resent them for their successes. We can give into our anger, turning it into hatred. We can let sin have us.

Or we can turn from our human tendencies and turn to God, praying, “Lord, with Your help, I will do whatever it takes to please You. Take away my pride. Help me to master sin. Help me give myself fully to You, knowing that sin will use every opportunity to destroy me.”

Choosing the Better Path

path_through_the_woodsProbably my favorite vacation activity is hiking through a forest. I love the way the trees and mossy floor soak up sounds, the cool of the shade, the anticipation of discovering what’s around the next bend.

Of course, there is an inherent danger of getting lost if you go too deeply into the woods. That’s why I also appreciate path markings or maps that tell us where our path leads and, if the path divides, which fork to take.

Our spiritual journey is similar. We don’t know what is ahead of us. We encounter many paths from which to choose. Unlike a forest hike, there’s no going back; we can’t re-trace our steps. We must move forward, knowing there is an end to the path, but not knowing exactly what we will find there.

Often when we think of being spiritually “lost,” we’re describing an ultimate destination: eternal punishment, separation from God. But in his book titled Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard makes this insightful observation : “We are not lost because we are going to wind up in the wrong place. We are going to end up in the wrong place because we are lost.” We have chosen the wrong path.

Which Path Do I Take?

Most people will choose their own paths, with no clear destination in mind. They follow the path that makes sense to them, the easy, wide path that’s easy to navigate. They know the path we call life will end, but they expect nothing at the end but a sheer drop into nothingness. A guide or a map seems too restrictive.

Others believe in something better at the end, but they follow a path of their own choosing, confident that somehow things will be all right. Still others have a clear picture of their destination, but they follow a false or blind leader who is just as lost as they are. Some may realize they’re lost but refuse to admit it because the path is so well-worn and well-known and so many others are on it.

When we follow Jesus as the Way, not only do we have a clear destination (John 14:1-4) but a trusted Guide to lead us; He’s been there before (Psalm 119:105, John 14:6). Even though His way is narrow and sometimes treacherous (Matthew 7:13,14), along the Way we receive and believe promises that motivate us to continue.

Though we have never seen Jesus in the flesh, we walk by faith in Him (2 Corinthians 5:5-7). He has promised He will be with us to the end (Matthew 28:18-20) and has sealed us with the Holy Spirit of promise (Ephesians 1:13); the Father knows which ones are His (2 Timothy 2:19). We are also blessed by the companionship of other Christians who love and care about us, warn us when we begin to take the wrong path, and pick us up when we stumble (Galatians 6:1-2).

The End of the Way

In his first letter (1:3-9), Peter describes the end of the path for those who have been “born to a living hope through the resurrection from the dead.” Their inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away.” At the “revelation of Jesus Christ,” they will rejoice with inexpressible joy.

May we all very carefully examine the path we’re on, making sure we are following in the path of Christ and not an impostor. May we all realize the inexpressible joy of seeing Him in His glory.

Guilty of Murder?

Shabby ClothingThe first time the man and woman came to worship they came because our services started later than other churches in town.  My first impression? They had that look of misfortune, of lives not lived well. My second impression? Laziness. Who would choose a church because its starting time allowed you to sleep in later? We were all kind to them and were happy we could share our potluck dinner with them. But my conversations with them were stilted because of all the inappropriate questions I wanted to ask: I know you’re not married; are you living together? What do you want from us? Will you eventually be asking for a handout? If we go out of our way to be friendly outside the assembly, will we regret it? I didn’t pursue their friendship, or even ask if they wanted to study the Bible with one of us. Because they had that “look of lives not lived well,” I supposed that even if we started down that path, they wouldn’t stay on it long. You can always tell which people are stable and which are not, can’t you? They finally did stop coming to worship – even on potluck days. Sometimes I wonder what became of them. Did they move away? Did I misjudge them? Maybe. It’s only natural to feel that way, right? And it’s not as if I committed a crime, right?

Guilty of Them All

James (2:10-12) tells us that to break one of God’s laws makes us guilty of them all; we can’t classify one sin worse than another. James gives an example: to commit murder is no more a sin than adultery is (v. 11). And what is the context of that example? Showing partiality. To judge according to appearance is to become a judge with evil thoughts (v. 4), to dishonor the poor (v. 6), to commit sin and be convicted by the law as a transgressor (v. 9). We use all kinds of criteria to commit these sins of partiality. Clothing is the one mentioned in James. But there’s also skin color, weight, hair, age, facial appearance, speech, physical disability. Such prejudices are condemned even by our secular society – in theory.

Judging the More Fortunate

Well dressedJames also mentions people of wealth, of distinction, of influence. Deferring to them, giving them the “best seats,” qualifies as partiality. In our culture, few of us have been oppressed  or taken to court by the rich (vv. 6-7), but we know Christians who seem to have it all. Do we judge them less “spiritual” than we are? Do we see them as caring too much about the material, and not enough about the spiritual, just because of their larger (than our) houses, or newer (than our) clothing? Is this not also showing partiality – dismissing them as not spiritual or devoted because that’s not how we would define it? Do we want to be judged with that same judgment by someone with fewer financial resources than we have? Would we want to be judged as unspiritual because we buy a new pair of shoes or a new jacket we don’t really need? Judging others by outward appearances – whether they look shabby or polished — is not only partiality but is using the wrong standard of judgment, condemned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-2).

Overcoming Partiality

How do we overcome this human tendency? “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” declares James. Kindness, good will, and compassion for all people will make us like our Father (Luke 6:36). May we see each other as God sees us – His children, made in His image. May we see in others what we know about ourselves – that we each have fears, weaknesses, failings, challenges, doubts, strengths, talents, contributions to make to the body – and souls so valuable Christ was crucified for them.

New Every Morning

January 2014 Sunrise Why worry? Why get anxious about future events? My philosophy is that if it’s something you can control, take care of it. If not, worrying will not change the circumstance; it will only add to your stress level.

However, that philosophy doesn’t mean I’m never anxious. My anxiety comes from the “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” syndrome – wishing I had sent the get well card, knowing I could have asked a friend what was bothering her, or thinking I should not have butt into that conversation.

I’ve joined a group of women who are handwriting selected Bible passages. This morning’s reading of Lamentations 3:19-32 – expressing thoughts of Jeremiah in the midst of his misery – included this familiar verse (23):

“The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness.”

This morning, as I woke up earlier than I wanted to, slightly melancholy over an undefined sense of failure yesterday, I read this verse with new meaning: Since God refreshes his compassions every morning, shouldn’t we also view each morning with a similar sense of refreshing?

Yesterday is behind us. Whatever control we had over what happened yesterday is gone. Yesterday is history.

Because today is a new day, we don’t carry over any regrets or failures. Because today is a new day, we don’t remember hurts or slights – whether real or perceived. Because today is a new day, we don’t congratulate ourselves for yesterday’s successes. Today has its own opportunities to serve or to grow.

Since God Himself begins every day with a new batch of compassion for His creatures, that gives us new hope every morning. Verse 24 speaks of such hope:

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul. “Therefore I have hope in Him.”

In his letter to the Philippians (3:13-14), Paul also reminds us of our constant new beginnings:

“…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 54: Prayer for Defense Against Enemies

Even though no one is pursuing me as Saul was pursuing David when he wrote this psalm, I can still make the same pleas and declarations.
Verse 1: “Save me, O God, by Your name.”

It is only in God’s name that I have salvation. It’s only through God that I am free of the influence of Satan and the consequences of succumbing to his temptations – which come from my willful nature (James 1:12-15).

Verse 2: “Hear my prayer, O God.”

Question: This thought just occurred to me: It’s been said that one of the blessings of being in Christ is that we have direct access to God in prayer, whereas in the Old Testament, they had to go through a priest. David apparently had direct access. Was he an exception to the rule?

Personal application: This is a good plea to make in every prayer, that God will hear my voice. (Maybe we shouldn’t take that for granted!)

Repeating that plea will remind me of the kind of person I need to be if I dare to approach the throne of the Creator, the God of the universe – not in fear, but with respect for His holiness. It also reminds me of what a great privilege it is for me – an ordinary person in an ordinary town among ordinary people – to approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16).

Verse 4: “Behold, God is my helper: The Lord is the sustainer of my soul.”

How easy that is to forget. How often I need to be reminded of that! Because I work at home, I have innumerable choices during the day. No small or school-age children dictate my schedule. Almost everything I do is either a choice of the moment or the consequence of a commitment I’ve made.

Yet how many times do I call on God’s help — especially when it’s a matter of setting spiritual priorities? David reminds me that God will help. He will sustain my soul.

Verse 6: “Willingly I will sacrifice to you.”

David doesn’t specify the size of the sacrifice. It could be something as simple as writing a check; it could be sacrificing my physical life in His cause.

Once I’ve made that commitment, once I’ve grown to that point of meaning that statement, it won’t matter. Because then I’ll also be able to repeat Paul’s declaration, “It is not I who live but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Verse 6: “I will give thanks to Your name, O LORD, for it is good.”

I notice in verse 4, the word “Lord” is not in small caps. As my Lord – my master – he sustains my soul. When I thank Him, I address Him as YHWH.

Contrary to those in the world who either deny or resent God, I believe His name is good. It’s not to be associated with the evil that happens in the world, for suffering is ultimately Satan’s doing and the work of those who follow him.

God protects us from the enemy. He defends us, He sustains us, and He helps us. He is faithful to His children (verse 5), and He has delivered us from distress (verse 7).

God’s Unseen Power – In Us

SAMSUNG

Our Helplessness vs. God’s Strength

To describe power is like describing the wind: We can’t see it; we can see only the results of it.

You know the power of a train locomotive because you’ve watched it pull dozens of cars filled with heavy black coal. You’re awed by a lion’s massive head and muscular frame because you’ve witnessed its relentless power in pursuing its prey.

You’re also aware how helpless we all are against the power of torrential rains, earthquakes, and hurricanes – even the sun, which is millions of miles away.

While we remain helpless, God not only commands these forces, He created them. David writes in Psalm 50:1 that “the mighty one, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.” Isaiah describes God (51:15) as “the LORD your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the LORD of hosts is his name.”

Daniel ascribes to God wisdom and power. “He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him” (2:20-22).

The Power of Sin

Just as we are helpless against the powers of the earth, so are we helpless against the powers of sin and death, the ultimate consequence of sin (Romans 5:12). In Romans 5:14, Paul writes: “Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.”

But the power of God is greater than the power of sin. Whenever Jesus confronted Satan’s demons, Jesus won every time (Mark 1:34-34; 5:1-20; 7:24-30). He overcame Satan’s ultimate weapon – death – in His resurrection from the dead. In Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he declared that It was impossible for Christ to be held in the power of death (Acts 2:24).

The Power in Us

Through the grace of God, we have access to the unseen power that stills a storm (Mark 4:39) and overcomes death (Romans 5:21). When because of our faith in the power of God over sin and death we are buried in baptism, we also are raised to live a life free from the fear of death (Colossians 2:12).

We have no power over the elements of this earth. We have no power over the destructiveness of sin. But God does.

Each time we feel helpless against an earthquake or a tornado or the withering of crops from drought and heat – let us remember that though we may not be able to overcome those forces, if we’re in Christ, sin and death have no power over us. In that we can have complete confidence.

God Plays Favorites

In all of God’s creation, which being has been made in His image? Which of His creatures stares in awe at a sunset, laughs at his own jokes, cries while reading a sad story, or suffers from a guilty conscience? To what creature has He given an eternal soul?

When God’s Son came to earth, did He choose to appear as some magnificent animal or other-world super power? No, He came as a small baby placed in a feed trough. He chose to be a human, one of us.

In Psalm 8, David praises God’s majesty, considers the majesty of his heavens, and wonders at the place of honor He has given man.

“What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the sea.” Psalm 8:4-8

Even before creation, God knew that, having received the gift of free will, we would sin and thereby sever our relationship with Him (Isaiah 59:1-2). He devised a plan to bring us back to Him: He sent part of the Godhead to live without sin among us, becoming a suitable sin offering for us. In the eloquent words of the apostle Paul:

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” Ephesians 1:7-8

We are God’s favorite creation. Yet within our number, as Peter preached, “God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” Acts 10:34-35 [Emphasis mine.]

And again,

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Titus 2:11-15

God wants us all to appreciate and to glorify Him, to accept the honor of being His favorite. In turn, He wants us to place Him before all others. He seeks to be our favorite. (Matthew 22:37)