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.”

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.