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.”

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What God Doesn’t Want – or Need

While you may resent paying taxes, you may also commit another 10 to 15 percent of your income to the church. You answer with generosity when you’re presented with a genuine need. While others sleep in on Sunday morning, you dedicate that time to Him — and not just for the worship hour – but for Bible class, too!

Surely God is grateful when you and I make such sacrifices of our money and time for Him!

Not so fast, writes the poet Asaph. In Psalm 50 he portrays a courtroom to which the Almighty God comes out of the perfectly beautiful Zion in the midst of a devouring fire and a mighty tempest. He summons His covenant people from heaven and earth to a trial where He is both the judge and the witness against His people.

And what does He testify against them? Not that they neglect sacrifices to Him, but that they think that’s all He wants.

His words are pointed and harsh. “I will not accept a bull from your house” because “every wild animal [and] the cattle on a thousand hills” (NRSV) are Mine already. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it are Mine.” You think that because you offer these burnt offerings to Me, you are acceptable to Me. (9-13)

Some of you – and I will call you wicked – are fond of quoting My law, yet you are undisciplined. You don’t hesitate to bend the law when it suits you; you’re not ashamed to openly associate with adulterers. (16-18)

You make Me in your image and suppose that if you’re righteous in your own eyes, you must be righteous in Mine, too. But you are wrong. (21)

I rebuke you for your foolishness. I lay this charge before you: Even as you offer sacrifices, you have forgotten Me. “Mark this, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.” (21-22)

Yet there is still hope – even for those of us who, in our misplaced devotion – have forgotten the object of that devotion.

We can still see the salvation of God, if we remember this: God wants us to honor Him with thanksgiving as our sacrifice. He wants us to recognize our dependence on Him, to call on Him when we’re in trouble. (23, 15)

When we recognize our dependence on Him, we’ll see those perceived “sacrifices” of money and time with a different attitude. For they will not be sacrifices at all, but natural responses born out of gratitude and love.