I was reading an article in the New York Times about the abundance of new wealth in Khartoum, Sudan. The article featured pictures of well-dressed, laughing young people eating luxurious meals in air-conditioned cafes and buying $165,000 BMWs. Meanwhile, a mere 600 miles away in Darfur, the world is watching one of the worst crises of the past decade. Thousands of people are being starved, persecuted, and murdered.
I felt outrage as I read the article, saying to myself, These are exactly the kind of people described in Genesis 4. These people are just like Cain.
Then, a few days later, I was driving by Port Jeff Station where there's a tiny storefront Hispanic church. For nearly four years, I've driven by this simple, poor church and felt a little nudge from God saying, "Stop and check it out. They might need some help." I'd think about trying to eke out a living on Long Island as an immigrant family. I'd think about the families that live in the woods three miles from my house and the Hispanic teenagers lost in gang life. But then I'd always say, yeah, sure, maybe later, God. But on this day, I finally stopped at that storefront church and looked in the window. There were empty boxes and garbage strewn on the floor. The church was obviously closed, and the pastor had left town.
I don't have a nice moral to this story except to say this: maybe life isn't as simple as I thought. Maybe I have more in common with those well-dressed, rich young people in Khartoum. And maybe there's more of Cain in my heart than I'd like to admit.
Perhaps that sounds depressing, but I want to jar us out of the common view that Genesis 4 contains a simple, flat, moralistic tale about good guys and bad guys—Abel is the good guy, and Cain is the bad guy. We hear the story and insist we're not like Cain, making us good guys. And because we're the good guys, we can go home a little more smug and secure. But now I find this story much more messy and disturbing—and more hopeful and joyful—than I ever dared to imagine.
As we walk though this story, we'll repeatedly find two realities that exist side-by-side: on one side there's human sin; on the other side there's God's grace and power of redemption. Almost every story in the Bible—and, really, our own story—boils down to those two things: sin and grace. But here's the hope for us today: it's precisely out of the mess of human sin that God brings the glory of redemption and grace.
When God confronts us about our attitudes
Look at how sin and grace intertwine in Genesis 4:
Scene #1: The story begins in 4:1-2 where right away, we pick up a few clues that there's something wrong with the dynamics in this family. When Cain is born, his mother cries out a note of praise and triumph: "With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man." The name Cain means "to get" or "to create." Then, almost as a footnote, we read in verse 2: And by the way, later she also gave birth to his brother Abel.
We soon learn that Cain enters the family business, becoming a farmer like his father. Apparently, Cain was raised as the family's shining star. Cain begins to act like a spoiled brat.
Scene #2: In Genesis 4:3, the two brothers show up for a worship service. Each brought an offering appropriate to his job, but we're told that "the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor." There's nothing wrong with the material—an animal offering isn't better than a basket of fruit and vegetables—but there was something wrong with Cain. His response will reveal the heart behind his worship.
Do you see how easily worship (which is all about God) can become manipulation (which is all about us)? Worship is no longer a public way for us to lay our lives down in love, adoration and joyful service; it's just another avenue to get my way. This isn't just Cain's story; at times, this is the state of our hearts, too.
In our text, God confronts Cain about his bad attitude. This is a perfect opportunity for Cain to grow up and allow God to change his heart. God tells Cain: Look, it's a beautiful basket of apples and gourds, but your heart isn't into worship. I'm giving your brother an A, and I'm flunking you in Worship 101. But here's the good news: you can retake the course. I'll give you another chance.
Cain has a choice: he can listen to God, learn, change, and grow up, or he can throw a pity party and stay in his anger. He chooses the pity party.
There's an underlying lesson for us here: don't come to Jesus if you want to stay stuck in your bad attitudes and behaviors. He loves you as you are, but he won't let you stay that way. Jesus will "mess" with you. It's God's idea to make life a long, hard, delightful, exhilarating journey of spiritual transformation. It's part of our sinful disposition to demand that we stay stuck. God wants to "un-stick" us, and sometimes that only happens through pain. God graciously confronted Cain with the painful truth about his heart condition, and it pierced like a knife.
Sometimes we hear the hard truth about ourselves and it hurts. About six months ago, my oldest son came to me and told me something about my role as a father that pierced my heart. It took a great deal of courage on his part. I initially thought, Where did this kid get so much courage, truth, and love? Then I resented the truth about my heart condition. But behind his words, I saw God's invitation to wake me up from sin.
Sin is like a cozy bed on a very cold Saturday morning; you want to stay under the covers and sleep a little longer. Sin lulls us, and when someone comes to rip us out of our cozy place where we get our way, we resent it—even when it's God that does the pulling. Some of the most important questions in life are: How will we respond when God starts "messing" with our lives? How will we respond when God starts yanking us out of our comfort places—our places of stuckness and security—and issues us a summons to grow up?
God comes to Cain in the midst of Cain's pity party and drills him with questions: Why are you angry? Why are you so unhappy?
Then God says something very interesting about sin: "Sin is crouching at the door and it desires to master you, but you must master it." Here, sin is pictured like a wild animal (the same word is used for a crouching lion ready to pounce on its prey). Sin is an aggressive force ready to pounce on us.
The New Testament picks up on this theme and presents its own powerful picture of sin. Sin is not just "bad stuff" we do; sin is a power. Sin makes us slaves. You may wonder: Why do I keep going back to that bad habit or that sin? You keep going back because it's your master!
But here's the key: you must master it. We're still responsible for our sin. We're still moral, responsible human beings. Some of you have been truly victimized by life: rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, the divorce of your parents, or a hundred other things that have wounded your hearts. God has a special place in his heart for victims and the brokenhearted, but the Bible also says—and this applies to everyone—you are not first and foremost a victim of life. You are a fugitive from God, a sinner. None of us will stand before God and say, "It was my wife's fault or my husband's fault or my parents' fault. That's why I couldn't love and trust and obey you." That's what sin does. It attacks us and turns us into slaves.
Scene #3: Cain is at the crossroads now. He can cry out to God and ask for help in the battle against sin, or he can stay stuck in his bitterness, anger, pity, and grousing. Cain decides to keep grousing. In Genesis 4:8, Cain asks his brother to go in the field. Their being "in the field" implies they will be out of range of help. In other words, this is a premeditated act. They've offered their best to God—Cain even heard God speak directly to him—but he leaves the worship service and makes plans to murder his brother.
Let's do a heart check: does worship change me? Am I different because I've been in worship—kinder, gentler, more loving, more courageous, more passionate to tell others about Jesus, more in love with God, more in awe of God?
The consequences of sin
Scene #4: The heart of the story—with the mess of sin and the beauty of grace—is found right here. God comes with a question so simple and searing: "Where is your brother?" It's the second big question in Genesis. After Cain's father Adam sinned, God said, "Where are you?" Now God asks Cain: Where's your little brother, the one you were supposed to take care of?
When God asked Adam the question, Adam was at least a little sheepish. Cain responds with a bald-faced lie and hard-hearted sarcasm: I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?
God gave Cain a chance to confess and come clean, but Cain chooses to be a first-class smart aleck. So God says: What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.
In the Old Testament, the life of a person or an animal was in the blood. So Abel's life is crying out to God. God cares intensely about the shedding of innocent blood. Cain thought he could go to the field where no one would notice, but God says: I see your brother's blood in the ground; it's crying out to me from the soil.
So far, we've just been looking at one side of this story—the side of human sin. We have one more notorious sinner in this passage. His name is Lamech, and he's introduced in Genesis 4:19. This is the first time in the Bible when someone deviated from God's original plan for marriage. In Genesis 2:18, God had a very simple plan: one man and one woman. Lamech, however, marries two women. God allows it, but he doesn't endorse it. According to the Bible, every marriage arrangement that strays from God's pattern eventually creates more social chaos.
In Genesis 4:23-24, Lamech composes an arrogant, pompous, violent song: "Adah and Zillah listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy seven times."
Lamech exalts vengeance, but Jesus will mock Lamech. When Jesus was asked how many times we should forgive someone, Jesus told us to forgive "seventy times seven."
Are we better than Lamech? Lamech slept with two women but at least he married them. In Lamech's culture, if you slept with a woman, you were married to her. Tying sex to marriage was a way to provide for women and protect children. What about us? In our culture, it's customary for young adults to talk about "buddy sex" or to say, "I don't have time for a relationship, so I 'hook up.'" According to one recent study, 55 percent of 11th graders have had sex with a casual acquaintance. Or how many times have you been offended by someone, and you struck back by hurting them just as bad, if not worse? You've just chosen the way of Lamech and his great-great-great grandfather Cain.
How does God respond to this reality of human sin? First of all, he judges it. In Genesis 4:11-12, God issues a curse on Cain. The ground would prove resistant to Cain's farming techniques and, even worse, Cain will be a restless wanderer on the earth, sent far away into the land of Nod. This is the impact of sin in our lives: we're cut off from God, cut off from deep community with other human beings, and cut off from our true selves. We become wanderers. We don't have the roots we need to live well and live deeply. Our sin puts us under a curse.
But here's the amazing Good News: God doesn't just leave us in the state of curse. God doesn't leave us in the land of Nod, the land of wandering. Do you know where Nod is? Nod is all the times and places where we can't find God or ourselves. Nod is the land that seems beyond hope or beyond redemption. It's the place where we feel weak, lost, and helpless. When your marriage seems hopeless, when your children ignore you, when your parents abuse you, when your life is falling apart—that's the land of Nod. God pursues Cain into Nod. God, who calls the world into being, does not stop calling out to this broken man named Cain.
This is what the Bible calls grace. And how does grace manifest itself? Most Bible scholars talk about two kinds of grace: common grace and saving grace. Common grace is just that—it's common to every person on this planet. God showers it indiscriminately on the just and the unjust. Look at Genesis 4:17-22 for a picture of common grace:
Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.
Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain's sister was Naamah.
Do you realize the sheer grace of this scene? Here's Cain, the one who made a mess of his life, and what's he doing now? He's starting a family! He's building a city, naming it in his son's honor! Does Cain deserve this? No, he deserves death—he shed innocent blood. But God is so patient.
As a new Christian, I often pondered this question: If sin is so bad, then how do you explain all the goodness in the world? The Bible says although we're sinners, we also still bear the image of the good and glorious God. We reflect his glory and creativity. In Genesis 4:19, we're introduced to the children of Lamech, the great-great-great grand children of Cain. One of them is a father of livestock. One of them is named Jubal, the father of musical instruments (we get the word "jubilee" from him). Then there's Tubal-Cain, "who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron." Tubal-Cain's sister is named Naamah, a name that means "lovely" or "beautiful."
Do you see all the goodness, energy, and creativity in these verses? God's good creation allows for all of this. Music, art, dance, tools, construction, technology, sound, songs, beauty, feminine goodness and masculine goodness, farming, gardening—it's all good. God smiles on it and showers common grace on all the descendents of Cain. Do you see how unfathomably good, kind, and patient God is? He could wipe humanity off the face of the earth. Instead, he allows the arts to flourish.
Along with common grace, there's God's saving grace. In Genesis 4:13, Cain cries out, "My punishment is more than I can bear … and whoever finds me will kill me." Notice what God does: he promises to protect Cain. I hope you see how totally unexpected this is! Cain is a pampered, spoiled brat who uses worship to get his way. He murdered his younger brother in cold blood. Now he asks God for protection—and God agrees! He places a mark on Cain as both a sign of judgment and a sign of God's presence and grace. God makes a pact with Cain: You're a mess, but no one's going to mess with you.
What Cain should have done for his little brother, God now does for Cain. This is astounding mercy and grace, and it literally comes from nowhere—undeserved, surprising, and free. All of this is foreshadowing for what followers of Jesus call the Gospel or the Good News. Sin cannot and will not be ignored. We are no better than Cain—which means we stand under a curse as well—but here's the amazing thing: sin moves the heart of God to both judge and condemn and save, renew, cleanse, love, and embrace. The New Testament says, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." In other words, when Jesus died on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our sin. Every sin was placed upon him, and then he gave us a new mark. Listen to Ephesians 1:13: "Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit."
This is incredibly Good News! When we turn from our sin, placing our trust in Christ, it changes us in four ways:
1. We become incredibly grateful; we stand amazed and in awe of what God has done for us.
2. We become liberated. The New Testament says the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. The blood of Abel was crying out in judgment. The blood of Jesus cries out, "I love you" and "I forgive you." If you're holding on to sin, guilt, and condemnation, let them go.
3. We become accepting of others; we move toward people and not away from them.
4. We become committed to sharing grace and justice.
Sin has a hold on us. It has the power to overtake us and to judge us. It places us under a curse. If you think you're beyond it or you assume you don't have to battle it every day, you're mistaken. But there's something greater than our sin: the grace of God. Do you know that amazing grace?
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.