If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it. (Genesis 4.7)
How telling that Scripture’s first recorded human conflict isn’t a power struggle. It’s not about money. It’s not sex-related. Although it ends in murder, it’s got nothing to do with one party threatening the other’s wellbeing and survival. In fact, differing opinions, clashing personalities, or—as many presume—sibling rivalry don’t enter the equation. God’s acceptance is the problem, and the conflict resides entirely in one man. Cain, notoriously immortalized as the Bible’s first killer, is undone when disregard of his worship raises worthiness issues.
The story, as told in Genesis 4, doesn’t say what’s wrong with Cain’s offering. Here’s all we’re told. Cain is Adam and Eve’s oldest son. And it’s important to keep that top of mind, because he retains singular status as humanity’s first-born. He’s the first to discover how growing up works, even as his folks figure out how to raise him. We who’ve been first children or first-time parents know well the anxieties of learning by trial and error, despite caring people who helped us get through it. Cain and his parents manage without any practical advice and emotional support. There’s no one to assure them their concerns are typical. No one consoles them when naïve mistakes trigger profound regret. No trusted relatives and friends take their hands and say, “It’s not the end of the world.”
Although Adam and Eve benefit from experience when their next child, Abel, comes along, everything Cain encounters in life is new to him. He basically invents agriculture by learning to cultivate crops. Abel grows up to be history’s first rancher, herding sheep rather than working the soil. It’s a hard life for both men, as each gradually masters the mysteries of nature’s cycles and setbacks. It is Cain who first offers God a portion of his crop in gratitude for God’s goodness. Abel follows suit, giving God a sample of his new lambs. And here’s where the trouble starts. God honors Abel’s offering, yet disregards Cain’s. God doesn’t say at first why Cain’s gift isn’t accepted and not knowing the reason uncorks a deadly potion of rage, devastation, and self-hatred. The best Cain comes up with is he must lack something Abel possesses. He’s somehow inferior in God’s eyes, and since he and Abel are the first to worship God with giving, there’s no one to suggest God’s apparent disregard may have a higher purpose. Could it be that God wants to teach Cain an invaluable lesson he’s missed?
So we add another “first” to Cain’s list. As well as Scripture’s first human offspring, farmer, and murderer, he’s its first person to feel blindsided by divine prerogative. Genesis 4.5 tells us he “was very angry, and his countenance fell”—reactions we relate to, as we’ve all felt angry and crestfallen when it seemed like God disregarded us, ignored our intentions, or unfairly favored others. And though the drastic measures he takes to rectify his situation turns his story into a cautionary tale, we still owe Cain a debt of gratitude, because his inner turmoil occasions another critical first. This is the first time we witness God reach for us when fears of inferiority and rejection overtake our thoughts and emotions.
We have no idea what comes of God’s regard for Abel’s offering. Whatever transpires between them doesn’t interest the Genesis writer, whose fascination with Cain alerts us there’s something highly significant in his saga. While we lock on his lame attempt to brush off Abel’s murder—the infamous “Am I my brother’s keeper” moment—I’m convinced the big message appears before the crime, in verse 7, when God urges him to wake up to his self-destructive impulses. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” God asks, before warning, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
The problem isn’t Cain’s offering, and the issue isn’t his inferiority or God favoring Abel over him. It’s his reluctance to master ideas and emotions that give rise to flawed beliefs and behaviors. The question isn’t whether God finds Cain worthy. It’s whether Cain’s thoughts and actions are worthy of him. His fear of rejection is rooted in his refusal to reject temptations that endanger him and others. “Do right and you’ll be accepted,” God says. “Control your urges or they’ll do you in.” It sounds so simple. Yet Cain proves how hard regaining control can be when we’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. Nothing he’s told stirs him. He lures Abel into a field, kills him, and pretends nothing happened. Then he finds out that disregard for God’s guidance leads to irrevocable loss. He’s not rejected. He’s dismissed. God sentences him to a fugitive life among people who may want to kill him, yet refrain because he’s cursed with a “hands-off” mark. He ends up living in fear, in a land called Nod, far from God’s presence and everything he knows.
Nothing to Do with God
God’s love is unconditional—too priceless to earn and too pure to deserve. Knowing that moots the question of God’s acceptance. How would a Creator Who goes to inconceivable lengths to embody love—and then die for it—conceivably reject anyone? Doing so would undo all that Jesus achieved and, in John 6.37-38, He flatly says that’s not going to happen: “Everything that God gives Me will come to Me, and anyone who comes to Me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of the One Who sent Me.” So our debates and anxieties about who is or isn’t acceptable to God—who’s worthy of grace and who’s not—who’s saved and who isn’t—have nothing to do with God. It’s the same tiresome fear that consumes Cain and ultimately destroys two lives, the oldest human conflict in the Book. While we’re nodding off, conjuring reasons why God accepts some and rejects others, God’s already put the matter to rest with a question and caution that couldn’t be plainer: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Claiming our Scriptural right to active worship and participation in Christ’s body begins by honoring God’s desire that our lives reflect principles that please God. In Romans 12.1-2, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It’s Genesis 4.7 all over again, isn’t it? Do well and you’ll be accepted; present yourself as a living sacrifice. Master harmful urges; renew your mind.
Although Cain’s fields produced healthy crops, his life was unfruitful, and that corrupted his offering, which in turn loosed doubt in God’s justice and his self-worth. If only he’d woke up when God nudged him. If only he’d cleared away the clutter of dead-end attitudes and unproductive pursuits. If only he’d renewed his mind. Then he’d have known what God wants us to know. The matter of God’s acceptance has been settled since the dawn of time. Feeling inferior and fearing rejection are nothing more than symptoms of unhealthy thinking.
Wake us, O God. Bring us face-to-face with self-destructive attitudes and pursuits that destroy confidence in Your acceptance and our worth. Heighten our awareness that unhealthy temptations want to do us in. And give us boldness to defy them by renewing our minds in keeping with Your principles. Amen.
While we nod off, conjuring silly reasons why God should accept some and reject others, God’s already put the matter to rest.
Podcast link: Nodding Off