The story of Cain and Abel is one of acceptance and rejection.
It illustrates the potentially devastating power of rejection.
Equally powerful, it shows hope that is still possible despite rejection.
Everyone wants to be accepted.
No one likes to be rejected.
From the time we are children we thrive on the approval of our friends and people we like or admire. We enjoy the approval of the world we live in. For some reason we especially enjoy the approval of Mum and Dad. We want their blessing. It’s a tradition in the Bible and still in many cultures, that fathers bless their children. Their stamp of approval gives them courage in the years ahead.
Christians want to be accepted by God. This gives us courage. We are “living sacrifices” to God (Rom. 12:1) Not just any kind of sacrifices but such that are “holy and acceptable” to Him. Note the word “acceptable”. If we want to be acceptable to God, then we must live acceptable lives. This is not always easy. All of us fail, sometimes often.
We read in Genesis 4:3 that both Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to God. Each sacrifice reflected their identity. Cain was a tiller of the land so his offering was of the harvest. Abel attended sheep so his offering was a first born of his flock. God accepted “Abel and his offering” but rejected “Cain and his offering”. What explains God’s actions?
Little is known so much is speculated. In 1 John 3:12 it says Cain’s “works were evil and his brother’s righteous”. The word for “evil” here means “to come up short” rather than inherently evil and the word for “righteous” means “appropriate or fitting”. Hebrews 11:4 says it well: “By faith Abel offered God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain”.
Cain’s response suggests that he did not treat his offering lightly. He had tried to please God and failed. His offering was “less excellent” than what it should have been and God found fault with it. Cain became angry and his “countenance fell” as in depressed or discouraged. It seemed to Cain that God had accepted his brother and rejected him.
God understood how Cain felt so He spoke to him with comforting words: “Why are you angry? Why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will YOU not be accepted?” Cain had not stepped past some point of no return. Henceforth, should he “do well” he too would be accepted. But then God added a warning: “If you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you may rule over it”
Cain made his decision. God had given him freedom of choice and he exercised it to his own hurt and that of his brother. He opened the door, became an instrument of Satan and murdered his brother. If he could not be accepted by God neither then would his brother.
Let’s think about Abel. He was accepted and approved of God, yet days later he was dead.
This is a powerful realization. Next time we may think God has rejected us, let us remember him. I wonder if Cain puzzled over the contradiction. If Abel was so acceptable and special to God, how is it that God let him die while he Cain remained alive? Hebrews 11:4 hints an answer for there it says that Abel though dead still speaks to us today.
What does Abel tell us?
We do not know if Abel died instantly or whether he had time to contemplate his death as he lay bleeding in the field. Either way, we now can contemplate his death. His was the first “Field of Blood” and not the last. Perhaps Abel was the first to understand something all of us must comprehend as well, which is simply this:
When we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” the promise is that we shall be comforted and not fear evil … not necessarily, that we should escape it.
Having a special relationship with God does not mean in this life we shall escape suffering and death. If we do well and as living sacrifices are fully acceptable to God, it is natural to expect a favorable response from Him. When instead bad things happen it may “seem” He has rejected us. It is then we may be tempted to ask: “God, why have you forsaken me?”
Paul says that: “whatever things were written before for our learning, that through the patience and comfort of the scriptures, we may have hope” (Rom. 15:4)
It was in a hotel room in Jerusalem that I contemplated this idea of rejection. After centuries of persecution and struggle in Europe to maintain their identity and loyalty to God, there came the Holocaust where Jewish culture and six million Jews were eradicated. Surely God had utterly rejected them. Perhaps Abel and others spoke from the scriptures, comforted them, and renewed their courage, and so helped to create a homeland, the present State of Israel.
From the beginning we see God’s purposes have always transcended our perception of fairness.
So now let us think about Cain. In one respect however all men are equal: All of us share equal freedom of choice in how to respond to what life has to offer. He should have done better with his offering and chose to respond poorly when God did not “respect” it. His mistake was (1) thinking God did not care and (2) allowing himself to become bitter. Satan and temptation are always in the neighborhood waiting for an opportunity. Now they “lay at the door”. They did not yet own Cain but they desired him. God intervenes.
He does not save Cain from Satan but instead encourages him with these words: “YOU MAY RULE OVER IT”
Some translations say “must”, others say “can” or “shall” and few say “may”. All words imply God has given us the power of choice so for this reason I prefer “may”. It is the word God used when He said to Adam “Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat …”
The power of choice is a precious gift from God. It elevates us above the animals. Free choice is essential and fundamental to the purposes of God since it allows man to either obey Him or not. Free choice allows us to grow in wisdom and character, eventually to enter the family of God. Freedom of choice implies an individual is less obligated to accept the choices of others. This limits the power of those who seek to rule over their fellow man.
When evil gains in power, it is never content to coexist with good but seeks to destroy it. That is the nature of evil. For this reason, once Cain opened the door, he could no longer coexist with righteous Abel and destroyed him. And when in a free society those who seek to rule their fellow man gain sufficient power, they also seek to destroy the freedoms that allowed their rise in the first place..
The story of Cain and Abel shows the potentially devastating power of rejection. Equally powerful, it shows the HOPE that is still possible despite rejection, real or imagined.
What is that hope? The hope is that we may rule over anger and bitterness in our lives. We do not have to let in the monster lying at the door.
So the message of this essay is that as living sacrifices to God, we must still strive to be acceptable, that even when we are acceptable to God bad things happen, and that we may choose to overcome potential anger and bitterness when it seems God has turned His back on us.
Here is one more thing: As I noted earlier, from the time were children we have wanted to be accepted. There is nothing wrong in seeking to be accepted by good people. It is good to be accepted by those who are good. It is also good to be rejected by those who are evil. Christ certainly was.
But sometimes we may be rejected by people we want to like yet did not like us, such as our employers, teachers, or even (we think) by our own parents.
It is comforting to know that if we have been rejected by the whole wide world, it is God who steps in and says to each of us: “Do well and I will accept you”.
What a fantastic offer! When we accept His offer we gain the courage and strength that comes with it. When we make seeking the approval of God THE most important thing in our lives, we cross over a great chasm on our way to the Kingdom of God.