Thoughts About Cain and Abel

The difference perspective makes

Henri Vidal’s Statue of Cain – gardens Tuileries, Paris, France

“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.'” (Genesis 4:3-7 ESV)

I have written about this passage before. (See When Sin Crouches at the Door) In fact, it seems that every time I read the story of Cain and Abel it gives me pause. I always wonder: “How would I react?” “Would I be more like Cain or more like Abel?”

The truth is that I would like to fancy myself like Abel, offering a better sacrifice, one in which God would be pleased, but I have doubts about that. Would God really accept my sacrifice? More pointedly, would I really be willing to offer the kind of sacrifice God would regard? If I am being honest, I have to wonder.

I am bit surer that I wouldn’t get angry like Cain did, and I certainly wouldn’t take it out on Abel, right?

Do I protest too much?

I picture myself in my comfortable 21st Century world feeling fairly smugly that I wouldn’t be like that, but I’m not so sure I should be confident about that. The circumstances were much different then.

Cain didn’t have a world full of people to which to compare himself. He couldn’t have said, “At least I am not as bad as so and so.” He wouldn’t have had centuries of wisdom at his fingertips in the way of sermons, books, fables with morals and the Bible. Cain didn’t have the Bible or any moral compass but his own conscience and experience, such as it was.

When I first read this passage (again), I read it to say that God didn’t regard Cain’s offering, and so I thought it wasn’t that God didn’t regard Cain. But then I read it again and realized I was wrong: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”

It was personal for Cain. God didn’t regard him. What did he do wrong? What is the lesson in the story for us?

As I pointed out in the previous blog post on the subject, the clues are in the text. Abel offered more than Cain did – the best of his flock. The implication is that Cain didn’t offer the best, the “first fruits” of his produce.

It wasn’t necessarily that Cain did something wrong, as he didn’t do it right. He didn’t offer as much a Abel did. Abel offered a better sacrifice, and God took notice of him because of it.

Abel went above and beyond in his offering to God. Maybe Abel’s offering was more heartfelt. Maybe Abel was more thankful to God. We don’t know.

Cain might have felt that Abel was just “sucking up” to God. Abel was making him look bad, as if it was a competition for God’s attention. We think like that, don’t we? Maybe Cain thought, “I’m not going to suck up to God like that!” Right? Don’t we think like that sometimes?

Of course, that is pride talking.

Would Able have been inclined to think the same way if the shoe was on the other foot? We don’t know. We can’t really say.

Did Abel just get lucky? Did he happen just to offer a better sacrifice. Did he really know what he did “right”? Again, we don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say that Cain didn’t know what he did wrong. He might have made some assumptions, but I doubt his assumptions were very good.

Maybe Cain did know why God regarded Abel and his sacrifice, but he wasn’t willing to offer that much. I kind of doubt it, though. If Cain had known what the difference was between his sacrifice and Abel’s sacrifice, I don’t think he would have taken his anger out on Abel. Maybe he thought God was being arbitrary. Maybe he thought Abel had an unfair advantage. Maybe he thought God just liked Abel better.

Of course, that wasn’t the case at all. God tried to console and counsel Cain. He offered advice and hope, and he warned Cain of the danger of letting the sin crouching at the door get the best of him.

If there is one thing I take away from this story, it is this: regardless of what we are going through, and that we have done or haven’t done, the best answer is always to go back to God. Our own perspective on our circumstances is limited and flawed. God knows what is best for us, and He has the best intentions towards us. We need to trust Him.

If Cain had listened to God, he could have provided a sacrifice the next time that God would regard, and life would be good.

If Cain had trusted God and listened to His advice, I don’t think Cain would have been angry enough to murder his brother. If Cain had taken his anger to God, he wouldn’t have taken his anger out on Abel.

We often don’t get what we think we deserve. Maybe (sometimes) we don’t get what we actually do deserve, but that cuts both ways. We might not get the positive consequences we “deserve”, but we also might not get the negative consequences we deserve. When we “get away with” something, do we rue the fact that we didn’t suffer the consequences? I think not!

Life isn’t fair. Not in this world. Still, God works all things together for the good – not just our good, but the good of all people and all creation (eventually anyway). That is His promise to us. We just need to hang in there. We need to stick by God’s side.

Where else would we turn anyway?

In the end, God actually loves us. We could live in a world in which the creator didn’t love His creation. What an amazing thing that we live in a world in which God loves us! We know this from the fact that God emptied Himself to become one of us. And He didn’t just become one of us, He allowed Himself to be sacrificed in human flesh foe us. He endured our pain, and He bore our sin. We can trust a God like that.

This world also isn’t all there is, though we often lose site of that. Jesus has prepared rooms for all of us who call him Lord and Savior. We can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. It will make all the “good” things in this life pale in comparison. We have no reason to be a Cain and every reason to be an able.

Perhaps, the difference is nothing more than perspective. Maybe Abel had the right perspective about himself and God, while Cain’s perspective was too limited. Maybe Abel was willing to give his best to God because he trusted Him, he believed God and believed God loved him. Abel was thankful for what he had, knowing that all of it came from God in the end.

God’s Purpose for Good

Jacob with his sons before the Pharaoh, ceiling fresco by Johann Adam Remele in Joseph Hall, Cistercian Abbey of Bronbach in Reicholzheim near Wertheim, Germany

“But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.'” Genesis 50:19-20 ESV

I have written recently about the verse, Genesis 50:20 (things men might mean for evil God is able to use for good). (See God in the Dark) The message that God can turn the evil that impacts our lives for good is  powerful one. Though we might despair in our circumstances, especially when the evil we experience is caused by people, maybe even people we love, God is ever at work. God is able to redeem our circumstances, and, more importantly, redeem us.

As with any verse in the Bible, though we need to read it in context to understand the fullest, and most complete meaning. Genesis 50:20 was spoken by Joseph in a very specific context, so let’s take a look at that context and mine this well-known verse for some deeper meaning.

Continue reading “God’s Purpose for Good”

The Observation of an Atheist Historian: What Makes Christianity Stand Out Among World Religions


The radical quality of the love of Jesus stands out over and above all other examples. I have written on this before (the Christian expression of the Golden Rule compared to other religions). Most other world religions express some concept of the Golden Rule, but not in the way that Jesus did.

Other world religions state the Golden Rule in a limited way, such as not doing things to others that you would not want them to do to you. It’s the idea of refraining from doing evil. Under that concept of the Golden Rule, we simply need to avoid doing evil to our neighbors. There is no compulsion to do good to them. Ignoring your neighbor would be perfectly acceptable on the this principal.

Most major world religions do not express Golden Rule positively, as Jesus did: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Doing unto others is an affirmative duty. Simply refraining from doing them evil is not the concept of the Golden Rule expressed by Jesus.

Jesus made this clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable begins with a man who was robbed and left injured on the road. A priest and Levite (the priestly cast of Judaism) walked by the man on the other side of the road, ignoring him, while a Samaritan (an outcast to Jews) crossed the road to tend to the injured man. The good Samaritan was the example of the person who demonstrated love for a “neighbor” because he didn’t just ignore the injured man lying in the road.  The idea of the Golden Rule that Jesus expressed includes an affirmative duty to do  good.

To be fair, some religions come close to an affirmative expression of the Golden Rule, which I affirm in the previous blog piece, but there is one additional expression of the Golden Rule that stands alone: that is the concept of loving even our enemies and doing good to those who intend evil toward us and do us harm.

I think of these things as I pause from listening to Douglas Murray in a discussion with Esther Riley on the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierley, the host. (See Douglas Murray and Esther O’Reilly – Christian Atheism and the search for identity. The video is embedded below.)

Douglas Murray, an atheist and openly gay man, makes the observation that most Christian tenets can be found in other cultures, save one: that is the principal that of loving and forgiving even our enemies. Loving and forgiving our enemies is the ultimate statement of the Golden Rule. Even when we have enemies who intend to do us harm, and even when they actually do us harm, Jesus says, “Forgive them.” The conversation got into some recent examples of that expression of love and forgiveness that I will explore.

Continue reading “The Observation of an Atheist Historian: What Makes Christianity Stand Out Among World Religions”

Of Miracles & Snake Oil


As I was listening to an interview of panelists and presenters from the last Unbelievable conference in the United States[1], I was struck by something AJ Roberts[2] said in a discussion about miracles. She opined that people do not believe in miracles in the West because of the western emphasis on rationality over experience.

When she said that, I questioned in my mind whether she was right. Not that I haven’t heard that before. I have even thought that before myself. But a thought occurred to me this time as she made this assertion in the context of a broader discussion about miracles by the thoughtful panelists.

We do live in a society in which education is valued and science and rationality is emphasized at the academic level. The United States of America was built on a foundation of free public education. This is why schoolhouses were built all across the frontier, and colleges followed as the frontier expanded.

As an aside, I note that most of colleges in the US that were established before the 20th century were religiously inspired and motivated. From the Ivy League schools and across the country, most colleges and universities in the US have religious roots, but that is a subject for another day.

As I think about that fact, I am reminded of another strain to the legacy of this country, a more popular influence. That is the strain of Americanism that gave rise to the snake oil salesman[3], the huckster, people searching for the legendary fountain of youth, circus sideshows and the market for elixirs that promise happiness, long life and improvement to the digestive system.

Interestingly, our American proclivity toward quackery may have grown out of a combination of pluralism and capitalism. Pluralism brought people from all parts of the world to the shores of the New World with Old World remedies that cowboy capitalist exploited with claims of false cures. Americans have been so taken by such false claims that regulatory industries have been spawned by our gullibility, yet the “snake oil claims” live on.

I think about all the people I have known and the silly, hairbrained things they have put their faith in. There is no end to the pyramid schemes that promise health and riches. We, in the west, have even developed variations of New Age, religious elixirs that promise to deliver all of the benefits of the old snake oils in shiny, metaphysical packages that boasts none of the sticky side effects of traditional Christianity, like the need to deal with personal sin and accountability to a creator God.

It occurs to me that, maybe, the apparent dearth of miracles in the US isn’t that we have an exalted idea of rationality. Maybe God doesn’t grant us many miracles as we will believe almost anything. What’s another miracle claim among many? We might be just a little bit too inclined to believe them and to focus too much on them.

When Jesus sent out 72 of his followers ahead of him to go town to town proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God and healing the sick, they came back excited that “even the demons are subject to us in your name!” But Jesus admonished them: “[D]o not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”[4] Jesus also warned that many people would do miracles in His name that are not His people.[5]

I have often wondered why missionaries report so many miracles that God does in other countries, why the average American seems to have never experienced or seen a miracle. Perhaps, it’s because we are too predisposed to believe anything, not that we are disposed not to believe. We have learned well the willing suspension of disbelief that we employ in our favorite forms of entertainment, and we have turned that practice into driving desire for our lives. (Thank about the Disney themes of love at first sight and living happily ever after.)

At the pedestrian level, outside the halls of academia, we have a history of being taken by extraordinary claims as long as they are smartly and provocatively packaged. Perhaps it isn’t that we are so grounded by rationality, but that we are willing to believe almost anything that comes down the road, as long as it promises something that we want and can access on our own without the bother of accountability to a God who can’t be manipulated.

We even have our own brand of Christianity in the US that caters to our preferences – the word of faith movement. Name it and claim it! Believe it and seize it! Deposit your prayers with holy confidence into the divine slot machine and out will come your healing, cash, whatever you want. All you have to do is believe.

I used to think often that Christians in the west don’t observe or experience miracles because we are more rationally minded, but I am not so sure of that as I write this. Maybe we are too easily fooled.

Continue reading “Of Miracles & Snake Oil”

The End of White Christian America?


The headline reads: White Christian America ended in the 2010s.[1] As a white evangelical (and male), the first reaction to such a headline, I admit, is to cringe. We hear so much about the white privilege, white evangelicals and white Christians, generally.

It gets old for me. But, if this time really spells the end of “white Christian America”, however that might actually be defined, then so be it.  truth is truth. Reality is reality.

Of course, the headline in the NY Times in 1966 that God is Dead[2] proved to be a bit exaggerated. Thus, I don’t necessarily concede that white Christian America ended in the 2010s. I am skeptical of statistics and statisticians. I am skeptical of sweeping statements. I am skeptical of the biases that inform the conclusions we reach.

Further, the statement implies that we can identify white Christian America (and agree on a definition). I don’t identify, myself, with the stereotypes that appear to be informing the article. My wife and I decided to live in a city and allow our children to go to public school in which white folks like us are minorities. We made that decision for the sake of giving them experience with diversity. We embrace diversity.

On that basis alone, I think we defy the view of “white Christians” that inform the article. More than that: I feel that we are not alone. I feel that most of the white Christians I know view the world more like me than the article suggests. Personally, I don’t think racial considerations are as much a factor as the statisticians and pundits who use them assert, nor do I associate white and Christian.

“White Christian” Europe is a ghost of what it was. Europe and Canada are decidedly “post-Christian”, and the United States is following. Meanwhile, Christianity in Latin and South America is growing at a record pace, as is Christianity in China and Iran, even amidst the oppression and persecution. Jesus was a Middle Eastern “man of color”, and most Christians in the world are non-white.

Still, the numbers in the United States tell a story. I am not sure we are very good at reading and understanding the story they tell. I would argue that the story these numbers tell is more about a seismic shift in the predominant worldviews that drive societal change in the United States than a racial divide – not that there is no racial divide.

Though I am skeptical about the story this article tells, the numbers suggest that something is going on. Some shift has occurred over the last decade or two that is revealed in these numbers, and it is a shift away from a politically conservative, Christian position (white, black or brown).

The predominantly white, evangelical movement that has rallied around Trump as a political savior is a last ditch, desperate and ill-conceived (in my opinion) attempt at clinging to a position of societal influence. It’s an attempt to exert human wisdom and strength into a flawed human system. I am not sure how much of that effort is inspired by faith in the sovereignty of God and how much it is inspired by the will of man.

Yes, God establishes authorities, like Donald Trump, and that means God establishes the authority of other leaders, like Barack Obama (or any other leader, for that matter).[3] If we believe God establishes any authority, we have to believe He establishes all of them (even the ones we don’t like, the ones that we feel are a threat to us). We can’t say with any degree of integrity that God only establishes certain authorities that we favor, and not others.

Frankly, we need to reconsider how to interpret Romans 13 on that score, starting with the fact that Paul spoke those words to the Romans who suffered greatly under a harsh and hostile Roman world that worshiped Caesar and put to death those who would not bow down to him. It can’t mean what we popularly think it means in the United States.

We also need to be careful about putting our confidence in kings. Our confidence should be grounded in God, alone. God established Saul as king when the people wanted a king (like the other nations), but that wasn’t actually a blessing; it was actually a rejection of reliance on God.[4]

God gave the people what they wanted, though they were actually rejecting God in the process. God used that circumstance, as He uses all things, to accomplish His purposes, of course. But that doesn’t mean that the people who supported having a king were on the right side of that equation.

We have to remember that our end game isn’t in this world, but in the life to come. If the numbers and the trends they reveal suggest anything, they suggest that we will need an eternal perspective all the more as we lose hold of our significance among the powers and influences of this modern US world.

And if the world hates us (for the right reasons – because we are God’s people, not necessarily because we have power or privilege), we shouldn’t be surprised. The world hated Jesus too. Our best response isn’t to cling to worldly power, but to die on the cross that God has shaped for us.

God is strong in our weakness. In this time in which Christians seem to be losing our foothold in the national power structure, we need to look to God for our strength. That isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. That’s where we should be looking for our strength in all circumstances. It’s easier, though, to lean on God’s strength when we are weak.

And, assuming that is the case, it’s going to easier for us to lean on God. Not necessarily because we want to, or because that is our natural inclination (because it isn’t), but because we will have no other choice. And if that is the case, then so be it.

I won’t rue the end of white America, though I would glad trade the white part for the Christian part. The white part will continue to color. It’s inevitable, and frankly I think for the best in a world that is increasingly global and diverse. Every tribe and tongue is represented in Revelations, so why would Christians do anything but applaud the increasing diversity of the United States?

As for Christian, I would gladly lose cultural (American) Christianity for real spiritual renewal.  Maybe God is stripping away the impurities to expose the gold. If that is the case, we have a long way to go, and the fire is going to get hotter.

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[1] White Christian America ended in the 2010s, by Robert P. Jones, the CEO and founder of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and the author of “The End of White Christian America,” which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. His forthcoming book is “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity”, published at NBCnews.com Dec. 27, 2019.

[2] God is dead, and religion dying, remembered by James Finn in the New York Times April 19, 1970

[3] For an excellent expose on the way we cite Romans 13 to support our own bias, see Misusing Romans 13 To Embrace Theocracy, by Stephen Mattson at sojo.net December 10, 2019.

[4] See Is Donald Trump the King We Wanted? at Navigatingbyfaith.com November 17, 2019.

God’s Work Within Us

CS Lewis wrote the following bit in a letter written approximately one year before the end of his life:

“The whole problem of our life was neatly expressed by John the Baptist when he said (John, chap 3, v. 30) ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ This you [may] have realised. But you [may be]  expecting it to happen suddenly: and also expecting that you should be clearly aware when it does. But neither of these is usual. We are doing well enough if the slow process of being more in Christ and less in ourselves has made a decent beginning in a long life (it will be completed only in the next world). Nor can we observe it happening. All our reports on ourselves are unbelievable, even in worldly matters (no one really hears his own voice as others do, or sees his own face). Much more in spiritual matters. God sees us, and we don’t see ourselves. And by trying too hard to do so, we only get the fidgets and become either too complacent or too much the other way.
“Your question what to do is already answered. Go on (as you apparently are going on) doing all your duties. And, in all lawful ways, go on enjoying all that can be enjoyed—your friends, your music, your books. Remember we are told to ‘rejoice’ [Philippians 4:4]. Sometimes when you are wondering what God wants you to do, He really wants to give you something.
“As to your spiritual state, try my plan. I pray ‘Lord, show me just so much (neither more nor less) about myself as I need for doing thy will now.’”[1]

I cite CS Lewis often in what I write. He seems to capture so much of what it means to be human in God’s world, illuminating God’s grace in us and in the world as God works out our salvation, the author and perfecter of our faith.

These words Lewis wrote are so much more poignant that they were written toward the end of his life. Gone is the impetuous, tottering confidence of youth in working salvation out, replaced by the steady, trusting confidence of old age that God is working within.

As I survey a thousand times I have failed God in working out my salvation, I find solace in the hope and faith that God is working within me. I don’t always see it. Sometimes my sin overshadows any light I see in me, but God’s gentle light always shines through that darkness… when I turn to Him.

Often my inclination is to turn away. I fear His wrath. I am disappointed in myself. I think I should be better than that. I don’t want to bow at His feet. Yet again. How many times? How many times!

And I recall that nothing is hidden from God. Nothing. We stand, sit, lie, walk at all times under the gaze of an infinite God. Nowhere I can go, even into the deep recesses of my own heart, away from God. Even if I block myself from the inner chambers of my own heart, yet God is there.

God, save me from myself! I can only hope and trust that You will, as You have said, because I am utterly unable.

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[1] CS Lewis in a letter to Keith Manship from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III (September 13, 1962)

To Us a Child Was Born

We have good reason to be expectant that God will do, and is doing, what He said He would do.


“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6 ESV)

These words that are repeated often at Christmas time were spoken originally by Isaiah, the prophet, hundreds of years before Jesus. “For unto us a child is born….” These words are so ubiquitous in our western culture today that we may miss the significance of them.

At one time, people doubted the dating of Isaiah because it so accurately describes Jesus who was born around 4 BC. Isaiah lived purportedly in the 8th Century BC. Because Isaiah predates Jesus and the span of time from Isaiah to Jesus, an increasingly skeptical world that seriously doubted the predictive nature of those words begin to think that the Isaiah text was written after Jesus, perhaps in the 1st Century after his death.

People no longer doubt when Isaiah wrote those words, however, not since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the most significant discoveries among the Dead Scrolls was the Isaiah Scroll. It has been dated hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and it is nearly word for word the same as the more recent manuscripts of Isaiah that we had until that time.[1]

Isaiah contains, perhaps, the clearest and most amazing prophecies in the whole OT of the coming of Jesus.[2] For this reason, Isaiah is quoted every Christmas. Particularly the statements stating that the Messiah would come as a child.

At least one aspect of what Isaiah wrote gets lost in wonder of the predictions he spoke. We look back on them now with wonder and amazement that God inspired Isaiah to speak those words so long ago, but when Isaiah spoke them, no one listened. No one believed him.

Continue reading “To Us a Child Was Born”