by John Henderson
Then the Lord said to Cain… (Genesis 4:6a)
The Scripture provides a wide range of case material packed with truth and meaning for counseling ministry. The story of Cain offers a prime example (Genesis 4:1-16). While we don’t have access to the details of Cain’s childhood, we can probably learn a few things from what Scripture teaches. It’s probably safe to assume his home life was a mix of good, bad, and difficult. His parents were both sinners.
They were dependent on the grace of God. Marriage started off well for Adam and Eve, but it took a rough turn in the Garden of Eden. Life with God started beautifully. Then it went wrong. Sin twisted, fractured, and broke everything. Cain’s parents probably wrestled with guilt, regret, frustration, exhaustion, fears about death, and a host of other troubles.
After sin entered the world, day-to-day work filled with toil. There was value and meaning in his work, but Adam had to agonize for it. Bearing children was painful for Eve, but also a delight. They battled fatigue. They battled sickness. Their marriage suffered from tensions and conflict, just as God said it would (Gen. 3:16).
God promised help. The Lord had provided atonement and covering through sacrifice (Gen. 3:21). He promised a Seed to come who would crush the Serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Even though pain and toil could be found in their home, there was also hope. There was sin and repentance - moments of alienation followed by periods of reconciliation. Cain and his brother Abel grew up in this environment, an environment basically familiar to each of us.
At some point Cain focused on working the land. His brother focused on working the animals. One vocation was no better than the other. Both men chose good and honest labor. God strengthened their hands and blessed their work. Somewhere along the way Cain and his brother learned how to bring sacrifice before the Lord in order to worship and enjoy Him.
The Scripture tells of a day when these brothers brought their sacrifices to the Lord (Gen. 4:3-5). God regarded the sacrifice of Abel, but God did not regard the sacrifice of Cain. In other words, the manner in which Cain brought his sacrifice was unacceptable to God – he approached without faith or humility or thanksgiving in the Lord. The faith and humility by which his little brother drew near was acceptable to God. “So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.” (Gen. 3:5)
I think Cain felt a bit humiliated – outplayed, in his mind, by his “favored” little brother. He probably stewed in anger and bitterness. Rather than ask God for help, he likely thought about ways to even the score. The Lord invited Cain into conversation and offered him counsel. The Lord provided a way of restoration and warned Cain of sin’s danger. Cain didn’t care. Cain didn’t heed. In fact, Cain lured his brother into the field and murdered him.
Once more God drew near to Cain and started a conversation. He invited Cain to confess and seek help. Rather than face the situation, Cain lied. Rather than repent of his sin, Cain tried to conceal it. Of course, the Lord confronted his hostility and lack of care. After all, God wasn’t asking questions to which He didn’t already know the answers.
The consequences came. “Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen. 4:11) When Adam sinned, the ground was cursed. In Cain’s case, he was cursed from the ground. Even with toil and effort, Cain’s farming would no longer yield fruit. This meant he would wander and find food in the wild. Like a cow grazing from pasture to pasture, Cain would need to keep moving to find food.
The consequences upset Cain. “My punishment is too great to bear!” he cried out. He didn’t say, “My sin is too great to bear.” Nor did he say, “Father, please forgive me, I have offended you and treated my brother with evil!” At no point in the conversation will Cain grieve his iniquity and seek forgiveness. No, he’s much more concerned with preserving his physical life. “Whoever finds me will kill me.” (Gen. 4:14) The worry seems especially ironic and inappropriate since he just murdered his brother.
Incredibly, God shows mercy. Rather than turn Cain into a pile of ashes, He actually hears his concern. God placed a sign on Cain for his protection. Anyone who found Cain would know not to harm him. The story draws to a close with Cain leaving the presence of the Lord in order to settle toward the east.
The story of Cain provides a clear, beautiful, and tragic example of counsel being graciously offered by the Lord God, and stubbornly refused by a man. We can see God graciously pursuing a hardened sinner. We get to listen over their shoulders and learn from their interaction. I think we should be amazed by the conversation.
The Location and Nature of Our Problem
What’s actually wrong with us, and where may our deepest trouble be found? The story of God and Cain starts to develop an answer to these two questions. In the midst of their conversation the Lord begins to locate our deepest problem.
Namely, our primary danger begins with our hearts, not our behavior. The main problem comes out of us, not out of our environment. Suffering can come from many places, but suffering never ruined anyone’s soul. The crops Cain brought to the Lord weren’t the source of the problem. Abel wasn’t the location of the problem. Cain’s parents weren’t the key issue. The standards of God weren’t the problem either. The source of the trouble was Cain’s soul. The conversation between God and Cain makes this clear.
The basic nature of our problem also becomes clearer. It’s firstly a worship problem, not a psychological or emotional problem. God responded to Cain on these grounds. Cain did not approach God with a heart of humble worship. Abel did. The psychological and emotional troubles came as a result of, not a cause of, Cain’s worship problem. I think Cain’s response to God’s counsel brings this to light. His “countenance fell.” In other words, Cain became angry and dejected. Psychological and emotional troubles are clearly present, but as symptoms, not causes.
God counseled Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7) God isn’t pointing to external circumstances or problems, but to the affections, desires, and attitudes of Cain’s heart and their effect on his countenance and behavior.
The Progression of Sin and Sin’s Consequences
We can also learn something about the nature of human sin from the story, and how it changes over time when there’s no repentance or sincere cries for help. The progressive nature of sin comes into full view.
After all, Cain isn’t eating forbidden fruit, but murdering his brother, in cold blood, without remorse. He goes further into sin than ever before. After disobeying God, Adam and Eve experienced shame and guilt. The experience of shame and guilt isn’t even mentioned with Cain. He seems calloused in his heart and hardened to what he has done. He expresses great grief over consequences, but no grief over his sin, or the death of his brother, or the offense to God.
The depth and complexity of sin’s consequences develops. A man was physically murdered. Cain’s conscience seems to deaden and resist truth. Cain’s relationship to God completely dissolves, “then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). Fellowship with his parents, we must assume, shatters. With every selfish attitude and action, Cain’s life becomes more complicated, confused, and dark.
The Patience and Wisdom of God in Action
Like many of the interactions between God and mankind in the Scripture, the story of Cain puts the will and work of God on display.
The patience of God shines brightly with Cain. The care and compassion with which he handles Cain is breathtaking. Once more, I think we should be amazed at the conversation. God doesn’t just smite Cain and bury his body. God talks to him. God listens to him. God reasons with him. God provides a way for Cain to address the trouble, face the consequences, and receive grace.
The wisdom of God drives and shapes a restorative conversation. At no point in the narrative do we see God speaking recklessly or acting punitively. When things start to fall apart, He enters the scene and draws near to people. He asks carefully crafted questions. He confronts dishonesty and transgression directly and gently. He “speaks truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). His words and efforts are full of mercy, yet unwavering and righteous. All His activities display His holy, gracious nature as He moves toward Cain in gestures of reconciliation. Of course, we never see Cain soften and reconcile to God. The Lord’s words provided an opportunity for restoration, but we never see it happen.
When I slow down and take the story of God and Cain to heart, a few areas of conviction and encouragement come to mind:
I am humbled by the grace, mercy, and care of God with this man, especially when I consider my impatience and lack of care with people, even people far less stubborn than Cain.
I am struck by how poignantly and drastically my greatest problem (sin, pride, selfishness, and faithlessness in my heart) harms and complicates everything else in my life with God and others. I am my central danger. The grace of God in Jesus Christ stands alone as my central need.
I am encouraged and bewildered by the fruitlessness of God’s counsel with Cain, especially when I consider how I measure the wisdom and goodness of counsel by it’s positive effects, rather than by it’s God-exalting, people-loving substance. The Lord’s counsel was perfect, but rejected – the results of our counsel will always be in His hands. May the Lord have mercy!