BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the second of a two-part blog by John Henderson. You can read Part One here. John Henderson first posted this article at the Association of Biblical Counselors site. The BCC is re-posting it with permission of John and the ABC. You can also read the original post here.
The Location and Nature of Our Problem
What’s actually wrong with us? 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.” (Genesis 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.” (Ephesians 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 its positive effects, rather than by its 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!