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Chapter 3: The Humanism of Cain and the Theism of Abel


     Have you ever noticed how brothers and sisters naturally get along all the time? Yeah, right! Sibling rivalry goes right back to the beginning of the human race. It’s as old as the hills. I remember a certain incident that happened when my brother and I were teenagers. My dad’s occupation was a grocer and his store was a part of our home. We had access to ever kind of junk food imaginable. I’ve got to tell you, life was hard! Not!

     Anyway, with all of the candy bars and yummy pastries available, my brother and I actually got in a fight one evening over a water bottle our dad kept in one of the refrigerated counters. What were we thinking? Well, as the scene played out, we argued over who should have it first. A tugging match ensued, and then my brother suddenly decided he would let it go. Wham! I was tugging so hard the bottle smashed back into my face and broke one of my front teeth. I’m still missing that piece of tooth right up to this very day.

     However, our little skirmish was only minor in comparison to the conflict that ensued between the earth’s original two brothers, Cain and Abel. If you were to ask someone what they know about this story, the immediate answer would probably be Cain’s now infamous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). However, what was the primary reason God included this narrative in Scripture? Here is the short answer to that significant question. One brother was humanistic. The other one was theistic. One brother exhibited a horizontal perspective, while the other one went vertical.

     It’s not without significance that Cain and Abel’s story follows right on the heels of Genesis 3, a chapter that highlights humanity’s fall from sinless perfection into total depravity. Cain and Abel were, of course, the first two human offspring of Adam and Eve. In fact, some would suggest they might have even been twins. What we do know for sure is that they were the first two humans to enter into a sin-cursed earth right from the moment of their exit from their mother's womb.

     Thus, Cain and Abel were the first members of the human race to have to make a choice about believing in and obeying God without prior knowledge of any experience of a perfect, up-close relationship with Him. Essentially, they serve as a first model or example for every other human being that has ever been granted life and breath on this planet. Simply put, we are faced with the very same choices as Cain and Abel. Without knowing God up close, without experiencing God’s divine presence at my very side, in what way will I now choose to live out my life? Will I allow my aberrant, earthly senses to dominate how I think and live, or will I make the conscious decision to govern my choices by the eternal realities I cannot see or feel?

     Both Cain and Abel made these choices and the results were literally life altering. According to the narrative, Cain and Abel felt compelled to bring an offering to God. The content of their offerings was determined by their specific professions. Abel was a keeper of sheep-a shepherd. Cain was a tiller of the ground-a farmer. Both of these vocations were legitimate and respectable.

Not surprisingly therefore, Abel brought a firstborn lamb from his flock to sacrifice to God. Abel was bringing the best sacrifice that he could offer to God. Cain too brought a predictable sacrifice-the fruit of the ground. I think it would be fair to say that he brought the best produce that he could possibly bring.

     The text goes on to indicate that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but totally rejected Cain’s. The obvious question that comes next is “why?” Why was Abel’s sacrifice so right and why was Cain’s offering so wrong? Many bible scholars would answer this question by pointing to the fact that Abel brought a blood sacrifice and Cain did not. Thus, Abel’s offering was acceptable to God because it was a pre-cursor as to how God would forgive sins throughout the Old Testament era and ultimately through the shed blood of His own Son on Calvary’s cross. Although I would give much biblical credence to this point of view, I think something far more fundamental is going on here.

     You see, methodology reveals motivation. In other words, the way we do things discloses the real motives behind our actions. I believe the primary reason why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice was because he offered it out of a humble, vertical perspective. At the same time, God rejected what Cain offered because he must have brought it solely on humanistic terms. Here is why I’m driven to that conclusion. Cain was a tiller of the ground. Obviously, this implies that he had to work hard and work smart to see a harvest become reality. His profession was wrapped up in human effort. Now, there is obviously nothing inherently wrong with being a farmer. But there is a subtle danger - in a word, pride.

     Human expenditure can bring about visible results. Thus, there is the temptation to say, “Hey, I accomplished this. This is only a reality because of my inherent capabilities and my external vitality.” What we have to recognize here is that the greater our human expenditure, the greater the chance that humanistic, horizontal thinking will pervade our lives. Such, I believe, was true of Cain. Although there was nothing integrally wrong with his sacrifice, he brought it to the Lord wrapped up in selfish-accomplishment and self-sufficiency.

     Abel’s profession, however, did not lend itself as much to a humanistic, horizontal perspective of life. Abel simply looked after sheep. He couldn’t take much personal credit for their growth and health, other than having protected the flock from dangerous predators. When it comes to sheep, they pretty much take care of themselves. Sheep spend most of their time nibbling on grass under God’s big blue sky. Let’s face it, a shepherd such as Abel couldn’t claim his diligent efforts were the sole reason for his success.

     So, what’s my point? Essentially this: Abel brought his sacrifice to God out of sincere humbleness rather than humanistic pride. He gave the best of what God had given him, nothing more and nothing less. He brought his sacrifice to God with no expectations of divine acceptance because of human self-effort. That’s the only kind of sacrifice that God accepts. Why? Because anytime we take credit for anything, in essence, we are attempting to displace God and bring glory to ourselves. What we are really saying is “I deserve divine approval because I have brought my best to God.” The reality is though, that God doesn’t owe us anything based on whatever we feel we bring to the table. We are utterly helpless and hopeless without Him. Cain failed to acknowledge this, and it wound up costing both him and his brother big-time.

     In fact, Cain’s response to God’s disapproval of his sacrifice was positive proof that he had offered it out of self-sufficient pride rather than God-dependent humility. The first thing Cain did was blow his top. The second thing he did was throw a pity party. Cain thus has the unflattering distinction of being the first person in recorded human history to have had a temper tantrum and sing the blues!

     God immediately confronted Cain (Gen. 4:6). Basically He said, “Cain, get your act together and strip yourself of pride. And if you don’t change your ways, sin is waiting close at hand, ready to pounce on you and dominate your life.” Unfortunately, Cain didn’t get the message.

     What he did do was take out his sullenness and inner rage on his brother. Cain’s ensuing actions were full of malice and totally absent of any clemency. Tragically, Abel thus became humanity’s first murder victim. Subsequent to his crime, Cain tried the same futile sin-and-attempt-to-evade-responsibility strategy as his parents had. His only response to God confronting him was this: “Get out of my face, Lord. I don’t know what happened to my brother. Am I responsible for keeping track of him at all times?”

     What was God’s response? The Lord was neither impressed nor pacified: "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth," (Gen. 4:10-12). Yes, failing to go vertical has its consequences - serious ones!

     Now you may say, “Well, what about Abel? He went vertical and look what it got him!” He did what was right and yet lost his life. Several thousand years later, Joseph could have come to the same conclusion after he resisted the immoral advances of Potiphar’s wife. Deciding resolutely to remain true to his godly principles only landed him in an Egyptian jail for two years. The same could also be said of the great heroes of the faith recorded in Hebrews 11, who ultimately suffered and met horrific, untimely deaths even though they lived with a proper, God-honoring vertical perspective.

     No, going vertical does not always guarantee immediate, temporal exemptions from pain and suffering or even death. However, it does absolutely guarantee future, eternal rewards. The same cannot be said for a solely horizontal approach to life. What that gets you is immediate negative consequences (guilt, for example) and eventually future, inescapable eternal punishment (hell).

     So what can we learn from the story of Cain and Abel? Believe it or not, one of the most important things we learn is that it is always better to be an Abel than a Cain. Even if it costs you your life, it is infinitely better to live like Abel than to be like Cain. Jim Elliot, one of the most famous missionaries of the modern era, put it this way: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” (Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty [New York: Harper and Row, 1958] pg. 15).

     Another thing we learn from this narrative takes us right into the realm of practicality. If you’re gifted at manual labour or if you’re good at using your knowledge and skill to take care of business, beware! You are a likely candidate to fall into the humanism of Cain, because it’s tempting for resourceful people to become more self-reliant rather than God-dependent. The innate, natural ability to take care of one’s own world can quickly render God irrelevant.

     This perspective is, of course, illusionary. Without God, life itself is not possible. The apostle Paul made this clear to a group of self-sufficient skeptics long ago when he told them that God, “gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25) and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In the next chapter, we’re going to look at an individual from Scripture who bought into the illusion of self-sufficiency. But before we take a look at this person’s life, let’s all take a little time to do some more personal, honest self-introspection.


What’s the BLT? It is always better to be an Abel than a Cain-always! Which one am I?


Lord, Renew My Mind

Lord, renew my mind.

Lord, renew my mind.

I want You to Find

A heart that’s true,

That pleases You.

Lord, renew my mind.


Lord, in this world filled with sin,

It’s so hard to remain pure within.

There’s so much to turn me away

From living for You each day

Lord, help me recognize

Sin’s deceitful disguise

Sometimes, because evil looks so good,

I don’t resist it like I know I should.


Lord, I want others to see in me

A life lived as holy as it ought to be.

But I know I can’t reach this goal if I do not

Make You Lord of my every thought.


Lord, set my mind on things above,

Thoughts of faith, peace, hope, and love.

As I hide your Word within my heart.

Make it holy, every part.


Lord, renew my mind.

Lord, renew my mind.

I want you to find

A heart that’s true,

That pleases You.

Lord, renew my mind.

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