Is the Old Testament God Different? God’s Grace to Murderous Cain

Bible Heart Grace Greek shutterstock_62678347

One factor essential for us to be strong and resilient in any circumstance, especially in times like the COVID-19 crisis, is our view of God. Irrelevant, you say? Not practical? Too abstract and theoretical? Not in my experience of counseling and spiritual direction.

An anemic view of God leads to an anemic faith. A distorted view of God leads to a confused faith– or no faith. A robust understanding of God leads to a tenacious faith anchored on firm foundations.

My conviction is best expressed by A. W. Tozer in The Knowledge of the Holy, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing  about us…..We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”

When we create our own image of God…

That second sentence intrigues me most: “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.” What does that look like? Permit me a few broad-stroke examples that don’t exist in pure form. Each of us is a mixture of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and assumptions, but in general terms:

Perfectionists tend to view God as a taskmaster who drives them relentlessly. They rarely taste grace.

Wounded people view God as uncaring, blaming God for causing or allowing their pain. Bitterness and resentment drown out the whisper of grace.

Ambitious people view God as a competitor who would try to thwart their plans. God is an obstacle.

Pleasure-seekers view God as a “Kill Joy,” like a cantankerous old man who doesn’t want anyone to have fun. They ignore God.

Sentimental people view God as a Santa Claus who hopefully fulfills their list of wants. They come to God only when they have needs.

I could list more, but you get the idea. People have constructed images of God as sentimental, demanding, irrelevant, malevolent, or worse. And, most significantly, their belief about God truly shapes their behavior and priorities.

One of the most troubling characterizations of God comes from people (even some who are earnest followers of Jesus) because they are offended by some accounts of battles and judgement in the Old Testament. They draw the conclusion that “that God” is an angry, vengeful tyrant to be avoided.

One of my passions is to show the grace and love of God in the Old Testament. “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). A careful reading of Scripture reveals that God is consistent. God is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

A powerful illustration of God’s grace can be seen in the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 4:1-16.

God searches our hearts for connection.

“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:3-5).

When God informed Cain that Cain’s offering wasn’t acceptable, it need not be viewed as wrath on God’s part. It was likely a gentle word on the Lord’s desire for sincerity, not empty ritual (see Isaiah 1:11-17). God was paying attention to the heart of the offer-er, not the nature of the offering. But Cain reacted with anger. He strongly resented God’s correction.

God assures us falling short is an invitation to draw near.

God responded patiently to Cain’s unfounded anger. God assured Cain he could correct the situation and be acceptable. Hear God’s grace in these words, “’Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’” (Genesis 4:6-7).

God warns us destruction threatens.

Then God warned Cain there would be dreadful consequences if Cain didn’t pay attention to his anger and resist his dark desires. “’But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it’” (Genesis 4:7).

Like a tiger ready to spring, temptation and sin were ready to devour Cain.

But Cain ignored God’s warning and proceeded to murder Abel.

God invites us to turn back for reconciliation and restoration.

Following the murder of Abel, God asked Cain where Abel was. This was not because God didn’t know. God was providing yet another gracious opportunity for Cain to “come clean.” To confess and repent.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain replied with calloused insolence.  

Cain showed no remorse, no regret, no humility whatsoever. He was rude and antagonistic toward God.

God releases us to the consequences we have chosen.

And so, finally, God spoke the judgement Cain had brought willfully upon himself.

Then the Lord said, “’What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

Was God justified in speaking words of judgment against Cain? Any rational person would agree.

Review the process of grace and mercy:

God’s counsel,

God’s reassurance,

God’s correction,

God’s warning,

and then God’s “care-frontation” (David Augsburger’s term for “confrontation”) even after the murder.

All these preceded any expression of what we would call wrath. And even God’s judgment on Cain was not the stereotypical response we would expect.

“The Lord said, ‘Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth’” (Genesis 4:11-12).

God’s judgement was allowing Cain to have what Cain wanted, but without God’s continuing hospitality. God did not actively avenge Abel’s death. Instead, God gave Cain up to Cain’s selfish desires (see Romans 1:24, 26).

Ironically, those who most question God’s just judgment are quickest to judge God.

When we think wrongly about God, we limit God’s love, lessen God’s grace, cheapen God’s demands, and diminish God’s direction for our lives.

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