Many Christians today, it seems to me, live a life of wandering. They wander from teaching to teaching, apt to drift to what sounds most like what they want to hear about God, the world, and themselves. But they also wander from experience to experience, seeking something that will satisfy them on the one hand without requiring full surrender on the other.
Christianity that is characterized by shallow and self-absorbed worship and teaching is reminiscent of the spirituality of Cain in Genesis chapter 4. Cain was a “religious” man. He worshiped, he tithed, he had what could be called a “relationship with God”. In terms of practice, he is probably as good an example in ancient times to a typical Christian in our Post-Modern one.
Of course, Cain’s “practice” was the outflow of his heart’s attitude. His “practice” can hardly be said to be more than mediocre and was therefore unfulfilling to himself and unremarkable to its intended recipient, God. It had more to do with ritual (religious habit devoid of passion) than it did with genuine worship. It had more to do with the appeasement of God (the minimum necessary to “get God off his back”) than it did with atonement (the bridging of the distance that his sinful nature created with God). His worship had only to do with obliging God (fulfilling his obligation) and nothing whatsoever with pleasing His Creator.
This lackluster façade of false spirituality pales in comparison to a life authentically given over to its Maker, that of Abel, Cain’s little brother. Abel, seems to really “get it”, in contrast to Cain, who quite clearly doesn’t “get it”. Abel’s life resonates with worship that is a melody of genuine devotion and delight in God. His heart’s desire is for more than a “touch of God” but of close and sustained communion with Him. This attitude of worship outshines Cain’s offering as brightly as does the sun outdo the faint glow of an open cell phone. Abel does not want to just fulfill his obligation, he craves to surpass it and please God with his focused and lavish worship.
When God looked on Abel’s offering, the genuine nature of it was clear because Abel gave his best and “first dibs” to God (see Genesis 4:4). Cain presumably surmised that God was not taking Cain’s offering at face value but was judging it based on what Abel was giving (as if God preferred sirloin steak to garden salad with scallions and bacon bits – or vise-versa). It’s that age-old habit of ours to assume that estimations of our worth are derived from comparisons with others. But it doesn’t work that way. Our value is not relative to others; it is absolute and the Lord’s estimation of our worth is independent of how others are behaving, what they can do, or what they may be giving. The fact is that the “what” is less important to God than the “how”. God would not overlook the fact that Cain’s worship was lukewarm at best nor does He do so now.
Some might give this passage in Genesis a shallow reading. To them it might suggest that God favors sheep ranchers to dirt farmers, but that would be as silly as saying that the Lord likes plumbers over restaurant managers (or restaurant managers over plumbers), doctors over information technologists (or the reverse), and so on. But take it from a former career counselor, Cain’s “vocation” was not the problem. His problem was his heart’s attitude.
No doubt you have heard the story of Cain and Able. Cain became jealous of Abel’s favor with God. Basically, Abel was getting something out of his “religion” that Cain was not. Cain started jealous and then became suspicious, imagining in his heart that Abel’s wonderful spiritual life was all pretense and pride. Maybe, in a typically human way of underestimating God, he even wondered if Abel was doing something down and dirty behind Cain’s back to get God to like him. Who knows? What we do know is that, as his bitterness festered and grew in his heart, he moved from being suspicious to injurious, exploding in an eruption of violence that left Abel dead. I doubt, by the way, that it was a murder of passion. My inclination is that it was calculated… although stupid – as if God wouldn’t notice or hadn’t seen what had happened. Cain did not comprehend the “ever-present” and “all-knowing” nature of God. But God saw. He knew. Just as He sees and knows today what is going on in our hearts and minds.
“Cainitic spirituality” abounds today but it still has a knack for being shortsighted. Not only that, it leaves us thoroughly unsatisfied. Sadly, instead of submitting to the grace that God gives us through His Word in challenging our attitudes as His Spirit strives to help us see the roadblocks that lie within us (e.g., anger, see verses 6-10), we imagine that the fault lies with the one who is spiritually alive and passionate: he evidently has some sort of satisfaction that we crave for ourselves, a rich and passionate experience with God, so we become seeded with jealousy. Just as in Cain’s case, it produces in time a crop of injury against our brothers through unjust criticisms, disassociations, or violence.
This is not to say that we do not engage error or attitude that grieves God’s Spirit or that leads the unsuspecting from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. On the contrary!
But churches often have a way trying to snuff out the “Abels” among them, because their desire for “more of God” and their generous spirit towards the Lord makes others feel uncomfortable with their own ho-hum religious life. Folks often despise being reminded that there may be something missing that they really do want, but to possess must be willing to give up everything.
In the end, of course, God deals with Cain’s murder of his brother by sending him away. Cain ventures out east of the garden of Eden to the land of Nod (“Nod” means wandering).
In a way, Christians today are dwelling in their own “Land of Nod.” In ancient times, Cain and his descendants built a great civilization. It grew and spread and seemed to be flourishing. But it at last came to nothing when the destruction of the great Flood swept over the earth after a lengthy process of increasing immorality, anarchy, and futility.
But another son was born to Adam and Eve, trumping the evil that Cain intended when he killed Abel. Through Seth the Abelitic spirit of worship was preserved even through the cataclysm of the Great Flood of Noah’s day. It was the descendants of Seth who shone in a spiritually dark society (the civilization of Cain’s lineage) by “calling on the name of the Lord” (see verse 26), proclaiming Him even though those around them had descended into wickedness and perversion.
What kind of Christian do you want to be? A “Cainitic Christian” or an “Abelitic Christian”? One who is lukewarm and does only what is minimally necessary or one who lavishes upon God the best he has to offer? One who contents himself with the meager fruit of a nominal Christian life or one who hungers for more of God in this life?
In a world full of “Cains,” God is looking for more “Abels.” It is time to leave the Land of Nod and embark upon the greatest adventure of all. Open your heart to God, give Him your life, and let Him make Himself known to you as you follow His Son… in Spirit and in truth (see John 4:23-24).
Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 22 years. He is the author of The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com”. Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.