As a Man Thinks in His Heart

Genesis 4

There is a phrase in Proverbs 23:7 that captures the very essence of who we are:  “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”  It is a reminder that we are more than the sum of our actions – that the heart of the problem is the problem with our heart.

Garrison Keillor told about a time when he was a boy growing up on a farm in Minnesota.  He and his brothers were standing out by the hog pen where there were two large hogs lying in the mud.  The boys were leaning over the top rail tossing small pebbles at the hogs, when Garrison’s father came by and said, “What are you doing?” “Oh, we’re just tossing pebbles at the hogs.”  And the father scolded them and said, “Don’t do that.  Those hogs are not for sport.”  About a week later, his father and two neighbor men killed the hogs, dressed them and cured the meat.  Garrison said, “As a boy, I could not understand what my father thought was so wrong with tossing pebbles at the hogs when he knew he was going to kill them a week later, which is worse.  He killed them; we were just tossing pebbles at them.”  He continued:  “I was grown before I realized what my father meant.  I remember the faces of my father and his neighbors when they were killing and dressing the hogs, and hanging and curing the meat.  They didn’t talk.  They were very serious; it was a very sober business.  My father said, ‘This meat will feed us during the long winter here.’  Killing the hogs was an event of life and death – we were tossing pebbles at them – there is a world of difference.”

We ought to think about that every now and then when we think about coming to worship God.  Is worship a matter of life and death, or are we just tossing pebbles?  Is our Christianity something we take seriously?  Or do we minimize it by putting a fish on our car and a gold cross around our neck and wear our Christianity like a bumper sticker, but then live like everyone else?

Genesis 4 begins with two births – then, like now,  joyful occasions for a family.  Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”  Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. (Gen. 4:1-2)

But the trouble that began in the garden spills over beyond the borders of paradise.  Cain becomes a farmer, Abel a shepherd.  Their relationship is strained – not because they’re farmer and shepherd, but because their attitudes toward life and toward God are different.

Gen. 4:3-5  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought 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. 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? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

There is an interesting question raised that has no definitive answer.  Why were Cain and Abel presenting offerings to the Lord?  The text, even in what has gone before it and in what comes after it, never says.  We might speculate that they saw their parents do it, or that they were commanded to do it, or that they just felt like doing it, but the Bible just doesn’t say why.  All we have to go on is that “in the course of time,” they presented their offerings.  The absence of a biblical reason for so doing should tell us that the detail is not important.  What is supremely important is why they offered what they did offer, not why they offered something in the first place.  For this question, the Bible is more revealing.

There is a naturalness to the story that is very encouraging.  Cain was a farmer, so he offered out of the labor of his hands;  Abel was a shepherd, so he offered out of the labor of his hands.  But there is also an unnaturalness to this story.  For no apparent reason, Cain’s offering was not found acceptable by God and Abel’s was.  Can we take a hard look at the text and find out why?  I think we can, for the writer of this story has left us some very telling clues.

Abel’s “first fruits” indicate that some baby lambs have been born to his ewes.  Even though they could grow up to be valuable member of his herd, he chooses to give them to God. In the Bible “first fruits” always indicates off the top and from the very best.  His “fat portions” demonstrate that not only was he willing to sacrifice, but that he would give of the best he had.

Cain’s offering is not described in either way.  The text says Cain brought “some of the fruits of the soil.”  The contrast is glaring.  Cain was neither sacrificial or giving of his best.

Again, we come to the text with the question, “Why did Abel offer an acceptable sacrifice and Cain did not?”  Again, the writer gives us a pretty clear indication of the answer.  Abel’s offering was acceptable because Abel was acceptable to God.  Cain’s offering was not acceptable to God because Cain was not acceptable to God:  “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.”

That raises another question though, why was Abel acceptable and Cain not acceptable?  Again, that phrase, “in the course of time” gives us some indication.  It lets us know that the offerings were made after the crops had grown and the sheep had delivered.  In other words, their offerings were made in response to their yield or blessing.

Notice that there’s no indication that one type of sacrifice was preferred over the other.  God didn’t ask for an animal sacrifice from Cain – we don’t see God scolding Cain because he offered the wrong type of sacrifice.  His grain offering was natural and appropriate for a farmer – the problem comes from much deeper.

Abel’s offering indicates a thankful heart, a heart that was aware that God not only gave him the increase, but in the sacrificial aspect of his offering, showed his total dependence on God.  We can almost hear Abel present the lamb to God as he says, “Thank you Lord for blessing my flock and I present this lamb to you knowing that my future is in your hands.”

Cain’s offering indicates that he did not share Abel’s sentiment.  The Hebrew indicates that, not only did he not exercise care in his selection, but that it was entirely random.  Cain was neither thankful, nor dependent in his attitude toward God.

And this is the emphasis we see when God says to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.

The emphasis is Cain’s need to “be better” not just bring a better offering.  Cain’s offering simply exposed what was lacking in Cain.

You see, God has never simply wanted to be worshiped.  What he really wants are thankful, sincere and submitted worshipers.  Centuries later, Jesus will voice what we first see here in Genesis 4:  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.   (John 4:23-24)

And there’s the problem – for Abel worshiping God was an important matter, worthy of his best efforts – for Cain, he was tossing pebbles.

Cain’s attitudes  of defensiveness, jealousy and hostility escalate.  In his bitterness toward God, he takes a cue from his parents and blames his brother for his own lack of faith and takes revenge by killing Abel.

As in chapter 3, God begins asking questions, not to seek information but to bring him face to face with what is going on in his heart:  “Where is your brother?...  What have you done?”  And Cain’s answer was an indictment of the very attitude which had caused Cain to bring an unacceptable offering to God – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  His selfishness and self-centeredness are what brought him at odds with his brother and at odds with God.

It tragically ends with Cain’s rejection of God, God’s sorrowful punishment of Cain and banishment to a nomadic life of endless wandering.  And in vs. 16, one of the saddest verses in the Bible:  “So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence.”  Not just geographically, but spiritually.  And the story begins a headlong rush towards chapter 6 and the flood.

Does it strike you how, within two generations, people had so messed up their relationship with God, their relationships with each other, their relationship with creation, that God’s heart was already breaking? 

Abel is dead, Cain is a fugitive.  It would seem all is lost…  Are you beginning to see a pattern?  And as we have already begun to anticipate – God isn’t finished.  At the end of chapter 4, the writer pens these words of hope:  “Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, ‘God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.’  Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh.  At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.” (Gen. 4:25-26)

Have you ever messed up things so badly that you thought they were beyond redemption?  Have you ever thought – even God can’t sort this mess out?  Then you need to remember God wasn’t finished then, and he certainly isn’t finished now.  God can redeem any life, bring reconciliation to any relationship – if we will seek him.

Let’s take these three lessons from Genesis 4:

1)         God desires my worship.  We too have lived “in the course of time.”  We too have seen the evidence of God’s bounty in our lives.  We also have seen our own thankfulness and dependence upon God, or our own lack of it in the manner of our offerings to God.  God desires our response of worship – our recognition that he is the Lord of our lives.

2)         God desires my heart.  While God may require certain things from us, the mere doing of these things isn’t what pleases God.  Our motivation for obedience is as important as the performance of our obedience.  God’s desire is not just for worshipers, but sincere worshipers, who not only bring their offerings, but their hearts as well.

3)         God’s love never quits.  No situation is unredeemable, no life so far gone that God quits on us.  But the key is found in those last words of Genesis 4.  It’s time to start calling on the Lord.