Before Cain committed the first murder, the first fratricide, God gives him three warnings. Sin is always a process and as Paul reminds us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Cain had no reference point for murder, as he would commit the very first one. But you know he had a reference point for anger and envy and resentment. He had a younger brother. Abel had dealt with those same sinful tendencies because he had an older brother. That’s not to say that if you’re an only child you are spared from getting angry or resentful! Plenty of targets. But Cain was angrier than he had ever been, and God sees that, and God speaks to him. Grace!
Remember the heart condition question God led with in the garden? “Where are you?” he called out to Adam. He does the same to Adam’s firstborn: “Why are you angry and why has your face fallen?” I love that God, our Father, addresses both the heart attitude and the face. Parents can read faces. Maybe not minds, like God can! But faces are pretty easy. God says, what’s going on with your face, Cain, because it reflects your heart. God then goes to instruction that includes admonishment. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Or in Hebrew, “Will there not be a lifting up of your face?” Your face is sad because your heart is mad, Cain, and both can be fixed if you will do the right thing.
I imagine God pausing for a moment to give Cain a chance to look up and smile, or to break into tears over the thoughts that have been going through his head. He does neither and God gives a second warning. “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” What an image! Sin is personified as a beast that is waiting for an opportunity to attack. And it reminds me of the warning in Ephesians, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” The devil is waiting for just a crack in that door, and anger and resentment is all he needs unless you deal with it quickly. Again, did God pause a moment to let Cain think through what He was telling him? This process can be stopped right now, Cain, if you will do well. Confess what is in your heart to God and confess that you cared more about what you believed to be yours than about what belongs to God. Do well, and your heart and your face will be lifted. We don’t know if God paused, but we do know there was a third and final warning. Speaking of sin that is poised to attack and devour, God says to Cain…
“Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” James Moffatt wrote that it could be translated, “It’s eager to be at you.” It’s like an angry dog on a chain, lunging at you as you run past, hoping the chain breaks. Been there, prayed hard for that chain! A friend of mine told me about a time as an 18-year-old when he would run by a certain house every morning and see a huge Doberman at the screen door growling and scratching, trying to get out. He thanked God every day for that screen door. And then one day the owner opened the door as he ran by and said, “Get him!” My friend was horrified as he saw this beast that had been wanting for so long to tear him apart get invited to do just that. The dog ran across the front yard, eating up the distance between him and my friend, who knew it was useless to try to outrun it. So, he stood and faced the Doberman and waited for it to launch itself. All I will say is, it didn’t end well for the dog. My friend did manage to rule over it, to use God’s phrase, with a well-placed kick.
We cannot say the same for Cain. Unlike his mother, who had to be talked into her sin by the enemy, Cain could not be talked out of his sin by a loving God. He ignored God’s three warnings and invited Abel to come to out into the field, and killed him. Though it might have occurred to Cain that there were no witnesses, he was mistaken. It is true for any of us when it comes to any sin. If not another soul in the earth sees us do it, there is One who does. Every time. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” -Proverbs 15:3
God is good. He calls out to us who walk with him. Come to me. Don’t go the way of Cain. Deal with unrighteous anger quickly. Give freely to the Lord. Run from bitterness. Fight for joy in the Lord.