Reading Time: 10 minutes

Be your brother’s keeper

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Genesis 4:1–9

An asteroid larger than the tallest building on earth will fly by our planet next month traveling 67,000 miles per hour. Fortunately, scientists say it will miss us by 2.6 million miles.

Are other asteroids a greater threat to us? NASA has been studying Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) since the 1970s. They have found more than 95 percent of the known category of over 15,000 NEOs. But what about the other 5 percent?

We don’t have to look to outer space to find threats to life on earth. Each day’s news brings more reports of disease and disasters. Especially painful are stories of people hurting other people. Worst of all are the personal stories that don’t make the news but scar our souls.

Where have you been hurt by someone lately? Who has attacked you? Lied about you? Hurt you? Stolen from you? Cost you something important? What do you do now?

Meet yourself

As our text begins, Adam and Eve have become the parents of Cain and Abel. Later in the narrative, both bring offerings to God, but Cain’s is refused. Why? And why does the question still matter?

The problem was not that one was grain and the other blood. The key is in the Hebrew word translated “offering” (minhah): a gift offered to a superior as an expression of gratitude for his goodwill (Alan Richardson). The “offering” is to be given in gratitude, not duty; in worship, not work and routine.

And that’s how Abel made his “offering.” The Bible says, “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4).

“By faith” means “through faith” or “as a result of faith.” Abel’s offering was superior to Cain’s, for it was offered in faith, not works. In gratitude for God’s grace, not to earn his favor. It is the difference between the person who comes to church because it is Sunday and it’s his habit or duty, and the person who comes to worship to give back to the God who has given everything to him.

We see what our neighbor gives; God sees the heart which gives it. He “looked with favor” on Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s (v. 4). “Favor” means “grace.” God received by grace Abel’s offering of gratitude, but he could not receive Cain’s offering of self-righteous performance and works.

So, Cain’s attempt to justify himself failed. His performance fell short. He felt himself a failure and became “very angry” (v. 5); the Hebrew says that he “burned.” His self-righteous anger was such that sin was “crouching” at his door (v. 7), a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

God warned him: “you must master it” before it’s too late. But he did not. The Bible says that Cain “belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:12).

One hurts, and one is hurt. Why? And which are you today?

When you’re Cain

Cain is everyman. We all have an Abel. We all have someone in our lives whom we’ve hurt. Think back to the last time that was true for you. Why did you do it? Why did you repeat that gossip, tell that lie, speak that slander, steal that money or reputation or time, hurt that person?

Remember the sin cycle we exposed last week: Satan starts with your problem or need, questions God’s provision, minimizes God’s punishment, and offers God’s position. So, what’s the problem, the need? What starts the cycle by which we hurt others? Here are the leading candidates. Which is tempting you today?

Revenge. Cain convinced himself that Abel was his problem—if Abel’s offering had not been superior to his own, none of this would have happened. We hurt those who hurt us and feel justified in revenge.

Justice. This is Abel’s fault, and he deserves what he gets. We hurt others, but they deserve it, or so we think.

Reward. Cain wins, Abel loses. We’ll see whose offerings are acceptable, now that there’s only one to give them. We steal to get what we want and justify our action by the belief that they won’t miss it, or that we need it more.

Power. Nietzsche called the “will to power” the basic drive in human nature. Sometimes we hurt people just because we can. Cain was older and presumably stronger than Abel, and he could kill his brother, so he did. The “golden rule” in our fallen world is simple: the one with the gold makes the rules. We don’t even know why we did it. We just wanted to, and we could.

We’re all susceptible. We’re all Cain. When last did you hurt someone for these very reasons? G. K. Chesterton was asked to write an essay under the title, “What’s wrong with the world.” His submission: “Dear sir: In response to your question, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ I am.”

The first step to stopping a sin like Cain’s is understanding why you’d commit it. The first step to stopping the sin cycle is understanding where you are being tempted to hurt today. Which serpent is whispering in your ear right now?

When you’re Abel

Now let’s reverse things. You’re Abel—you’ve been hurt, and you’re tempted to respond with revenge, justice, reward, or power. You’re ready to perpetuate the sin cycle. What should Cain have done before he killed his brother? What should we do when Cain hurts us? Let’s remember the answer to the sin cycle we discovered last week, and apply it here.

First, be honest about your pain. Listen to your life. Don’t cover up your hurt, or excuse it, or pretend it didn’t happen. You really were the victim of slander, or gossip, or theft. Identify the person who hurt you, and why he did it. If you won’t admit your pain and your desire for revenge, justice, reward, or power, you’ll react before you can respond. You’ll say or do something which you’ll regret for a long time. Remember that you cannot unring a bell. Be honest about your hurt today.

Second, trust God’s provision. Know that he knows and cares: “The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground'” (v. 10). Your Father knows that you are hurt, and by whom. You may think that no one knows the injustice you’ve suffered, but One does. He knows when you have been hurt, and by whom, and why. Any father hurts with his children, our Father most of all.

Third, respect God’s punishment. God acted for Abel: “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” (vv. 11–12).

I looked up the subject of divine vengeance this week and discovered ninety-one biblical references. Here’s one example: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them” (Deuteronomy 32:35).

Before Paul quoted this verse, he instructed us, “Do not repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19).

There are certainly times when God uses the legal system to bring about his justice. That’s why we have laws dating back to the Ten Commandments and punishments in place to fit the crime and deter its recurrence. We are to give the person who hurt us over to God and his justice.

Last, give God his position. Be sure he’s Lord of your heart and life, whether he is Lord of those who have hurt you or not. You are not responsible for them, only for yourself. Don’t let their sin cause you to sin. Don’t let their slander draw you into slander. Be sure you are right with God, and humble before him. Know that there but for the grace of God go you. You may not have done what they did, but you have probably done things they’ve not thought of doing. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All who seek God are saved by God’s grace (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9). As you give the one who hurt you over to God, be sure he is on the throne of your heart as well.

And when you cannot do this, ask God to help you. Jesus said to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44). If you cannot pray for those who have hurt you, pray for God’s help to pray. And it will be given to you.

Conclusion

Corrie ten Boom’s story is familiar to most of us. Her family was taken by the Nazis. She was forced to watch her sister Betsie’s slow death in a concentration camp. Of all her family, she alone survived the Holocaust.

In The Hiding Place she tells how it all came back one unexpected evening: “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,’ he said. ‘To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!’

“His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often . . . the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

“Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

“I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When he tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself” (The Hiding Place).

Today we have met the first human question in the Bible: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” What is your answer? Who is your brother today?