My six year old daughter is a spitfire.
She is affectionate, quick to laugh, joyful, and loving. She is also moody, quick to anger, jealous, and hard-headed.
In short, she is a six year old.
The condition of her heart is often laid bare by the slightest provocation–both good and bad–and while she is generally obedient, we’ve really had to work on the attitude of her responses more than the actions themselves.
For example, just the other day, she was playing with a certain toy dragon that belonged to my son. It was actually a keychain he kept on his backpack but he had taken it off and allowed her to play with it for a few minutes before we left for school. She was deep in her game of make-believe when I announced it was time to put on shoes and get the car–which meant she needed to give the dragon back to her brother so he could clip it onto his bag, keeping it from getting lost in the shuffle.
To her credit, my daughter obeyed. She gave her brother back the dragon. But the nature of her obedience was a different story. She sulked across the room and threw the dragon in his face, yelling “HERE!”
She was not happy. She was even less happy when I made her pick up the toy and hand it to him nicely using a different tone of voice.
As a child, she was focused on the act of obedience itself. But, as a parent, I was focused on her heart.
Our God is also a Father, and He feels the same way. Our heart has been his priority from the very beginning; going all the way back to the Fall and its aftermath, we see His concern for man’s attitude rather than his actions.
In Genesis 4, we witness the creation of the first family, when Eve gave birth to a son, Cain, followed shortly after by a second son, Abel.
“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 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.” (Genesis 4:2b-5)
At first glance, this passage may seem unfair. Is God playing favorites? Sure, I would enjoy a fat steak over a barrel of vegetables any day, but shouldn’t God be above all that? What’s the deal?
God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice had nothing to do with grain vs. animal sacrifices. In fact, we see later on that grain offerings are in fact “pleasing” to the Lord (see Leviticus 6:15). Instead, His rejection of Cain’s sacrifice had everything to do with the condition of Cain’s heart.
In verses 3 and 4, we see that Cain brought “some” of the fruits of the soil while Abel brought “fat portions” from the “firstborn of his flock.” Not only was Abel bringing his literal first fruits, but he was also bringing the most valuable parts–the fat.
Abel was making a true sacrifice–giving up what was most valuable to himself in an enthusiastic embrace of worship. Cain, on the other hand, was simply doing his duty.
It wasn’t the nature of the sacrifice. It was the quality…because it revealed the true condition of the men’s hearts.
“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…” —(Hebrews 11:4)
Abel offered his sacrifice in faith rather than obligation. His relationship with God wasn’t forced or empty; it was one of genuine love, his actions borne out of a desire to please God rather than appease Him.
God, however, saw the inner workings of Cain’s heart in the lackluster and meaningless offering he presented. He had done what he was supposed to do…but he had done it with the wrong attitude and motives.
Just like my daughter when I asked her to give her brother back his toy. She’d done what I asked, sure. But her actions revealed her attitude–and her attitude was anything but obedient.
And, just like when I’d given (er, um, forced) her a do-over, our ever-compassionate Father offered the same opportunity to Cain.
“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.'”–(Genesis 4:6-7)
God was gracious in explaining to Cain exactly why his offering had been rejected but He also went one step further: He gave Cain a warning about the path he was taking. The reality of Cain’s sin wasn’t just in his empty religion; it was in his rejection of God’s sovereignty. Cain didn’t want God to be his master–he didn’t want to have to make offerings or do anything else God wanted him to do. The danger with this is that when we reject God as our master, sin quickly sweeps in to take His place. The idea of being our own master is an illusion–in this world, we will always be slaves to something.
With God as our master, blessings abound; in His absence, we are quickly devoured.
I wish this story went differently. But Cain, as we all know, didn’t listen to the Lord.
“Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” —(Genesis 4:8)
Keep in mind: this is only one generation removed from the Fall. How quickly sin took root after that original sin. It could not be contained. It could not be mastered. It could only intensify.
However horrendous that act of murder was, I think the true tragedy of this story comes just one verse later:
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?'” –(Genesis 4:9)
God, in his un-ending mercy, gives Cain another chance. All-knowing and all-powerful, He knew exactly what had happened in that field. But He was giving Cain an opportunity for confession and repentance, another chance to choose another path, another master.
And Cain once again rejects it.
Not only does he reject it, his response shows the further degradation of his heart. His lie showed his arrogance in believing he could hide things from God. His snark showed his complete lack of reverence for God. And his boldness showed a complete loss of the fear of God.
Sin begets sin begets sin begets sin.
In his desire to be his own master, Cain had become a slave. His sin was in an unstoppable downward spiral, reaching its tendrils into his family and ultimately throughout all humanity. In rejecting the blessing of God’s sovereignty, he instead chose a curse.
“The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.'”–(Genesis 4:10-11)
Though righteous, Abel became the victim of another’s sin, and his blood cried out to God for judgment and punishment. Cain was cast out from the land, forced to abandon his home and family and become a wanderer.
I am so glad the story doesn’t end there.
Thousands of years later, Someone else’s blood cried out to God, a victim of another’s sin. But rather than judgment and punishment, this man’s blood spoke of grace, mercy, and redemption. It spoke forgiveness. Rather than casting us out, this man’s blood brought us home.
You see, God doesn’t want our sacrifices. He wants our love. He wants our love so much that He was willing to send His only Son to die so that our hearts could be healed and whole once more. Abel’s blood was spilled as a result of Cain’s continued rejection of God’s sovereignty. Jesus’ was spilled as a result of our own.
But where once there was a curse, now there is blessing. Where once there was judgment, now there is grace. Where once there was punishment, now there is forgiveness.
Obedience matters. But the condition of our heart matters more. When God nudges our soul, bumps against our attitudes, rejects our grumbling compliance, we have a choice to make–will I continue onward in my meaningless compliance, letting sin take root under the guise of duty? In other words, will I throw my toy?
Or will I repent, seek truth, and let the blood of Jesus cry out for my sinful heart?