Genesis 4:1-16 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
I’m not sure how many times over the past couple of weeks I’ve said/thought, “What a crazy time we’re in.” No one knows quite what to make of all of this. The spectrum of responses I’ve encountered to the coronavirus is extremely broad—spanning from nearly total indifference to near panic.
It’s really hard to get our heads around all of this, isn’t it. What should we think? How should we feel? What should we do? Where should we go and not go? Who should we hang around and who should we avoid? How much of this is media hype and how much is a genuine threat? What will this mean for our jobs? When will all of this end? How can we best love others? What are some ways I can serve? What does it look like to honor Christ in this season of trial? When will we run out of toilet paper? These are just some of the questions that I’ve asked myself and been asked by others. There’s a great deal in all of this that none of us knows or understands.
What we do know, however, is that trials often reveal parts of our heart that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Sometimes those newly revealed parts of our heart are good and honoring to God. Many times, though, that’s not the case. Many times as we dig deeper and deeper, we find areas of sinful rebellion. Where we thought our hope was rightly placed in God we find that it was really in something else (our job or our health or our stability). Where we thought our satisfaction was rightly found in Christ we find that it was really in something else (our comfort or our stuff or our relationships). When trials come where we thought we had courage we find that it was really something else (insulation or ignorance or bravado). Where we thought our identity was rightly defined by the bible we find that it was really in something else (our career or our hobbies or our church). Whatever else they do, trials almost always reveal previously unseen sin (or sin that had gone dormant).
Again, though, this is not a sermon on trials or the coronavirus, though. It’s a sermon on sin and how God’s people are called to respond to it. Trials—including the ones caused by the coronavirus—surface sin. The question that every Christian faces, then, is what to do with the sin we find (whatever causes it to surface). What do we do when our sin shows itself? Paul gives us the answer in Romans 8:13 where he writes, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” In other words, where Christians find sin in our lives, we need to kill it in the power of the Holy Spirit so that it doesn’t kill us.
But what does that mean and how do we do it? Answering those two questions is the heart of the next two week’s sermons. This week we’ll look back at Cain and his sin in Genesis 4:1-16 to see a few key aspects of the nature and process of sin. Then next week we’ll consider how to kill sin in light of what we learn from Cain. Let’s pray that God would reveal our sin to us, the manner in which it works on us, and then help us to kill it dead.
THE NATURE AND PROCESS OF SIN
In chapter 3 the serpent/devil is largely portrayed as responsible for the sin in mankind. In chapter 4 the burden shifts to the fallen heart of man. That is, between chapters 3 and 4 the problem of sin moves from something outside of mankind to something inside of him. In our passage we see that sin crept into Cain’s heart and then worked itself out in devastating ways. The example of Cain certainly does not tell us everything that can be known about how sin works, but it does show us a number of critical things about its process.
The first question I’d like to answer, then, is “How does sin work?” We need to start there because we need to have at least a basic understanding of how sin works before we can understand how to put it to death.
It’s very much like having a car problem. If a mechanic is going to be able to fix your car he or she first needs to understand the nature of the problem—what’s wrong with the car. In fact, I had a friend who was the best mechanic I’ve ever seen. Part of what made him so good is the fact that if your car had a problem he could almost always, immediately tell you what the problem was based on simply hearing and seeing it as you drove up. This came from his remarkable understanding of where car problems come from. Because he had such a good understanding of how cars break, he had a huge head start on knowing how to fix it.
Again, sin is much the same way. And again, Cain helps us out. From his story in Gen. 4:1-16 we can see five aspects of the nature and process of sin in us; all of which will help us diagnose and then kill our own sin.
- Cain was born sinful by nature. Adam and Eve were created without sin. Cain was not. Adam and Eve did not originally have corrupted natures. Cain did. That’s the startling impact of the otherwise innocent sounding words in Genesis 4:1, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…”. We’ll never understand how sin works or how to kill it if we don’t get our heads around this. Sin lived in Cain’s heart because his parents, through their sin, brought it into mankind’s very nature. What had at one time existed only outside of the human race (in the fallen angels), now lived inside Cain.This means that all of us, who are also descendents of Adam and Eve, are also inheriters of their corrupted nature. And that has massive implications, Grace. One critical implication is that Cain’s circumstances didn’t cause his sin. Circumstances never cause sin, they only reveal it. That is, while the offering system that Cain was a part of (in introducing the possibility of idolatry), Abel’s righteousness (in introducing the possibility of jealousy), God’s rejection of Cain (in introducing the possibilities of anger and self-loathing), and God’s curse on Cain (in introducing the possibilities of fear and bitterness) all gave Cain’s sinful nature an opportunity to show itself, none of those things produced his sin.Likewise, Grace, and we all really need to hear this, the coronavirus (or a hard marriage or challenging kids or selfish friends or a bad work environment or a bully-brother) might incite our sinful nature, but it cannot cause a single sin. Nothing outside of us can make us sin. Things outside of us can tempt us to sin, they can make it very hard not to sin, but they cannot force us to sin.
How many times, parents, have you heard your kids say something like, “I hit her because she…”? How many times, wives, have you heard your husband say something like, “I know I was mean to you, but you…”? How many times have we made such excuses ourselves? How many times have you said something like, “The traffic made me so mad”? Or “If only I could catch up financially then I wouldn’t be so stressed”?
That we are born with the same corrupted nature as Cain means that nothing outside of us is responsible for the sins we commit. More shockingly still, though, it also means that in order to break away from sin we need a new nature. As long as we live with our Cain-like corrupted natures we cannot kill sin.
The first thing to see about sin’s nature and process is that it has corrupted us to our very core. The sin that came out of Cain was already in Cain. And the sin that comes out of us was already in us. Again, you will never be able to kill sin if you don’t understand this. If you think something outside of you is your biggest problem you will never be able to deal with it rightly.
- Cain allowed something other than God to be first in his heart. This is a little tricky, but very important. At the same time, this was Cain’s sin and it is the essence of all sin. In other words, it is a sin to have something other than God as our greatest love and the very meaning of sin is having something other than God as our greatest love. Therefore, while the things we love more than God vary from person to person and from minute to minute, the fact that all sin is a misplaced love doesn’t.Again, we first learn this from Cain. As we saw last week, where his brother, Able, offered the firstborn and the fat (the best) of his flock, Cain kept those things for himself (vs.3-4). Cain loved his stuff more than God. And where God warned him of his treachery Cain rejected God’s wisdom (vs.6-7). He loved himself more than God. And where God disciplined him for his good, Cain thought only of himself (v.13). He loved his comfort more than God.Think of any sin mentioned in the bible or any sin in your own life and you will find a particular expression of misplaced love (either in the wrong thing or to the wrong degree). The sin of gossip is often about loving the attention of people more than God. Sexual sin is often about loving a particular sensation more than God. The sin of laziness is often about loving comfort and ease more than God. The sin of anger is often about loving our plans more than God. You get the idea.
One immediate way to get to your own heart on this is to ask what you’re most worried about losing to the coronavirus. Slowly, but surely our lives are being changed by this invisible bug. What is it you most fear being taken away from you? More than likely, somewhere in there is something you love more than God. That is, more than likely, somewhere in there is sin.
Cain’s sinful nature (and ours) meant that his love would be misplaced. But this was also the second step in sin’s process: tricking Cain (and us) into believing that there was something more worthy and desirable than God. If we are to kill our sin, Grace, we must come to terms with this. Sin is a love issue. It is always first about our affection before it is ever about our action. You can’t kill sin by targeting your behavior, you have to kill it by targeting the love that drove the behavior.
- Cain’s sin grew as he was confronted with his sin. We don’t know for sure if Cain immediately recognized his sin. We do know, however, that God did. God, knowing Cain’s sinful heart perfectly, did not accept (“had no regard for”) his offering made in sin. Cain did not like this. He was angered, very angered, by God’s response (v.5 says) and so “his face fell”.This was the third step in sin’s process in Cain: His sin caused him to be more angered by sin’s immediate consequences than by the presence of sin in his heart. And because he responded sinfully to his sin, it was allowed to grow. Our sinful nature cannot grow, but as long as we fail to press back against it, our sins can grow; as Cain found out in spectacular fashion.This presents us with an important test. What happens when you sin? I’ve known people who go to great lengths to cover their sin up so as not to be found out, just as Cain did (v.9). I remember steaming open a letter addressed to my sister when we were kids. To avoid being caught I glued it shut. It was a decent enough plan except that I made two miscalculations. First, I used way too much glue. Second, I drastically underestimated the time the glue would have to dry. Within a short amount of time my sister came home and knew immediately that her letter would not have passed through the postal system dripping with Elmer’s glue.
And that leads to another Cain test. What happens when you are found out? There’s a little one in our house (who will not be named) whose immediate response is always some form of shocked-that-you-would-ask denial. “Did you do it?” “No, and (in her own verbal and non-verbal language) I can’t believe you’d ask!” Some minimize. Some rationalize. And others still, like Cain, get very angry at others when their sin is discovered. All of these are some form of addressing sin with more sin. And all of these, then, will cause our sin to grow. That’s how sin works.
The point, once again, is this: we learn from Cain that sin works through a process in us such that, if unchecked, it will grow and grow and grow. If we are to kill sin, then, we cannot respond to sin with more sin.
- Cain’s sin became increasingly irrational. Though his sin was found out, God did not immediately punish Cain. Instead he warned him. That is, in kindness God warned Cain of the sin that was building in him (“Sin is crouching at the door” of your heart) and told him of the way out from its treachery (“its desire is for you, but you must rule over it”; vs.6-7). Rather than heed God’s warning, repent, and be reconciled to God, though, Cain allowed his sin to come off of its leash (v.8). He continued to act according to the desires of his flesh.Grace, sin is always irrational. It never makes sense to love something more than God. And yet as it is allowed to go on and grow in us it also grows in irrationality. Cain may, conceivably, not have known his initial offering was unacceptable to God and that his love was misplaced. But as God pointed that out to him, warned him, and offered him grace, everything seemed to come unglued. Cain’s responses made less and less sense.Imagine a foolish man who thought he could swim across Lake Superior. His friends, who cared for his safety warned and even pleaded with him not to do so. The man refused their counsel. Nevertheless, with far better things to do on a Saturday, for his sake they drove alongside of him in a boat. Then, 800 yards out—a respectable swim in Superior—when he started sputtering, his friends offered to pull him into the boat. Instead of finally realizing his foolishness and taking their help though, the man grabbed the boat’s anchor and tried to continue his swim.
That’s a silly example, of course, but that’s exactly what unchecked sin does, it becomes increasingly irrational. Isn’t that just how it is for you and me too? Our unrepentant sin tends toward greater and greater craziness. We don’t tend to get wiser when we continue in sin. We don’t tend to make more sense. We tend to become more and more foolish.
And again, this was the fourth step in sin’s process in Cain’s life: unchecked, it grew out of control within Cain’s heart to the point that it was totally irrational. It was one thing to make an insufficient offering. That was foolish at best. It was another thing altogether to dismiss God’s direct warning of death. That was nuts. And it was another thing still to murder his brother.
Sin began in Cain’s heart on account of the sinful nature passed down by his parents, it created misplaced loves—love for things in place of God—inside of him, from there it grew in intensity, and from there it grew in irrationality. This is how sin works and so we need to understand this if we are to obey the Apostle Paul and kill it by the power of the Spirit.
- Finally, Cain’s sin, in its increasing irrationality, created new desires of his flesh. Thus Cain, who began by withholding the best of his produce from God and rejecting advice from God, just a few verses later murdered his brother and tried to lie about it (v.9). That’s quite an escalation. There’s no indication from the text that murder had occurred to Cain before God’s rebuke and warning. His sin led to another sin which led to another sin which led to another sin that he probably hadn’t thought of before the second or third act of irrational rebellion. If we don’t interrupt its process sin becomes increasingly irrational and in its irrationality creates entirely new sinful appetites.I can’t tell you how many people who have come into my office over the years in a place of sin-induced difficulty that they could never have imagined even a year or two before—manslaughter, suicide, adultery, homosexuality, homicide, divorce, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc (I wish I were exaggerating). Every one of these people ended up somewhere entirely inconceivable from where they started.Most men who start out looking too long at an explicit commercial don’t imagine themselves committing adultery a year later. Most women who have a little too much to drink on the weekend can’t imagine selling themselves for drug money down the road. Teenagers who occasionally raise their voices in anger to their family and friends don’t picture themselves in jail for assault in their 20s.
We all have sins that truly disgust us today. We all have sin-lines that we cannot imagine ourselves crossing. There are things that would be so vile to us today that they never even enter our minds. And yet I’ll never forget the article I read in CT many years ago on the anatomy of lust. The man who wrote it (describing his own battle with lust) ended it with the scary confession that as his sin grew in intensity and irrationality he found himself crossing every line he once had and every new line he created. It became almost impossible for him to imagine a line he wouldn’t eventually cross. That’s what sin does. That’s how it works.
Even after everything he did, Cain still did not wake up to the reality of his rebellion. Even after everything he did, Cain’s irrational way of thinking led him not to repentance, but to ask God to let him off easy (v.14). Sin’s process is such that if we don’t interrupt its process it creates entirely new sinful appetites—appetites we couldn’t even have imagined at the beginning.
The process of sin begins in us with a corrupted nature. Our corrupted natures cause us to love wrong things or things wrongly. That is, they cause us to love things above God or in ways not allowed by God. Left unchecked our sin will grow in intensity and irrationality. And if it’s allowed to progress further still, it will create in us entirely new sinful desires; desires we never imagined in the beginning.
Cain teaches us all of this. In fact, because of his unrepentant treachery, engaging in egregious sin came to be known as “walking in the way of Cain.”
Jude 1:4-11 … certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ… 10 these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. 11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain…
Once again, then, we’re left with the question that we began with. As trials (or blessings or failures or successes or whatever) come and our sin is revealed, what are we to do with it? How are we to respond to our sin? What do we do when, in light of the coronavirus, we find ourselves doubting God or being selfishly angry at our fellow quarantiners or short with our kids, or feeling sorry for ourselves, or filling up our time with websites that are not honoring to God, or fearful of something God has told us not to be fearful of or …?
The Apostle tells us to put those things to death by the power of the Spirit. Obedience to that command begins with an understanding of the nature and process of our sin. Cain helped us to see several aspects of that in our passage for today. But that’s not enough. Simply knowing what sin is and how it works isn’t sufficient to kill it. We need something more. We need someone more. We need Jesus. Jesus alone can break the power of sin and death. He alone can give us new natures and change our hearts. Jesus alone can give us peace in times like these. Jesus alone can break sin’s chains and overcome our growing and irrational desires of the flesh.
Look to Jesus, therefore, and kill sin. Next week we’ll look at what God’s word has to say about how to do that.