Genesis chapter 4 is the story of Cain and Abel. It is a story that we have probably known since childhood. I can remember the picture Bible that I had. In it was a page about Cain and Abel, arguing in a field before the murder occurred. My Sunday school instruction was focused on that act of vengeance – the first murder.
But if I set aside those childhood images and actually study the text, I find that the emphasis that God puts on this event is comes before the murder takes place. God’s conversation with Cain reveals something far more important about the nature of sin. Let’s look closely and see.
Cain and Abel bring offerings to God. The word for “offering” here also means “tribute” so there is a deliberate implication that they both recognized the necessity to pay homage to their King. Abel’s offering is accepted. Cain’s is not. The text says nothing more. It does not tell us why God did not accept Cain’s tribute. But it does tell us that because Cain’s offering was not accepted, he was depressed and crestfallen. While he was in this mood, God came to talk with him.
“Cain, why are you depressed?” was God’s opening question. Even this question should alert us to God’s focus on the matter. God did not ask several other questions that would have seemed logical. He did not ask, “Why didn’t you bring me a tribute that was acceptable?” He did not ask, “Why didn’t you pay attention to my requirements?” He did not ask, “Why did you disobey me?” In fact, there is no implication that Cain committed any sin at this point. God focuses on Cain’s mood. This is a counseling session. The Master psychotherapist is leading his second client (do you know who the first client was?) to examine his emotional state of mind.
“Cain, why are you depressed?” implies that God is surprised to find Cain in an ugly mood. The fact that God makes no mention at all of the rejected offering implies that Cain still has the opportunity to make his tribute acceptable. Cain, God says, you don’t need to be upset about this. Just go out and fix it. I am not upset with you. I just want you to make things right with me. I am giving you the opportunity to correct this situation, with no strings attached.
God goes on to re-affirm this opportunity. He says, “If you do well, won’t your disposition change – won’t you be happy?” The text says, “won’t your countenance be lifted up?” Cain, says God, listen to me. Go out and fix this thing. I will accept the correction. Your mood will change from depression to joy. Instead of looking down and feeling depressed, you will look up and feel accepted. It’s just a matter of taking my advice and following through. Still God says nothing about sin. He is giving Cain the opportunity and the direction needed to establish the proper relationship between them.
Then the Master psychotherapist provides a warning. The second part of verse 7 is the real emphasis of this story. “And if you do not do well, sin is lying at the door and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
God knows that emotional situations can become the seedbed for sinful acts. He sees Cain’s depression. He knows that there are two monumental choices facing Cain. Cain can agree with God’s assessment of the situation and take steps to repair the relationship. Or Cain can defend himself, refuse God’s assistance and let his emotional state carry him into action.
Sin is lying at the door. Notice some very important things about this statement. First, sin is still outside. It is right there, ready to come in if invited, but it is not yet part of the emotional equation. The word used here is rabas. It means “a resting place.” In almost every occurrence in the Old Testament it is associated with “repose” or “rest after exertion”. It does not carry with it the idea of something evil lying in wait. In fact, this word is used many times to symbolically describe the rest of sheep under the shepherd’s care. Translations that imply that this verse means sin is crouching like a tiger, ready to spring into action probably miss the mark. God says to Cain, “Sin is in repose just outside your mind. If you choose to accept my solution, it will stay there. It cannot begin to work until you open the door. But if you don’t heed my warning, if you let this emotion take hold of you, sin will have the opportunity it needs to come to action. Be careful, Cain.”
Then God closes His conversation with this remark, “Sin’s desire is for you but you must master it.” Sin wants control. Sin needs control. The word for desire used here occurs only three times in the Old Testament. In both of the other occurrences, it is about sexual desire. Is there any stronger form of desire to take over someone than sexual desire? Is there any stronger emotion than the emotion of wanting to possess the object of my lust? God makes it very clear. Sin wants to own you. Sin wants a controlling, intimate involvement with you. And it will use the emotional gateway to get what it wants.
But God says that Cain can be sin’s master. It is up to him. Choose! You still have time, Cain. You can still reverse this emotional roller coaster you are on and prevent the downhill slide. Nod your ascent to my evaluation of the circumstance of your life. Agree that I am your King and deserve your tribute. And it will be acceptable. You will find joy. You will be released from this depression.
Or – open the door to that sleeping dog and all Hell will follow. It will take control of your emotions, and your mind and then your actions until there is no way back.
Cain went away from that conversation and plotted murder. In the text, there is no argument with Abel. Not a word is recorded about any conversation between them. The text says that Cain, with pre-meditation, found Abel and killed him. Sin no longer lay in repose at the door. Sin took over Cain’s life.
This old story introduces the second methodology of sin’s operation. When Adam and Eve sinned, the steps were introduced with doubt. All the serpent did was place a doubt about God’s integrity in the mind of Eve. Then he fanned that spark of doubt until it burst into the flames of desire – the desire to be like God. Cain’s encounter with sin’s control and destruction does not come through doubt. Cain’s fall comes through unyielding self-will.
“Why did you put me down, God?” “I brought my tribute but you only liked his.” “You humiliated me in front of him!” “It’s your fault, God”. “Don’t tell me what I have to do to make it right!” “If it weren’t for you, I would be fine.” “Stop preaching to me, I didn’t do anything wrong!” “I’m not going to listen to your advice.” “You just want me to do it your way.” “There’s nothing wrong with my way.”
Two children bring their homework to the teacher. One child has done everything according to the instructions. It is accepted. The other child, for whatever reason, has only completed part of the assignment.
“Look here”, says that teacher, pointing to the instruction paragraph. “Do you see what it says about using colors to show the relationships? Please take this back to your seat and finish it according to these instructions.” There is no judgment given. Only counsel.
But the child is distraught. “Why should I have to follow those instructions? I want to do it my way. I’m right. You’re wrong. You see, I don’t have to do what you tell me to.”
God’s counseling practice is open twenty-four seven. He knows the state of our emotions. He knows that sin lies just outside the door, ready to rouse itself to action if we decide to do it our way. So many times in my life I have ignored that inner reminder that, in spite of my will to control everything, life does not operate according to my rules. God reminded Cain that He was in charge. He is the King. The tribute must be acceptable to Him. It doesn’t make any difference if I want to do it some other way. I am free to do so, but my choosing not to agree with God’s assessment of my life will only open the door for sin’s control.
When I find myself in the throes of emotional battles I need to seek God’s advice. God says, “You must master it.” The choice is still mine. Am I upset? Am I discouraged? Am I angry? Am I lonely, heartbroken, afraid? In the midst of every emotional trauma, I can still seek God’s view of my circumstances. I can still rely on His control and concern.
Or I can do it myself!
Sin is sleeping at the door.