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Sin That Entangles

The Bible doesn’t provide a lot of details in its account of the first human conflict. Moses (the author of Genesis) devoted only five sparse verses to a description of how Cain’s felony went down. Moses’ narrative leaves readers wondering why the account lacks the passion for such a brutal crime. It also leaves open questions about Cain’s underlying motive and why he would kill Abel if he is really angry at God. The version that follows is admit­tedly a speculative account. Its purpose is to help us get a better grip on the reality of conflict and zero in our focus on conflict’s sin­-driven origin.

In the cool mist of a pristine dawn, a dark thread of smoke rose perpendicular against the burgundy horizon. Cain’s brother was at it again, making a mockery of their clan’s hardscrabble labors by wasting what little food there was on yet another sacrificial offering to the Lord Jehovah. “Oh, the stupidity,” thought Cain, and he grieved over Abel’s foolishness.

For years Cain had brought his own token offerings of grain and vegetables to pay his respects. And he still did occasionally. Only, his heart was no longer as enthusi­astic as the hearts of the others. His hard-earned offer­ings were aimed at winning the Deity’s good will. But they seemed to go unappreciated.

“If only Abel were less passionate about his worship,” thought Cain. “Why must he openly flaunt his feelings for the Deity with these burnt sacrifices? . . . And why so often? Surely it is poor stewardship to render a prime animal into a heap of ashes. The healthy ones are the best breeders. Doesn’t the Holy One desire that we first feed ourselves and meet the needs of our family?” With the authority of the firstborn, Cain felt duty bound to curb his brother’s zeal and instruct him on the realities of their meager existence in a hostile world.

But something else, certain questions, irritated Cain. Why, for example, were Abel’s offerings always accepted while his were not? How had he failed where Abel had succeeded? Was not the fruit of his labor just as worthy as Abel’s? Lately Cain had even begun to wonder if Abel might be poisoning his relationship with the Almighty One. Had Abel somehow turned God against him? As a result, he harbored jealous thoughts over the intimacy his brother enjoyed with the Lord. At the same time, Cain wondered to himself if Abel’s God was really worthy of all the attention; after all, it was he, Cain, who lived by the sweat of his own brow. He survived day-to-day by his own cunning and the skills he had developed. If he prospered, it was by his own hand; if he failed, he would have only himself to blame.

As Cain stormed off in the direction of Abel’s sacrifice, the Lord whispered truth to him one final time—a mer­ciful warning: “Beware! Sin, like a wild beast, is crouch­ing nearby, taut and ready to attack. You are its intended prey.”

Yahweh’s words left no impression. Cain had already made up his mind. It was his duty to shape the will of his younger sibling, to impress upon Abel that he, Cain, was the elder and therefore knew what was best. If Abel was unwilling to listen, he was prepared to be forceful, to draw a line in the sand. His brother needed to under­stand that the first law of survival in a sin-ridden world is the law of strength, power, leverage, and brute force.

And Abel did resist. He had other ideas about what was important—priorities that his brother would never understand. From Abel’s perspective, Cain trusted too much in his own cunning. For Abel, a relationship with the Lord God was far more important than any other thing. After all, it was God who fed him and the other members of his household, clothed them, sheltered them, protected them. How could he live without worshiping his infinite provider? How else would he express his appreciation for the merciful Creator’s plan to make everything right and good again?

The brothers argued. Cain’s angry words filled Abel with sadness. Abel’s gentle and submissive posture only angered Cain all the more. Soon Cain was consumed by a white-hot rage that demanded more than angry words. “Come,” he invited, “walk with me across this meadow so that we can resolve our differences.” But Cain’s intent was to deceive Abel instead of reconciling their dispute. He knew that while his brother’s posture might have been submissive, Abel would never submit to his will. It was time to take firm action.

When Cain was sure no one else could see, he picked up a jagged rock and struck his brother’s skull from behind—with full force. As Abel’s broken body slumped to the ground with a heavy thud, Cain was pleased. The dark red liquid pumping rhythmically from the gaping wound in his brother’s skull meant that his brother was not going to get up to fight back. Abel was dead.

Cain had helped his father slaughter many animals; he understood death. But this was the first time Cain had seen the death-­curse happen to a fellow human being. It made him sick enough to retch. Life is a precious thing. But Cain was not sorry this had happened. “Now,” thought Cain, “at least the others will know that I am the elder and the wiser. Abel should have listened to me when he had the chance.” And Cain’s heart became as hard as the bloodstained rock in his hand.

Though the account of Cain murdering Abel in Gen­esis chapter 4 may be terse and lacking passion, it also has the makings to be one of the Bible’s most gripping narratives. It has a great plot; plenty of violence; deception and intrigue; a likeable, innocent victim; a coldhearted villain; dramatic tension; and conflict. Kids love it. They don’t see the sad implications this story has for every man, woman, and child who ever walked the planet.

Adults understand. We have seen the path of destruc­tion that sin leaves in its wake. We have real-­life expe­riences with the bitter taste of conflict. Cain’s brutal attack on his brother reminds us of the dark ideas that can infest our own hearts—ideas that . can even lead to murder. No, this event was not recorded for the purpose of holding the reader’s attention raptly with a well­spun tale. God’s Spirit moved Moses to record it for a very good reason. You and I are supposed to learn something from it. So, what is it that we are supposed to learn?

When scholars read this, many see this account as a necessary part of the larger story line of Scripture. They say that it is important for making sense of everything else that follows—the rest of the Bible, or even the rest of human history. They see it as a bridge that takes us from the first sin to the truth about all the succeeding generations (including ours and those that will follow us), all plagued with the same impure thoughts and selfish motives that were passed along from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel and the rest of us that followed. These scholars are, of course, right. The story of Cain and Abel tells us something about ourselves.

Others argue that this is the first example of how sin affected our relationships with one another—proof that sin not only destroyed our relationship with the Creator but did untold damage to the way we interact with one another. They are also correct.

Lutheran theologians like to assert that this is a lesson aimed at teaching us about God’s mercy and love, even for an unbeliever like Cain. And it is clearly that. We will pick up that thread in later chapters when we discuss conflicts between believers and unbelievers.

A Question of Identity

For the majority of us, however, these unsettling verses often boil down to one very important question: With whom do I identify—Abel, the innocent victim, or Cain, the murderous villain? Note, the question is not With whom do I sympathize? Most sympathize with Abel. He didn’t deserve to be murdered. We all agree on that. No, the question is more about how we see ourselves. Are we more like Cain, who has evil thoughts passing through his mind that he can’t, or won’t, control? Or do we see ourselves as Abel, the poor schlep who gets whacked for being a decent, God-­fearing person? It’s a great way to begin our discussion about conflict, because no matter which direction you are inclined to lean, your answer has the potential to tell you a lot about yourself.

None of us cares to think of himself or herself as a murderer. Nevertheless, there are at least a few people in every crowd who will immediately identify with Cain. They recall a relationship in which they have fantasized about erasing a certain individual who perennially makes their life miserable. Now they feel guilty for having enter­tained such hateful thoughts.

Do you identify with Cain? Have you ever really hated someone?

On the other hand, many Bible readers will see them­selves walking in Abel’s sandals—the bystander who doesn’t deserve to be drawn into a fight. There is a little self-­righteousness in this position. Those who identify with Abel may also feel justified in hissing and booing all the murderous villains who have ever lived—Attila the Hun, Adolf Hitler, Jack the Ripper, Osama bin Laden, and all the rest.

It is always interesting to debate this Cain­-or-­Abel proposition. Some people actually become quite pas­sionate as they defend one position or the other. Of course, it’s a trick question. In the end, you and I need to identify with both Cain and Abel.

Sometimes we really are innocent victims—walking the strait and narrow, taking the high road, minding our own business. In spite of our innocence, we may still get dragged into a war that is not of our own making. But there are other times when we are responsible for doing untold damage to another person because we started it, or prolonged it, or finished it in a way that caters to our darker (read that sinful) desires.

Martin Luther described the Christian’s dual nature as a constant battle between the old (sinful) Adam (some­times also called the old man) and the new man modeled after Christ Jesus. Luther saw the new man emerging as the dominant force, the result of God’s Spirit working through Word and sacrament. But Luther also recog­nized that while we remain in this life, the old Adam will continue to be a problem. He said that the old, sin­-driven self needs to be drowned in daily repentance. That’s interest­ing language—conflict language. Drowning, especially drowning under someone’s deadly grip, is a violent way to die. Yet Luther argued that our old Adam needs to be put down regularly, emphatically, often, and in a violent manner so that it does not get a toehold on a Christian’s life and overwhelm him or her with all sorts of vices and temptations.

The Conflict Within

A very real conflict is still going on in each one of us between our old Adam and our new man in Christ. The battle is being waged all the time. This is a good reason for being careful about picking our battles. A noble cause is certainly worth going to war over. Jesus fought a noble battle against the self-­righteous hypocrisy of the Phar­isees. Of course, Jesus is God’s Son—a perfect and righteous person. His conflicts were always righteous. Sinners like us would only be fooling ourselves to think that all of our conflicts are truly as altruistic and honor­able as the ones Jesus fought. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. Most of the battles you and I wage are aimed at serving ourselves. We may do a good job of masking our underlying purposes, but upon closer examination, we are likely to discover that ego and self­-will have had a lot of influence in our battles.

Understanding this sinner/saint (old Adam/new man in Christ) nature of every Christian is especially helpful for understanding conflict. No matter how you slice it, all Christians are in the same boat in at least this one respect: We are all works in progress.9 But because Christ Jesus has taken up residence in our hearts and the power of God’s Holy Spirit is working in our lives, the saintly new man is in control . . . most of the time.

On the other hand, our new man in Christ may not always be in control. (And here’s the sticking point.) When conflict strikes and we engage the enemy, the like­lihood that our new man will be able to remain in charge decreases.

You’ve heard of the phenomenon that adversely affects decisions made in the heat of war. Military experts refer to this as the fog of battle. Well, this mysterious syndrome has a spiritual parallel that kicks in whenever we are engaged in the heat of a spiritual battle. Even without the element of hatred, our spiritual perspective can easily become confused under battle conditions. In the environ­ment of conflict, the old man sees an opening for putting himself back in the driver’s seat. Just when we need to keep our eyes focused on Jesus, we tend to stop following his model and revert back to our old-­Adam instincts.

In his book on Christian conflict resolution, Alfred Poirier writes, “We must understand that the conflicts people are in are conflicts in people—conflicts of desires, demands, and idols. These are true strongholds that are impregnable except through the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is this gospel that we were called to preach and teach.”10 While you and I zealously confess our faith in the Lord Jesus and his saving gospel, we are far from having immunity from this world’s conflicts. Even when we are trying to help other Christians work through their personal conflicts,11 we must be aware of the dark and ugly things that Christians are capable of thinking and doing when driven by their old Adam. And we need to apply that same awareness to ourselves, lest we become tangled up in some of the same sins.12

A Disturbing Fact of Life

This concept that we are still vulnerable to Satan’s conflict trap is sometimes hard for Christians to swallow. But it’s true. You and I don’t always live as God wants us to. And when we are not behaving as God’s children, we are prone to getting caught up in a culture that lives and breathes conflict. At the very least, sin lies at the door. Because we are both old Adam and new man in Christ, we can still be deceived by sin’s deadly allure. When that happens in an environment filled with tension, bitterness and rage can finally bubble to the surface in full-blown, white-­hot hatred. Wrongful attitudes and emotions give way to sinful behaviors and actions. And we stop behav­ing as members of God’s family and start behaving like children of the devil.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “But I go to church every week, pray every day, read the Bible with regularity. I don’t go around picking fights with people.” Some of Jesus’ disci­ples held a similar view. Like us, they too were works in progress. Sometimes their failures and shortcomings were rather glaring. On the night when Jesus was bound and dragged away like a common criminal, the fog of battle set in for Peter, and soon he was slashing away at his enemies with a sword.

The author of the general letter to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hin­ders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (12:1,2).

The “great cloud of witnesses” in the early part of that verse is referring to the many heroes of faith who appeared throughout the Old Testament. Abel is men­tioned, along with Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and a few others. The lives of these people stand as models for Christians like us. We’ve learned about many of them in Sunday school or sitting at the feet of a God-­fearing parent or grandparent. All of them were works in progress. Almost all of them had to deal with conflict at some time in their lives. But with God’s strength, they persevered. With the examples of these great men and women of faith to guide us, we need to cast off those sins that threaten to ensnare us.

There are, of course, lots of ways to become entangled in sin—sex, drugs, greed, a craving for power. The list is long and daunting. But one way stands out. It was the reason given in Scripture for God’s utter destruction of all living things at the time of the great flood (Genesis 6:11): violence and conflict. Conflict is a veritable web of temptations that can involve all of the other vices that man’s sinful imagination might follow.13 And wherever conflict threatens, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have us. With God’s help, we must learn to master it.14

For Thought and Discussion

  • How do we go about the grim business of daily drowning our old Adam?
  • Why are we more vulnerable to temptation when we are caught up in a conflict?
  • As God’s works in progress, what thoughts regarding conflict could be included in our daily prayers?


9 Philippians 1:3-6.

10 Alfred Poirier, The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006).

11We will later refer to this kind of work as intervention ministry or peacemaking.

12 Galatians 6:1.

13 Human conflict can, in fact, be the result of sins committed against any of the commandments in the Second Table of God’s Law.

14 Genesis 4:7.

From A Heart at Peace © 2014 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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