The thought “Cain was in pain!” came to me out of the blue the other day, so I took time to reflect on it. We know the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis; Cain killed Abel, the first murder and between brothers no less. Not a pretty story! So, if Cain was in pain does that excuse his actions? Well, maybe it helps us understand how he felt, but surely that murder was inexcusable. He did get punished for it by God, so probably his pain was not a good enough excuse.
So, let’s review Cain’s story again. I’ll not quote it, but rather take a few liberties to try and imagine what their life was like. The story goes like this. Adam and Eve had a pretty nice childhood in a place called the Garden of Eden. They had all the food they wanted and spent a lot of time playing with animals and so forth. God was there too, and it seems He walked around and talked to them on occasion. But, then they messed up. They got involved with a talking snake and ate the forbidden fruit, and got evicted from the Garden. Life outside the Garden wasn’t so much fun. God had cursed them to suffer, after all.
In time they had a couple of sons, Cain and Abel. Their childhood probably wasn’t as much fun as that of their parents. And maybe God didn’t walk around and visit them so often outside the Garden. At some point though, they created offerings for God. Maybe it was a kind of coming of age thing, at least some kind of special occasion. Cain brought the fruits of his farming and Abel killed a young sheep from his flock. We can imagine that both of them worked hard to make these offerings. Probably they had heard their parents talk about this God, and how He had made everything in the Garden and what a wonderful place it was. Maybe they hoped if they did a good job they could go and visit the Garden.
Cain must have gathered a variety of the things he had grown; maybe there were ripe fruits and vegetables, possibly he used some beautiful flowers or leaves from the trees to decorate the basket. Maybe he even made the basket. We can imagine he put his heart into it, using all his expertise to create something worthy. Meanwhile Abel worked hard to kill the lamb and cut it all up ready for eating. That would have been hard work too!
Then what happened? The big day came and God came to check out their offerings. He loved Abel’s and rejected Cain’s. Abel was no doubt really happy. Probably went running to tell his parents that his offering was perfect and God was impressed. Cain on the other hand was upset, and it showed on his face. God gave him some kind of warning about doing well or else.
Then Cain and Abel had a little talk, and Cain bashed his brother’s head in with a rock, or some such thing, killing him. Well, that’s not good! And he clearly wasn’t in a good mood when God asked him about it, so Cain was sent away, not just out of the Garden this time, but to a land East of Eden. Oh dear.
What went wrong? If Cain was in pain, how does that help us understand? Well, if Cain was in pain, it implies that he worked really hard on his offering, put his heart into it. So why wasn’t that “doing well”? Why did God reject his offering? Well, perhaps God wanted something else; He just wanted some meat! Sounds trite, but what if there was nothing wrong with Cain’s offering, it was actually really good, prepared with great skill and with a deep heart. But God just wanted something else; he wanted meat, not fruits and vegetables. In that case, Cain wasn’t being criticized as a failure, he wasn’t useless, he hadn’t done a bad job, he wasn’t unloved and of no value; it was just that God was looking for something else and Abel had created exactly that something. So, for Cain to do well in the future and have his offering accepted might not involve doing exactly what Abel had done. Perhaps God wanted them to work together on a joint offering, and then both of their efforts would be accepted.
How does this all apply to contemporary life? Well, have you ever worked really hard on a project, given it your best, only to have the boss reject it and select someone else’s idea? Did that make you feel good? Of course not! It makes you feel angry, resentful, useless, of no value, unloved, like you want the project to fail, and if that other person gets too close you might feel like killing him. Sounds a bit like Cain, doesn’t it?
When we are in pain due to the rejection of our offering, it helps if the boss recognizes this, praises the effort, thanks us for our good work, and explains it just wasn’t what was needed this time; and gives us some space. Then, when the emotions have subsided, there are two things we can do. One is to see if we can help in the project in some capacity, or if the boss has something else in mind for us to work on. And the other is to take a look at our offering and see if it can be used in another way, another context. Sometimes we did a good job but it’s just that the boss wanted something else, that time.
When our boss rejects our offering can we work joyfully with our colleague to make the project succeed? Perhaps not immediately. Pain is real and healing takes time. So first we should acknowledge our disappointment and take a break, don’t act in haste; don’t kill Abel. God recognized Cain’s pain, and gave some guidance. Perhaps it would have helped if his parents had been supportive too. Cain needed time to recover from his disappointment. Meeting Abel too soon was clearly not a good idea! Abel was the younger brother after all, no doubt immature and just excited and proud of his success. Not what Cain needed to hear. Cain was in pain. And that pain, unfortunately, translated into a violent act that caused the death of his brother and the breakup of his family.
Still the story goes on to say that God took note of Cain’s fear that as a fugitive he would probably be killed. God said that anyone who harmed Cain would suffer greater harm and put a mark on him for protection. The record shows that Cain not only married but had lots of descendants. God did love Cain, He just couldn’t accept that particular offering. If Cain had overcome his emotions and been joyful that Abel’s offering was accepted even though his was rejected, this time, he could have looked forward to a joyful future together with his brother and family. Perhaps they would all have been allowed back in the Garden.