My brother and I fought like most brothers do. I suppose it’s only natural that brothers should disagree and argue and fight — usually about nothing important. It was usually petty jealousies and slights and perceived unfairness that riled us up. When Jeremy and I would start a war my mom had an interesting way of escalating the conflict. There we were, ramping up another battlefield offensive, when suddenly she would swoop in and offer her war counsel: “Are you angry, Michael? Hit him! Go ahead! You’re mad and you’re not going to take any more! Do it!” You would have needed to be there to see the way she would lean in, eyes open, voice inflected to a fevered pitch. The sudden shock of the reality of our insignificant dispute would come crashing down on me. “But I don’t want to. He’s my brother!”
What usually came to my mind in those moments was a story I had heard many times growing up. It was the story of Cain and Abel, from the fourth chapter of Genesis. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain worked the ground and Abel kept sheep. They both gave offerings to God. God approved of Abel’s offering, “firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” i.e. the best he had. But God did not approve of Cain’s offering. Brotherly rivalry commenced.
You can well imagine Cain being unhappy, which didn’t go unnoticed by God. He said,
“Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 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 contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
The phrase “do well” means to do what is good or pleasing. God did not approve of Cain’s offering because it was not good or pleasing to him. God did not accept Cain because he brought an offering from a heart that was ultimately selfish. Every word of Cain, every description of his attitude shows that there was only one lord in his life, only one life that he truly cared about. Cain is the ultimate archetype of the looking-out-for-number-one person. When God had no regard for his offering that sent Cain into a spiral of jealousy, bitterness, and anger. “That’s not fair! I deserve approval! I want what I deserve!”
God lovingly confronted him. That’s what God does when we rebel against him. We think him very unfair to point out our error and show up during our bitter revelry. But in reality he is showing us grace unmeasured. “If you do well, will you not be accepted.” He shows us that living according to his ways results in acceptance. Even more, “if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” He shows us that living according to his ways is a way to subdue sin in our lives, to have mastery over it. God in his grace designed us to do well, to do what is good and pleasing to him, as a way to rule over sinful desires. That is a pretty amazing gift.
Receiving that gift requires something rather uncomfortable. It means admitting that our motivations are flawed. It means admitting that there is rebellion in our hearts, the kind of rebellion that breeds jealousy, bitterness, and anger. This rebellion feeds on self-centered thinking and entitlement. These are the things we need to let go of in order to receive the gift of good. In other words, before we can expect to do what is good and pleasing to God we need to practice repentance.
Repentance and belief. Belief in a Savior who always did what was good and right and perfect. Belief in a Savior who lived a perfect life for you and did what you could not do for yourself. A Savior of whom God said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
When we were at our lowest, when we had failed to please God by doing well, God came in the flesh. Jesus the Son did well for us. He pleased God perfectly and now that pleasing is credited to us through repentance and belief.
Take the challenge of repentance seriously, friends. Consider the rebellion that still lurks in your heart. And give it up to our God and Savior who offers grace and acceptance in exchange, who enables us to do well, to live lives good and pleasing to Him. In Christ and only in him will God say of us, “I am well pleased.”