Brethren or Burdens?
I’ve never smelled a dead body, but I’ve been told you never forget the stench.
I can only imagine, then, how cemented the scene of Cain’s seething rage must have been in his memory. What a disturbing image: the sight of his own brother’s beaten, lifeless corpse lying before his feet, as a crimson river silently flowed into the thirsty ground beneath him. And it’s that smell, the foul stench of death, that wafts through the Bible story, as spilled blood of the innocent stains its sacred pages. Abel was the first, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Cain’s actions henceforth represent the absence of two things that are absolutely essential in godly living: a respect for God and a respect for life. In Cain’s selfishness, he ignored God’s expectations and failed to offer a sacrifice in faith. In Cain’s anger and jealousy, he ignored God’s warning and allowed himself to be consumed with wrath. Having rejected the Holy God twice over, he was only a short step away from disrespecting the sanctity of life God had placed within man. Cain’s lack of compassion and love for his brother was an unavoidable consequence of his pronounced rebellion against God and profound rejection of God’s admonishment. Although it was Cain’s own sin, not Abel’s righteousness, that truly tormented him, his anger at a perceived injustice distorted his vision. Filled with a blind fury, Cain sought to extinguish what he saw as the source of his trouble. Abel was no longer a brother to Cain; instead, he was a burden. Like the lamb that he’d offered acceptably, Abel himself became the substance of Cain’s selfish sacrifice. And more than anything, it’s Cain’s second sacrifice for which we remember him.
It’s easy to look at Cain and shake our heads and fists. It’s easy to acknowledge, with utter revulsion, Cain’s graphic display of horrific hatred and coldhearted cruelty. It’s much more difficult, however, to admit that we’ve followed in his footsteps.
While contextually distinguishing children of God and children of the devil, John assures that “whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10 ESV). Failing to love a brother is equally as evil as deliberately disobeying any other commandment of God. To clarify, it makes us sons of Satan. Yes, it’s an extreme way of looking at things. It’s also God’s way of looking at things. But wait, it gets worse:
“For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (1 John 3:11–12)
When we refuse to love a brother, God sees us as the Satan-serving sin-spawn that culminates in the example of Cain. And yet, John says, we should be sympathetic to Abel’s persecution, since we ourselves endure the world’s hatred while we practice God’s righteousness (3:13). It’s in practicing this righteousness that we begin to understand the path to life, which is paved with brotherly love (3:14). And as we serve a God who is love (4:8), we understand that loving our Father necessitates loving His children (4:21-5:1).
Lest we attempt to justify ourselves, John further implies that “not loving” is synonymous with “hating.” And in hating a brother, we reenact Abel’s tragic murder. In playing out that gruesome scene before our Father’s face yet again, as one of His children mercilessly slays another, we put God through the same heartache He endured as He heard Abel’s innocent blood calling to Him from the ground. How could God possibly grant eternal life in His presence to murderous hands drenched in the blood of their brethren?
As unsettling as John’s argument is, as well as the appalling events to which he keeps referring, we might find consolation in the fact that we do, in fact, love our brethren. If that’s our defense, though, John challenges us to take a closer look at what true love entails.
“By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:16–18 ESV)
John’s definition of love challenges me. John clarifies that children of God understand genuine love as it was displayed on the cross (4:10). God, who is love, demonstrates His love by proactively laying everything on the line to meet the deepest need of His estranged children. God the Son embodies love as He suffers the opposite of all that He is and deserves. Though preeminent, He serves. Though blameless, He’s shamed. Though He’s the most faithful friend, He’s alone. While worthy of everything, He’s awarded nothing. Holding within Himself the way to life, He’s put to death. In every way possible and with every facet of His holy being, our Lord and Savior puts us before Himself. And that, John says, is love.
Comprehending love as we look to Jesus, there is no excuse for us noticing needs and not lifting a finger to meet them. John’s description doesn’t even imply that we ought to wait until our brethren realize their needs and petition us for our help. After all, God didn’t wait for us to realize how deep our need was before He made a way to satisfy it.
A true brother perceives that blessings of this world’s riches find their highest purpose in helping others who are in need. For those of us who claim to love our brethren, can we say that this is our constant attitude? Or does the blood of needy, neglected brethren drip from our selfish hands, which hoard the riches of this world? Are we merciful or murderous? Do we see the children of God as brethren or as burdens?
BJ Young (2019-02-03)