I have been thinking a lot about the story of Cain and Abel recently. I think one of the reasons that so much of God’s word is written as a narrative is because stories are easy to remember and meditate on. And as we meditate on the story, we ask questions and examine it from different angles and begin to notice new things.
That’s when God shows me things about himself that I hadn’t seen as clearly before. It’s like there’s something beneath the surface that God really wants us to see, but it takes a little work to find it. And when we find it, God’s beauty and majesty shine even brighter than they did before. I hope you’ve had this experience.
Why Didn’t God Put Cain to Death?
That brings me back to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Like many Bible stories, it raises more questions than answers. Why did God favor Abel’s offering over Cain’s? Where is the door where sin is crouching? Who are the people Cain is worried will kill him? Where did Cain’s wife come from? What is the sign that God makes for Cain?
But the question that stands out, and has revealed the most about God’s character is this: Why didn’t God put Cain to death? Just a few chapters later, God will declare that murder is a capital offense (Genesis 9:5-6). This will be repeated in the laws to Israel:
“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12)
“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17)
“You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.” (Numbers 35:31)
If God’s standard of justice is that a murderer should be put to death, was God being inconsistent with his own standard when he spared Cain’s life?
The Tension of God’s Justice and Mercy
I don’t think this is a trivial question. It’s not as simple as, “those laws came later.” Because if God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), then his standards do not change. And even if it would be unfair to hold humans accountable to a standard they are not aware of, surely he would hold himself accountable to it.
So why didn’t God put Cain to death? I don’t know that we can say for sure. But this story highlights a tension in the Bible between God’s mercy and his retributive justice (giving people what they deserve). It is God’s prerogative to have mercy on whom he will have mercy (Exodus 33:19). And what this story seems to highlight is that God really wants to show mercy.
It’s not that God never chooses retributive justice. Just keep reading the rest of the Bible, not to mention the flood story that follows a few chapters after Cain and Abel! But it seems that God doesn’t have to choose it in every circumstance it could be applied. Perhaps in some cases it is better not to. In God’s wisdom, he can decide that perfectly. And in this case, by his wisdom, he decides it is better to have mercy on Cain.
What About Us?
What about us? When we have been wronged, are we eager to “throw the book” at the perpetrator to see them experience the consequences of what they’ve done? Do we rejoice when someone who has broken the law gets caught and punished?
I am not arguing that there shouldn’t be laws, or that there shouldn’t be punishments. What I am saying is that it takes wisdom to know how to apply them well. God seems to be eager to show mercy when it is wise to do so, and maybe we ought to be more eager to be merciful as well. Rather than our consuming thought being, “I hope they get what they deserve” may we instead look for ways to demonstrate mercy wisely.
The New Testament writer James wrote that, “Judgment is without mercy to the one who has not shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13, CSB).
After all, as Christians we are the objects of God’s incredible mercy. If we were to demand strict retributive justice over others, we would be condemning ourselves, since the just punishment for our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Thank God that he has been merciful to you and me!
May God grant us wisdom as we seek to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful. Even if it means being merciful to a murderer like Cain.
“I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
I have found myself returning often to this quote by actor Jim Carrey. It’s one of those sentiments that is really easy to nod along to, but hard for most of us “normal” people to believe.
If you are like me, you would not say this aloud to anyone, even yourself. But there is something you want from life that you are sure, if you had it, would be the answer: more money, more time, good health, more confidence, better friends, less depression, prettier looks, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, that promotion, this car…on and on that list could go. But if the story of our lives were a simple fill in the blank, we probably all know how we would complete the sentence: “If I only had _______, then I would finally be happy.”
But paradoxically, many of those who have been lucky enough to achieve their dreams like Jim Carrey, look back to the rest of us and shake their heads. It didn’t work. They are just as broken, insecure, and unhappy as they have ever been, and in some cases, even more so.
Carrey isn’t the first person to make this observation. In fact, thousands of years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote the now famous words about the human pursuit of happiness: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He knew it didn’t work, either.
Whether we put our hope in wealth, pleasure, youth, workplace success, or even things like human justice and vindication, Ecclesiastes forces us to acknowledge, again and again, that we will ultimately be let down. At some point, we will find our lives up in smoke with no answers and nowhere to turn. And even if along the way we get the life we always wanted, we will find it wasn’t enough.
But hidden in this bracing book, there is something, if we are open to it, that can lead to real satisfaction on the other side of our disappointments. We hope you will join us this spring as we start our sermon series on this amazing book of Ecclesiastes. It won’t always be easy, but there is wisdom on the other side. See you Sunday!
My wife and I had the strangest experience the other day. We looked at our calendars and realized that the next two weeks were booked solid. We knew then and there that we needed to make some decisions.
As vaccines have become more readily available, the positivity rate has decreased, people have made safe practices a part of their social gatherings, and more and more people are slowly re-engaging life in public.
And that means one thing: busyness is eager to take over again.
Whether it’s playdates, sports, dinner with friends, Bible studies, grocery shopping, and the like, as the weather warms up and the world reopens, busyness is ready to fill the void. Before COVID hit, the most common response from people when you asked them how they were doing was, “Busy.” That is one form of normal I’m not eager to re-engage.
Here’s the good news: we don’t have to return to that life.
As Christians we are to be a people of work and rest, (Genesis 1-2) redeeming the time (Ephesians 5:16) as good stewards. While having a full calendar isn’t wrong, we are encouraged to leverage the time with which we’ve been entrusted to further Jesus’ purposes with healthy, humanizing rhythms. This is how God designed us, and therefore, it’s part of God’s plan for our flourishing.
Here are five tips to wisely re-engage a reopening world.
1. Schedule Quarantine Favorites
You don’t have to say “yes” to everything that was before. One of the gifts of this last year is the opportunity to make significant adjustments to how you fill your calendar and the values that shape your life.
Two quarantine favorites for me were grace blocks and dates in our backyard.
A grace block is a pocket of time in each day where you schedule nothing. Yes, nothing. It’s a space that allows other projects you’d underestimated to spill over, and so give yourself grace in the form of margin to finish out without stressing out. For me, I block about an hour a day for a grace block. It’s so helpful to recognize I can’t foresee everything, but I can predict my finitude and need for grace. Grace blocks are something I’m holding onto in my calendar.
Next, my wife Allie and I discovered we love date nights in the backyard. Before we used to stress about trying to get out of the house, organize a babysitter, and get back before too late. Now, we can put our kids to bed and sit under the stars in the city in our backyard with a glass of wine and talk for hours. Who knew date night was so easy?
I know for some of you these seem rudimentary, but that’s the point. What are 2-3 good things that have made it onto your calendar during COVID and quarantine that you want to keep? Schedule your quarantine favorites going forward.
2. Keep Going Deep with a Few
In a world of endless Facebook friends and Twitter followers, one of the greatest insights I received in college was the encouragement to cultivate a few close friendships. This became a necessity as our COVID circles grew smaller and our relationships with a few folks went deeper.
As everything opens up again, you don’t have to sacrifice the newfound depth you’ve found in the relationships around you. You don’t have to say “yes” to everyone, but be sure you have reserved the time and space for those relationships that are especially meaningful and life-giving.
I have absolutely LOVED the amount of family time I’ve been able to have with my wife and kids this last year. We’ve locked down some rhythms that are high points in my week, and I have them on my calendar now so I keep time reserved for these very important people.
Now, as things open, if you want to still go deep but also expand your relational horizons, it wouldn’t hurt to add just one more chair to a deep group of friends. Who says you can’t have it all? A new friend and deep ongoing relationships. Add one more person at a time to the social circle, and who knows what could happen?
3. Continue the Creativity
You don’t have to follow the predetermined path laid out by our consumerist culture before the pandemic. I’m all about going out to eat at local restaurants and traveling the continental United States, but you don’t have to spend a ton to continue to connect with others and have fun.
Find hiking trails with family and friends, go on picnics at one of our city’s green spaces, or pull out those board games for an afternoon in the park. These are exceptional avenues for fun.
My family is excited about Parkopalooza. Now I did not make this up, I’m stealing it. But the idea is that you spend an afternoon visiting parks across our city.
Do a little research. You can drive around to various parks or look online. Are there some with hidden playgrounds or unique fun setups?
Map it out. Plan how much time you have to spend and how much time you want to spend at each park.
Hit it hard. Run, slide, jump and swing at the planned park for the allotted time. Then, no matter how much fun you’re having, go to the next. It’s an adventure after all! Part of the fun is just exploring the new parks.
Parkpalooza is just one example of creative fun in the sun. Keep exploring and trying new ideas.
4. Remain Adaptable
As much as Zoom calls may wane from their prominence, flexibility, patience, and empathy aren’t going anywhere. If anything, as all of our tanks are running low after a year of high adaptability, these Christlike traits are going to be more important than ever.
So as the travel bug or the desire to re-engage in the world creeps in, remain adaptable. As Christians, we of all people know that we are to hold our plans loosely. God is in control, not us, and so whenever we make plans, we entrust them to the Lord (James 4:15). This posture keeps us patient and flexible.
As I dream about the faithful presence of the church in the coming years, one of my hopes and desires is that we make adaptability and patience a part of the forever new normal for us! The posture of patience, grace and gentleness is the Christian calling, not a COVID pastime.
5. Prioritize Giving of Yourself with Others
Andy Crouch, Christian author and speaker who has brilliantly been spot-on throughout the pandemic, has been looking back to help us look forward. What does he notice? After the Spanish Flu of 1918, we had the roaring twenties. People were tired of being cooped up. They just wanted to party already, and frankly, that wasn’t a high point for the church.
I think Andy Crouch is on to something in that one of the greatest temptations that awaits us in these next couple of years is to get out and LIVE life to the fullest! By that I mean, we may be tempted to indulge our desires, give in to our every whim, and let our appetites and wants guide our lives now that we’ve been unleashed.
Nothing could be further from what we see in Jesus and our calling to follow Him.
Rather, what would it look like to GIVE life to its fullest?
What would it look like if as restrictions decrease, we leveraged that empowerment to take on the posture of servants? The basin and towel has always been a marker of the follower of Jesus, and maybe as things reopen we should prioritize giving of ourselves rather than treating ourselves.
That may mean a different posture at work, an area of repentance at home, continued patience with your church, engaging in a blood drive in your community, serving at your church (which means returning to your church in person), or donating time toward serving with a ministry partner (find our list here). While the what is unique to you, this calling isn’t.
Don’t let life grow like a weed, or it will take over. Redeem the time and be intentional, and decide ahead of time how you will re-engage a reopening world.
Who knows how this year will impact the next season of your life? Be wise. Be a good steward. It’s not just your calendar. It’s your life. And remember it actually is His.
Having an awareness and knowledge of Satan’s work is vital for Christians. In his latest book, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons, theologian Graham Cole argues that given the increasing secular cultural context in which many western Christians live, this awareness is difficult. Citing the work of Harry Blamires who was writing in the mid-1960s, Cole explains the “defining characteristics” of the Christian mind:
In a classic work about the loss of the Christian mind to secular thinking, Harry Blamires articulates the defining characteristics of the Christian mind in terms of its supernatural orientation, its conception of truth, its acceptance of authority, its concern for the person, and its sacramental cast (“sacramental” broadly understood) (Cole, Against the Darkness, 106).
Restoring and maintaining this supernatural orientation of Christian thinking is a necessary element in understanding and practicing the way of Jesus. To help us in this restoration and maintenance, Cole takes us to the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church and points out four key passages that address Satan and his works.
2 Corinthians 2:10-12
First, Paul states that he knows, that is, he is not ignorant of Satan’s designs (lit. “thoughts”).
“Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” (2 Corinthians 2:10–11 ESV)
A couple of key observations. One, it is very possible for us—even as Christians—to be “outwitted by Satan.” Two, the outwitting that Satan does can be in the area of unforgiveness. Cole writes, “The devil attacks in the realm of the interpersonal. Without forgiveness, relationships that have broken or strained cannot even begin to be repaired” (Cole, Against the Darkness, 106).
The second passage Cole highlights is 2 Cor 4:3-5 where Paul refers to Satan as the “god of this world” (or “god of this age” NIV).
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:3–5 ESV)
Another way that the Evil One is at work is blinding those who have not believed. They are not seeing, understanding, receiving, and giving their allegiance to Jesus and the good news He proclaimed. Cole points out that Paul doesn’t explain how this blinding happens, but highlights that it is significant that Paul calls attention to the “mind” rather than the emotions as the location of the blinding (see Cole, 107).
2 Corinthians 11:2-3
Third, Cole draws our attention to 2 Cor 11:2-3. Here Paul uses the metaphor of marriage. The Corinthian church is like a bride engaged to Jesus, but Paul is worried that they are straying to another lover.
“For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceivedEve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:2–3 ESV)
Cole notes that drawing away happens when false teachers and Satan present themselves to believers as “angels of light.” They seem to be teaching something true and good and beautiful when, in fact, it is actually something false and bad and ugly (see 2 Cor 11:13-15). Once again, notice that it is our “thoughts” that are in view as the realm of the deception.
2 Corinthians 12:7
The final passage Cole looks at is 2 Cor 12:7 where Paul makes it clear that Satan can afflict not only the mind but also the body.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV)
Paul here is writing about his own personal experience with a bodily ailment of some kind and he describes it as “a messenger of Satan.” Paul never tells the exact nature of this physical ailment, but whatever it was, Paul understood God had allowed it in his life to keep him humble and dependent on God. Now does this mean that every cold or hangnail has a direct Satanic origin? No. But it does remind us that Satan can be at work not just in the “immaterial” realm but in the material also, including our bodies. What is key to remember though, is that Paul says the “thorn was given.” The question is who gave it? Most commentators argue (I think rightly) that God is the one who gave it, which means that even though Satan is at work, he is not doing so outside the control and sovereignty of God.
Do not be unaware
As Christians living in the late modern world of the West, everything in the broader social imagination of culture pushes us to dismiss the supernatural (if we even think about the supernatural at all). Paul’s reminders here in 2 Corinthians are an encouragement to us to break out of that narrow, thin description of the world and into a deeper richer understanding of the creation we inhabit. One that includes a supernatural, personal, evil Satan, who Cole calls “the malevolent spoiler.” May we not be unaware of the Spoiler’s schemes. May we meet those schemes with the truth of God’s word, and in the confidence that the Enemy we face, while powerful, is ultimately defeated.
When I was in high school, I got my driver’s license. Perhaps you did too. And when I got my license, there was one thing I heard again and again. Every time I’d get ready to leave the house, my mom would shout: “Call me when you get there,” which is the last thing any 16-year-old wants to hear from a parent.
“Call me when you get there,” she’d say as I was heading out.
“Call me when you get there,” she’d repeat as the door closed behind me.
“Call me when you get there.”
I’d get so mad whenever she said it. But no matter how much I protested, she didn’t stop. It was like a playlist on repeat.
So one evening, as I was walking towards the door, those familiar words followed after me. And I erupted.
I turned around and said, “Mom, you have GOT to stop saying that. It’s driving me crazy.” And I’ll never forget how she responded. She looked at me, knowing I was so mad, and said, “Tyler, I’m sorry, but I’ll always be your momma.”
Her words were profound. “I’ll always be your momma…”
It was her way of saying, “Because of who I am, I can’t help but be concerned about you.”
“Because I’m your momma, I’m compelled to tell you to call.”
“Because I’m your momma, I think about you when you leave.”
“Because of who I am, I have these concerns.”
And this is how it works, isn’t it?
Because of who we are, there are things that concern us.
Because we’re recent graduates, or because we live on our own. Because we’re in between jobs, or because we just got promoted. Because the test is coming up. Because the rent is almost due. Because we’ve reached a certain age, a certain income, or a certain low point in life.
Because of who we are, there are things that concern us. And that’s not always a bad thing. Some concerns are good concerns. They motivate us to plan for the future, or to cut back on our spending, or to eat like we know we should.
But there are times when our concerns become our worries.
There are times when what concerns us comes to consume us. And when that happens, following Jesus tends to get placed on the back burner. Which is ironic because Jesus had a lot to say about worry.
In fact, one day Jesus told His followers: “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.”
Imagine how audacious this must have sounded to Jesus’s original audience.
When Jesus spoke these words, food supplies were entirely dependent on how much it rained and whether or not a farmer could protect the crop from pests. A year of drought or a swarm of locusts could mean starvation. You couldn’t drive down the street to the grocery store. There was no safety net. If food ran out, it was over.
Nevertheless, Jesus instructed His disciples not to worry about what they were going to eat or about what they were going to drink or about what they were going to wear.
And here’s why:
Jesus mentions these specific necessities of life—food, water, and clothing—as a way of helping His followers understand that His solution for worry reaches all the way down to their most fundamental concerns. Jesus suggests that He knows a reason not to worry that will bring encouragement and comfort even when what’s most basic seems to be in jeopardy.
And then He makes His point.
“Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
“Consider the lilies of the field, how the grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
“If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?”
Are you following His logic?
Jesus says, do not worry about your life because your Father in heaven cares about you. You’re valuable to Him. If He makes sure the birds are fed and the fields look gorgeous, don’t you think He’ll watch out for you?
Jesus says you don’t need to worry because you’re valuable to God.
This is not to say that God doesn’t care about the Earth He made or the creatures in it. Nor is it to say that we, as responsible stewards of His creation, shouldn’t feel responsible and care for the natural world.
But, it is to say that when God made all that there is—the land and sea, the sky, the birds and fish and animals—He loved everything He formed. In fact, the Genesis account says He called every element of creation “good.” But then, He topped off all of creation with the stamp of His own image. God made humans and called them “very good,” marking us as special and treasured in His created order.
So there stands Jesus, looking at crowds of people just like us—people who are tempted to worry. And Jesus says: Don‘t fret. You’re valuable to your Heavenly Father.
Jesus insists that the key to leaving worry behind is trusting God’s concern for us.
But that isn’t always easy. In fact, most days it feels downright impossible. What makes it so tough?
I can think of three primary ways our trust for God can break down:
First, we can doubt His infinite love for us.
Second, we can doubt His infinite wisdom as it relates to our needs.
Third, we can doubt His ability to act on our behalf.
How does your trust in God get derailed?
Do you doubt God’s infinite love?
Do you believe He doesn’t love you? That maybe He loves all people in a general sense but not you specifically? And not you completely—especially after what you’ve done and where you’ve been. Do you think He loves you a little, or maybe even a lot, but not infinitely? Not enough for you to give Him your complete trust. Is that you? Do you doubt God’s infinite love?
OrDo you doubt God’s infinite wisdom?
Do you question whether He truly knows what’s best for you? Do you wonder if He really knows what you really need? Or do you feel like He knows what’s best for humans broadly, but not what’s best for you right this moment? Do you think He needs a little more input into how to respond best to your situation? Do you doubt God’s infinite wisdom?
Or Do you doubt God’s ability to act?
Do you question His power? Do you feel like He would be doing more to change your circumstances if He could? Do you feel like His hands are tied behind His back? Do you doubt God’s ability to act?
These are three primary ways our trust for God can break down.
How does your trust in God get derailed?
It’s worth knowing the answer to that question. Because knowing precisely how our trust tends to erode can help us focus our trust-building efforts.
If you’re tired of worry ruling your life, and if you’ve realized where your trust in God frequently fails, here’s one final suggestion:
Spend the next week reading and rereadingMatthew 6:25-34. Reflect on Jesus’ words.
Jesus says: You’re valuable to God, and God notices what you need.
He says: The God who created and sustains the world thinks you’re the best thing on the planet, and He’s got your best interests in mind.
Remind yourself of this truth again and again and again. And as it sinks in, see if it doesn’t loosen worry’s grip. In the end, it can’t be denied: Because of who we are, there are things that concern us. And those concerns can come to consume us.
But because of who God is—because He’s our loving Heavenly Father—there are things that concern Him.
Our flourishing, our growth, our wholeness, and our relationship with Him number chief among them. So let Him focus His energy on you and your future while you focus your energy and your attention on Him and His care.
Are you interested in maximizing the tax benefit of giving to the church?
April 15 may be months away, but now is the time to do your planning. The U.S. tax code encourages charitable giving in several ways and it makes sense to utilize these if possible.
On December 22, 2017 the President signed legislation known as “The Tax Cuts and Job Acts.” This legislation made a number of changes to the federal tax code that had an impact on both corporate and individual taxes. This legislation was sweeping in its breadth. There were changes to tax brackets, exemptions, and itemized deductions.
Whether or not we have already seen the impact, we will all feel the effects when we file our 2018 return.
So what does that have to do with giving to my church?
For many of you, these tax changes will have no impact on your giving. However, if you have itemized your deductions in the past, you should be aware of the changes made to this portion of the law and how they might affect you. We do not want to give tax advice. Nor do we want to tell you how to structure your charitable giving. However, if the following are true, you may have an opportunity to save some money on your taxes:
You have given assets to a charitable organization in 2018 (including the church)
You have typically itemized your deductions rather than using the standard deduction on your income tax return
The sum of all deductions (charitable giving, state and local taxes, property taxes, mortgage interest, medical expenses, etc.) could be in the range of $10,000 to $40,000
Bunching Your Contributions
If all of those statements are true for you in 2018, you may be interested in a new strategy known as “bunching.” The term “bunching” appeared on the financial scene early this year and refers to the potential combination of multiple years’ worth of donations in a single year to maximize the tax benefits. The total of the gifts can be the same over two or three years, but the giving is “bunched” into one year. This is sometimes done through a donor-advised fund.
If this concept is intriguing, the following charts may help explain.
Double-up on tax-deductible contributions in alternating years to achieve the larger itemized deduction in those years.
This strategy is not for everyone as our personal situations vary widely. Christ Community appreciates every single gift and desires to be sensitive to everyone.
If you think a donor-advised fund might make sense for you or you are interested in learning about other strategies to maximize your charitable giving, consult a qualified financial advisor.