by Jim Van Yperen

Two brothers lived in the domain of a good and wise King. The firstborn was called Smitty.  He was a gardener and spent his days working the soil.  His younger brother, Puff, loved animals and spent most of his time herding sheep.

Every harvest, the King held a festival to which all his subjects brought gifts.  So, it happened one year that Smitty brought fruit and vegetables he had grown as gift to the King.  Likewise, Puff brought choice firstlings from his flock.  When the King gazed on Puff and his offering, he was very pleased. But with Smitty and his offering, the King gave no attention at all. Smitty was incensed, and his face fell.

The King saw this and said to Smitty, “Why are you incensed? And why that sick cow look on your face? Look, if you do well, you will, of course, be accepted! But watch out.  If you do not do well, that thing is crouching at your door. It longs to consume you, but you must rule over it.”

Alas, Smitty would not listen. His emotions burned while his mind conspired. “Let’s go out to the field,” Smitty[1] said to Puff[2]. And when they were in the field, Smitty  attacked and killed his brother, Puff.  

You recognize the story[3], of course, but I hoped to have you enter the plot before you guessed the moral. Familiarity with Scripture may not breed contempt, but can give birth to hubris—the illusion that one already knows the lesson. The Cain and Abel narrative is so familiar it is easy to skip over and, by doing so (as I have for years) to miss the deeper significance. This article seeks to explore with you a little of what I have discovered.

In the Cain and Able story we find the first use of the word “sin” in the Bible, and perhaps the best description of what sin is and does in all of Scripture, a description we seldom think about.  “Sin,” God says, “is that thing crouching at your door.”

Think about this startling image for a moment. Have you ever thought about sin in this way?  Okay, I know that “sin” is not a very popular concept. I remember, several years ago I was preaching in a church in Europe from the Gospel of Mark, “The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus said. “Repent and believe the good news!”  Immediately after the service a woman came up to admonish me for using the words sin and repent.  “These words mean nothing to us,” she said. I was a bit startled. We talked for some time about language and meaning, what could or should be said instead of sin. I have come back to this conversation several times over the past few years.  First, I’m reminded about how important language is. But second, and more importantly, I wonder if I really know what sin is, or means?

I grew up in the church where the word sin was frequently heard.  Clearly, sin was something to be avoided, or hidden! I knew the definition of course: sin is breaking God’s commands; knowingly doing wrong, or committing some shameful offense. Later, I learned that thinking, not just doing, could get you into a heap of trouble also, and that wrong doing often started with wrong thinking. So, I did my best to keep the rules and not to think about sin unless I had to--during cycles of guilt, forgiveness and trying to do better.

In a secular world dominated by humanism that denies the existence of God or anything transcendent, the word sin is absurd. It is craziness to talk about sin and repentance. This is what my European sister was trying to tell me. I might as well claim that Santa Claus only brings presents if you are good.

So, when I read this description of sin I was startled. “Sin is like a wild animal waiting in ambush,” says the Lord.  What a metaphor! Sin is like a beast ready to pounce on me?  Further, what does this metaphor offer that might help explain sin in terms that everyone, not just “religious people,” might understand?

What, exactly, is that thing crouching at your door?

The story of Cain and Abel, of course, follows from an earlier story told about their parents. Adam and Eve lived in a place where all was good and there was no such thing as fear—of God or beasts or what each thought about the other. Sadly, this ends, (and sin gets going) with a decision to eat fruit from the forbidden tree.  You know the story. All that was united became separated. Fear spread like a fever through every relationship—between human and Creator, human and the created world, human and human, even human and her and him self. Curiously, one consequence of human disobedience was their “knowing” good and evil. This is the account Jews and Christians give for how sin entered the world. It is, of course, a religious story. Yet, it is a story told before religion

knowing good and evil? 

The question that puzzled me was, “How, exactly, did Adam and Eve know what they knew?” After all, this story occurs before the Ten Commandments. No law existed except the one about the Tree of Life. There was no book or school of thought; no code of ethics; no objective standard for right and wrong, or list of do’s and don’ts. In time, of course, these all will contribute to understanding, but all come much later. So what could Adam and Eve know about good and evil?  Or better, what was the essence of their knowledge? 

Whatever their knowledge was, it did not involve scientific proof or deductive reasoning. None of that kind of knowing is anywhere to be found.  Rather, the humans just seem to know—by gut instinct, inkling, or feeling.

I find this fascinating.  The first appeal of God to human is not with argument from law, but invitation to relationship.  This becomes very clear in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Have you ever noticed that Jesus rarely speaks to sinners about their sin? He talks to religious folk about laws and such, but it is for kinship, not guilt that Jesus invites faith. This is astounding when we remember that Jesus was addressing a culture chocked full of notions about transcendent gods that required appeasement. Guilt would have worked!  Yet Jesus does not choose this path. Could it be that Jesus does this because the nature of sin goes much deeper and forgiveness and grace are far more profound than we think? What if the primary task of our preaching or witness today was not convincing people of the existence of God or of a moral law that, when broken, separates people from God? What if, instead, we met people in their need and appeal to that intangible, but universal longing for significance and “fullness?”[4]   

the dynamics of desire 

The Genesis stories present a way of thinking that is as relevant today as it was in the beginning of time, because it appeals to conscience more than knowledge, to a “haunting,”[5]  not an argument; a story, not a rule; and uses description, not prescription.[6]   A brief look at two stories—of our first parents eating forbidden fruit and their first son committing murder—will help unveil the hidden dynamics of sin and desire. 

In Genesis 3:4-11, we read the story of Eve speaking to the serpent:

The serpent said to Eve, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife  hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked?”

Note that the impetus for disobedience is disordered desire, a desire to be wise, like God. Not all desire is sin, of course.  We can have good desire as well as bad. Conscience interprets the difference. For the Christian, and many others, love is the standard.  Desire is good when we love the Lord with heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves.  But I need not be a Christian to recognize the presence or absence of self-sacrificing love.  Whenever I think and act for my own benefit against the benefit of others, I “know” that I am wrong. I may not admit this to myself or to others, but there is instinctive knowing.  In Genesis (before the law) and the ministry of Jesus (after and fulfilling the law) we find a similar supposition: that all human beings, however primitive[7]  or immature, have innate longings (desire) and perceptions (conscience) that inform our choices and reveal our responsibility for what we ultimately think, feel and do.[8]

There is no proof of this, of course, but proof is not the point. The appeal is to a sense of something more than religion, culture or law. The story of Adam and Eve is about a larger story: how disordered desire leads to self-betrayal. It is not about Adam and Eve consuming fruit, but about desire consuming them. Similarly, Cain’s anger sprang not from God ignoring Cain, but from Cain’s haunting intuition that his gift was inadequate. Cain’s anger at his brother was the ire he held for himself. His face exposed what Cain knew that God saw in Cain’s heart.  Note: God did not have to convince Cain or his parents that they were wrong or describe how they should feel about it. Somehow, they already “knew.”

from deception to betrayal 

This point is critical for understanding what these stories can teach us about the dynamics of self-deception, self-justification and self-betrayal:[9]

Self-deception is choosing desire that we know, by law or instinct, is wrong. 

Self-justification is the strong inclination to justify the very attitudes and actions that I know are wrong, blaming others instead. 

Self-betrayal is the mounting pressure for me to believe and to act on my self-deception in ways that increase negative attitudes and actions that are more and more destructive to myself and to others.

For example, look at the progression of deception to betrayal in both Genesis stories. As is often the case, the seed of sin is exchanging truth for a lie. “You will not die,” the serpent claims. “Your eyes will be opened.” The thought of acting independent of God is planted in a lie, alongside the suggestion that, perhaps, God was not telling them the whole story.  Doubt gives rise to desire which offers Adam and Eve a “new” way to see the fruit. What was forbidden before, is now “a delight to the eyes,” holding a promise to make one wise. This turning of truth to lie then believing the lie is the normal, inevitable corrupting pattern of a disordered desire that is not redeemed.

The nature of disordered desire is always possession. Unchecked, the desire to possess will increase to a passion so blinding that I begin to call “right” what I know is wrong. Striving to possess, I become possessed by my possession.[10]  All along Adam and Eve know what they desire is wrong, but their self-deception wears down conscience, nullifying resistance and allowing them to justify their actions.  Once they eat, and they know their guilt, each betrays the other through blaming.  Adam blames “the woman whom you gave to be with me,’ in other words, it was God’s fault. And Eve blames the serpent.

The same dynamic takes place with Cain. Cain knows his offering is unacceptable, but instead of admitting this and “doing well,” Cain plays the victim.  When God calls him on this, Cain does not listen.  To listen would be to take responsibility for his sin, but again with Cain as it was for his parents, self-deception wins out. Self-deception not repented always leads to self-justification. So instead of listening to God, which he knows is the right path, Cain turns his growing “justified” anger on his brother. (Note: Cain’s anger begins with disappointment with himself for doing wrong. Unable to own this, he justifies his feelings by blaming God and his brother.) Since Cain has to be right, he needs his brother to be wrong, which ultimately justifies murdering his brother and then denying it to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

the cycle of sin

Sin progresses through a series of steps, beginning with a disordered desire, or a good desire trying to be attained by false measures. At each step, we have inklings of being wrong, creating the need to either confess the sin and admit wrong, or lie to myself.  When I choose falsehood, I become self-deceived.  The world I see must now conform to my lie which, of course, increases the need for more lies, more self-deception. Anything that does not support the lie must be justified in some way, usually by blaming God or others. The longer I cling to my self-deception the more I deaden my ability to hear God’s voice or recognize his prompting.  Thus, I move from self-deception to self-justification that leads to self-betrayal.  Now, I believe to be true I once knew to be a lie.  The cycle of self-deception and self-justification leads to the betrayal of oneself. As you can see, this vicious cycle can go on and on with greater and greater harm to oneself and others—like a beast crouching at your door. Ultimately, we are consumed by our own desire. 

good news

But there is good news. God does not leave us to ourselves.  He provides a pathway to do well, and a way to be accepted. The cycle of destruction can be reversed.  And while it is not easy, the process is simple: stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about others.

Are you in the midst of a conflict that is consuming you?  Perhaps there is a beast crouching at your door? If so, here are some steps you can take to do well and be accepted:

1.  Listen to God’s voice: It sounds simple but your life will be more joyful and fulfilling if you simply do what God—in His word and by His Spirit—prompts you to do. Read, meditate and pray God’s Word and take those inklings and hauntings to the Lord in prayer.  The moment that we do not act on God’s prompting, the cycle of self-deception begins.

2.  Identify the lie: Most sin starts with a lie or some perversion of the truth.  If something does not sound quite right or feel quite right, stop and take note. Admit how you are prone to self-deception.

3. Name the desire:  Sin is not something outside ourselves that we can blame and so, excuse.[11]  Sin is not simply a bad habit to correct, an impulsive decision we regret or an illness needing cure. These may apply, but something deeper is at work motivating my attitudes, thoughts and actions. There is something I want, or think I need, that is turning me against myself; something I allow, perhaps unconsciously, to betray or deny a deeper need.  Identify the need that is good, such as love or acceptance that only God can fill, and the disordered need that you are trying to fill falsely.

4. Recognize your role: Admit that you are choosing a way to feel, think and respond that is, at least in part, probably self-deceived. Note your attitude toward others and patterns of thinking and acting.  Are you justifying yourself at the expense of others? Humble yourself and admit all of your wrong.  Remember God’s promise that, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” [12]

5. Commit to change: Desire often begins with a genuine need that becomes disordered when you attempt to meet the need by false and selfish means. Mastering the sin at your door means identifying the good and real need underneath the disordered desire, and finding that need in God. As St. Augustine prayed, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee?”


 [1]  Cain means “smith” in Hebrew, reflecting his lineage that will bear Tubal-cain, the first metal worker.

[2]  There is no clear etymology for Abel, but the Hebrew hevel, “vapor” or “puff of air” may be associated with his brief life              

[3]  Genesis 4:2-8           

[4]  Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

[5]  Ibid

[6]  This is not to say that belief and right thinking are unimportant, just that they more likely flow from or after conversion, rather than leading people to conversion.

[7]  These ancient stories describe a time when human knowledge was in it’s infancy and language was purposefully simple and descriptions graphic, like a beast “crouching at a door.”

[8]  You may debate this point, of course, but I believe this is what these stories imply and what Scripture later teaches.

[9]  Source:  The Arbinger Institute

[10] See the story of Amnon and Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-15

[11]  James 4:1-3; 1 Timothy 6:9-10

12]  1 Corinthians 10:13