Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 5. Faith or Formality
Heb 11:4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
Cain and Abel have always raised questions in the mind. Why did God accept Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s offering? That is the fundamental question mark behind their story and in a sense, at first sight anyway, everything else flowed from that, But was that how it was, I wonder?
“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (Gen 4:2-5) Note first of all Cain brings ‘some of the fruits of the soil’ which has a somewhat casual feeling about it. Yes, the word ‘some’ is also used of Abel but here it is completely different because he is bringing what would have been considered the best portions of meat from more than one of his animals. ‘Some’ of the firstborn indicates more than one, so Abel’s gift is both high quality and abundant or generous. God looks at the heart and is blessed by what He finds in Abel but is distressed by what He finds in Cain. Indeed Cain’s heart is revealed in his response which was anger. Cain becomes synonymous with those with wrong hearts against God (Jude 11) while Abel is named among the people of faith who come to God with good hearts as noted in our verse above.
We may also look at what follows in the Cain and Abel story for the Lord warns Cain not to let a bad attitude prevail (Gen 4:6,7) and yet Cain goes and kills Abel. A bad heart doesn’t just start one minute; it is there long-term. Everything points to Cain coming with an attitude that is lacking. We don’t know what it was that get the two of them bringing an offering to God but Cain seems to come out of duty or formality, something he ought to do. (Perhaps Adam or Eve had suggested it).
Abel on the other hand comes with a wide-open heart that likes the idea of giving to God so comes generously and so when the writer here speaks of him being a man of faith, we are considering heart issues. Faith comes out of an open heart. If you are a critical, even judgmental sort of person you are unlikely to be a faith person. If you are someone of low self-esteem, you are unlikely to be a faith person. A faith person comes with an open heart that does not judge others or be critical of others because they are aware of their own weaknesses and propensities to getting it wrong. They will be a person who has realised the love and goodness of God towards them and surrendered to that and will know that in Christ they have all things and can do all things, so when a faith opportunity is presented they leap at it.
Do we see something fundamental here? Faith doesn’t come at odd moments; it is there as the outworking of a heart that at some point in life surrendered to God, facing the reality of their own failure and receiving Jesus’ work on the Cross on their behalf. Yes, they were born again and the presence of the Holy Spirit now indwelling them opens a whole new world of possibilities. For the apostle Peter it was the opportunity to walk on water but for all the disciples it was the opportunity to get involved with the work of Jesus and see people healed when they prayed and demons be cast out when they commanded (e.g. Lk 10:17) These were acts of faith but they came out of lives that had first responded positively to Jesus call to “Follow me.” Once they did that there was a whole heart change (they were not perfect) that opened up a new world, the kingdom of God on earth!
So the starting point is that Abel is a different heart person to Cain and so when he brings his offering it is an act of faith: he’s heard the instruction to give to God and so he does it gladly, presumably desiring to bless God, and God spoke well of him. His actions were right and proper and good and therefore as acts in response to a heart moved for God, they were acts of faith. The message version of this verse is interesting, particularly the first part: “By an act of faith, Abel brought a better sacrifice to God than Cain. It was what he believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. That’s what God noticed and approved as righteous. After all these centuries, that belief continues to catch our notice.”
The Message emphasises that it was what was going on in Abel’s mind (and heart) that was all-important – it was God directed, with God in mind, aiming to please God. Cain was focusing on the act – I suppose I had better do this. He didn’t have good feelings about God; he was more caught up in what he felt he ought to do. Every second of getting the stuff out of the ground and bringing it was an effort. Formality and duty are like that, but faith is a flow that fulfils and feels good – because it is! “he was commended as a righteous man.” Faith is a righteous expression.
I admit to not liking the end of the Message version’s v.4, it doesn’t seem strong enough. Our verse above read, “by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” How about J.B.Phillips interpretation of that ending: “And though Cain killed him, yet by his faith he still speaks to us today.” In other words his actions, even though he is now dead and gone, still demonstrate to us what faith is all about. It isn’t about formality, it isn’t about duty, it is about an open-hearted response to God that is good. If we feel, ‘I ought to be a person of faith’, we’ve blown it from the start, we’ve missed the point. Faith is what flows from an open heart for God when it catches the word from God, whether it be a quiet prompting of the heart or a screamingly loud message through preaching or prophecy, and responds with that same good open-heartedness. How wonderful!