Now Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry, and his countenance fell. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire for you, but you must master it.”
- Genesis 4:2b-7
Several years ago, I was reading a book, which was so unremarkable that I do not recall what it was. As a friend calls such books, it was “mind candy,” meaning of no real value to the mind. Thus, I do not remember the context of the phrase, only that someone (or someones) was described as being so annoying that being around them for any length of time was akin to being beaten to death by feathers. The book was forgotten, but the phrase is awesome! How do you forget that? Have you ever known anyone or done any activity that was so innocuous and still so annoying that you felt you were being beaten to death by feathers? Reflecting on that question, it occurs to me that perhaps I am easily annoyed.
Many of us approach Lent with an admirable degree of seriousness, our intent being to focus on Jesus Christ – His life, death, and, finally, His Resurrection. It is our annual adventure in self-denial of some form or fashion as we seek to reorient our lives toward our Lord’s victory over death and to separate ourselves in whatever degree possible from the temporal, material world that is so very present to us. Intentionally or not, though, we often pick some sacrifice that seems doable, then trust that what we have done is all that is required. What thing can I give up to prove that I prefer Christ’s Kingdom to my life in this world? At least, I think most of us observe Lenten discipline in this manner. I confess that I sometimes do. Nyeh… everybody sins, and I’m saved, so how hard do I need to make this? Though far too crass a manner in which to speak of it, that is, regrettably, a not uncommon attitude toward Lent.
As Easter approaches, we go and restock our larder with sweets or our cabinets with liquor or our refrigerator with meats, just waiting for the moment we can end our self-denial and rejoin the world of chocolate, wine, and/or beef. Did you know the single, most common substance given up for Lent (at least, among Protestants) is chocolate? The sacrifice is staggering…
Denying ourselves, forfeiting that which we desire for an unseen greater good, is hard to do, and it is especially hard to do if we are confident in our acceptance as children of God. When we know that we have been born of God, and we lead generally respectable and good lives, the need for the sacrifice and penance is not always clear. But, dutifully, we strive to fulfill our Lenten obligation. We underestimate sin.
The first time sin is mentioned in the Bible, it is not to describe a particular act. Rather, sin is mentioned as a being, a living entity of some sort, crouching at Cain’s door. Sin is part of an unholy trinity, a being of sin, of death, and of evil. I’m not entirely sure what that looks like, or even if it’s theologically accurate, but there is no question that sin in this passage represents something greater than Cain’s action. Sin wants to own Cain, which is an intent, a willful purpose aimed to harm. Our inclination is to think of sin as an action or as a choice we make. But I am not sure sin is actually depicted that way in Scripture, at least, not solely. Rather, there are actions that we choose which are contrary to God’s design and intent for us. This contrariness or defiance, perhaps, within each of us is the presence of sin, the true sin against God. Consider, for example, the decision to crawl everywhere instead of walk. We are misusing the design and intent of our arms and legs. In the process, we are harming our joints and minimizing our own quality of life. Sin is like that, only in every aspect of our being – heart, mind, body, and soul. Thus, sin owns us, not because of a particular action, but because of the condition within us that desires such a contrary state for ourselves.
Cain’s capitulation to sin was not that he offered less than the best to God. The text actually implies that God sought only to teach Cain that offering less than his best to God was not sufficient. Rather, Cain needed to bring his best to offer to God. But beyond God’s displeasure, which is no small thing, the story doesn’t indicate any punishment for Cain, just a warning that sin seeks Cain to master him. It was a warning that Cain did not heed. Instead, Cain preferred to kill his competition (Abel) than to resist sin.
I think most of us do not have great sins to repent, such as the murder of a sibling. We have little sins, inconsequential sins, that really aren’t all that noticeable. Our sins are the little jealousies, the petty thought, the insinuated condescension, the hidden lust, the silent unforgiveness, the unadmitted judgment, the insincere concern, the feigned humility. All of these are the sorts of sins common among us, and as long as we don’t mention them, neither will anyone else, precisely because they are common. So, we go merrily along, in defiant ignorance, misusing this life God has given us, and unaware we are being beaten to death by feathers.
I grew up in the piney woods of East Texas, home to enormous logging enterprises – my college mascot was the lumberjack. Some years before I was born, the owner of a large sawmill slipped from the platform where he stood into pile of sawdust – a pile of the dust and tiny shavings that spew off the spinning blades of saws cutting and shaping boards for building. The sawmill owner, a man of skill and vision, suffocated and died in a pile of tiny little bits of shaved wood.
There is no such thing as insignificant sin. Sin crouches at our doors and seeks to own us. We must master it, or it will master us.
When we think of Lent as the effort to deny ourselves our own contrariness, our own attachment to harm and to the deformity of God’s design and intent for us, we begin to grasp the severity of sin in our lives. Sin is not so much a particular action we take, but rather, sin is the willingness to ignore the feathers beating us incessantly or to think nothing of tiny curls of wood that suck ever more deeply downward.
Lent is the season of cleansing. One cannot enter the Kingdom of our Father with an attitude of contrary defiance – not now and not after we pass through death. Lent’s emphasis on prayer, fasting, and alms-giving purges many of those tiny things that cling to us until our souls are maimed and our joy is lost. In the chaos that marks American society today, such as it is, nothing can bear witness to Jesus Christ more clearly than joy, compassion, mercy, and love. If those qualities are not visible in us, it is because the light of Christ cannot be seen through the endless flurry of feathers. Much ado is made about our sacrifices during Lent, but all we’re truly sacrificing are the innumerable little quirks that let sin be our master instead of Christ.
Take up the challenge of mastering your sin. You are your Father’s child. Ask Him to grant you His Spirit for the wisdom and strength to master the sin crouching at your door, so that you may live. Besides, being beaten to death by feathers is exhausting…
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau
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