What the biblical story of Cain and Able teaches us about ourselves.
Able, the younger brother, is very much liked by everyone, God included. He’s one of those people who everything just happens to go right for. Everything Able touches turns to gold, and his sacrifices are accepted by God. Moreover, he is rewarded for those sacrifices, and rewarded well.
Cain, on the other hand, shares a very different life than that of his brother. Cain is not very much liked or admired by those around him. Everything goes wrong for Cain, he can’t seem to get anything right. He makes sacrifices to God, but those sacrifices aren’t well-received and are, therefore, not very well rewarded.
Cain, feeling that it is unfair that he does not receive the same treatment as his brother, gets angry, and understandably so. Feeling this way, Cain walks up to God and essentially asks him why he has created a world where such unfairness is allowed to manifest itself. God then responds by basically telling him that he is at fault for his own suffering:
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
This is not at all what Cain wanted to hear. This isn’t that surprising, since, after all, nobody wants to be told that they are responsible for their own shortcomings. Cain, being angered by what he had just been told proceeds to kill his younger, more successful, brother.
This is the story about the first real human beings on earth ( those conceived by Adam and Eve), and within it contains deep knowledge about our nature. This short fable outlines the human propensity for evil, resentment, and jealousy. It also reveals the fact that the world is, at its core, deeply unfair.
First, it is interesting to note that Cain is born first. This is interesting because Cain, symbolically speaking, represents evil. This may be hinting at the fact that it is evil that comes before the good, that evil is perhaps the default.
For instance, when we see someone who has what we want the default emotions for many, myself included, is often that of jealousy and resentment. Our immediate reaction is rarely “ Wow, I’m so happy for them!”. We may say that we’re happy for them, but at our core is a feeling of jealousy. This is normal. We are social, competitive creatures who have been battling with each other for status since the beginning of our creation.
“The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Jealousy, though, no matter how justified is simply not a useful emotion. This story is a clear example of this. The fact that Cain killed his brother solved none of his own problems and only made God more disappointed with him.
This story reveals another crude fact about existence. It shows that life isn’t fair. Cain was thinking “ I work just as hard as my brother, why don’t I have what he has?”. We’ve all, at one point or another, felt this way. It’s moments like this that life feels fundamentally unfair. Perhaps we studied harder for an exam than a fellow classmate of ours, yet they got a better grade. Or maybe someone who was no better at their job than you got promoted and you didn’t. It’s in these movements that, just like Cain, make you want to curse out God and say “ What kind of world did you create where such unfairness is able to occur!”
Though you may be justified in doing that, it simply isn’t helpful.
The way I see it you have three options when such unfairness manifests itself.
Option 1: You can, like Cain, decide to be bitter and take your vengeance out on the world.
Option 2: You can be so discouraged by the unfairness of the world that you stop making sacrifices altogether.
Option 3: You can investigate why your sacrifices haven’t been well received. Were you studying hard but not smart? Did you work hard at your job but never showed your boss your work? Did you strategically negotiate for a raise? Are you making the most of your time and the opportunities in front of you? Did you conduct your sacrifices with the proper attitude?
Once you find out why you haven’t optimally been rewarded for your sacrifices, you can begin to improve the quality of your sacrifices and do so with the right attitude.
Still, there is no guarantee you’ll be well rewarded for these sacrifices but it’s your best shot.
Be better, not bitter.