For several weeks my Sunday worship times and daily prayer times had been filled with distractions. I was worrying over our housing in the City, second guessing the hectic schedule our kids are tethered to, and post-Easter attendance dips at the church. I would stand there in worship singing melodies with no emotion and rehearsing words with no meaning. The Spirit shook me out of my spiritual funk two weeks ago when someone emailed me this question, "What are your thoughts on why the Creator favored Abel's worship and not Cain's?" I reread the story of the first worship ceremony leaving no commentary unturned in my quest to excavate the origin of worship. The Cain and Abel narrative is a story about the genesis of worship--what it is, what it looks like, how the Creator receives or disregards it, and how its counterpart masks itself. The story establishes what it is about worship that connects us with God. As I read the account again I was drawn to these two verses:
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.--Genesis 4:4-5
The Origin of Worship as Sacrifice. The words " firstborn" and "fat portions" bleated like a firstborn lamb and thudded like a slab of fatty meat on my soul. I could hear, smell, and see worship. The Creator meant a heck of a lot to Abel--more than his prizest of flocks and fattest of herds. As he laid these items on an altar his heart was postured in this way, "God, you come before what is first. God, you are weightier than what is heaviest in my life." The Creator regarded this, noticed this. Abel's worship had two qualifiers: firstborn and fat portions. And first and best defined this moment as an act of worship.
Abel sets the standard for worship. Worship is alive. The sacrificial element keeps it authentic and is a fitting token of just how much he loves and honors God. He is not thinking about life and worship in terms of the neediness of the creature (that was Judas's rationale), but in terms of the honor of the Creator. Abel shows us that worship is worship when it embodies what is first and best.
The Origin of False-Worship as Sacrilege. "Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground." Cain's offering lacks definition and qualification. In fact, there are no negative or discrepant qualifiers, it's simply undefined. Only when its offered next to Abel's does it take on definition and meaning. Cain made worship gestures and motions, symbolically offering a token bereft of passion, weight, value, and meaning. Yes it was a gift, yes it was put on an altar, yes it was given to the same Creator, yes he brought it at the same time, but it was anything but the same. It was different in every way. Abel's was qualified and defined. Cain's was generic and undefined. Therefore, it wasn't worship--it didn't meet the qualifications of first and best. The offering was what he had left over at the end of the harvest season. There was no faith, no risk, no 'skin in the game' for Cain.
In the beginning we are told what worship really looks like; it's costly. In the beginning we are told what false-worship looks like; it's deadly. And every page thereafter we are told that everybody worships--some falsely and some faithfully. Some worship at the altar of God and some worship at the shrine of self. But everyone, absolutely everyone worships.
Why does God favor one offering and not the other? The word 'regard' means God noticed, received, and accepted. Think of when someone does something for you out of obligation or coercion, how difficult is it for you to accept the 'gift' if it comes from a joyless or obligated space. Not only was the offering not acceptable but to accept Cain's would have been an injustice to the real worship ascending from the altar of Abel. It would have been unjust to Able for God to value both equally when both were not equal.
What I am about to share is personal and part of the Garner oikos. Your view may be different from mine, I only share this because of how sobering the thought was to me in light of the first worship story.
A couple years ago Julie and I had switched banks and shifted our family budget roles around. She thought I had taken over the responsibility of worshiping with 10% of our income and I thought she was doing this. Several months went by and we received one of our giving statements and I was both ashamed and heartbroken to learn that my negligence had led to us not giving for several months. The most important decision Julie and I make with our money on a monthly basis is giving 10% right off the top to God. We both realized we needed to automate this so we set up recurring payments with Lighthouse. Worshiping God meant first and best and we didn't want to risk missing this so we automated it.
Our Pastors, Mike and Kathy Hayes, quote C.S. Lewis in his book God's Law of First Things, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.” Pastor Mike then takes the next several chapters sharing what it looks like for God to increase the second things when the first things are put first. (I highly recommend the book to anyone who is serious about seeing God enter into the second things in their life.)
I realized as I reread Cain and Abel that God was calling me to evaluate if he was still first in my life; If my distracted worship was related to a displaced worship. I thought about what Pastor Mike said and wondered if the second things were being suppressed because the first things weren't first. I used the following guide below to challenge my heart and thinking.
Firstlings and Firstfruits. Who am I in the story? Cain or Abel? Do I give God the first cut of my income? When the direct deposit hits my account, is my first thought--God? When someone offers me a gift or when there is an income from an unexpected source is my heart eager to run and share it with God? Or do I wait til the end of the month and see what I have left over? Do I nickle and dime God with the spare change littering the bottom of my purse and pockets?
Fat Portions and Choicest. Who am I becoming most like in the story? Cain or Abel? Does my worship come from a place of joyful obedience? Am I eager and delighted to sacrifice? Am I offering it cheerfully and excitedly? Or do I look around and see my brother giving and because I don't want my image to appear stingy I reluctantly slip some money to the offering attendant? Do I have reminders in place that keep me from forgetting or neglecting worship?
What this led to. After evaluating my heart I realized that I was distracted in worship because the things that were vying for God's place in my life were beginning to mean too much to me. It felt freeing and hopeful confessing and admitting this. I then logged on and increased our recurring giving. After I hit the 'process this schedule' button I raised my hands and closed my eyes and said, "Father, I worship you." (I meant it and I felt it.)