Sibling Rivalry

Genesis 4:1-16

This is the story of the first siblings.

Cain and Abel were the two sons of Adam and Eve.  They were alike and different, as brothers often are.  They both worked to cultivate growth, but for Abel it was among his sheep and for Cain it was among his plants.

It comes time for the brothers to give God an offering.  Cain brings some of the plants he’s grown.  In the absence of further description we might assume it’s an average basket of some of the fruit and vegetables he’s harvested.  Abel also brings some of what he’s produced, but his sheep are described as “firstlings” and “fat.”  They were the first and the best of his flock.

God likes Abel’s offering.  God dislikes Cain’s offering.

Cain is angry.

God questions Cain’s anger:  “If you do well, won’t you be accepted?”  And a warning:  “If you don’t do well, then sin is going to creep up on you.”

Cain doesn’t seem to hear the warning.   He lures Abel out in to the field.  He kills his brother.  When God asks about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain answers famously:  “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  But God knows.  The ground that Cain is supposed to cultivate into new life has soaked up the blood of his dead brother, and it’s crying out to God.

This is the story of the first siblings.  It’s the origin of sibling rivalry.

But it could have gone differently.  What if, for example, Cain had been an only child?

 Cain was the only son of Adam and Eve.  He was a farmer.  He worked hard from sunup to sundown to get his plants to grow.

It comes time for Cain to give God an offering.  Cain brings some of the plants he’s grown, an average basket of fruits and vegetables.

God dislikes this offering.

Cain is angry.

With no one to compare himself to, Cain has no one to blame for his shortcomings but himself.  He takes a second look at his basket and realizes that he has not brought his very best before God.  He held back his state-fair-prize squash and perfectly unbruised tomatoes.  His anger breaks.  He realizes his mistake.

When the time for offering comes again, Cain arrives with a different collection – the first and the best of what he’s grown.  God is pleased.  Cain is pleased.

All is well.

Comparison can get us into trouble. 

FastSHoesI have two children:  a boy and a girl.  My son loves to run.  He runs laps around the church when we come for Thursday night dinners, then we go home and he runs laps around the house.  We just bought him a new pair of sneakers, which he delights in describing as his “fast, fast, FAST shoes!”  Running gives him joy.  He feels fast.  For a three-year-old, he is fast.

His older sister is almost six and less inclined to running.  She does, however, like competition.  Sometimes our children will order us parents to stand and mark the start and finish lines of a footrace (preferably with flags to wave, NASCAR-style).  We oblige, but we know what will happen:  After “Ready, set, GO!” and an equally-passionate start our daughter will easily pull ahead.  Her longer legs guarantee it.  And when she passes him by, our son will fling himself to the ground in angry disappointment, wailing and gnashing his teeth at a Biblical level.

The running that gives him simple joy quickly deteriorates when he has someone to compare himself to.

There is a danger in comparison – not just for children, and not only for siblings.  We all face the temptation to look around and see how others are doing, sometimes to the detriment of our own well-being.  Sometimes (as in the case of Cain and Abel), to the detriment of someone else’s well-being.

But comparison isn’t always bad.

FitBitMy husband got me this FitBit thing, a wrist-watch type device that tracks how many steps you take.  FitBit encourages you to step at least 10,000 times a day – about 5 miles – as a healthy habit.  It vibrates happily when you reach your daily goal.  Like a Pavolvian dog, I walk laps around the yard while the kids play so I can be rewarded by a buzz from my FitBit.

But I don’t want to walk just 10,000 steps a day, and I’ll tell you why:  comparison.

Another FitBit feature is being able to share your weekly steps with your friends.  My list includes about a dozen people ranked by their step count.  If not for this feature, I’d feel pretty accomplished taking 10,000 steps a day.  If not for this comparison, I might even think it’d be an unreasonable goal to log any more than that.

But 10,000 steps a day will never rank me #1.

I have a buddy who consistently logs 20,000 steps a day.  TWENTY THOUSAND.  To make matters… worse? better?… this is an old friend with whom I have a long history of competitiveness.  In my first week of FitBit ownership I walked myself into an exhaustion trying to dethrone this king of the step-takers.  Now, after about a month, I’ve settled into a still-respectable daily step count that’s less than 20,000… but also more than the 10,000 I would have settled for otherwise.

Note that not once in this comparative scenario did I consider luring my friend into a lonely field in order to eliminate my competition.  Neither did I harbor any kind of lesser ill-will toward him.  Instead, the comparison is good for me – it made me raise my own standards for myself.

The Methodist Church is partly built on a similar principle.  John Wesley (1703-1791) formed small accountability groups that would meet weekly to discuss the state of their souls.  Groups like that have a spiritual effect not unlike the physical effect of a FitBit:  seeing how someone else is doing can inspire you do better yourself.

So why is comparison sometimes good, but sometimes deadly?

How about this:

Cain and Abel were the two sons of Adam and Eve.  They were alike and different, as brothers often are.  They both worked to cultivate growth, but for Abel it was among his sheep and for Cain it was among his plants.

It comes time for the brothers to give God an offering.  Cain brings some of the plants he’s grown, an average basket of fruit and vegetables.  Abel brings some of the fat firstlings of his flock.

God likes Abel’s offering.  God dislikes Cain’s offering.

Cain is angry.

God questions Cain’s anger:  “If you do well, won’t you be accepted?”  And a warning:  “If you don’t do well, then sin is going to creep up on you.”

Cain is still angry.  He goes off to his field to sulk… and reluctantly consider what God has said.  This forces him to shift his focus so that he is thinking less about his relationship with Abel and more about his relationship with God.  Cain considers how God felt about his offering.  He thinks again about Abel’s offering, but this time it sheds some light on the situation.  Cain sees his own basket of fruit in a different way.

It again comes time for the brothers to give God an offering, and again Abel brings some of the fat firstlings of his flock.  But this time Cain’s offering is different:  a basket overflowing with the best fruit and vegetables he’s grown.  God is happy.  Cain is happy.  Abel is happy.

All is well.

Comparison isn’t in and of itself bad… as long as our relationship with God is our primary focus.

 The best runners are driven by a desire to do what God has created them to do – to take joy in it and to be as fast as God has created them to be.  These are runners like the Olympic champion Eric Liddell:  “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run I feel his pleasure.”  Runners like this can compare themselves to their competitors and be spurred on to better times, not jealousy.

The goal of my step-counting certainly doesn’t supersede my relationship with God.  That would be ridiculous, right?  But it’s easy trap:  to put my physical health above my spiritual health.  To put my self-worth in the size of my pants instead of the (unchanging) size of God’s love for me.  If I do that, I start comparing myself to other men and women; I start judging them and judging myself.

In the same way, our spiritual condition can be encouraged by comparison… if we are always focused on God and always secure in God’s love for us.  If we begin to focus on others more than on God, then even in our churches we can breed jealousy and judgment.

So like a runner focused on the finish line, keep your spiritual eyes on God.  You should notice from time to time that you’ve fallen far behind or you’ve run way out ahead.  That’s okay – it should inspire you to pick up your pace or extend a hand to someone behind you.  But always – always – keep in mind God’s great love for you, just as you are, and whatever place you come in.

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