Two Ways to Worship: Cain and Abel
The first acts of worship are recorded in the book of Genesis in the story of Cain and Abel. Both of them made an offering before God (Genesis 4: 3). Abel’s offering was looked upon favourably while Cain’s was not (v. 4-5). At first glance, the rejection of Cain’s offering seems so arbitrary and unfair; after all they both offer equally valid sacrifices of their produce. Naturally enough, Cain is offended (v. 5) and so God speaks with Cain saying, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right will you not be accepted?” (v. 6-7). To me, Cain’s anger seems perfectly justified. What did Cain do that was so wrong? And what did God mean by ‘do what is right?’
The offerings of Cain and Abel would appear superficially the same, but if we could see into their souls, we would then notice a clear contrast between their attitudes rather than the substance of what they offered. Cain was using worship as a means to acquire the favour of God. In this scenario, Cain is the ‘subject’ who is acting upon God as the ‘object.’ Cain is the initiator and God the responder; Cain acts on God to change something in God with the hope of securing a blessing from God. Cain’s worship is really all about himself—his performance, his spiritual status and his ‘rights’ to the acquisition of blessing.
The worship offered by Abel, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Abel worshiped in response to the blessing of God and not in an attempt to secure it. Here we see God is the ‘subject’ who is acting upon Abel as the ‘object.’ God acts upon Abel, sustaining him, and providing for him, thereby changing something in Abel. The initiative of God is what engenders a response of gratitude and acknowledgement from Abel. The response of Abel is in deference to the glory of God: not the other way around.
These are the two essential forms of worship; and nothing has changed in the millennia since. Either we try to climb a ‘stairway to heaven’ through disciplined piety, religious observance, moral attainment, cultural conformity and a host of other predetermined external standards: or we must humble ourselves and let God rescue us from our fallen humanity.
True worship must be in the line of Abel, but what passes for worship is often little more than a contemporary version of Cain’s offering. Real faith is all about God, and what he has done, rather than being about ourselves, and what we have done. It’s letting God love you.