Throughout history there are many examples where we are not victims. But instead, those like us are perpetrators of evil. One such event was the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 11, 1857, when a pioneer wagon train was viciously attacked in southern Utah as it made its way to California.
In 2007, Robert Kirby, a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote a piece that reflected on that event and the sesquicentennial apology issued by the descendants of those who committed that crime.
“It’s easy to look at something horrific and ask yourself how someone else could do such a thing. But it is a lot more instructive to look at it and have to ask yourself how someone like you did.
Mountain Meadows is a painful and essential lesson not just for my people, but every-one. History is blood-soaked and none of us are descended from people with entirely clean hands. The way to stop horror isn’t to identify just with the victims, but also with the killers.”
Genesis roots human history in a bloody battle of revenge, violence, and inexplicable divine intervention. Life after the Fall is vividly portrayed in Genesis’s telling of the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16).
We know the plot. First-born farmer Cain is angered at his shepherding younger brother’s sacrifice being commended by God. Despite God’s offer to allow him to try again, Cain lures his brother out into the field and kills him. In the story that God tells, His pursuit of Cain brings to light the fullness of His grace.
Grace is the generous character of God in the face of human rebellion. The God of grace is vividly portrayed in every angle of this account. Grace guides the crushed, grace warns the tempted, grace curses the proud, and grace pities the wanderer.
Grace guides the crushed
Who has been crushed? Certainly not Cain, who is the firstborn son – the one Eve names and commends by saying, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Eve looks to this male offspring as the one promised in Genesis 3:15 who will de-liver them. In naming Cain she places upon him her hopes of redemption. Later, when she gives birth to Abel, she names him “weakness.” Cain is the older brother who fol-lows the path of his father. He becomes the tiller of the soil. He takes on the mantle as heir. Abel tends the sheep and goats.
But it’s out in those pastures, far away from home, that Abel begins to piece together the story of God’s grace in ways that Cain is blind to. In weighing his disappointments at home against the promises of God, Abel begins to see the way of grace. It won’t be Cain who delivers them from living east of Eden. Trust in a fallen human is not the way back in. Reflecting on the story told by his parents of how God covered their nakedness and shame by killing an animal and providing them with skins, Abel begins to understand God’s way – that it is through He alone who initiates a sacrifice. Redemption doesn’t come from human strength; God Himself comes to our aid.
God warns the tempted
Cain is angry at being told to return with an appropriate sacrifice. To bring the sacrifice of “fat portions from the firstborn of the flock” means seeking out Abel for help. To offer a proper sacrifice would cost Cain his pride. He would have to go to Abel and ask for a firstborn sheep. He would have to ask how to prepare the sacrifice properly. He would have to ask Abel how he figured out the right sacrifice to bring. The way for Cain to learn of God’s way of grace would have to come from someone he disregarded. Cain doesn’t want to learn from Abel; he doesn’t want to serve God; he wants to remain in control.
To the man in turmoil, on the knife-edge of sin, God comes asking questions with surgical precision. “Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” The God of grace probes, not because He doesn’t un-derstand what is going on; He probes to get Cain to recognize what is going on – and to repent. When such a turn looks unlikely, God adds a warning, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” The warning is clear: death will be the result of sin.
God curses the proud
Cain doesn’t listen to God’s questions or His warning. He attacks Abel and kills him. Again God comes with a question. “Where is your brother?” To this query Cain contemptuously responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper, the sheep-keeper’s, shepherd?” The answer is, in one sense, no. Cain is not his brother’s master; God is. But in taking Abel’s life, Cain appropriates the rights of God and acts out his true belief that he is himself di-vine, that he has the power of life and death over his subjects.
This is where Cain doesn’t even know his own story. When his parents rebelled against God, when they did violence in the garden, how did God respond? Did God kill them as was His right? No, God showed His expansive love. But when Cain played god he acted to kill, maim, and destroy. With Abel’s blood crying for justice from the field and Cain’s hands stained with his brother’s life, God curses Cain. “You are now under a curse and driven from the ground.”
Grace pities the wanderer
It’s easy to close the story of Cain and Abel here, but God does not end His story with a curse. Even when receiving a just consequence, Cain appeals to God, saying, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today You are driving me from the land, and I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
“Not so,” God surprisingly responds. “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.”
“Not so.” Cain’s assessment is wrong. He doesn’t believe God to be generous, and so he looks at the curse as something too hard to bear. But, in fact, the curse is driving Cain in exactly the direction he needs to go. Cain, even by raising his plea for protection to God, has become consciously dependent upon something other than himself. Cain finally admits to needing God. While not full repentance, it is a sign that he is beginning to feel the weight of his sin.
In response, God pities Cain. The sign of that pity is a mark of protection. God acts generously toward Cain. God withholds Cain’s punishment in order to allow him to live as a wanderer—experiencing in part the gifts of God (a family, a livelihood, time) in order to come to a place where he will be able to offer to God the right sacrifice.
This story of grace shows that we can, at any moment, throw ourselves on the character of God and not be disappointed. Grace is speaking loudly at every point of this story. At every turn, God’s character is calling for us to respond in faith; for us to cast ourselves in trust upon the God of grace.
Grace in Action
In 1958 several young men were killed by Auca Indians in Ecuador as they tried to make contact with them and establish a Christian mission. The subsequent story is an amazing tale of reconciliation and the triumph of grace over hatred and fear. But there is more to the story. At the time of his father’s death, Steve (Nate) Saint was five years old. He grew to be a man, like us, with doubts about the ability to cast himself wholly upon the God of grace.
In 1986 Steve Saint was working in Africa as a relief worker. On a trip to Timbuktu he was stranded for the night and through a friend’s recommendation sought out a church where he might spend the night. Through this search he met Nouh Af Infa Yatara, a man who had become a Christian.
“How did you come to have faith?” Saint asked Nouh.
“This compound [where the missionary family lived] has always had a beautiful garden. One day when I was a small boy, a friend and I decided to steal some carrots. It was a dangerous task. We’d been told that Toubabs [white men] eat nomadic children. Despite our agility, I was caught by the missionary. He didn’t eat me; instead he gave me the carrots and some cards that had God’s promises from the Bible written on them. He told me if I learned them, he’d give me an ink pen!”
Nouh learned the verses because an ink pen was a valuable possession that only people who worked for the government or teachers had. When his ink pen was discovered, and he was told to not go back to the church, he refused. In memorizing the few Bible verses, Nouh had come to believe in the God of grace. As a result, he was banished from his family, his mother tried to poison him, and he was kicked out of his home.
Nate Saint then asked the question that he himself had been wanting for years to ask his own martyred father, “Why is your faith so important to you that you’re willing to give up everything, even your life?”
“I know God loves me, and I’ll live with Him forever,” Nouh replied. “I know it! I have peace where I used to be full of fear and uncertainty. Who wouldn’t want to give up everything for this peace and security?”
Nate pressed, “It couldn’t have been easy for you as a teenager to take a stand that made you despised by the whole community. Where did your courage come from?”
“The missionary couldn’t take me in without putting my life in jeopardy. So he gave me some books about other Christians who’d suffered for their faith. My favorite was about five young men who willingly risked their lives to take God’s good news to stone-age Indians in the jungle of South America. The book said these men let themselves be speared to death, even though they had guns and could have killed their attackers!”
Saint told Nouh, “The pilot was my father.”
“Your father?” Nouh cried. “The story is true?”
“Yes,” Saint said, “it’s true.”
As Nate Saint reflected on that encounter in Timbuktu, he wrote, “As Nouh and I hugged each other, it seemed incredible that God loved us so much that He’d arranged for us to meet ‘at the ends of the earth.’ Nouh and I had gifts for each other that no one else could give. I gave him the assurance that the story that had given him courage was true. He, in turn, gave me the assurance that God had used Dad’s death for good. Dad, by dying, had helped give Nouh a faith worth dying for. And Nouh, in return, had helped give Dad’s faith back to me.”
Every one of us is at a point where grace calls us to show faith—to throw ourselves on the character of God. Some of us are in the place of Abel, where we are unjustly treated and where life feels lonely. Others are “Cains,” feeling bitter, jealous, and self-righteous. Many of us are facing the just rebuke of God for our sin. Other are wandering far from home and hungry for more than life is giving us. All of us are tempted regularly to throw ourselves upon something other than God.
In every case, what will keep us from grace is the same lie Cain believed—that God is not generous. To that lie, the response is clear. If God is compassionate in dealing with Cain, if God is gracious to Abel, if God’s wisdom is available to help us see ourselves as the perpetrator and not merely the victim, if God is the God who brings two people together from around the world to show them each His kindness, then He is a God who has been, is, and will be gracious to us. At every point, regardless of our situation (crushed, tempted, proud, or wandering), we can throw ourselves upon the generous character of God and not be disappointed.
Sam Wheatley is the pastor of New Song Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City. He and his family have lived in Utah since 2000. This article is based on a sermon from the series, “The Story That God Tells,” exploring the story of God’s grace from Genesis to Revelation. To find out more about the church, visit www.newsong.org.