Thursday, February 19, 2009

Comfortable in Your Skin

Genesis 4:1-16[1]

As we continue to discuss what it means to embrace life as it is, following Thomas Moore’s advice in his book Care of the Soul, I think one of the serious challenges we face can be summed up in a word: discontent. We are a people who are not content with our lives. How many people do you meet who are content with life just as it is?

The biblical story that I think best exemplifies the problem of being discontent is the story of Cain and Abel. Two brothers, one seemingly content with his life, the other apparently discontent. They have a fateful encounter with God one day, and God accepts the younger brother Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The biblical text does not explicitly tell us why God did not accept Cain’s offering. The statement in Gen. 4:7 “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” may imply some sort of wrong-doing on Cain’s part.[2] Most commentators throughout history have observed that while Abel offered “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” Cain simply “brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Gen. 4:3-4).[3]

Cain’s anger hints at the real problem—it would seem that he was jealous of his brother.[4] The “death” introduced into the world by Adam and Eve has now spilled over into jealousy and hatred and even violence, and the repercussions continue to reverberate! But what Cain missed was the importance and value attached to his very existence—as attested by his mother’s exclamation (Gen. 4:1).[5] He missed the fact that, “As the first-born, he embodies future possibility.”[6] It’s no wonder his discontent and his jealousy spilled over into violence!

Most of us would rather not fact the fact that we have many conflicting impulses within us, playing themselves out in our lives.[7] Sometimes those conflicts emerge in a way we’d rather not own up to. For example, the experience of jealousy over someone else’s good fortune makes us aware that there are aspects of our character that we’re not entirely fond of.[8] But the irony is that the only way to be free from jealousy’s poison is to embrace that part of us from which it comes.

The same is true of envy. When we are troubled by envy, the reality is that we both want something very badly while at the same time we actually sabotage our ability to attain it.[9] We see our fate as a cruel lot in life, but rather than embracing it and making the best of it, we spend our time and energy detailing the extent to which we have been cheated out of what’s rightfully ours while those around us who are more fortunate have received what they don’t deserve! Under envy’s spell, we spend our lives pining away for some fantasy of “what might have been.”[10]

But like Cain, our underlying problem is that we “fail to see the necessity and value in our own lives”—in the lives we have, our lives just as they are.[11] The truth of human existence is that there is something necessary to our existence in this world. There is something of value that we and only we can contribute to life. When you take that approach, then you have the freedom to “be good at what you’re good at,” regardless of whether you’re a farmer or a shepherd, a carpenter or a tailor, a salesman or a manager, an engineer or an artist, etc., etc.[12] Then you have the joy of finding satisfaction in what you do just because you enjoy doing it!

When we can adopt this approach to our lives, then we find ourselves empowered in a way that nothing can hinder—like a powerful river![13] But when we keep the river dammed up, we shouldn’t be surprised when it bursts out into all kinds of violence—just as with Cain and Abel.[14] The alternative is to simply be yourself—let your “individuality and unique gifts come forth” naturally and of their own, which they inevitably will do![15] That is an incredibly powerful act—perhaps the most powerful act anyone can do! In fact, just one person being willing to take that stance can change the course of the whole world![16]

Contentment is a rare quality these days. We have a phrase that fits the quality of contentment we’re talking about—being “comfortable in your skin.” When we can look at ourselves in the mirror, and recognize in the face we see a person whose life is important, whose life has value, whose life is necessary for the rest of us to thrive, then we can be comfortable in our skin. Then we can know the joy of contentment.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/5/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

[2] The author of Hebrews says that Abel’s offering was acceptable to God “by faith,” perhaps implying a lack of faith on Cain’s part (cf. Heb. 11:4).

[3] Cf. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 104; cf. Leon R. Kass, “Farmers, Founders, and Fratricide: The Story of Cain and Abel,” First Things 62 (Apr 1996): 22, who speaks of “the deep ambiguity at the heart of the human impulse to sacrifice,” suggesting, among others, Cain’s desire to “outdo” his brother! Contrast Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 56, who overstates the case when he says “there is nothing here to disqualify Cain”!

[4] While the Hebrew text lacks the content of what Cain “said” to Abel in Gen. 4:8 (cf. KJV, NASB), the ancient Samaritan, Greek, Syriac, and Latin versions of the account supply what Cain said to his brother as “let us go out into the field,” strengthening the impression that he intentionally killed Abel. CF. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 106.

[5] Kass, “Farmers, Founders, and Fratricide,” 20, points out Cain is the “the first farmer, the initiator of sacrifices, and the founder of the first city, as well as the progenitor of a line of men that invented the arts—including music and metallurgy”; cf. also Paula M. McNutt, “In The Shadow of Cain,” Semeia 87 (1999): 45-64.

[6] Brueggemann, Genesis, 56; cf. Robert Karl Gnuse, “A Process Theological Interpretation of the Primeval History in Genesis 2-11,” Horizons 29 (2002): 36, who says, “Cain was the center of attention and the hope for Yahweh's future relationship with humanity.”

[7] Moore, Care of the Soul, 98-99.

[8] Moore, Care of the Soul, 103-4.

[9] Moore, Care of the Soul, 113.

[10] Moore, Care of the Soul, 116.

[11] Moore, Care of the Soul, 114-15.

[12] Moore, Care of the Soul, 121.

[13] Moore, Care of the Soul, 119.

[14] Moore, Care of the Soul, 127.

[15] Moore, Care of the Soul, 127.

[16] Moore, Care of the Soul, 135.

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