“When Life Does Not Go Your Way”

Scripture – Genesis 4:1-12

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, June 25, 2023


Pastor Otis Moss III tells about Joseph, a young man in his congregation who was home from college for Christmas break. “Joseph borrowed his mother’s car, picked up some friends, and went shopping. In one store, his friends became engulfed in a dispute with some other young men. The next thing Joseph knew, his friends were telling him they had to get out of there quickly. The three teenagers left the store and jumped into their car. But before they could pull out, someone behind them fired a gun. A bullet shattered the rear window and struck Joseph in the back of the head, killing him.”

“As news of Joseph’s death spread, the adults in the congregation recognized the need to minister not only to Joseph’s family, who were suffering through the most terrible loss any family can know, but also to the young people who were his friends. Those young people now felt overwhelmed with shock, heartbreak, and outrage. Moss was afraid that in their pain and anger – in their need to show strength, assert their manhood, and conquer their fears – they would head out to the streets and unleash their impulses in further violence. They might attack the individual who had killed their friend. Or, if they could not identify the shooter, let alone find him, they might turn their impulsive rage against some innocent.”

“Conflict flares so fast. A harsh tone of voice, a look that feels wrong, a disrespectful word – and in a flash of anger, we turn against each other.”1

This is the story of human beings since the earliest of times, isn’t it? It is the ancient story of Cain and Abel. More parable than historical fact, it is not really a story about the first two children in the world; it is a story about us. This story of sibling rivalry speaks to two deep truths of human existence: First, living in harmony with others is extremely challenging. And, second, if we fail to master our anger, it can spiral out of control and have lethal consequences.

Our story says that Adam and Eve had a son and named him Cain. Then, sometime later, Eve bore a second son and named him Abel. Nothing is mentioned about their childhood. Were they joined at the hip and did everything together or were they constantly competing for their parents’ attention? Our text falls silent.

However, our passage does say that they pursued different lines of work. Cain worked the land and Abel became a shepherd. Perhaps the story echoed an ancient animosity between farmers and shepherds.

Yet, the story does not focus on rival occupations. Rather, it highlights the turbulence of human emotions and the power of sin to provoke us into destructive actions.

Our passage indicates that both sons held God in high esteem because they both gave offerings to express their gratitude. Our text says that Cain brought an offering from the produce of his land and Abel brought a firstborn sheep. For whatever reason, God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. No reason is given because the storyteller does not want us to become distracted over acceptable and unacceptable offerings. The point of this story is how we handle ourselves when life does not go our way.

Our story says that when Cain discovered that his offering was rejected while Abel’s was embraced, he became infuriated. And as he is beginning to allow rage to slide into the driver’s seat, God says to him: “Why are you angry?” God knows full well the answer, so God does not wait for Cain to respond. Instead, God issues a warning. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Commenting on this verse, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Sin is waiting like a hungry lion ready to leap…Sin is not a breaking of rules. Rather, sin is an aggressive force ready to ambush Cain…Sin is lethal. God’s human creations must be on guard. There is danger in how Cain handles his rage.”2

Who does not know the destructive consequences of losing your temper? Anger can provoke us to commit offenses we know we ought not commit. Our child triggers something inside of us and we grab and shake her. Or we explode at our spouse and unleash a barrage of poisonous words. Or we drive like a maniac because someone cut us off in traffic.

In his letter to the Christians living in Rome, the Apostle Paul expresses this very human experience of wrestling with a temptation and failing to resist its power. He writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

Who cannot relate to that? Doing something destructive even when we know perfectly well that it will be toxic.

The influential writer, philosopher, and scientist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” He nailed it, didn’t he? We can be compassionate, but we can be cruel. We can be empathetic, but we can be callous. We can be forgiving, but we can be vengeful. While the deepest truth about us is that we are created in the image of God, it is also true that we do not always live into our best selves.

God saw that anger and resentment were festering in Cain and threatening to overwhelm him. God warned Cain not to allow his destructive emotions to take control of his brain’s command center. But it was to no avail.

Despite knowing better, Cain lured Abel into the field. And once they were out of sight, Cain struck down his brother. Cain did not master the sin hovering in his heart. It mastered him.

This is a primeval story about sibling rivalry, the destructive nature of anger, and the power of sin. But at its core, it is a story about how we deal with life when it doesn’t go our way.

What prompted Cain’s outrage in the first place was that Abel’s offering was accepted and his was not. Nothing is said about why God chose one offering over another, the story turns on how Cain deals with disappointment.

As we know, life is not always fair. Some are born into wealth and some into poverty. Some are blessed with health and others are cursed with illness. Some have loving parents, and some have broken parents.

Life does not always treat us the way we deserve. Sometimes life is bitter and cannot be made sweet. How do we handle those situations?

A colleague sat down with a woman to plan her father’s funeral. Her father “had been very successful in some manner of things, but in the ways of family, he had largely missed the boat. She said her father had approved of little in her life, and when she married a man he didn’t approve of, he all but cut her off. Then he became ill. He had divorced her mother, and there was no one to take care of him, so she had to decide what to do. She dropped what she was doing, and for 18 months, she watched after the man who had done very little to watch after her.”

Her pastor asked, “How were you able to overcome your hurt and disappointment?”

She said, “I don’t know that I did get over it, but sometimes you just have to let things go. Neither of us could go back and fix what had been broken. Sometimes you just have to let things go. I guess that’s what I did.”3

The Lord said, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

When things go awry, we do what we can to fix them, but sometimes a wrong cannot be made right. Although your impulse may be to strike back, to deliver an emotional punch that will insure that someone else will experience a degree of the pain you have felt, let it go.

Admittedly, tee shirts are not always the greatest source of wisdom, but there’s one that said this: “A goldfish is the happiest animal on earth because it has a 10 second memory.” Sometimes there is great value in leaving the past behind and not allowing it to rule your present.4



  1. Otis Moss III, Dancing in the Darkness, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023), p. 33.
  2. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 57-58.
  3. Tom Are, “Cain: More Than He Can Handle,” July 21, 2019.
  4. Don McMinn, Think with Me: What is the Happiest Animal on Earth, December 15, 2021.


Prayers of the People

K. C. Morrison


Dear God. We come now as the Spring season of renewal fuses into the full flower of summer.  We are reminded that it reflects just another example of the marvel of life—hope and expectation, in the knowledge that your gift continues to flow. It is soothing to have that regularity, especially in the midst of the daily irregularities we are wont to introduce.

Then, there is that remarkable gift of pause you give us to reflect and pray; a time to reconnect with, and to recharge our aspirations to walk in your way: loving, offering compassion, giving of our talents, and protecting the firmament.

It is that pause, dear God, that engages us now. We bring to you our faith, concerns, hopes, fears, and joys.

We ask for the courage to live at one with those siblings with whom all appearances suggest we bear no commonality. Give us the confidence to acknowledge these siblings: a stranger asking for alms; small children in Congo and Northern Nigeria who have only known the trauma of warfare in their lifetimes; girls in Afghanistan and women in India who have only known invisibility; the innocents in Palestine and Ukraine; and, racial and sexual identity groups in our schools subjected to differential punishment. We pause to pray that we may act to nurture those experiencing these traumas.

Give us the courage as an affluent society to deploy our tremendous gifts for the crises of children and mental health in our communities. Inspire in us the will to dedicate our time, money and expertise to guarantee that every expectant parent of a newborn in Mississippi receives prenatal care; that our siblings struggling with mental impairment just down the street be made whole. We pause to pray to commit to share our gifts of wealth to resolve child and mental health crises.

And, dear God, we are always mindful of the situational circumstances we encounter: the vagaries in the natural order of famine, storms, and earthquakes. We pray for those whose routines are interrupted by these natural forces, as we come to their aid and comfort. We think this morning of Haiti reeling from still another earthquake; of those in the great South-Central-Western US experiencing extreme heat, tornadoes, and power losses. We pause to pray to be generous in helping those whose situational displacements leave them floundering.

And dear God, there is always the personal. Whatever the season, we can face individual and family crises that test our will and faith. We pray for those who are grieving; that they gain the perspective and benefits that a departed loved one always leaves in the way they carried themselves. So, after we mourn, help us to receive the gifts they left that never die.

It is to these ends, and in the celebration of the routine joys of life that we all utter together the words you taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name
thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power,
and the glory, forever. Amen.