What Does the Blood Say?

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” – Genesis 4:10

The scripture above comes from the passage describing the murder of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain.  This might be one of the most famous stories of Scripture in the whole bible – I’d lump it alongside “In the beginning” and “For God so loved the world.”  I don’t know why, really.  Maybe we’re intrigued by murder (there’s a lot of that in the Bible).  Maybe it’s betrayal (again: bunches more of that).  Maybe it’s simply the story placement – this is about the time when well-meaning Bible readers start and then give up on finishing the text in its entirety.  In any case, I’ve heard countless people rip off the quote, “am I my brother’s keeper?”

I’ve often wondered: what exactly did Cain’s blood say?

Admittedly, I’m an imaginative guy, but there’s something fantastic in the verse above that keeps me wondering.  What did the Lord hear?  What did Cain’s blood say?  How did it speak?  What’s the significance?

The “Oldest Defense in the Book”

Call me crazy, but I like true crime stories.  I love putting my detective hat on and listening to podcasts that detail the ins and outs of true crime, all the while I’m trying the evidence in my own head and sussing out the case.  I enjoy watching Dateline or similar true crime shows and putting myself in the mindset of the investigators and advocates for justice.

What’s fascinating to me about true crime is the universal plea of the victims and their families for the truth.  In missing person cases, the refrain sounds out: “We just want him/her home, dead or alive.”  In murders, it’s the same: “We just want justice for him/her.”  In all cases it boils down to one common theme: “We just want to know the truth.”  It’s viscerally powerful, utterly gut-wrenching.  And – more often than not – victims don’t get answers.  Criminals get tried and found guilty but never confess to the fullness of their crimes or never let the truth win out.

Maybe it’s my morbid curiosity in true crime that draws me to this passage. Cain is the first murderer ever tried and yet he employs the same defense that is pretty much always used by every other modern murderer when confronted with the truth: he pleads the fifth.  If read like court notes, the exchange might sound something like this:

God: “Cain, where is your brother Abel?”

Cain: “I have no idea.  What – you think it’s my job to keep track of him?”

God: [Full bad cop mode] “What did you do!  The blood at the crime scene gives you away, buddy!  You’re going away for a long, long time.”

Cain: “This isn’t fair!  Everyone on Facebook is going to hate me now!”

I may have taken some creative liberties there.  But the truth is still the truth: The blood of the innocent indicts the murderer.

The Blood We Shed

And isn’t it true that we, like Cain, are blood letters?

Back to my original question: what did Abel’s blood say?  If you’ll permit me to guess, I’d say that Abel’s blood shouted: “Murderer.”  “Liar.”  “Sinner.”  I’d like to think that God could hear the accusations loud and clear from the very earth that drank it up hungrily, just as greedily as Cain was willing to spill it.  Except these pleas weren’t accusations; they were eye witness testimony.

We’re blood letters, quick to strike and shed blood in our own name.  I see it day to day on social media where arguments rage and end in name calling and personal attacks that cause great harm to those who suffer them.  I hear it in teenagers who are aping the behavior of the loudest talking heads of media – oh, yeah, and what they hear from the oval office – as they dig at each other in a constant battle to one-up each other.  I see it grumbled about in broken relationships in pastoral counseling – friendships, families, and marriages.

I do it myself.  That’s the hardest part to admit, especially when I reflect on the days or weeks or months and come to grips with patterns of petty blood-shedding in the way I love my wife or parent my daughter or relate to my family.

The Blood That Saves

If we’re honest, we can admit that we end up acting like Cain too often.  It’s our nature to do so, I think, the sin nature we inherited since Pappy Adam and Gramma Eve set the tone so long enough.  Cain was a bad older brother, one of history’s worst older brothers (there are some other bad ones in the bible like Amnon for example).

The good news is – we have a much better older brother than Cain.  We’ve got adopted into the family of God by the work of our spiritual older bother, Jesus.  Paul lays it out in Romans 8:1-17, a chunky but important passage of Scripture that punctuates this concept of our inheritance through the Holy Spirit.  Romans 8:16-17 goes like this:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I think this is what the author of Hebrews had in mind in 12:24 when Jesus is credited as “the mediator of a new covenant” whose blood “speaks a better word than that of Abel.”  By the blood of Jesus, the accusations of our guilt cease.  “Murderer” is replaced by “New Life.”  “Liar” is superseded by “Truth.”  “Sinner” is traded for “Redeemed” and “Beloved” and “God’s Children.”

Don’t let the blood you’ve let speak louder than the blood you’ve been washed in.

Ridding and Craving

John’s my favorite apostle, hands down.  I’ll get into this more another time but for now I want to put that on record.

Having said that, I find Peter absolutely fascinating.  His up-and-down behavior, his wild and heartfelt faith, and his ultimate redemption throughout the Gospel narrative draw me in.  Every single time.  There is some doubt through modern scholarship on whether or not he’s the true author of 1 Peter (he almost certainly didn’t write 2 Peter) but if you are willing to indulge me I would like to treat him as the author for the sake of this blog post.

Continue reading “Ridding and Craving”

In Defense of Hospitals, Not Museums

What is Christian confession and why should we even care about it?

“Dear friend you don’t have to lie to me
When I ask you what’s going on
Are you doin’ right or are ya doing wrong
If you do right will there not be a lifting up
You misbehave
Sin is crouching by your grave
We can begin to make amends
Fill your sails full with wind
I know you’re tossed and tempest turned, but make no mistake
I’ll never sleep on your faith
But don’t you pull the wool over my eyes
Don’t you pull the wool over my eyes.”
– G. Love & Special Sauce, ‘Pull the Wool’

An ancient and influential theologian in church history put it this way: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”  In another place he restates the theme like this: “God gives where he finds empty hands.”  It’s like the kid who reached down into his mother’s priceless vase and then couldn’t get his hand out.  The family tried and tried and tried but it wouldn’t come unstuck.  Finally they surrendered to their situation and broke the vase only to find that the child’s hand was balled into a fist and so couldn’t fit through the mouth of the vase.  They asked the young man what he was holding onto that caused the loss of this family heirloom and he opened his hand to reveal a single penny.

I find the metaphor of holding tightly to something of lesser worth and missing out on a greater gift useful when thinking of confession of sin.  The Scripture is clear that Christians must confess sin – this theme is carried from the Psalmist to Apostolic teaching.  There is a physical transfer of energy when sin is confessed.

Do we need to confess?

One popular statement I bump up against is, “my sin is between God and me.”  Although I agree with this in a principled sense, and I think there are very wise boundaries concerning who and how and what we confess, confessing sin to another human being is an important part of the spiritual journey of our faith.  Don’t take this at my word – take it from Jesus.

In John 20, after Jesus has risen from the dead, he appears to his disciples (one of several occasions that occurs between the time he rose and the time he would ascend into heaven).  Take a look at the text for yourself before I offer comment:

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” – John 20:19-23

Notice the order of events.  Jesus first breathes the Holy Spirit onto them (whatever that means, but that is an entirely different blog post!) and then gives them this directive to forgive sins, going so far as to say that if they don’t forgive the sins of others, those others are not forgiven.  Here’s what I don’t think Jesus is doing.  I don’t think he is conferring the power to forgive sin from God to man – that power is God’s power alone imputed, by grace, and through the completed work of the Son.  I also don’t think that he’s claiming that any person is sitting in the seat of judgment over another.

Rather, what I think Jesus is saying is that we are to serve as the physical conveyors of God’s forgiveness here on earth, the vessels by which God gives reassurance of forgiveness.  We’ve been given each other for a reason as the physical body of Christ on earth.  One of those reasons is to be witnesses to each other of God’s forgiveness and to offer both verbal and physical reminders of God’s forgiveness.

To hear another’s confession and to place our hand on that believer’s shoulder and utter the words, “in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” is immensely powerful.  God designed it that way – it’s a means of grace and I consider it tantamount to a sacrament in itself.

What are we scared of?

Confession has been widely held over the years as a spiritual discipline – a behavior or ritual or act that Christians do or take part in that has a proven track record of producing spiritual fruit.  For a modern collection of spiritual disciplines as a whole see Richard Foster’s classic text Celebration of Discipline.  However, in most Protestant circles today, confession is viewed as a “Catholic thing.”  In my experience serving in Evangelical Protestant ministries this is essentially a curse word.  “Isn’t that where priests eavesdrop on your sins and then make you say ‘Hail Mary’ a bunch?  Empty ritual.”

I think the discipline of confession is much more robust and infinitely more valuable to the church that simply dismissing it as some optional (and unnecessary) tradition of some branches of the faith is unwise.  Bonhoeffer said it like this: “all sham ended in the cross.”  He goes on to describe how, in view of Jesus’ suffering and death, we all stand on equal ground as sinners.  When we recognize this we shine a light into the dark corner of our hearts where we judge the missteps of other believers and think things like, “well, I’m not that bad, at least.”

Confession is Freedom

Here’s the bottom line: confessing releases the overbearing burden of carried sin.  There is a redemptive power in opening our spiritual hands and letting go of the things we are holding onto – and unconfessed sin is a doozie.  It is then that God is able and willing and waiting to put good gifts inside our hands to use both for our benefit and in his service.  Don’t hear this as a “name-it claim-it” theology; hear it for what it is and for the spiritual law that Augustine was driving at.

What confession doesn’t address is reconciliation – giving and receiving forgiveness, admitting wrongs and righting them, and repairing relationships.  These are equally sacred in our faith walk but I see them as the things that come after (or at least congruent with) we are able to confess, to humble ourselves before God and before a brother or sister and receive divine forgiveness. We can confess in confidence, knowing that we are loved first by a God who relentlessly forgives.