So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. - Hebrews 12:1 (NET)
Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the “cloud of witnesses” listed in Hebrews 11. The author of the book of Hebrews was looking to encourage Christians in the early church not to lose faith or hope. The author looks back to the Old Testament scriptures and starts naming a number of people who walked by faith, but did not receive the fullness of what they hoped for. I say “starts naming” because we only get half-way through the judges before the author writes about all the names they don’t have time to write about!
But the point is that there are many who have gone before us, who have suffered before us, and from whom we can take inspiration and comfort as we set our eyes on Jesus and choose to follow him.
So in this series of posts, I’ll be writing letters to each of these people. The first letter is to Abel. His story is in Genesis 4:1-12.
As with all my writing on Faith in Grey Places, my aim is to help people explore their faith and understanding of God. That said, given the chequered and even tumultuous lives some of these people led, I will be grappling with some sensitive and emotionally laden topics.
By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice to God than Cain, which showed that he was righteous, since God gave approval to him for his gift. Though he died, he’s still speaking through faith. Hebrews 11:4
I always wanted to know what it was about your gift, or the way that you offered it, that God liked.
I first heard your story when I was a child and this was the only question that mattered to me. I didn’t believe it was because you offered animals rather than vegetables. I figured there had to be more to it than that. After all, some people might only have plants to offer – and surely God wouldn’t reject them just because of their circumstances?
Looking back, it’s interesting that that was my train of thought. Somehow, I believed deep down that everyone, no matter their situation in life, no matter their vocation, no matter their means, everyone is able to make an offering pleasing to God. It’s pretty deep theology when you stop and think about it. And I guess I wanted to make an offering that was like yours, which is why I wanted to know what exactly it was that meant God liked it.
Millennia later, the author of the book of Hebrews wrote their answer: it was your faith that mattered.
I expect if someone had said that to my younger self (and probably someone did) I wouldn’t have been satisfied. Faith is one of those buzz words that Christians frequently use but don’t always define. Everyone wants to be pro-faith, but our conversations about trust and doubt can often lack depth and nuance.
As I mull this over, I think there were probably two conflicting motives within me. On the one hand, I wanted to know how I could please God. To be clear, I don’t think I was interested in how I could make God pleased with me. It wasn’t a self-oriented motive. I just wanted to please God and so wanted to know how. I think this was a faith-driven desire.
But on the other hand, I just wanted to be given the answer so I could copy you. I wanted a formula, a process, a thing that I could know and control and handle on my own terms. And of course, that’s not how relationships work.
I wish the Genesis account contained more of your life and character. I understand now that the text isn’t really trying to tell your story; it’s writing about your older brother Cain. How he lacked faith, didn’t respond to God’s warning, murdered you, and then tried to deny it. But while we can see how his lack of faith manifested in his actions, it’s hard to see the contours of your faith. All we know is that you offered some of the firstborn of your flocks.
One might say that offering back to God the first of what we receive from him is an act of faith. It’s a way of showing that you trust that God will provide more. But this same action can be performed from a place of romanticism, disconnected from reality, or indeed from a place of self-aggrandisement. And neither of those are postures of faith. What was it about what you gave, when you gave it, from the means you had, that meant that your offering was one of wisdom, humility and willingness? I wish I could say for sure. But maybe I can’t. Maybe, to borrow the words of Roger Lancelyn Green, I’m trying to “cut open the ball in search of its bounce.” My younger self would be most frustrated.
And I shouldn’t forget: your offering is not all that we know of your faith. As the author of the book Hebrews observed, you still speak even though you died. Genesis records the Lord’s words to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
In many ways, calling out to God is one of the most fundamental acts of faith. God’s unselfish love for us is seen, time and time again, in his saving work. As the prophet Joel put it, “But everyone who calls on the Lord’s name will be saved.” (Joel 2:32) The very name “Jesus” means “the LORD saves.”
You called out to be saved. You called out even from the ground, even from the silence of death. And God heard you. Still hears you.
In my time, there are many of us like Cain, who ask in one way or another, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Who deny our own bloodguilt. There are so many voices calling out from the ground that many of us do not want to hear or do not know how to bear hearing. So I’m thankful that you are named as a faithful witness who went before us, that your story can speak to us from across the ages.
And I pray that your account will be a comfort to those, living and dead, who have not yet been heard by their brothers and sisters. For, by faith, they are still able to call out to God. And in his everlasting love and mercy and care, he will surely listen.
I write to you in the peace and hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith and mine,
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