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Grace is hard
Heck, even God seems to struggle with it
The story of Cain and Abel is a caution against the dangers of making sacrifices in bad faith. Some things you can fake ‘til you make it, but loving God isn’t one of them:
3 - And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
4 - And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
5 - But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
6 - And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
7 - If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
8 - And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
A common interpretation of this passage is that Abel made his sacrifice in good faith by bringing “the firstlings of his flock”. Cain did not - and that is why God rejects his offering. Presumably, Cain didn’t offer up the best of his fruit. Or perhaps it was given as a (calculated?) exchange, with the expectation, conscious or not, that he would extract favour from God in return.
The ill roots of his intentions are made evident in verses 5 and 8. Cain isn’t just upset that God did not reward him with what he wanted. He also kills his brother.
Cain’s failed and hollow trade deal¹ stands at odds with the Christian and Buddhist conception of God’s love² as unconditional. This sounds nice, until you realize its corollary, which is that God’s love can never be earned or merited. This is meant to be liberating, but tends not to sit well with those of us who believe in exercising force to make things happen. We don’t like the idea of things being beyond our control.
Force can look like grace from a distance
Force isn’t always violent. The most insidious forms of it can look suspiciously similar to love, grace, tolerance, and forgiveness. Sometimes we create good enough forgeries to fool even ourselves. We desperately want to believe that we are, underneath it all, good people.
What betrays false grace is the fact that it is performed with expectations, and is therefore an attempt to manipulate and control³. Cain’s falseness is not in the nature of his sacrifice. Whether the fruit was good or not is irrelevant. What gives him away is his rage upon failing to secure God’s favour.
Unconditional love is perfect because it is given with no expectations, and therefore leaves no possibility for disappointment, anger, or resentment.
The problem, of course, is that us mere humans are far from perfect. We are constantly falling short of this ideal.
Aside: I’m engaging with religion because my secular self is not living life well
I am not a religious person by affiliation with any institution, and neither are most of my peers. Many of you probably stopped reading ages ago. If you haven’t yet, thanks for bearing with me.
Lesson #1 flew straight over my head: only God can do this, because only God is perfect. The rest of us will spend our lives trying and failing over and over. The hope is that the infinite gap between ourselves and perfection may get a tiny bit smaller.
There is nothing to lose from trying something new, and there’s alot of grey space between sterile atheism and bible-thumping. So buckle up - here we go. 🌳🔥
God’s love is (supposedly) perfect and unconditional, and even He thinks about throwing in the towel
Is this sacrilege? Maybe. But hear me out.
One of my favourite pieces of music is Liberation by Harold van Lennep:
The song samples a remarkable sermon by a late preacher named Ravi Zacharias. He talks about the book of Hosea - a prophet who has been instructed by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer, and to love her despite her ongoing sins.
The story is an analogy for God’s undying love for the people of Israel, during a time when they began to worship false idols 🐄:
Zacharias presents this story as an example of God’s perfect and unconditional love, given to an undeserving people. Starting at 1:43:
As this man goes looking for his wife who has broken her bond of commitment to him, somebody stands in the street and says to him, "Hosea, we love you, we respect you, we admire you. You’re a man of integrity. But we do have a question for you: How can a holy man like you be in love with such an adulterous person like that?"
Hosea says, "I’m really glad you asked because I have an answer for you. Now I’m beginning to wonder how a holy God like that can love such an adulterous nation like us."
The crowd is moved to applause by this. I’ll admit that the first time I heard this sermon, I cried a little bit.
Then I decided to do a little digging. And true to form, I found…
…a whole lot of reasons to be disappointed
If something that moves you turns out to contain some falseness, does the whole thing become invalid? Or would disappointment be hypocritical, because we all contain falseness?
I honestly don’t know.
Firstly, in a twist all too common in organized religion, Zacharias was post-humously found to have engaged in horrific sexual abuse.
On one occasion a student protested vigorously such an interpretation of the Lord’s command to Hosea that he marry Gomer. “How,” he asked, “could God ever command a prophet to marry a prostitute or one who had participated in sexual rites related to Baal?” Yet, what greater demonstration is there of the reality of a love that transcends our own than that Hosea should do precisely this […] Is not this so very much like the love of God for us “while we were yet sinners?”
Now, you can flippantly argue that all religion is basically organized hearsay, and that crying “citation needed” is a bit pointless in this game:
But it did make me wonder whether there was any merit to this sermon at all. Did Zacharias just make all this up? Did he swindle a crowd full of suckers? Was I tearing up on the basis of a lie?
In fact, the Old Testament God of Hosea doesn’t seem unconditionally loving at all. He lashes out with pages of furious invectives and threats of horrific violence against the people of Israel. Here’s an example:
15 - I will have no compassion, even though he thrives among his brothers. An east wind from the Lord will come, blowing in from the desert; his spring will fail and his well dry up. His storehouse will be plundered of all its treasures.
16 - The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.
Yikes. In fact, it sounds like Hosea’s God is pretty much prepared to say “screw this” to the whole bloody project:
12 - Though they bring up their children, yet will I bereave them, that there shall not be a man left: yea, woe also to them when I depart from them!
13 - Ephraim, as I saw Tyrus, is planted in a pleasant place: but Ephraim shall bring forth his children to the murderer.
14 - Give them, O Lord: what wilt thou give? give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.
15 - All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters.
16 - Ephraim is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit: yea, though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb.
17 - My God will cast them away, because they did not hearken unto him: and they shall be wanderers among the nations.
Yet the message of Hosea, as claimed by most sermons, is that we should take after God’s example of unconditional love and forgiveness. In the last chapter, Israel turns itself around, God’s anger subsides, and his love remains:
1 - Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall!
2 - Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
3 - Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount warhorses. We will never again say ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion.”
4 - “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.
It’s not clear what would have happened if the people of Israel hadn’t repented. The book of Hosea ends with this:
9 - Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.
“The rebellious stumble.” For all the emphasis on God’s undying love, the last verse of Hosea is not an embrace, but a warning. This God forgives, but he doesn’t forget. How oddly…human^⁴.
So what’s a mere human to do, then?
Christianity’s big innovation in the New Testament was the idea of forgiving those who have hurt you the most, and who you were most meant to be able to trust - instead of continuing to pass the violence onwards.
For inspiration on this objective, we were sent the role model of all role models:
Jesus was sold and killed for thirty pieces of silver, and still forgave⁵. Most of us are lucky to have only faced smaller and much less deliberate betrayals. Hurtful words thrown in anger. The dull wear of repeated disregard. Lies of convenience. Misfired good intentions. And most commonly, simply being within striking distance of someone else’s own hurt, fury, confusion, and despair.
Yet we all know how deeply these can cut. True forgiveness, even in the face of supposedly trivial slights, is a damn hard thing. It seems that even Hosea’s God, in all His perfection, came precipitously close to walking away from His own people.
If He’s allowed to struggle with grace, then maybe we are too.
Gratitude to Benjamin Parry for his thoughts on this essay. Good stuff is his, blasphemy is mine - although true to form, he insists that this is not the case. 😂
I’m also grateful that he’s the kind of person who keeps a Bible on the shelf - a brave choice in this day and age 😱 :
1 - I mentioned this in my last essay but it’s worth mentioning again: Buddhist tradition also conceptualizes love as unconditional. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts so eloquently at 9:54 in this video, anything given with expectations “is not maitri [lovingkindness] - it is a kind of trading.”
2 - I use the word “God” here as shorthand for the way that perfect love is conceptualized in many other religions besides Christianity: Buddhism, Daoism, etc. Feel free to de-capitalize the word, if it makes you feel better :)
3 - One could argue that Cain was the OG story of codependency: a tendency to behave in ways that appear to be loving and self-sacrificial, but are actually rooted in a (conscious or unconscious) desire to manipulate and control outcomes.
4 - Ben brought an interesting refutation (or perhaps he would use the gentler term, “reframe”) to this point. Most philosophies don’t treat God as an actual supernatural being with characteristics. He is more “a personification of what is”, much as Ayn Rand’s characters (Dagny, James, Rearden, Roark, etc) are a personification of perfect capability or perfect evil. Or how Baby Yoda is a personification of potential - and more specifically, the potential for goodness to turn into boundless power when correctly loved and guided. Evil is turning away from God; unconditional love is turning towards Him.
5 - Apparently it’s a matter of open debate whether Jesus actually forgave Judas himself. 🤷♀️
Lastly, I want to end with this beautiful (and really intense 😬) piece of art by one of my favourite painters, John Singer Sargent.
This is a part of The Frieze of Prophets at the Boston Public Library, depicting (from left to right) the prophets Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea: