Devouring Desire: Internal Struggle
Updated: Mar 10
This discussion guide interacts with the corresponding devotional video, Death and All of His Friends Session 5 - War Within. Use this post to facilitate discussion and interaction with the Scriptures as you seek God together through his Word.
Genesis 4:1 Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” 2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Hebrew idioms of emotion are often delivered through facial language. Whereas in English we may use color language to describe emotion (ex. he is red with anger, she is blue, they are green with envy), Hebrew uses facial expression to describe emotion. When one is angry, one’s nose burns red (Gen. 36:19). When they are patient, then, they are “long of nose” (Ex. 34:6, as if it takes a longer time for their nose to get red). When one’s face softens, they are appeased (Ex. 32:11). And when one’s face falls, they are downcast, often in grief or shame (ex. 2 Sam. 2:22, Ezra 9:6) as Cain’s. These idioms become even more evocative when considering that the Hebrew notion of presence is literally “before-the-face-of.” The way Dr. James Pohlig, a professor and former Wycliffe translator puts it, “face is presence” or even “face is attention.” We see something idiomatic and physiological take place in Cain before his sin manifests. He hangs his head in isolating shame and relational withdrawal. He stops paying attention to God, removing himself from his presence. The narrative foreshadows what is to come. And isn’t that true in our own experience of sin? How often do we withdraw from God on the eve of our grave mistakes?
We will return to consider a remedy to this element of our nature, something we share in common with Cain. But for now, note the way Yahweh describes sin to our troubled brother. His characterization of sin is more than a little unnerving and certainly as cautionary to us as it was to Cain. Let’s tarry on two observations here.
First, sin is described as possessing desire. This noun in Hebrew, teshuqah, means “desire” or “longing” (HALOT). It’s that same word that appeared earlier in Genesis to describe the contentious sentiment between Eve and Adam (Gen. 3:16) that implies a want to dominate. Thus, it appears only here in Genesis 3 and 4 other than one romantic mention in Song of Songs (Song 7:11). But it is no human that has desire here. The owner of this desire is sin itself. What’s even more jarring about this description is the verb beforehand that gives this “desire” a sinister shape. The sin is “lurking” or “crouching”? This is the behavior of lions (Gen. 49:9, Ps. 104:22)! The commentators in HALOT (a lexicon) take the grammar to mean that “literally sin is a lurker.” You may be reminded of Peter’s admonition to “constant vigilance” (as Mad-Eye Moody would put it). This consistent characterization of sin is that of a predator. Peter conflates Satan and sin as the blood-thirsty lion. Consider this active, prowling picture of sin with the agency, efficiency, and intent of a predator, casting us, humans, as its prey.
1 Peter 5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
So, what is Cain’s cure as the Lord presents it? How can he handle such an
overshadowing and overpowering opponent? Well, God tells Cain he must rule it. This is our second consideration of God’s characterization of sin. God speaks of sin as if it can be dominated, as if the struggle against it can be won. Can Cain master his sin? The narrative does not describe a struggle. Instead, the very next scene shows sin mastering Cain as he sends Abel to the grave. Cain has become a predator. Sin completed its will. But what would have happened if Cain warred against his sin? Can sin be beaten? That seems to be the possibility of the prayerful life, attentive to God, steeped in his presence. We will close with a reflection on that in a moment, but listen to Paul describe his own internal struggle.
Romans 7:21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Does Paul’s exasperation sound familiar? Any of us who have tried (as perhaps Cain had not) to wage war on our sinful nature have found equal fatigue. Paul characterizes this internal struggle as a war between two natures - a sinful one and a righteous one. So there, even in our very selves, we find the Enemy at work, feeding on our compromised humanity, our fallen state. We collaborate with the Enemy as we allow his footholds in our sinful nature, indulging our self-preserving desires. Even we who war against our sin find ourselves battle-fatigued, “wretched” as Paul puts it. We who have two natures within ourselves join the lament of Paul - and Gollum, “Yess, wretched we are!”
In a biography written by Athanasius of Alexandria, a monk known as Anthony of Egypt told of a terrifying event, an intense encounter with a demon. After the trial, he lamented to God that the Lord seemed absent during his most trying moment of spiritual warfare. In response, he heard God say, “Anthony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight…” (Readings in World Christian History, Vol. 1). Maybe this is the truth of the matter, that God wants us to fight alongside him in the war within. The Bible itself is rich with imagery of spiritual warfare. Of the most vivid and direct counsel on the topic, we find again the words of Paul. And its all about getting ready to fight alongside God.
Ephesians 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
While we are not at all minimizing a doctrine of grace or the work of Christ on the cross, it seems that God invites us into the struggle. Not to win it on our own, but to participate in his victory. You and I both know we cannot beat Sin the Devourer or our own sinful nature on our own. But we can struggle against it covered in the presence of God, his armor, his strength. This well-worn hymn helps us pray Paul’s imagery on the battlefield.
Be Thou my buckler, sword for my fight, Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight. Thou my soul's shelter, Thou my high tower. Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
So, let’s return to our opening observations about facing God, about his presence. Cain’s defeat began at the falling of his face, when he broke his attentiveness to God in shame. The best way to approach spiritual warfare, sanctification, and the struggle against sin is facing God, bathing yourself in his adoring, empowering, and gracious presence. So, let’s take an inventory on our spiritual practices, the things that keep us attentive to God.
Journal the ways you spend time with God. How can you stay in his presence, gazing at his face as an equipping measure against sin? How can you go to God when you feel your "face fall" and the temptation to withdraw from him? Share the ways you have "face time" with God and help out your siblings in Christ in the process. The struggle against sin requires your effort, your attending to God’s empowering presence. Are you up for the battle?