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The first parents in the universe had raised their two sons to adulthood. Cain, the older, went into his father’s profession, tilling the soil. The younger, Abel, became a shepherd. Now they were old enough to bring an offering to the Lord. But the Lord did not look with equal favor on the two offerings. For the one, he “had regard.” For the other, he “had no regard.” The writer to the Hebrews tells us why the Lord looked favorably on the one and rejected the other. Only Abel offered his by faith.

What should Adam and Eve have said to their son, Cain, when he brought the wrong sacrifice? Should they have said anything? Perhaps they knew by that time from experience that Cain was answerable to his God alone. Cain, old enough to till the soil, aware enough of his creatureliness to bring an offering to the God of the soil, was smart enough to know God’s requirement on his manhood. He refused to give it. God would have to be satisfied with this. But God was not.

What should Adam and Eve have done? What did they wish they had done, wringing their hands and covering their faces in disbelief and horror when their son murdered their son? Two sons—lost. What, they must have asked themselves in the long years, should we have done? What could we have said? Did we warn him enough about God’s judgment? Cain, you are angry! It’s God you are mad at, not Abel.

God did not appear to hold Adam and Eve responsible for the sin of their adult son. They were responsible for bringing sin into the realm of mankind in the first place, yes. For that, they were punished. But not for Cain’s sin. He knew what was required of him. He alone was punishable for his sin (Ezek. 18:20). He was a man.

Did Adam and Eve blame their parenting? Did they lie awake, nights, staring into the blackness, tracing every detail of Cain’s upbringing? Did we spank enough? Teach enough? Play enough? Pray enough? Is it ever enough? This one always tested the limits. He just wanted to get by, play this charade of obedience, but his heart wasn’t in it. We should have recognized it. Eve, you should have! You tested the limits yourself! Whoa, wait a minute, Adam! You flat-out disobeyed! Besides, he’s the son most like you. Out in the fields with you, learning the trade. Did you ever talk about things? Did you think he’d just figure it out on his own? Did you tell him you hid from God once? Cringed when he called your name? Did you warn him of the consequences of going his own way? Well, did you?

What about blaming God? It would have been the logical thing to blame God for not warning Abel that his brother was about to murder him. God warned Cain. He knew sin was crouching at the door, ready to master Cain, ready to accomplish the deed that was festering in his heart. But once he’d warned Cain, he let him go. He saw Cain approach Abel. He did not intervene. He did not alter circumstances so that murder would be averted. He let Abel be killed. He let our son die! He let our son commit murder! But he gave us these sons! He told us to be fruitful and multiply!

Cain knew God from childhood on. God was, so-to-speak, his midwife (Gen. 4:1). He grew up with God around. As an adult, at least, he had personal, individual contact with the Creator. He was right there, no farther away than an audible voice, perhaps even a visible presence. So how did Cain miss it? Where did he go wrong? Why couldn’t he be like his brother?

Given the effects of sin in Eden—the cursed ground, the trouble and sweat to earn a living—Cain still had everything he needed to live a life pleasing to God. But evil had entered the world in that first nuclear family unit.

No cry for help appears to have escaped from Cain—no “Save me from myself! Stop me from murdering my brother!” Further, once the deed was done, no remorse and no repentance. Instead of pleading for forgiveness, Cain complained to God about his unfair treatment. And because God was unfair, Cain would, in effect, kill God too. He would turn his back on his Creator. “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord” (Gen. 4:16). Condemned to a life of wandering, away from Eden, away from his parents, away from God, beginning all over again, without roots, without identity, without continuity.

Wandering Children, Reasons for Hope

Why does God allow grown children to wander from the path their parents set them on? God may have been Cain’s midwife, but Cain was born of Eve. The bent of independence was in his nature. For all their teaching and training, pleading and praying, Adam and Eve could not themselves make a son born in sin into a righteous son. Neither did God lay that responsibility on them.

What do we learn from Cain? Is there any hopeful news for parents of unrepentant adult children?

The story of Cain offers us at least two reasons for hope. One is found in the mark God put on Cain: “And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, lest anyone finding him should slay him” (Gen. 4:15). This is a curious act by God, who will later require “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and “from every man’s brother I will require the life of man . . . for in the image of God, he made man” (Gen. 9:5,6).

Perhaps God was giving Cain more time. A vagrant and a wanderer, cast out of God’s presence, might he not have come to his senses as did the prodigal in Jesus’ story? Later in the history of God’s people, he would cast a whole nation from his presence, only to promise to restore them yet in the future (see Jer. 7:15, 15:1, 2 Kin. 17:20). It is not impossible to think that God may have had future repentance in mind for Cain, and future restoration.

The second ray of hope lies in God’s unmediated dealing with Cain as an adult, as a man, as an individual face to face with his Creator. Perhaps God himself will warn our children as he warned Cain. Likely not in an audible voice. Or at least, not with his audible voice. Perhaps he will use the voice of a member of the body of Christ. If I am following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, perhaps my voice will be used to warn your child, to help him with his doubt, to snatch him out of the fire (Jude 22, 23). Perhaps God will use your voice with mine.

What about using my voice with my adult child? In Jesus’ classic story of the prodigal son, we have no indication that the father attempted to avert his son’s departure. He appears neither to have pleaded nor preached. He even gave him the inheritance money, making it easy for him to leave. Why did he not say, “Wait for the normal course of things—like when I die—and you’ll get your cash. If you want to leave, you’re on your own.” I’m aware of wise parents who’ve said much the same thing.

Instead, this father “divided his wealth between them.” He appears to have chosen this moment to demonstrate to his two sons that they were now adults and could rightfully claim their share of what would eventually come to them in any case. The older son, prudent and loyal, had no thought yet of striking out on his own. He had work on his father’s farm, room and board, and now, this nest egg. He was satisfied, so far, with the arrangement.

But the prodigal, the recklessly wasteful one, threw it all over and even, in the end, threw the money away on his lifestyle.

What was the father to do? Yes, they were adults, these boys. And the father knew his two sons. He might have predicted that this son would be wasteful and unwise. He must have decided that holding tight reins for a while longer was not going to tame this son or improve his attitude—but could he have known that he would be gone from home for years? Could he have imagined the extent to which his son would plunge into unsavory nightlife that would truly waste him? Waste his great potential? Waste the prime years of his young manhood?

We can be assured the father grieved all these things. ‘This son of mine was dead . . . this brother of yours was dead” (Luke 15:24). He grieved for his son who was beyond his reach, his advice, the longings of his heart which yearned, daily, for his boy. All the fatherly dreams wrapped up in this second son—this son was as good as dead. The depth of the father’s grief over the lost son can be sensed in the corresponding joy when he “has been found.”

Grieving, this father nevertheless waited and watched.

And that is the key: the Father is watching. Certainly, God did not cease watching Cain when he went out from his presence. He knew Cain’s address (Gen. 4:17). The human father in the story of the prodigal could not watch in the same way. But he saw his son coming as soon as his form appeared over the horizon.

The Father knows my child’s address. He knows your child’s.

Though we are certainly to raise the children growing up in our home “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), we cannot give them salvation. It was never ours to give. Yes, the will of my son or daughter, and your son or daughter, is involved, as Cain’s was. Can you or I, who struggle with our own self-wills, be expected to change our children’s? We, too, are answerable to God, but only for our own wills, our own sins. If my adult children are answerable to God alone, then it is his voice that must do the speaking, his Spirit who must do the convicting, wooing their hearts to repentance. If he does use my voice, it will be only at those times when my will and my voice correspond to his. That puts a check on my voice.

But not on my prayers! Even there, however, Jesus told us to pray in secret. My prayers must not be ill-disguised attempts to preach to my children. I am to pray for them in private, with the door shut. I am to pray to my Father, “who sees in secret,” and Jesus promised that the Father “will reward” (Matt. 6:6).

We do not know the end of Cain’s story. We do not know the end of our children’s stories. But we have a Father who is watching in places we cannot watch, who warns in ways we cannot warn. Surely we can trust the Father who grieves over a lost child and rejoices over a found one to work as only he can work.  Let us, as we grieve and pray, also praise and hope.

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