Guilt and Repentance 1

Cain Kills Abel by Gustave Doré - Cain's guilt and shame

In the Beginning There Was Shame

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, shame entered the world when Eve and Adam ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When you don’t know right from wrong, you can live in blissful ignorance. Once you do, any manner of behavior can leave you feeling embarrassed. Indeed, the very nature of your being can embarrass you, as the original couple discovered once they’d tasted the fruit. They realized they were naked and scurried to find leaves so they could cover themselves.

Shame and guilt can be difficult to tell apart. On a simple level, guilt is the belief that we’ve done something wrong and shame is the belief that something is inherently wrong with us. Typically, when we feel guilty, we are motivated to make things right. When we feel ashamed, we want to hide. As we try to protect ourselves from the realization of our essential sinfulness, we avoid taking responsibility, we blame others, we even attack them.

Interestingly, the term “sin” is not used in the story of Adam and Eve. It doesn’t show up until Cain murders his brother, Abel. Nonetheless, the original couple show all the signs of shame: they try to cover themselves, they hide from God, they blame one another and lie. Yet they don’t seem to feel guilt. That is left to Cain who experiences a guilt so intense it rends his soul.

Cain Kills Abel by Gustave Doré - Cain's guilt and shame

The First Murder

As the story goes, the brothers have different occupations. Abel keeps sheep; Cain tills the ground. Cain makes an offering to God, giving Him some of his crops. Abel offers God “the firstlings of his flock” (NRSV Gen 4:4). For an unexplained reason, God likes Abel’s gift, but doesn’t like Cain’s. Perhaps Cain’s offering was of poor quality, or maybe he was trying to gain standing in God’s eyes rather than giving from his heart. Who knows? God does what he wants, and we don’t always get to understand why.

Nonetheless, Cain takes God’s snub personally and feels hurt, so he gets angry. In response, God replies, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (NRSV Gen 4:7).

God personifies sin as if it were a rabid beast or a villain. Apparently sin has always been there, yet Cain is the first person to yield to its vicious call. Luring Abel into a field, he kills him. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain speaks his famous line: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

With anger of His own, God chastises Cain, declaring that the soil is tainted by Abel’s blood. Then He lists the consequences of Cain’s action: no longer will the ground grow food for him, he will wander the earth, and he will be separated from God. One definition of sin is being separated from the holy.

Cain Cries Out

When he hears his fate, Cain is distraught. In the NRSV translation, he cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” (NRSV Gen 4:13), implying that his concern is for himself. Yet, he also mourns being driven from the soil he loves and bemoans being “hidden” from God’s “face” (NRSV Gen 4:14). Does this not indicate that Cain desires connection with the earth and with God Himself?

Cain does fear for his own safety. Somehow he knows he deserves to die, and he’s afraid that, as a fugitive, he will be slain by any who meet him. Therefore, God gives him the “mark of Cain,” identifying him as a murderer, yes, but also protecting him.

Cain’s response is complex. On the one hand, he’s frantic about his own safety and doesn’t seem to care a bit about his dead brother. On the other hand, he seems to love the land and desire God. Yet where’s his guilt? Where’s his desire to repent and make things better? If he has no remorse, why does God not smite him dead?

We don’t know. Cain goes on to get married, have children, and found a city. Apparently God has a purpose for Cain. Or, maybe God forgives him because He knows that taking life destroys the one who takes it. Perhaps God doesn’t want one more life to end, especially at His own hand.

In our anger, we sometimes assume that justice requires a life for a life. In the book Genesis, which is a collection of conversations about Genesis, the author Mary Gordon says that if we insist on vengeance, “justice is both necessary and impossible,” because the desire for vengeance “obliterates the possibility of a good life.” [1]

Perhaps not even God wants obliterate that possibility.

Guilt and Remorse

Or does God feel a little guilty? After all, wasn’t he a bit arbitrary? Why like one offering more than another? Of course, we don’t know, and maybe it doesn’t matter. This story isn’t about how to make a proper offering. It’s about how we let our emotions overwhelm us, and it is about God’s mercy.

Yet maybe God offered grace to Cain because the young man showed true remorse.

The line often translated as “My punishment is too great to bear,” actually means something else. The rabbi, Burton L. Visotzky, explains that in Hebrew, the scripture reads, ‘Gadol avoni miniso,’ which means “My sin, my iniquity, is too great to bear.” Apparently, Cain can’t stand the torment of what he’s done. “This is,” Visotzky says, “a guy with enormous feelings of guilt.”[2]

Cain may have been the first, but he is certainly not the last to experience unbearable guilt. In the book War and the Soul, Edward Tick describes the agony many combat soldiers experience when they fail to protect the buddies they love or when they themselves take a life. “The soul freezes on this moral crisis point,” he writes. When a soldier has killed, especially once he realizes that the person he killed was just as human as he, his soul almost always cries out, “I have become foul and cannot get clean again.” [3]

The Shattered Soul

Cain, too, has become foul. The earth will no longer accept his touch, and the mark on his body will never go away. His guilt is overwhelming. When we betray our essential understanding of right and wrong, especially when we commit a grievous sin like murder, our souls shatter. We can barely stand to live in the world. Many veterans isolate, drink or use other drugs, gamble, erupt in frequent rages, and engage in frantic sex as if the life-affirming nature of human intimacy could somehow erase the shame they feel.

Yet love is missing from this kind of sex, so life is not affirmed, but is further destroyed. The rending soul injury that combat veterans face not only shatters their soul, but shatters their connection with the earth, with their loved ones, and with the divine. In scripture, God hides himself from Cain. Such wounded veterans are more like Adam and Eve, hiding themselves from God. Yet neither Cain nor the veteran can bear the loneliness they experience.

Still, Cain is not alone forever. At some point, his devastation lifts. Otherwise, how could he go on to make a family and create a city? Yet how does Cain get past the horror of what he did?


That’s where repentance comes in. The 12-step process of making amends can be helpful, especially if we first develop a healing connection with a power greater than ourselves. When we feel supported and loved by that power, we can look at who we are and what we’ve done without falling apart. Although it may seem our essential nature is tainted, if we can reach out to a loving force that is greater than ourselves, we can begin to experience the grace and mercy that will make us whole again.

Reaching out to that higher power can be the challenge, however. Since shame and guilt can be intolerable, we try to cover them up. We allow anger, jealousy, pride, and self-righteousness to get out of control. We cling to addictions.

To free ourselves, we have to be willing to let go of our indignation, to recognize our own failings, and to release of our craving for vengeance. We need to find a core of mercy within ourselves. Mercy for the other; mercy for us. Giving up our anger, our shame, our guilt, is very difficult.

Yet, as Tick reminds us, we will never find relief if we keep trying to avoid our pain. Having plunged ourselves into the Underworld by committing the sinful act that caused our soul to split, we become lost. To heal, we must be willing to go down there again. Yet this time, instead of going alone, we can travel there in our imaginations, with a guide, surrounded by community. “Thus protected, the heart can feel what was forbidden to feel in the war zone and return to life again.” [4]

Restoring What We’ve Destroyed

Facing the Underworld is the beginning. To continue to heal, we must find a way to “[r]estore what we have taken.” [5] Obviously, Abel will never walk the earth again, yet Cain can create new life, support others, minister to the sick or dying, build a community that nurtures and heals. In this way, he can repent and make amends.

Perhaps you can’t relate to this. After all, not many of us have killed someone. Indeed, perhaps you can’t think of anything you’ve done to hurt another. If so, congratulations. For the rest of us, we who do stupid, thoughtless, defensive, awkward, and rude things on a daily basis, guilt can feel like a curse, even if our sin was far milder than murder.

Regardless of our transgressions, we can choose to release our defenses, face the truth of who we are in both our ugliness and our magnificence, and walk through the Underworld until we find our way back home again. The choice to move through the darkness is the first step toward healing, and the choice to make amends can bring us peace of mind, return brightness to the world, and mend our souls.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Gordon, Mary, “The First Murder,” Bill Moyers, Genesis, New York: Doubleday, 1996, 74.
  2. Visotzky, Burton, “The First Murder, 87.
  3. Tick, Edward, War and the Soul, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2005, 115.
  4. Ibid 194.
  5. Ibid 282.

Painting by Gustave Doré, from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain

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