Adam raised a Cain: When our children break our heart…

Posted by on Feb 5, 2016 in Blog | 8 comments

Don’t know if you are familiar with the Bruce Springsteen classic, Adam Raised a Cain, with its haunting closing lines, ‘Lost but not forgotten, from the dark heart of a dream, Adam raised a Cain.’ For those less familiar with the biblical story behind these lyrics, the song explains it in these words, In the Bible Cain slew Abel And East of Eden he was cast, You’re born into this life paying, for the sins of somebody else’s past.

They are tough lines… Sin enters the world through Adam. It impacts his children, and one outcome is that his firstborn son Cain kills his younger brother Abel. Adam raised a Cain… and he was a Cain because of the original sin of Adam. Fine to say that cerebrally – yeah, I understand that I am both a sinner and sinned against, but how about when that comes home much more poignantly, and you are one of the parents who has to look at your offspring and say ‘I think I raised a Cain.’ And of course you ask yourself, ‘Was it my fault?‘ How did Adam and Eve feel that terrible day when they were confronted with the horror of what their son Cain had done to their other son – and at that stage they only had the two children (Gen 4:25).

That the Bible’s opening snapshot of family life should be so painful, reflects its awareness that family does not always run to plan, and indeed, barely a chapter goes by in Genesis without significant family flaws and family pain being uncovered.

So what can we say to Parents in Pain (to cite the title of John White’s still useful though now fairly old, book on this topic)? And incidentally, if you prefer to consult some more current books on this theme, here are a few that are worthwhile… Coleman’s Parents with Broken Hearts, Parsons Bringing Home the Prodigals and Barnier’s Engaging Today’s Prodigal.

First I guess we need to note that the pain of parenting can come from many different sources. It can be because your child does not fit in, and is terribly unhappy. Or your child might have abandoned the Christian faith. Or it could be that there are some mental health issues, or addiction issues, or some deeply unacceptable behaviours. They might face a health crisis or some worrying disability. Sometimes our children are in loveless marriages, or going through painful divorces or are acting irresponsibly, or have turned against us and refuse to have contact any more. They might be unemployed and even be unemployable. Sexual orientation might be an issue. Perhaps they are in prison, or you worry that they might soon be. Sometimes it is more subtle… nothing deeply wrong, but we know we are being quietly ignored and really no longer have any role in their life.

What can we say to parents in pain – though it is as well to note that often silence is better than saying something, and quietly listening can be the most helpful gift we offer. But if words are appropriate, here are some things to think through.

  1. You are not alone. It is simply the truth. The pages of the Bible are filled with the stories of broken family life. It is not just Adam who raised a Cain. Esau wanted to kill his brother Jacob – and Jacob was hardly flawless. Joseph’s brothers initially planned to kill him, and then sold him into slavery instead. King David’s son Absalom tried to steal the throne from his father, and would happily have killed him if he had been able to. He lost his life in the struggle that followed. For David, that heartbreak never really went. These stories are in the Bible because the Bible reflects life. And it reflects the life of families in our churches. If you are one for whom family is a source of great pain, you are not alone.
  2. God is not into blaming. When something goes wrong, the default of most people is to ask, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Very painful self condemnation often follows. Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind from birth is liberating. Those around were determined to link the man’s blindness to sin, and so asked, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents?’ Jesus replies that it was neither. Rather, this is about God’s work being displayed (John 9:1-3). We can debate about just what Jesus means, but at the very least it suggests that rather than assuming blame and guilt, we should quietly hope that God will work even in the midst of circumstances that seem impossible. Sometimes a key part of God’s work is to provide the strength to endure, even though we almost certainly are asking for a resolution to the problem. Sometimes both come – a long endurance, and then a breakthrough when we no longer expect it. Ultimately it is up to God, but what we can be sure of is that God does not abandon us, and is always at work.
  3. God knows the pain of parenthood. God knows what it is like to have rebellious children.. for we are the children of God and yet rebel against God’s will all too regularly. Though Jesus never rebelled against God, the Father had to watch the painful – no agonising (words really cannot describe the horror of Calvary) death of His Son. God knows what it is like to be a parent who suffers.
  4. Sometimes you have to leave home so that you can truly return home. Though it seems a trite thing to say at the time, the truth is that many people have to leave home so that they can ultimately return. It is the story of the prodigal son. If he never left home, he would never truly have come home. You see it in his older brother. Superficially the one who never leaves home, he is never really at home. But the prodigal who returns is truly home. Sometimes our children need to try out radically different voices to our own so that they can discover their own authentic voice. It might takes a while, but when they find that voice, it often harmonises with our own.
  5. It can take a while to love the adult version of our children. They say that all children die, and most don’t get a funeral… They just grow up. While the adult version of some people is not really that different to their childhood version, for others it can be radically different. It can be hard to believe that the ruthless adult of today was once the sensitive child eager to please, and desperate to help with everything. Many parents agonise, ‘where did my little  boy (or girl) go?’ But one thing they know – they don’t see signs of the child they miss in the adult now before them. It can hurt dreadfully, especially when the childhood version was so much more winsome. Sometimes we have to ask God to help us to give thanks for the child that was – the child who still causes us to smile when we remember their funny foibles and spontaneous demonstrations of love. But we also have to ask God’s help to let those memories recede so that instead of always thinking of what we have lost, we can begin to see what we now have. And sometimes the adult version of our children is better than we acknowledge – we just need to look at them in a slightly different way.
  6. Acknowledge what your children aren’t, but don’t forget to spot what they are… This links to the previous point. So often we spend so much time grieving what isn’t, that we fail to spot what it.
  7. Actually, what other people think is not that important. This can be really important to remember, and sadly can be especially relevant to those who are part of a church community. Because church communities have such high ideals and aspirations, it can be excruciatingly difficult to have to say in such a community, ‘My Billy is in prison’ or ‘My Dee has never been able to overcome her heroin addiction.’ I’ve had parents say to me, ‘How can I say that when most of the parents in this church are saying, “my son is a missionary doctor in Pakistan” or “my daughter is a human rights lawyer”?’ In reality, when we are open about what we face, most of the church community will rally around with support and love and encouragement. But every now and then (and sometimes more than now and then) there will be those who condemn (if you had been a better Christian parent this would never have happened). Best to ignore such people, and to be grateful that God understands a whole lot better than some of his sillier followers.
  8. It is not over until it’s over. Really, it isn’t. Never stop praying… as if you could.
  9. And if it is over. What if you have to say, ‘actually, it is over. He died of the overdose.’ Or, ‘No, the brain damage is irreversible. No going back to how it was… and no point in denying the obvious.’ Sometimes we just have to leave it with God. Without God there is no hope. But God’s love stretches beyond the grave. Only eternity can show just what that means.
  10. And love conquers all. Sometimes we might need to engage in tough love, but love is always the currency of parenting. Never ration it, or threaten to withdraw it. And I can’t think of any exceptions to that. So if he tells you he is about to move in with his boyfriend, or you notice that yet again another fifty dollar bill is missing, or another dinner date is cancelled, or you just know they are lying to you or… well, you know the kinds of scenarios you face… love keeps on loving, and in the end, love conquers all.

Adam raised a Cain. It happened to the world’s first parent – and perhaps it has happened to you as well. And if not, spare a prayer for those for whom it has – and do whatever love calls you to do.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Brian, what struck me as I read this post was that your outline of what to say to parents in pain follows the stages of grief parents go through as they begin to realise that they have raised a Cain. There is wisdom to be learned here in offering comfort. “Above all, love” is key. Parents in pain need to know from others that God is love and that God’s love is immediately and always accessible even in the darkest of moments. And then those who offer comfort can benefit from understanding at what stage or place of grief parents in pain are in. In the early days parents in pain just need to know that they are loved and that they are not alone … Those early days and months are not times to be offered longer term perspectives that can only come as parents mature in their grief and acceptance of what has happened. Loving comfort can help parents move towards “it’s not over till it’s over” but it is a slow and often circuitous process.

    • Really helpful insights there. Thanks Tania.

  2. Brian thank you for your article on Adam raised a Cain. So enlightening and just what I needed.

    • Thanks Merle. Very good to hear from you after all these years.

  3. Great opening lines.
    Wonderful words of wisdo.

    • Thanks Gordon.

  4. Thanks Brian
    Loving your children comes at a cost as you have pointed out. What i find hard is that I simply don’t understand my children’s behaviour. Even when I was seriously ill, they did not care. It would have been so reassuring to have their support but their absence only added to the pain of ill health. I feel I have failed them. I didn’t teach them the values that I was blessed to have been taught. Now I don’t know what to do except to pray. Jesus often taught about the power of prayer and the patience a parent has to have. The story of the prodigal son comes to mind. How much must that father have suffered.

    • Praying, patiently waiting and modelling a different option is often the best approach. Thanks for sharing, and strength as you wait during this tough season.


  1. Adam Raised a Cain: Reflections for Parents in Pain - Brian Harris - […] in 2016 I wrote a post, Adam Raised A Cain, reflecting on the sadness of the Genesis 4:1-16 account…

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