“Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I have become worn out, is there to be pleasure for me?’”—Genesis 18:12*
That was Sarah’s question to herself, laughing with a mixture of disbelief and longing at a stranger’s promise that sounded unrealistic, especially at this worn-out stage in her life.
At this worn-out stage in our life together, we too can’t help laughing with a mixture of disbelief and longing at promises that sound unrealistic: “[This virus is] going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” Yeah. Right. If only!
And why shouldn’t we laugh? We have every reason to laugh dismissively when the one making the promise is an outrageously self-aggrandizing, demonstrably compulsive liar—not to name names, or anything.
But what if the one making the promise turns out to have extraordinary abilities—like knowing you had laughed silently while out of sight? Is anything too wonderful for this stranger? Could this promising stranger be God? Sarah starts to worry and tries to take back her laughter. But it’s too late—“You did too laugh,” says the stranger, who indeed does turn out to be God, we’re told.
So it turns out that this unrealistic–sounding promise is God’s promise. But still, God’s promise or not, why not laugh anyway? Abraham laughed too, before Sarah did. For Abraham and Sarah, this is the sixth time God has made that promise over several decades. It seems way overdue now, in fact, impossible.
Were they really around a century old? We’re not really talking about historical details. We’re talking about an honest reaction to a promise that keeps getting postponed—laughter, laughter that mixes disbelief with longing. And we need to see this sort of laughter, not as an interruption of faith, but as an essential component.
The New Testament loves to present Abraham as the model of faith (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). But we tend to overlook how Abraham’s faith was a contentious faith (more here). And we also tend to overlook how the Hebrew word that’s usually translated as “believed” (he’emin) is more accurately translated as “persisted with.”
Faith, for Abraham, is not blindly trusting but contentiously persisting with a deferred promise. And that’s what faith means for Sarah too—contentiously persisting with a deferred promise.
Sarah deserves as much credit for modeling faith as Abraham ever got. “After I have become worn out, is there to be pleasure for me?” Listen, not just to the disbelief in that question, but to the persistent longing it expresses.
Now back to where we are—like Sarah we are worn out, worn out by a virus that is definitely not going to disappear, worn out by forms of racism so entrenched that we fear even our open resistance of the past few weeks will somehow be neutralized, worn out by one disappointment after another.
If I or somebody else starts to speak of better days to come, how can we not laugh, laugh the way Sarah laughed, mixing disbelief with longing?
Feel free to do just that. That sort of laughter is an expression of faith, the faith that sustained Sarah and Abraham and their descendants all the way down to us. That laughter freed them to persist contentiously with a deferred promise.
That’s why, when their long-overdue son finally did arrive, they named him “laughter.”
*Translation adapted from Everett Fox (trans.), The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995).