So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
The other morning I found myself transfixed by a little-known movie called Bigger Than Life (1956). James Mason plays a teacher diagnosed with arterial inflammation and given weeks to live. He consents to experimental treatment with cortisone, a new human steroid with miraculous powers. It helps his condition, but warps his mind. He becomes egomaniacal and scathingly abusive to his wife and young son. I couldn’t believe it—a 50’s film about ‘roid rage! As the picture went on, I detected Old Testament shades of Abraham I couldn’t pin down. Other than centering on husbands whose unexpected midlife changes turn their lives upside down, the stories had nothing in common. Then, at Bigger Than Life’s climax, the connection fixes itself. Without spoiling the end, it defines Mason’s character as an anti-Abraham, a modest man monstrously bent on destroying his family by a drug-induced God complex. While the film doesn’t exact retribution for this, it finishes on a tragic note. The ordeal changes his gentle wife into a suspicious, snappish mate. Afterward, my mind kept drifting to this woman, comparing her to Abraham’s wife, Sarah. While she faces realities of her husband’s protracted withdrawal and likelihood he’ll never return to himself, Sarah’s midlife change is so unrealistic, merely thinking about it makes her laugh.
Abraham’s faith and obedience afford him such towering presence it’s easy to forget Sarah’s an enthralling character in her own right. While his tale brims with adventure, disappointments riddle her story. She’s unable to bear children. Married into a family of restless men, she never settles in one place for very long. Early on, she joins Abraham as he, his father, and his nephew, Lot, leave home for Canaan, a rich and lovely land. Alas, that doesn’t work out. The father takes a liking to a community en route to Canaan and the couple ends up growing into middle-aged prosperity there. Then Abraham announces God’s sending them to Canaan, where he’ll father a nation to inherit the land. The wildest imagination can’t conceive Sarah greeting this with “That’s great, honey! When do we leave?”
Canaan amounts to one disappointment after another. With Lot tagging along, the couple futilely searches for a place to live. Famine drives them to Egypt, where Pharaoh, smitten with Sarah, kidnaps her and Abraham steals her back. Lot relocates near Sodom, gets in trouble with the king, risks his family’s safety, and loses his wife in a firestorm of wrath. One of Sarah’s maids bears Abraham’s son, humiliating her and creating problems in her marriage. Year after year, crisis after crisis, she must wonder, “How long can this drag on? Where’s this nation?” Yet despite the letdowns and dead ends, she stays true to Abraham, trusting him as he trusts God. So far, she’s not been asked to believe for herself. That changes when she overhears Abraham talking to three strangers in their garden. Unaware they’re divine messengers, she hears this: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” The notion is too nuts to entertain. She’s never been able to conceive and even if she had, she’s long past menopause. So Sarah laughs and puts it out of her mind—until she gets pregnant with Isaac.
We might chastise Sarah for giggling at God’s promise were it not for its whopping size and her integrity as a faithful wife. Having lived on promises for decades, it’s completely understandable another one—especially one so preposterously over-the-top about her—would trigger laughter. There are many colors in that laugh, though, a subtle mingling of incredulity, surprise, fatigue, absurdity, confusion, worry, and anxiety. Those last two aspects are particularly poignant, as they reflect Sarah’s care for Abraham. While she tries to dismiss the promise as beyond belief, she knows he accepts it full-bore. He’ll expect what she’s physically unable to do. After supporting him without pause, she’s been set up to let him down. Her laughter masks nervous questions she prefers not to ask: Why me? Why this? Why now? Why not sooner? She walks away before the messenger asks the one question worth considering: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Genesis 18.14)
Can you feel Sarah? So often life feels strung out on promises, promises. What we most hope for falls beyond our grasp. Before we settle down to enjoy some stability, we’re swept up by unanticipated pursuits. We get captivated by new admirers and tugged away by old ones. People we take into our hearts repay us by falling into trouble or taunting our inadequacies. We’re faithful to a fault, yet the more we give, the more absurd expectations get. And when God shows up with a whopper, promising success where we’ve always failed, it sounds like more the same, tempting us to laugh and walk away. But we should hang around, because He has a question. Is there anything too hard for Me? Those are His promises we trust. His plan guides us. What’s inconceivable for us is laughable to Him. If God’s opening closed doors for us, why laugh and walk away, when we can enter laughing?
We can laugh at God’s promises because they're impossible for us or laugh because nothing's impossible for Him.