Thank God I was a Coward

When I started college, one of the first things I did was rededicate my life to the Lord Jesus Christ. It did not turn out like I expected.

I had a couple of friends from high school at that college. Hanging out with them led me to a fraternity. I pledged and made it through. One of my fraternity brothers, Dave, was an atheist. He respected my faith but made it clear any efforts to convert him would be wasted, except he made this challenge. Another fraternity brother (Paul) was legally blind. Dave said if I healed Paul, he would believe.

Most of us have at least heard stories of Jesus and the disciples healing sick people just by laying hands on them, making the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. Dave certainly had heard those stories, even if he didn’t believe them. Have you ever wondered why we don’t see anyone performing miracles like that today? If God did it then, why not now? If you had asked me back then, I would have repeated what I heard from my favorite televangelists. People stopped believing in miracles and divine healing, so the gifts of healing and miracles the Bible talks about dried up. In other words, it only works if you believe in it.

I was involved in a movement of Christianity called the Word of Faith. Today, it’s more likely to be called “Prosperity Gospel,” but I think Word of Faith is more accurate. Here is their view of faith and how it works is based on this passage from the Gospel of Mark.

For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

(Mar 11:22-24 KJV)

You have to believe and not doubt. No doubt. Even a mustard seed of doubt will stop you from receiving what you pray for. You must believe you receive what you pray for when you pray—not some time in the future, right now. If you believe you receive it when you pray, you will have it. So when you pray for healing, do you believe your body, do you believe what you see, do you believe your symptoms, do you believe the doctors, or do you believe the Word of God that says by his stripes you are healed (Isa 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24)?

You also have this definition of faith from the book of Hebrews.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

(Heb 11:1 KJV)

Faith is what gives substance to your prayers. Faith is like the God Particle that causes prayers to manifest into reality. The more your faith grows, the greater things you can manifest. So when you say it and believe it (hence the label “word of faith”), and do not doubt but believe what you say will come to pass, your faith will manifest it into physical reality. That is how you receive healing, according to the Word of Faith. That is how you get your prayers answered. Growing in faith means being able to manifest more and more what you pray for. And don’t look for evidence. Faith is the evidence.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like “the Secret” or similar philosophy that says you create your own reality, because whatever you think, believe, and/or desire will manifest in your life, you are right. The difference is they use believing and saying in place of thought and desire. In fact, one of the pioneers of the Word of Faith movement copied directly from E.W. Kenyon, the founder of New Thought, which formed the basis of the Secret and other similar philosophies.

So going back to Dave’s challenge, the question was whether my faith had grown to the point where I could manifest healing for Paul, the same way Jesus manifested healing for a man born blind (John 9). But I didn’t want to tell Dave I wasn’t sure I believed in gifts of healing, so I said something about not being filled with the Holy Spirit yet.

Why was that important? One of my Word of Faith preachers used this analogy. When you are born again, you have the authority to use the name of Jesus, who has been given authority over all of heaven and earth (Mat 28:18). When you come up against sickness and disease, you have authority over it like a traffic cop. When the cop holds up his hand for the car to stop, the car stops because he has authority behind him. But what if one driver defies that authority and drives through anyway? The cop does not have the power to stop the car. Now imagine that cop is inside a Sherman tank. If he says stop, he not only has the authority of the city behind him. He has the power to blow you out of the road if you don’t. That’s the difference being filled with the Spirit makes.

When I heard that, I was like, I’ve got to have that. After you get filled with the Holy Spirit, they said, you have to speak in tongues. But even after I started speaking in tongues, I still wasn’t sure I was ready to heal him. Especially since I could not manifest healing for myself. I had a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which causes intense abdominal pain and diarrhea at random times. I did what they told me. I did not believe my symptoms—no matter how painful. I spoke only healing, not sickness or pain. Through gritted teeth I kept saying, “By his stripes I am healed. By his stripes I am healed. By his stripes I am healed.” No matter how bad my symptoms, no matter how bad the pain, I refused to speak doubt or consider my symptoms. I only considered the word of God that says, “By his stripes I am healed.”

Eventually, it would subside, as happens with IBS. But each attack just showed I didn’t have enough faith to manifest healing for my own condition. How could my faith manifest healing for blindness? As I got closer to graduation, I couldn’t see the path to healing Paul and thus convincing my atheist friend that God was real.

I got to my final semester. Time was running out. If I was going to help Paul receive his sight, I had until the end of the semester. I had received the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, so I didn’t have that excuse anymore. But I still had way too little confidence and too much doubt. So I prayed more than usual. I went through the reasons why I was afraid. I had a conversation with the Holy Spirit in my head that went like this.

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“Why are you worried it won’t work? Didn’t I promise in my Word?”

“But I’ve prayed for people to be healed before, and they didn’t get healed.”

“I told you, ‘And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’ (Mar 16:17-18 NRS) Did you lay hands on him?”

“No, but don’t I need permission from him? All the preachers who have taught this say you can’t usurp anyone’s free will.”

“So you need to convince him. Did you tell him how to be saved and healed?”

“No.”

“You need to have that conversation with him then.”

“He might be offended.”

“Did Jesus ever offend people?”

“Yes.”

“Then what makes you think you can follow me without offending people?”

***

Illustration from The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy scolding the Cowardly Lion
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

I was afraid if it didn’t work, it would make God look bad. The Holy Spirit told me to just obey and let God worry about his own reputation. So I had to admit the real reason. I was afraid if it didn’t work, I would look foolish. The Holy Spirit said that was the reason my faith was not working. I had to get to a place where I did not care what people thought of me. I only cared what God thought of me. That was what it took. So I decided then and there when I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, I would obey, even if it was crazy or made me look foolish. I was going to be ready when the Spirit said it was time to have the conversation about being both saved and healed.

That’s another thing about Word of Faith. They claim that if you are born again, you have a right to be healed because the Bible says so. If it’s in the Bible, you have a right to believe and receive it. This was sometimes called, in a derogatory way, “Name it and claim it.” But I didn’t care what the critics said. I only cared what God said.

I prayed and prepared myself to have that conversation. I still had some doubts, so I prayed until I felt no more doubt. And I promised God if the opportunity presented itself, I would not let it slip by, like I had in the past. Then I found out Paul did not return that semester, because he had graduated early. He didn’t tell me. I had to hear it from someone else. I couldn’t believe it. It never occurred to me he would graduate early and leave without saying good bye. I would have been angry with him, except I believed this was orchestrated by the Devil. I must have really been ready to help Paul receive his healing, because the Devil made sure I would never have that opportunity.

I felt so guilty. I never took the opportunities to teach him the way to salvation and healing, because I always assumed I would have another chance. Now I had lost the best chance I had to convince Dave, convince Paul, convince all my fraternity brothers and every student at the school, even some professors, that God was real. Satan must have been laughing at me. It left me feeling like a failure. I had failed Paul, I had failed Jesus, and I had failed my own faith. I was a coward.

That was how I felt then. But …

Since then I have learned a few things that totally changed my perspective.

Faith or Placebo?

I learned that all that time I was beating myself up for not having “enough faith” to get healed or lay hands on people to be well, for not being obedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit, for being afraid of looking foolish, while I saw my favorite televangelists healing people left and right because they weren’t cowards, and they didn’t care what other people thought of them, no one was really getting healed. All those healings I saw, all those people who fell down under the power of the Holy Spirit, were nothing more than a placebo effect.

The placebo effect is when, for example, a boy out in the countryside where medicine is hard to come by breaks his arm. The doctor gives him some pills and says they will kill the pain. The boy takes the pills, and minutes later the pain is all better. The mother asks the doctor what he gave her boy, and it turns out to be sugar pills. How could sugar pills relieve pain? Placebo effect. It worked because the boy believed it would work.

If it works, why should we care if it’s real medicine or a placebo? Here’s where it gets tricky. Some conditions can respond to the placebo effect, and some cannot. In medical terms, functional illnesses can respond to a placebo. Organic illnesses cannot.

When you watch the healing part of these meetings, you will see people on stage who are legally blind and deaf, not totally. You will see the preacher pray then go through demonstrations of Can you see this? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up? Repeat what I say. They respond, and it looks like they are healed. People cheer and shout, Praise the Lord!

The reason you don’t see totally blind or deaf people up there is that is an organic condition. It cannot respond to the placebo effect. I would not have thought partial blindness or deafness is functional. It turns out, though, partial blindness and deafness can respond to the placebo effect. In these meetings, the legally blind and deaf might experience temporary improvement in their seeing or hearing. But when they get home, away from the energy, away from all the talk of faith and expectation of miracles, i.e., away from the placebo, the blindness or deafness returns.

Paul was legally blind. I don’t know all the details, but he could see some things in a fuzzy way. If he got up really close to the television, he could see enough to follow what was happening. He could make out shapes of people but had to rely mostly on the sound of their voice or smell to know who was talking to him. He had a computer that would magnify words to where he could read them, and he could type papers on his computer. That kind of blindness can respond to the placebo effect. Any modern faith healer knows how to use the placebo effect to make it appear they are healed. Here’s a video of someone demonstrating how they do this.

If I had convinced Paul to go to one of these meetings with me, he could have experienced just that. To have him go through that moment of ecstasy when he could see more clearly, and believe that his eyes were being healed, then lose it. And then listen to me or those preachers tell him to resist the Devil, keep believing, don’t give in to the Devil who’s trying to convince him he wasn’t really healed, and nothing come of it. And then have him think this healing thing isn’t real, and therefore God isn’t real. Or like me, come to believe over time that God is real but a cruel prankster, to heal us and then take it away. Thank God I never put him through that just because someone dared me to. In the end, God worked good out of my cowardice.

Admitting that was difficult. It meant letting go of what I thought was proof of God. I realize now it is not my job to prove God’s existence. And even if it is, we are not going to find that proof by clinging to false signs and lying wonders. If Dave asked me again to prove God’s existence somehow, I would just have to admit I can’t. I might have stopped believing in God altogether except for one thing. Jesus and the disciples warned us repeatedly this would happen.

Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.

(Mat 24:4-5 NRS)

And again,

And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.

(Mat 24:11 NRS)

And again,

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’– do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.

(Mat 24:23-24 NRS)

They will produce great signs and omens, and people will think they are anointed. If you say, “I won’t be led astray. I’m saved, sanctified, holy ghost filled, fire baptized. I’ve got Jesus on my side,” he said it was possible for even the elect to be deceived.

And again,

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

(Mat 7:15)

I could go on, but I will just add this for now.

Take note, I have told you beforehand.  

(Mat 24:25 NRS)

He told us beforehand. And not just him. 26 of the 27 books of the New Testament include warnings against false teachers, false prophets, false “anointed ones,” and wolves in sheep’s clothing. I used to think this was very intolerant, to call anyone who disagrees with you a false teacher or false prophet. But if you look at how they are described, the false teachers they condemned were using people’s desperation and sincere desire to please God to defraud them. They used fear and greed to manipulate people. They told them what they wanted to hear in order to exploit them.

“Sow a seed for your need.” That means God will answer your prayers if you give me money.

“Sow the best seed you have.” You need to give more.

“Don’t consider your symptoms.” Ignore the obvious signs that you were never healed.

“Only believe the Word of God.” I’m quoting the Bible out of context.

“Do not believe what the doctor says. Only believe the Bible.” I’m not a doctor, but I’m playing one in the pulpit.

“Don’t believe those dead church traditions.” Because if you do, you’ll see this is not really the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“I’m not the healer. Jesus is the healer.” So don’t blame me when it doesn’t work. It’s your fault for not having enough faith.

“We believe God is a good God.” So don’t criticize my multi-million house, luxury cars, private jets, and designer clothes, all tax-free and made possible by your donations.

“That’s why I drive a Rolls Royce. I’m following in the footsteps of Jesus.” That money you sent me may not have answered your prayers, but it answered mine.

They will quote scripture after scripture, so they can claim they are speaking the Word of God. I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: context, context, and context. If they tell you the Bible promises you perfect health, abundant wealth, protection from pandemics, control over the weather, and success in all your endeavors, I’m telling you they are reading it out of context. That message is a parody of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, there are many promises in the Bible, but most of them are to the community as a whole. They are not to you and me as individual believers. When you read the Bible in context, I see only two promises to you and me as individual believers: Forgiveness for our sins, and nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. That’s it. That’s all we are promised.

So are you saying God wants me to be sick, broke, and a failure?

No. I don’t know what God wants for you. I don’t even know what God wants for me. Maybe God will bless you with wealth and success. Maybe God will answer your prayers for healing. I’m saying God never promised to do that for you. God never promised to give sight to my friend, Paul, whether he was born again or not. God never promised that I could personally lay my hands on Paul and give him perfect vision, even if I had perfect faith with zero doubt and spoke in tongues.

A Cowardly Lion’s Moment of Truth

I haven’t seen Paul since he unceremoniously left me to wrestle with my doubts and feelings of failure. What would I say to him today? If I were honest, I would say I was mad at him for leaving without saying goodbye. But it was probably a good thing he did, because I was about to do something I would have regretted, and he probably would have regretted too. I would have to explain everything I just explained to you. And I would ask him how he would have reacted if I had said everything I was planning to tell him. I don’t know how he would answer, but I would also have to tell him my faith is very different now from what it was when he knew me.

I used to believe I might be able to heal his eyes if I had perfect faith. I no longer believe that. I can’t lay hands on him and heal him the same way Jesus did. It turns out I’m not Jesus. Go figure.

I might tell him about a pastor I found online. He was blind in his right eye and raised in a charismatic church that taught this Word of Faith doctrine. From the time he was eight years old, he began praying for his eye to be healed. He came forward for his church to pray for him nearly every Sunday. He was told to fast and pray, so even as a child he would fast two days at a time. The pastor there talked constantly about wholeness and healing, and how God wanted to heal every sickness and disease. When he came forward for healing, he would close his eyes, receive the prayers from the elders, and open them fully expecting to see. He would pray before going to sleep at night, fully expecting to wake up seeing.

After several years of this he still wasn’t healed. Then an elder spoke to him, and this is how he described the encounter.

[H]e was a bit frustrated with me. He told me that I wasn’t healed because I didn’t have enough faith.

 He essentially said it was my fault that I didn’t have the victory, that I wasn’t fully whole and restored.

Religion News Service.

“When I heard that story,” I might tell him, “it made me think of you and what I was planning to do. What that elder did to him, I would have done to you if I had gone through with my plans. And when I think of how I wanted to bring you with me to one of those faith healers, and what I know now about the placebo effect, I am so glad I never did. Because what could have ended up happening is you would go up there and see better temporarily because of the placebo effect. We would both think God was healing your eyes, and the fake healer would have promised 20/20 or better eyesight. But when the placebo wore off, and you lost that healing, which would have been inevitable, I would have thought either you or I didn’t have enough faith.

“For years, when I thought I didn’t have enough faith, I would double down. Like that boy, I would keep praying, fasting sometimes, until I expected healing, and over and over again healing never came. It was the worst possible thing for my faith and mental health. When you graduated early, I beat myself up for being a coward because I never had that conversation with you. And when I think that I, your friend and fraternity brother, almost put you through all that, all I can say now is …”

Paul might say at that point, “Thank God you were a coward?”

I would laugh and agree. Paul was a philosophy major, while I was a religion major. We had some pretty in-depth discussions about the two subjects, especially where they intersected. I imagine he might ask, “So why aren’t you a coward now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you just made a heavy confession to me, but I didn’t hear any fear in your voice. Why not?”

“I don’t know. For some reason, I just felt the need to say I’m sorry for thinking the way I did and what that almost made me do to you.”

“You were afraid back then, even though you felt the need to tell me about getting healed. So why aren’t you afraid now?”

“Because I really believe in this.”

“So you’re not afraid now, because you really believe in this.”

“Oh, I see where you’re going. At the timeI could not have admitted this, but I didn’t totally believe the whole Word of Faith theology, even then. And I thought that was the problem. It only works if you believe in it, so I tried all kinds of ways to make myself believe. Because I thought if I could get ‘enough faith,’ I would see the miracles I wanted to see.”

“What is ‘enough faith’?”

“I don’t know, but apparently, I never had it.”

“And you disobeyed the Holy Spirit. How do you feel about that?”

“That wasn’t the Holy Spirit. I know that now because it sounded just like the Word of Faith preachers I was listening to at the time. I don’t believe anymore that that was the Holy Spirit. I believe that is what happens to me when I commit myself to a particular ideology, any ideology. It starts talking to me to reinforce itself.”

“You know what, David? I don’t think you were a coward. I think you just couldn’t push something on me that you did not believe in yourself.”

“Hmm.” I have to pause to think. “You may be right. In fact, I think the reason I never totally believed that is because there was always some part of me, deep inside, that knew there was something wrong with this view of faith and God. God is God, and I am not. Learning to accept that has been critical for my healing, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

“It sounds like you’ve been on quite a journey.”

“Oh, man! That is not even the tip of the iceberg.”

“Are you gonna try to save my soul now?”

I laugh and say, “Actually, you helped save mine. But I’d be happy to share more of my journey with you if you’re interested.”

“You know I love to discuss the meaning of life. I’m interested in hearing what’s different about you now.”

And so we would be off on another of our in-depth philosophical/theological conversations. Paul, wherever you are, I hope we meet again, in this world or the next, because I miss those conversations so much.

-end-

Further Reading

Alan Cross. “Prosperity Gospel’s False Promises Aren’t Always about Money.” Religion News Service. September 10, 2019. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://religionnews.com/2019/09/10/prosperity-gospels-false-promises-arent-always-about-money/

Lauren Zakalik. WFAA. April 27, 2017. Retrieved August 1, 2021, from

https://www.bishop-accountability.org/news2017/03_04/2017_04_27_Zakalik_ManHealed.htm

Entertaining Angels Unaware

Song: “Entertaining Angels” by the Newsboys, with lyrics.

Continuing this character study of Abraham and those associated with him, for the last two weeks I have pointed out that Hagar deserves to be listed among the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11. It might have escaped your notice that Sarah is in fact listed in this chapter. I missed it at first, because I was reading from the NRSV. Verses 8-12 talk about Abraham. But in verse 11, there is some disagreement. Here is how the NRSV translates it:

By faith he [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised.

(Heb 11:11 NRS)

Like the rest of this passage, the focus is on Abraham’s faith. However, in many translations, verse 11 is about Sarah’s faith rather than Abraham’s. Here is how the ESV translates it.

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

(Heb 11:11 ESV; see also NAS, NIV, and KJV)

To have such significant differences, there must be some quirks in the Greek text that make translation into English difficult. You’d be surprised how often that happens. This is why it’s good to read from more than one translation. Digging into a disputed text like this is just the kind of thing I love. However, since so few women are listed in Hebrews 11, we should look at how Sarah responded to the promise of bearing a child. And remember, she is ninety and has passed menopause.

Hospitality In The Biblical World

Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt
Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt

Turning our attention to Genesis 18,

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.

 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on– since you have come to your servant.”

So they said, “Do as you have said.”

 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”

(Gen 18:1-6 NRS)

This is middle eastern hospitality in action. This was true not only in Abraham’s time. Many cultures in the middle east still practice the ancient rules of hospitality. Traveling in ancient times was difficult and dangerous. Traveling through a desert presented its own challenges. Hot, dry, and difficult to find water. Abraham is in a place famous for its trees, the oaks of Mamre. Imagine how welcome the shade would have been to travelers.

Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent in the shade in the heat of the day. Three men appeared near his tent. That must have been shocking, to be in your tent and “Holy crap! Where did these men come from?”

Sir, Please, Let Me Serve You

Abraham bowed to them, spoke to the leader as “my lord,” and called himself their servant. Again, this was not at all unusual for that time and place. Saying “my lord” and “your servant” did not mean Abraham recognized the leader immediately as God. It was normal to say this to someone when you offered gifts or hospitality.

The Hebrew word ‘adoni sometimes meant “my lord,” literally. It could also be equivalent to “Sir” (see Translation Notes). Abraham is saying, “Sir, please, do not pass by. Let me show some hospitality to you.” If you see LORD in all capital letters, this is referring to the Divine Name of God (Yahweh). But in this verse, the letters are lowercase.

Abraham tells Sarah they have visitors, and she needs to make some bread for them. Sarah would not have been angry with him for that. In their world, they could have visitors any time, and everyone had their jobs to do when that happened. If you saw people traveling around there, especially in the heat of the day, you knew they would be hot, thirsty, and hungry. He and Sarah flew into action to serve them.

Prepare The Fatted Calf For Them

Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

(Gen 18:7-8 NRS)

He didn’t just give them bread and water. He prepared a calf, tender and good, along with curds and milk. Herders like Abraham did not eat meat often. It was reserved for special occasions. When you showed hospitality, you gave your best.

While Abraham was entertaining them, one of the men (presumably God or the Angel of the LORD) revisited the promise of Abraham having a son with Sarah (Gen 17:15-16). God gave Abraham a timeline.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

And he said, “There, in the tent.”

Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

(Gen 18:9-10a NRS)

In due season, the meaning is clearer in the ESV: about this time next year (also NAS, NAB, NIV; see Translation Notes). In the previous chapter, God had told Abraham he and Sarah would have a son of their own at this season next year (Gen 17:21). We were told then that Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety. How much time passed between this passage and Abraham’s last encounter with God in chapter 17? It couldn’t have been long. They are still the same age as in the previous chapter. Was it days or weeks? My guess is they traveled to the oaks of Mamre and were resting there, so it would have been a week or two to travel there.

As Good As Dead

In the New Testament, Paul says at this point Abraham was “as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old)” (Rom 4:19; see also Heb 11:12).

Paul did not mean he was like, in a wheelchair, barely able to move on his own. He and Sarah were still capable of doing the tasks of living. He bowed, he hastened, and he helped prepare food for the guests. Sarah prepared and baked bread. They weren’t ready for the nursing home. But in terms of his ability to procreate, he was “as good as dead.”

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

(Gen 18:10b-12 NRS)

It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women (cf. Gen 31:35). Sarah had passed menopause. Remember, she had been barren even during her childbearing years, and now she was past even that.

After I have grown old…shall I have pleasure? They weren’t even having sex anymore, so how was she going to get pregnant (see Translation Notes)? They were still in good shape for their age, better than my grandparents. But should we be at all surprised that Sarah laughed when she heard God say this? Was she laughing because she was surprised, or because it still sounded ridiculous? In other words, is this the first time she has heard this?

What Did Sarah Know And When Did She Know It?

I guess it’s safe to assume Abraham told Sarah what God told him from the previous chapter. He told her about the name changes, because she was introduced as Sarah rather than Sarai. Abraham had circumcised himself and every male of the household, and there was no way he could have hidden that from her. But did he tell her everything?

You know how sometimes when something big happens, but there is one embarrassing or unbelievable detail, you might leave that out when you tell others? Did Abraham leave out that one detail about the two of them having a son? Was he waiting for the right time to spring it on her? We don’t know from the text, but these are some questions you would need to answer to write a fictionalized version of this story.

When Sarah heard this, her reaction was the same as Abraham’s in the previous chapter: She laughed. Perfectly understandable if this is the first time she heard it. If Abraham had told her before, she could have stopped herself from laughing. On the other hand, maybe he did, and she laughed because it still sounded ridiculous. How will God respond?

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”

But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid.

He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

(Gen 18:13-15 NRS)

She Laughs

Sarah and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall
Sarah and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall

God wasn’t offended when Abraham laughed (17:17ff). Why is God offended at Sarah for laughing? The answer I always heard was that when God made a promise, especially in person, Sarah should not have doubted. But come on, we’re adults here. We all know how babies are made. The text has made it clear. They were in their nineties, and that ship had sailed. And if that’s the reason, again, why wasn’t God offended when Abraham laughed?

No, there was another reason for God to be offended. God was a guest in Abraham’s house (or tent). Remember, in their culture, hospitality to guests was central to their sense of right and wrong. You must be kind and generous, and there was shame if you held back anything from them. Your guest says something, and you laugh at him. Is that kind and generous? Is it hospitable? Even if what he says is 100% certifiably insane, laughing at him was a breach of hospitality.

Not to mention it revealed she was eavesdropping. It probably wasn’t the first time. A stranger visiting your tent was the most exciting thing that could happen in that world. That was how they got their news of what was happening in other places. Of course she wanted to hear what they had to say. I don’t know if eavesdropping would have been a breach of hospitality, but it might have been.

Was God offended at her doubt or her inhospitality? Or maybe something else is going on here.

Why Did Sarah Laugh?

I actually think there was more going on here than God being offended. Let’s compare God’s response to Abraham’s laughter vs. Sarah’s laughter. With Abraham, God repeated the promise and gave his son a name, Isaac. God promised to establish an everlasting covenant with Isaac. Abraham saw then that God was 100% serious, and went home immediately to circumcise himself and every male of his household, because that was what God commanded. And he did it because, as the author of Hebrews says, “he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS).

When Sarah laughed, God said, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” As with Abraham, God is telling Sarah this is a promise from the LORD. God is 100% serious about this. And when Sarah denies laughing, God says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” She is probably doubly embarrassed, first at being called out for laughing, second for being caught in a lie.

But if you’ve been a parent, coach, or teacher, you have probably had moments when your children or students were laughing and joking when you knew they needed to be serious. You may rebuke them mildly, like God here, or you might totally pitch a fit. One way or another, you needed to make clear to them, “This is no joke.”

God doesn’t make promises God can’t or won’t keep. Abraham has already shown he is on board with this plan. Sarah needs to be on board too.

At some time, maybe after he healed from his circumcision, Abraham said, “Sarah? You know how God told us we need to have a son? I think now would be a good time.”

She lifted up his robe and said, “The dead has come back to life!”

The Promise Fulfilled

Sarah and Abraham did indeed have a son. They named him Isaac, as God said (Gen 17:17, 19), because Isaac means “he laughs.” Abraham had laughed when God first told him, and so did Sarah. After he was born, Sarah said,

“God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me…. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

She laughed again, this time for joy rather than skepticism. And people laughed with her, not at her. The reproach of childlessness was gone. Why did God wait until Abraham and Sarah were both “too old”? A woman who had been barren her whole life, and a man who was “as good as dead” gave birth to a son when he was one hundred and she was ninety-one. Why was it so important for Abraham and Sarah to have a son? The New Testament gives two reasons.

  1. The Gospel of Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham and Sarah. This was the official beginning of the bloodline that would one day bring the Messiah into the world.
  2. Paul made a point of saying Abraham was “as good as dead” for a reason. It was the first hint that the Messiah himself would be resurrected. The theme of rising from the dead follows Isaac everywhere, as we will see next week in perhaps the most famous episode of Abraham’s story.

Of course, Abraham and Sarah knew none of this. As the author of Hebrews said,

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.

(Heb 11:13-14 NRS)

Seeing From A Distance

Abraham and Sarah lived as strangers and foreigners on the earth. They were promised a homeland for their offspring, but they never received it themselves. They were promised through their seed, all families of the world would be blessed (Gen 12:3). They did not see that happen. But they fulfilled their role in God’s plan to make it happen.

Abraham was seventy-five when God first called him. He was one hundred when Isaac was born. Twenty-five years between the time when God first promised to give him descendants so many they could not be numbered, and the beginning of its fulfillment. Along the way, he and Sarah lost hope at times, they stopped believing at times, and they probably wondered sometimes if Abraham had imagined these encounters with God.

But when God appeared and made it 100% clear exactly what, how, and when the promise would come to pass, they considered the one who promised to be faithful. They trusted that God would not promise something God would not or could not fulfill. That is what faith looks like, according to Abraham and Sarah.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

(Heb 13:2 ESV)

Translation Notes

Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season,[כָּעֵ֣ת חַיָּ֔ה] and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him

(Gen 18:10 NRS)

In due season. In Hebrew, the phrase is ka`eth chayyah. A literal translation would be “according to the time of life” (KJV), or “when the time revives” (NAS study note). I don’t know what that means, but I like the poetry of it.

NAS translates it, “at this time next year.” Halladay justifies that translation.

Hol2487  חַי

4. var.: Gn 1810•14 2K 416 a year from now.

(pg 101)

God repeats this promise in verse 14, adding “at the appointed time” לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד (WTT) (la-mo`ed) to “at this time next year” (ka`eth chayyah).

My Husband Or My Lord?

“After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

(Gen 18:12 NRS)

My husband, HEB ‘adoni, lit. “my lord.” In 1 Peter, we read this:

Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.

(1Pe 3:6 NRS)

This is part of a section where Peter admonishes wives to accept the authority of their husbands. I’m not sure he should have picked Sarah as an example of that. He may have been her lord legally. But as my wife once said to me, if I tried to be her “lord,” I would have my hands full. I don’t think Sarah was the type of woman anyone could easily boss around. Remember, her name meant “princess” or “queen.”

As I said earlier, “my lord” wasn’t always literal. Sometimes it was equivalent to “sir” (18:3). Sometimes a woman’s husband would be called her “lord,” but in that context it means “husband,” not necessarily “lord.”

Paul tells us that by faith in Christ, we have become Abraham’s offspring (Gal 3:29). But Peter also says women can be Sarah’s daughters by doing good and not letting fears alarm you. I think that’s a good takeaway.

Shall I Have Pleasure?

The Hebrew word for pleasure here is `ednah.

Hol6102  עֶדְנָה  (noun common feminine singular absolute) (sexual) pleasure Gn 1812. †

(pg 266)

I think it says a lot about Sarah that when God promises she will bear a son, her first thought is of `ednah, translated “pleasure.” Holladay notes it refers specifically to sexual pleasure. (By the way, I don’t think I will ever look at any woman named Edna the same way again). She was a woman who owned her sexuality and enjoyed it. In the Bible and in many conservative Christian and Jewish traditions, that is the most dangerous woman there is. Stay away from her, they warned their sons, as in Proverbs:

For the lips of a loose woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.

(Pro 5:3-5 NRS)

 Sheol is a Hebrew word for the underworld, the place where all souls go after they die. It wasn’t thought of as Hell originally, but it took on that meaning in some translations. So is that last verse saying, her steps follow the “Highway to Hell”?

If Sarah could have sung “Highway to Hell”

Seriously, though, Sarah’s first thought about sex was not childbearing but pleasure. She thought that pleasure was lost to her, so it was probably with some nostalgia she said, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

A Mitzvah Is Not For Pleasure

To orthodox Jews and some longstanding Catholic traditions, that is sinful. The primary purpose of sex was (and is) to conceive and bear children. Any sex that was done for pleasure rather than procreation was a sin. Engaging in any sexual activity that could not result in having children (pulling out, birth control, masturbation, put your dirty little mind to it and you can think of other acts) was and, in some traditions, still is forbidden. That included having sex with an infertile woman. How do they reconcile that with Sarah? Or Rachel? Or Hannah? Or the mother of Samson? Or Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist?

Not surprisingly, there is extensive discussion on this in Rabbinic Jewish tradition. That may be a topic of a future post. For now the point is the way conservative Western traditions have viewed women’s sexuality is like this:

  1. The man and woman were commanded to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). It is a mitzvah (command from God) for a husband and wife to have sex, so they can bear children.
  2. The mitzvah is to procreate, not to do it for pleasure.
  3. Men did not trust women who had sex for pleasure, even if it was with their husbands.
  4. Women could not be trusted to control their own desire. So her father controlled it before she was married, and her husband controlled it after.
  5. Having sex for pleasure makes you no better than an animal.

Give Me That Old(er) Time Religion

Sarah enjoyed sex with her husband and saw nothing wrong with that. We must assume Abraham did as well, since he saw no need to “control her urges.” She and Abraham used sex to enhance their relationship apart from childbirth, until they were not able. Even at ninety years old, she remembered it as pleasure. And she thought of it right in God’s presence. Sinner! God must have been furious!

Not exactly. God reprimanded her for laughing at the idea of having a child. God did NOT reprimand her for thinking of her pleasure. God told her in effect, “Yes, even at this age, you and your husband will have pleasure again. This time, you will be fruitful and multiply.”

Christianity and Judaism trace their origins to Abraham and Sarah. It’s a shame that for much of our history, we did not learn from how they approached sex as husband and wife.