Barren Sarah and the Life of Faith

Abraham is held up in Scripture as one of the prime examples of faith. God made many promises to this man and it seemed as though none of them would be fulfilled. The promise of a son was the cardinal promise. The creation of a great nation, the acquisition of land, and the hope of blessing the world were connected to and contingent upon this promise (Gen 12:1-3). Yet, it seemed an impossible promise. A barren woman and an old man would surely render it impotent. The whole thing was laughable to Sarah (Gen 18:9-15). But God is the master of the absurd. He delights to turn the impossible inside out. He calls us to believe him in the midst of circumstances that would persuade us otherwise. As he called Abraham and Sarah to faith, so he calls us. Faith is the laughter of trust in the face of the ridiculous. This faith is a movement away from ourselves toward God. In faith we despair of ourselves, our understanding, and our capacity. In faith we press toward the God of the promise. We cast ourselves on him and leave the impossibility of his promises to him.

Walter Brueggemann in his Theology of the Old Testament does a great job explaining this dynamic. He sees the story of Abraham as a paradigm of faith for the rest of Israel. “All of these promises of Yahweh, of every sort, on every subject, intend that Israel should not surrender its life or its destiny to the present circumstance, especially when that present circumstance is deathly and appears insurmountable. Thus this odd testimony of Israel puts forth a theological claim that is profoundly subversive of the present. Israel has known ever since the barrenness of Sarah, that there is deep incongruity between the intention of Yahweh and the circumstance of lived experience. Israel, in the face of that incongruity, did not have many alternatives. It could accept the circumstance of its life as the true state of reality—thus for example, Sarah is barren and then the promise is voided within one generation. The alternative, Israel’s chosen one in most seasons, is to rely on Yahweh’s oath as a resolve to override circumstance, so that it is the promise and not the circumstance that tells the truth about reality. In this theological intentionality, Israel embraces this uttered testimony as the true version of its life”

I really appreciate the last few sentences of this paragraph. Especially the phrase: “it is the promise and not the circumstances that tells the truth about reality.” This is an excellent way to describe the challenge of faith. The circumstances of life are so often contrary to the promises of God that we are easily led to believe that they are the final reality. Faith refuses circumstance the final word. Faith seeks out the promise, educates itself in it, clings to it, and conquers the present circumstance through it. Faith does not deny the the dissonance between the present reality and the promise. It lives in that tension affirming the certainty of the promise and leaving its fulfillment to the timing of God. As he says, faith is subversive of the present. It gives the promise more ultimate validity than the present circumstance staring it in the face.

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4 comments

  1. Well put. I like the phrase: the ‘deep incongruity between the intention of Yahweh and the circumstance of lived experience’. Of course, those 2 things aren’t always incongruous. The Israelites walked across the dry seabed of the Red Sea, water sprang from rocks, food fell from heaven – all of which would seemingly be great faith enhancers. But we don’t have any problem there. It’s when we can’t easily perceive God’s hand that we struggle and the faith is needed.

    Is this promise, at least as it applies to this life on earth, basically the promise of Romans 8:28 to you?

    It’s amazing the role faith plays in the life of the believer. I’ve often wondered why, other than our limited ability to understand, does God require such a great degree of faith from us. Why does the heavenly host appear only to shepherds rather than the whole region at the birth of Jesus? Why are the things of God hidden? And is faith something we can somehow generate, or is it completely a gift from God. We are told to ‘have’ it, but the disciples asked for an increase in it. Jesus often seemed unable to perform miracles due to a lack of the people’s faith. Lastly, faith is subordinate to love according to 1 Cor. 13.

  2. Rob, I am thinking of all the promises of God that remain to be seen or felt in the present. Any promise at all that seems contrary to our present is an opportunity for faith. There are many of these. I think of justification, the forgiveness of sin, God’s love toward us, the certainty of eternal life. I think also of the promise that justice will dominate the earth and that a time will come when people won’t die, get sick, or know pain.

    Yeah their truly is a hiddenness to God. What are your thoughts on why he hides?

    My view on faith is that it is complete gift. In my view, we do nothing to generate it whatsoever.

    1. On God’s hiddenness: It’s an intriguing mystery to me. Does it please God to have us trust the unseen? As I said before, it’s simply a requirement in part, due to the fact we can’t encompass all that is needed to be known. Are we unworthy of more direct evidence? Is it to confound the wise and learned? Probably a mixture of these things and more. I mean, if God just strolled into town like Godzilla with eyes like suns and a voice like James Earl Jones on a megaphone, wouldn’t everyone believe? But I guess they’d also be petrified in fear. He did stroll into many towns in the form of a common man, performed many miraculous signs, and was still rejected and killed. Maybe that’s part of the answer too.

      Regarding faith being a gift: I wonder if we can subdivide faith into saving faith and living faith? Saving faith, depending on your soteriology, could completely be a gift. We are also told repeatedly that the righteous shall live by faith. The ongoing faith you’re talking about. Faith for God’s provision, His working out all things for good, heaven, forgiveness, sanctification. There may be some crossover here, but it seems to me that we are called to hold fast, persevere, work out our salvation. There seems to be a cooperation we are involved in that could be labeled an exercise of our faith. That faith moves beyond a saving faith, to include a living faith.

      1. Rob, thanks for the thoughtful words here. Yeah, I really think you hit it on the head when you brought the discussion of God’s hiddenness to the manger and to the cross. In one sense hiddenness is dispelled. In another sense, it is taken further.

        I have always found it interesting that God alone has full and complete access to God. There are a few texts that highlight this divine privilege. For example, 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 says “the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” God alone knows God completely. He chooses to disclose of himself what he wills. It is a clear and true disclosure, just not an exhaustive one. His hiddenness points to his glory. It points to his inexhaustible and unsearchable nature.

        Good thoughts on faith. I do see what you are saying about a possible division. There is clearly a responsible laid upon us in regard to faith.

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