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What Can We Learn from Sarah’s Laughter in the Bible?

women laughing in a sunflower field

The story of Sarah laughing in the Bible is one of my favourite Bible stories. In a children’s Bible that we have at home, Sarah is depicted as laughing with joy, the musical sound of her laughter ringing out through the camp, inspiring joy and wonder in others.

But the reality of Sarah’s laughter is something quite different. After Isaac is born, Sarah does indeed laugh with joy, saying “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:5-6).

But before the birth of her son, before concrete proof of God’s promise, Sarah’s laughter is one of skepticism and doubt. She laughs because what God tells her seems impossible.

I find this such a fascinating Bible story because it is so deep and profound and universal. For those of us who have been following God for any significant length of time, and for those of us who have faced trials and hardships, Sarah’s story is our story.

Sarah Laughed: The Bible Passage

We find the passage where Sarah laughed in the Bible in Genesis 18:12-15.

 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

The story continues from there, shifting focus from Sarah to Abraham’s other dramatic encounters with the Lord: Abraham’s pleading with God for the salvation of Sodom, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Sarah’s move to the region of the Negev…and then finally we return to the birth of Isaac.

When Isaac is born, Sarah laughs a second time, this time not with skepticism and doubt, but with joy and wonder.

Why did Sarah laugh?

So why did Sarah laugh? When we look at the passages from Scripture about Sarah’s laughter, we see that Sarah laughed for two very different reasons at two very different times.

When God first promised that Sarah would have a child, Sarah was 90 years old. We can imagine that Abraham and Sarah had been trying to have children, likely for decades, and had also likely given up hope of ever having children. That period of resignation, of lost hope, had probably also lasted for decades.

In this scenario, I really can’t imagine Sarah not laughing.

Sarah, who had been trying to have children for years (decades even), praying to God for a son, counting the days as she approaches the beginning of each new cycle, praying for a different result this month, and enduring that cycle of hope and loss over and over and over again until she finally throws in the towel, finally gives up and says, “Okay, God, I guess you have different plans for me.”

Sarah, who had been resigned to her barren status for decades, whose friends were all great-grandmothers at this point, Sarah who believed (with the overwhelming weight of evidence to support her) that her child-bearing years were far behind her.

This Sarah was then told by God that she would bear a child.

Who among us would not laugh?

So when God promises Sarah a son, she laughs with incredulity: “A son? Ha! At my age? With my body worn and tired? There’s no way.”

Sarah’s laughter at the beginning of the promise is one of doubt and skepticism.

And yet, at the end of the story, when Sarah gives birth to Isaac (whose name means laughter, by the way), she laughs again. This time the laughter is not cynicism or doubt, but rather joy and wonder. Sarah laughs with joy because God has fulfilled his promise, a promise that was so unbelievable at the beginning.

What did God say to Sarah after she laughed?

When Sarah laughed the first time, God questioned Abraham, saying “Why did Sarah laugh…. Is there anything too hard for the Lord?”

Sarah, who must’ve been with Abraham at the time, replies, saying that she did not laugh. And God said to her, simply: “Yes, you did laugh.”

God’s reply here is so simply and so caring. First, he asserts his power. God created everything. He’s in charge of the whole show. Is there anything too hard for the one who fashioned the stars, the galaxies, the inner workings of all the animals? God reassured Abraham and Sarah here that he is in control, and that nothing is impossible for him.

Second, God’s simple reply of “Yes, you did laugh,” reveals Sarah’s heart. God knows what is in Sarah’s heart. He knows her deepest fears and her deepest doubts. He doesn’t condemn her for them. He simply acknowledges their presence.

In the same way, we might coax the feelings, fears, and doubts out of our own children. God does this for Sarah. He has her face her own skepticism and doubt. And yet, he doesn’t abandon her. He walks with her through her pregnancy, and she laughs again, this time with joy, when her doubt turns to wonder at the miracle of her son.

What We Can Learn from Sarah’s Laughter in the Bible

There are a handful of things that we can learn from this episode where Sarah laughed in the Bible.

  1. God’s plan is bigger than our plans.
  2. God is merciful.
  3. God knows what’s in our hearts.
  4. Laughter can be a sign of doubt or of joy.

God’s plan is bigger than our plans.

Sarah’s plan was probably to ride out old age with whatever other plans God had for her. Maybe she took some joy in the children around her. She certainly didn’t plan on becoming a mother to many nations. And yet, God’s plan for Sarah was so much bigger than her own plans for herself.

This is often the case for ourselves, as well. When faced with a plan that is so much bigger, or so much different, than what we have in mind, we might respond like Sarah with doubt and laughter. And that is because we can only see a small piece of the plan. We think that we know the plan, and we try our very best to maintain control and set the parameters, and yet God so often explodes our plans and leads us somewhere we never would have expected or sometimes even believed.

God is merciful.

Many of the commentaries on why Sarah laughed in the Bible focus on God’s mercy: God was merciful to Sarah, since he didn’t punish her for the sin of disbelief. (Although some commentaries suggest that the trials that Sarah and Isaac went through after his birth were punishment enough.)

And it’s true that God is merciful. God had mercy on Sarah, not just in overlooking her doubt and disbelief, but also in giving her a son.

But I think the story is bigger even than this. For sin is not just a matter of doing something wrong and being punished for it. Mercy is not just God’s overlooking our major or minor indiscretions. Sin is fundamentally an estrangement from God: it is the condition of the soul that tries to rely on its’ own devices instead of surrendering to God. Mercy is God’s restoration of that rift that opens up between us and him when we turn from him.

We can see God’s mercy at work in Sarah’s story here. He draws Sarah into a story that is bigger than herself. He gives Sarah a glimpse of the restoration of all things that is promised at the end: she experiences a restoration of her fertility, new life in this one individual instance (a foreshadowing, perhaps, of a larger and grander new life to come).

God, in his mercy, gives Sarah a glimpse of the Kingdom: the Kingdom of God, where all things are made new, where their is no more weeping (or doubt or loss or brokenness).

God knows what’s in our hearts.

God knows the doubt and disbelief that is in Sarah’s heart. His response to Sarah is so simple: “Yes, you did laugh.” He knows that she doubts. And yet, God still loves Sarah. He still walks with her. She is still blessed. And so are we. Our own doubt, disbelief, and skepticism is not enough to separate us from God.

Laughter can be a sign of doubt or of joy.

Sarah’s laughter of doubt becomes laughter of joy. This happens when she gives up control and learns to trust God.

We see this kind of laughter described in the Psalms, as well, when God restores the fortunes of Zion.

Psalm 126:2-3 says, “Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.”

This was the case with Sarah, too. Her fortune was restored and she laughed with joy.

What is universal about Sarah story?

Sarah’s story is one of promise in the midst of hardship. Sarah laughed because she just couldn’t believe that things would be any different this time, that after years and years of trying, this one would be any different.

And it’s the same for us, too, isn’t it? Hardship wears us down, whether it is a struggle with fertility, or finances, or career, or relationships, or anything else. We try, and we try, and we try, thinking that we are the author of our own story, and finally perhaps we give up. A promise, in this situation, seems laughable.

And yet, Sarah’s story reminds us that God’s plans are bigger than our plans. He is the one in control. And things often will not go as we expect them too. We might react with doubt, with incredulity, and that’s okay. God knows what’s in our hearts. Our job is not to erase the doubt, but to walk faithfully in spite of the doubt. To follow God anyway. (Sarah, despite her doubt, tried to have biological children. She may have thought that it wouldn’t work. She may have doubted the whole time. And yet, she obeyed.)

The result, when we follow God, when we surrender our will and our plans to his own, will be wonder and joy. It will probably look vastly different than what we expected. But it will involve, in some capacity, mercy, restoration, and wholeness.

What started in doubt and disbelief ends in joy and wonder.

12 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from Sarah’s Laughter in the Bible?”

  1. Thank God for this I’m going through something that seems impossible but thank you for reminding me that God is in control of everything at the late age in my life I still can find happiness and someone to be with that I thought I couldn’t be with someone that will not use me all I have been is used I pray to God for the not to be used anymore I’m tired of being a sugar daddy as they say I want to be a real husband to a real Christian woman to serve and lead Me to follow God and we both walk on the same path I believe God has done that for me and I will until the day I die thank you for the story thank God for putting this in my heart and changing my life taking me out of the world of sin where I thought people love me my day was only using me glory to God for opening my spiritual eyes my spiritual mind in my whole being hallelujah to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amen

    1. I certainly hope you will find someone who will love and value you for who you are, Sidney. And yes, it’s never too late. And sometimes God’s plan seems nonsensical (though it will all make sense in the end). But I’m glad you still have such faith and hope.

  2. This is so good, Rebecca! God is so good and merciful to us and I am so thankful He never gives up on me, especially when I am fearful and doubting. Thank you for this beautiful post!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Donna. I take a lot of comfort in God’s love for and patience with the skeptic and the doubter because, honestly, that’s me a lot of the time.

  3. What an amazing article! I have also been dealing with a hardship that has worn me down these last 5 years. I have tried to rely on God and trust but honestly have failed in so many ways. I love how you portray true humanity in this, (“who wouldn’t have laughed”) and yet give us hope! I truly love God and want to serve him but this struggle has battered my faith. The line where you say, “Our job is not to erase the doubt, but to walk faithfully in spite of the doubt.” is just so life giving and freeing for me. I don’t have to fight my humanity but put my hand in his and just walk.
    May God bless you as you continue to use your amazing gift of encouraging others!

  4. Wow what a powerful article.I once laughed like Sara where I thought I wasn’t going to give birth to a normal baby but what is impossible with man it is possible with God..
    Gave birth on the 11th month!

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