Faith and Incongruity


All of us, at one time or another, have experienced the strange physiological reaction of zygomatic stimulation and subsequent larynx strain. This strain upsets the respiratory system, which results in deep, noisy gasps. The mouth opens and closes as the lungs struggle for oxygen. The struggle for oxygen causes the face to turn various shades of red and strange, unique noises emerge from deep within. What is this strange, physiological reaction I am describing? It is laughter!

We normally associate laughter with humor. But gelotology, the study of laughter, suggests another trigger for laughter that has been called 'the incongruity theory.' This theory suggests that laughter arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don't normally go together—when we expect one outcome and another happens. Generally speaking, our minds and bodies anticipate what's going to happen and how it's going to end based on logical thought, emotion, and our past experience. But when circumstances go in unexpected directions, our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears and laughter often emerges out of the tension between what we expect—and what actually happens.

Recently, I was struck by how the incongruity theory of laughter may shed light on the nature of faith, particularly as it relates to Sarah and her laughter at God's promise of children in Genesis 18:11-15. In general, the account of her laughter at God's promise that she would indeed bear a child is read as a lack of faith. Yet, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews counts Sarah among the faithful. Sarah, we're told by the author, is one of the faithful witnesses because she "received the ability to conceive by faith, even beyond the proper time of life since she considered God faithful who had promised" (Hebrews 11:11).

It is not difficult to understand why many see a lack of faith as they read this story. For many have difficulty believing that faith can be found in the gap between what we expect and what actually happens. Or perhaps it is assumed that faith never doubts, nor questions, nor struggles with the seeming incongruities of life. Sadly, some cannot conceive of a faith that laughs!

But even if Sarah's laughter indicates a level of disbelief who could blame her for being incredulous? Who wouldn't laugh at the promise of a child to someone barren and long beyond the childbearing years? This is where the incongruity theory of laughter is so helpful. For Sarah's laughter contains a glimmer of faith; faith that is really found in incongruity—holding together belief and disbelief in the face of incongruent circumstances and situations.

For those who read the narrative, God's promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would indeed have a child and that from that child they would become "a great nation" seems too good to be true. The promise of children was made so long ago, and still there was no child. Sarah's experience tells her another: age made it physically impossible to bear children at this point. It seemed then that God told them one thing, but in the end could not or would not deliver. And so Sarah laughed when God came calling that day. She laughed out loud! And I believe her laughter was filled with the tension stemming from disbelief, incredulity, doubt, and that tiny glimmer of hope beyond hope that what God was saying, despite all she experienced to the contrary, was still the truth.

Sarah's story helps both those who claim faith, and those who struggle to believe. For her faith is found right in the tension between belief and unbelief. For long before, when the Lord first made this promise to Abraham, the text tells us that Abraham "believed God and it was counted as righteousness." Twenty-five years transpire after this initial declaration of faith; twenty-five years of barrenness, and futile attempts to have children in other ways, and twenty-five years of God seeming silent, of not making good on what was promised. So when one looks at what it meant for Abraham and Sarah to believe God, it meant taking a journey of following God with faith that was hard won; faith that hung on even when God did not clearly show them the way.

Abraham and Sarah believed God, but that belief was not absolute certainty. And this is very good news for those who feel themselves on the outside looking in on faith that seems too difficult to attain. It was a journey filled with tension between what was expected, and what actually happened! Sarah's laughter reveals a faith that fills the gap between what is often expected and what actually comes to be, and a faith that grows trust in a God who would show up in the most unexpected ways.

For Sarah and Abraham, real faith cast them wholeheartedly upon the God who was free to act and to do as God wants, in God's time, and in God's way. And for all of us who inquire of them through their story, faith is the ability to answer "yes" to the God for whom nothing is impossible, even when our lives tell us the answer is "no." More than this, faith is not dependent on us but is rooted in the God who time and time again proves faithful. The apostle Paul affirms this idea as he retells the Abraham and Sarah story in his letter to the Romans: "That promise God gave Abraham and Sarah...was not given because of something they did or didn't was based on God's decision to put everything together for them. As we throw open our doors to God, we discover at the same moment that God has already thrown open the door for us" (Romans 4, The Message).

And just like that, the doors open and God gets the last laugh. Isaac is born. Isaac's name means, "one who laughs" (Genesis 21:6). Sarah declares in the laughter of faith: "God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me!"

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

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