Faith Heroes: Sarah

Where are the women?” That’s the question feminist activists posed (with spray paint) on the Reformation Wall in Geneva this past March. For visitors to the Bible’s Faith Hall of Fame, however, it’s not a question that goes unanswered for long. “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).[1] Here in the 11th verse we encounter the first of several women the Holy Spirit features for their outstanding faith.[2]

Sara Plain and Tall

Outstanding, yes, yet the first thing that strikes us is the ordinariness of her faith. Sarah was an extremely beautiful woman, but her faith was rather plain. It was ordinary, first of all, in that it was at times weak and faltering, just like ours.

Poor Sarah. Perhaps, like couples today who struggle with infertility, she dreaded introductions because of The Question that would inevitably come. In Sarah’s day it was even worse, as barrenness was a sign of God’s displeasure with sin and the lack of divine favor that followed it. Sure enough, the first thing Scripture says about her after telling us her name is that she was barren (Gen 11:30). Sarah’s face would have flushed shame-red.

The Lord had promised Abraham children – and lots of them. Why, then, had He prevented her from bearing any (Gen 16:2)? Surely God helps those who help themselves, she reasoned; He wants us to take the initiative, to be resourceful. In a scene echoing language from the Fall, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands and had a son by surrogacy.

We too have faltered in faith. We’ve become discouraged. We’ve given up on prayer at times, or questioned the effectiveness of God’s sanctifying power in our lives. Our faith is plain and ordinary like Sarah’s. And yet – what encouragement – God nominates and approves her inclusion in this catalogue of heroes and heroines of faith!

Ordinary Faith

Second, Sarah’s faith was ordinary as to its basis. Her complex plans to help God keep His promise gave way to a simple faith founded on the character of the God who made the promise. She “considered him faithful who had promised.”

In fact, Genesis 18 shows us in slow motion the process by which her faith was simplified. There’s a fast bit where she and Abraham hastily prepare a meal for three unexpected visitors. But then the story proceeds frame by frame. Eavesdropping from behind her tent door, she’s surprised when one of the visitors mentions her name. How did he know her? He even pronounced it Sarah, not Sarai, a change others had taken time getting used to.

But wait. What’s the Visitor on about now? That in a year’s time she would have a son? “How bizarre,” she laughed to herself. “It’s been ages since anyone has tried to comfort me with a ‘maybe next year’ wink!”

Then came the biggest surprise. “Why did Sarah laugh?” the Visitor asked. He couldn’t have seen her – His back was to the very tent she was hiding in. Who is this One who promised? Could He who hears the silent laughter of one’s heart also hear its cries? Frame for frame, the story of what happens to the woman in the tent reverses what happened to a woman in the garden, as faith’s logic leads her to say, “It was God who said it. I believe it. And that settles it.”

Thus the woman, weary from lifelong barrenness, and the old man as good as dead (as far as producing children with Sarah went) came together to try for a child again. And this time it worked. The miracle took place through the normal. From this, a third aspect of the ordinary nature of her faith surfaced in that it expressed itself in the everyday acts of normal life.

It’s the same for us. God has called some of us to have children, defying our fears of the worsening world in which we raise them. We pray. We read Scripture. We take them with us when we gather with the local church. He calls all of us to care for the world around us. And so we purchase a dozen copies of the Gospel of John to give away, lend our neighbours a hand, bow to give thanks for a meal at a restaurant, work diligently at our jobs, and teach the kids at the Bible club a memory verse, all the while expressing our faith. We desire that God will use such simple means to perform his life-giving wonders, just like He did with Sarah.

“Sarah Isaac’ed”

Finally, Sarah’s faith led to joy, the ordinary end of all true faith in God. She and Abraham had both laughed (“Isaac’ed”) the first time God told them she would bear a son. It was a laugh of unbelief. She laughed again when God faithfully kept His promise, but this time it was faith’s laugh of joy. And the joy would spread. “Everyone who hears it will Isaac for me,”[3]  Sarah foresaw by faith (Gen 21:6). “Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Heb 11:12). Faith so ordinary, placed in a God so faithful, brought blessings so extraordinarily universal. Indeed, Sarah points forward to another heroine of faith who would miraculously conceive; Isaac points forward to that woman’s Son. He, too, would bring great joy to the world.

“Trust and obey,  for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”


[1] All quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[2] In defence of seeing Sarah’s faith as the subject of this verse, and not Abraham’s (there are textual complications), see the NICNT commentary by Gareth Lee Cockerill and Dennis Johnson in the ESV Expository Commentary series.

[3] Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 2, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 80.