Laughter as a Way of Prayer

by Raj Bharat Patta.

In the patriarchal society of Abraham, women were restricted to the private spaces, for Sarah had to do all the cooking for the guests, but had no chance of coming out to meet and speak to the guests. But the divine who came as three strangers in Genesis 18, by enquiring Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” (v9) was trying to break open those patriarchal stereotypes that women are limited to the domestic private space and men are out in the public space. On hearing from Abraham that Sarah was ‘in the tent’, one of the strangers spoke loudly so that Sarah can hear, and pronounced that in due season Sarah shall have a child. Then Sarah laughs to herself. The tent was her own space, for over the years that space would have been a space for her to weep, to laugh, to pray, to lament and to sit in silence. On this occasion, Sarah in her own space, in her own freedom, laughed to herself, for all that she was, she and herself. Out of the fear generated by the patriarchal society, later on Sarah denies that she laughed and Abraham insisted that she did laugh (v15), for I think the stranger-guests and Abraham would have heard her chuckle from inside the tent. But for Sarah, laughter was an expression of her freedom, an expression of who she was and served as an act of subversion for her. It was an act of subversion against the patriarchal society which confined women to a private space like the tent, and never allowed them to laugh out loud in the public spaces.

In Sarah’s laughter, I recognise a subversive prayer. For in that laughter as Sarah spoke to herself with a question, “after I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (v12), she was being heard by God. In her laughter as a way of prayer, Sarah was not questioning the miraculous power of God. Sarah’s laughter as a way of prayer demonstrates that the God she believed in is not a God who works through unrealistic fantasy, but a God who works through people. Sarah’s laughter was not a laughter of cynicism but a laughter of realism, where prayer is about realistic things. Our prayers therefore reveal the kind of God we believe and the kind of God we believe is exhibited in the way we pray. When Sarah laughed, God not only heard and responded to her laughter, but I think God would have joined in laughing with Sarah to fulfil the promise God has made to her.

On hearing Sarah’s laughter, God was quick to speak to Abraham, opening wide the revelation of the divine. Sarah’s laughter did not make God angry. The patriarchal society demeaned and diminished Sarah’s laughter as a sign of unbelief to the promise of God, but there is freshness in Sarah’s prayer which was seen in her laughter. The laughter of Sarah was not seen by God as offensive, for God on hearing the laughter of Sarah did not curtail God’s promise nor cursed Sarah at that point, rather God revealed God’s character of doing wonderful things in their lives offering hope to them. It was because of Sarah’s laughter that God spoke to Abraham, reassuring him, ‘is anything too wonderful for God?’ Sarah’s laughter paved the way for the actions of God’s wonderful acts to flow on in their lives. When things unfolded as promised, I can imagine Sarah would have kept laughing at every point of her life that followed and eventually named her son Isaac, after her deep spiritual experiences of laughter with God.

Laughter is a natural expression of human spirit, and when the future appears bleak, when things are annoying around us, when the going gets tough, laughter as a faith space helps us as a defiance against all those oppositions. May the courage of Sarah be with each of us so that we can laugh at ourselves on hearing that God is leading us into an uncertain future with a confidence of new hope in Jesus Christ. Let us together join with Sarah in laughing out loud and celebrate hope, for God works wonderfully through each of us. God hasn’t given up on the Christian faith nor on the church, but is leading us to offer hope in our community by building on laughter, kindness, peace and justice.

5 thoughts on “Laughter as a Way of Prayer”

  1. Thank you for this lovely take on a familiar story. It has annoyed me for a long time that the way that the story is so often interpreted has Sarah being rebuked both for laughing and for denying her laughter. Like you I see it as an affirmation – a way of supporting her subversive prayer. It’s all in whether you read those words “You did laugh” with a frown on your face or a smile!

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  2. Yes, thank you Raj. I agree with your interpretation entirely. Sarah’s laughter as an affirmation – a prayer of reality, a prayer prayed from a place of freedom, not fear. We need more of this sort of prayer.

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  3. Rublev’s Trinity, sometimes known as The Hospitality of Abraham, is a bit ambiSextrous anyway, and at least one American theologian believes the figures to be female.

    Having a baby at ninety would be no laughing matter, and coping with a toddler in one’s tenth decade would tax the strength of any woman. Perhaps it’s as well that interpretations vary – but I wonder what the story has to say to a woman in a tent in Afghanistan today?

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  4. Thank you, Raj, for your opening up of Sarah’s ‘side’ of this story.

    Many, many (all?) of the stories of the Bible (Old and New Testament) are written from the male perspective. It would be interesting just to relook at the stories from the perspective of the females involved, or, in many stories, just assume that some of the people were female. If we really look at the way Jesus dealt with people we can see that he saw us (women) as people, not as ‘other’. This has been almost covered up by the male writers of the Bible (NT)
    This is a huge topic but it has to be tackled properly some time soon and by someone more erudite than me.

    Back to Raj’s piece……The freedom to laugh at what God has told me to do, or will happen, is a wonderful freedom, and the God that I know and love will not be offended.
    Thank you, again, Raj.

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  5. Thank you anna for this never imagined take on Sarah’s laughter. I always believed Sarah’s laughter demeaned God and she looked from a human perspective than Gods. But now when I read this I am assured that God is aware of our natural instincts and doesn’t judge them in executing his will

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