Sarah laughed right in God’s face.
Do you remember that story? Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was old and barren. She was long past her child-bearing years, so when she overheard the Lord telling Abraham that she would conceive and bear a son, Sarah laughed to herself saying,
“After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”
God then responds to Sarah’s disbelief with a question of His own,
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14)
Although this story is primarily about faith, trust, and underestimating God’s power, it’s also about self-doubt. Here was a woman who had yearned to have a child. She was so desperate to give her husband an heir that she even compelled him to conceive with another woman, Hagar. Over the years, Sarah had come to accept the reality that her womb was barren, that her body would never produce life, and she would never become a mother. Perhaps she had even come to believe that she was a failure. Verse 11 states that “the way of the woman had ceased to be with her.” If child-bearing is “the way of the woman,” then she must have felt like a very poor woman indeed.
So when Sarah overheard God’s prophecy, she was faced with a challenge. Would she open herself up to hope again? Would she dare to be vulnerable in an area of her life that had wounded her before?
You see, I think Sarah laughed as a form of self-protection. As long as she could accept the reality that she was “worn out,” she could keep her expectations sufficiently low so as not to get hurt. Her insecurities had become a safe harbor that protected her from disappointment.
So she pushed back on God’s promise. She had already accepted her identity as a barren woman, had come to terms with it, and was unwilling to let it go.
I thought of this story this week after a pre-marital counseling session that Ike and I conducted with a young engaged couple. We’ve been meeting with them for several months now, and this week the topic of physical attractiveness arose. The bride, who wants to stay fit and healthy, requested her husband’s accountability in managing her weight. She said it will motivate her if he honestly admits to ever noticing extra pounds.
Although she knows herself better than I do, and her husband’s comments may not affect her self-esteem the way it would mine, I still felt a lot of hesitation about her plan. It’s one thing if my husband doesn’t like my shoes, or even my hair cut, but my body is something very different. Culture imposes itself on the female body in a more powerful and destructive way than it does my clothes or my hair. And as a result, I am much more sensitive about my body. If Ike makes a comment that is remotely negative about any aspect of my frame, or affirms cultural standards of beauty to which I do not measure up, I hold onto it for a loooong time. Maybe forever.
The more I’ve thought about that conversation, the more I’ve realized how complicated a husband and wife’s relationship is on the topic of beauty. I want to look beautiful for my husband, but our culture has defined beauty so narrowly that I am often convinced of my failure. How could he find me attractive when I look so different from the prevailing standard?
As a result, a funny thing happens between me and my husband. Have you and your spouse ever had the following exchange? You realize you’ve gained a few pounds and you’re feeling kind of insecure about it, so you ask your husband if he’s noticed. He says that he hasn’t, so you accuse him of not being honest with you: “How could you NOT have noticed?” Or, you ignore the affirmation: “Well, I HAVE gained weight and I’m not happy about it.”
How about this situation: You try on an outfit for a date with your man, but you don’t like the way it fits. It makes your hips look enormous. You ask him what he thinks about it, and he says he likes it a lot. To this you respond, “Really?? I think it makes my hips look like they’re a mile wide.” And then you put on something else.
Maybe it’s just me, but this kind of thing happens a lot. Especially when I was pregnant. Talk about a time in your life when you don’t conform to cultural standards of beauty! Ike thought I was beautiful but I felt like a whale, so I spent about 9 months repeatedly asking whether he really was attracted to me.
In short, I looked to him for affirmation, but rejected it whenever it came.
What does all of this have to do with Sarah? Notice that Sarah’s self-concept was more determinative of how she saw reality than God’s view of her. Sarah just knew that she was “worn out,” barren, useless, and that was the narrative she believed. God’s words conflicted with her self-concept, so she rejected them.
Likewise, the way I see myself determines how I receive truth about myself. If my husband or my friends tell me I’m beautiful, but I think I’m ugly, then it doesn’t matter how many times I hear those affirmations; I’m not going to believe them.
In marriage this makes for a tricky dynamic, one that men are understandably wary of. If a woman suspects she looks fat in an outfit, then it may not matter what her husband tells her. If he says yes, then she’s going to feel even less attractive than she did before. If he says no, then she may not believe him. She may even accuse him of being dishonest.
Body weight is a common source of conflict in marriage because our culture is so influential. Women are inundated with messages about how our bodies fall short, and this has ripple effects in our marital interactions. But body weight isn’t the only area in which a person’s self-doubt has relational repercussions. Any time insecurity is allowed to shape our self-concept, we are likely to buck against anything that conflicts with it.
Ironically, we accept the lie as a truth, and we reject the truth as a lie.
All of that to say, men, you do have a responsibility to speak truth into the hearts and minds of your wives. Help them fight the ungodly messages that inform their self-understanding. But ladies, we bear responsibility also. Until we are able to name the lies that feed our insecurities, we will struggle to accept affirmation from our spouses, our friends, and, like Sarah, even God. So name those lies and submit them to Christ. Not only will this practice help you to see yourself truthfully and love yourself appropriately, but it will serve your relationships as well.