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Margaret Manning - RZIM said...

The Incongruity Theory of Faith

Most of us associate laughter with humor. We've all experienced the
side-splitting guffaw in response to a good joke, a funny story, or to an
embarrassing moment. But gelotologists, scientists who study laughter,
suggest another trigger point altogether. This trigger is formally called
the incongruity theory for laughter. The 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 emerges
out of the tension between what we expect and what actually

Now as I thought about the incongruity theory of laughter, I wondered if
it might shed light on the nature of faith, particularly as it relates to
the biblical story of Sarah and her laughter at God's promise of children
in Genesis 18:11-15. I've always been amazed that the letter of Hebrews
counts Sarah among the faithful in the "hall of faith." 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). Many
commentators, and perhaps most of us, see Sarah's laughter at God's
promise as evidence of a lack of faith. Perhaps we see a lack of faith
because we have difficulty believing that faith can be found in the gap
between what we expect, and what actually happens, or that faith never
doubts, nor questions, nor struggles with the seeming incongruities of

On one level, Sarah's laughter does indicate a level of disbelief. And
frankly, who can blame her? Who wouldn't laugh at the promise of a child
to someone barren and long beyond the childbearing years? But I also
believe Sarah's laughter contains a glimmer of faith--faith that is really
found in incongruity--in holding together belief and disbelief in the
face of incongruent circumstances and situations.

God's promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would indeed have a child
from whom God would "make a great nation" seems too good to be true. God
tells them one thing, but Sarah's experience tells her another--age alone
made it physically impossible to bear children! And so Sarah laughed when
God came calling that day. She laughs out loud! And I'm certain her
laughter was filled with the tension between disbelief, incredulity,
doubt, and that tiny glimmer of hope beyond hope that what God was saying,
despite all she knew to the contrary, was the truth.

Sarah's story helps us to see that faith is 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 you look at
what it meant for Abraham and Sarah to believe God, it meant taking a
journey--of following God in faith, even when God did not clearly show
them the way. Abraham and Sarah believed God, but that belief was not
absolute certainty. It was a journey filled with tension between what was
expected, and what actually happened.

Sarah's story shows us that the laughter of faith is the laughter of
incongruity. But ultimately, like Sarah and Abraham, real faith casts us
wholeheartedly upon the God who is free to act and to do as God wants, in
God's time, and in God's way. 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 re-tells the Abraham and Sarah story in his letter to the

"That promise God gave Abraham and Sarah...was not given because of
something they did or didn't do....[I]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

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

Margaret Manning is associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International
Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Romans 4 as translated in The Message.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM)
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