In Genesis 18:12, Sarah experienced the lowest point of her life. God promised that Abraham would bear a son by her, and, overhearing this promise, she “laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” The Lord rebuked her faithlessness, asking why Sarah had laughed (Gen. 18:13–14). Sarah lied out of fear: “I did not laugh” (Gen. 18:15). God, of course, wasn’t fooled.
Sarah’s reaction to God’s promise couldn’t have been worse. But as Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646) observed at the end of his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, when God remembered this story, he commended Sarah rather than condemning her.
Burroughs on 1 Peter 3:6
Burroughs saw how in 1 Peter 3:5–6, the Holy Spirit holds Sarah up as an example for wives to follow: “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” The only time in the Genesis narrative Sarah called Abraham by the respectful title “lord” was in Genesis 18:12, in the middle of her admission of doubt. Notice that the Holy Spirit only cited this one good word and passed over the rest of Sarah’s sinful speech.
Burroughs comments, “If there is an abundance of evil and a little good, God rather passes by the evil and takes notice of the good. . . . Thus, how graciously God deals with us! If there is but one good word among a great many ill, what an interpretation God makes!” (225).
The reason for this, according to Burroughs, is found in 1 Corinthians 13:5. God is love, and love “thinketh no evil” (1 Cor. 13:5, KJV). He further explains, “Love is of that nature that if ten interpretations may be made of a thing, nine of them bad and one good, love will take that which is good and leave the other nine” (224).
Sarah spoke 14 words, 13 bad and one good. God passed over the 13 and emphasized the one. When God retells the story, he mentions her faith and leaves out her doubt. What an interpretation God makes, indeed!
Burroughs’s Practical Takeaways
What should we glean from these texts as we read them with Burroughs?
1. Burroughs wants his readers to celebrate God’s grace.
When God retells the story, he mentions Sarah’s faith and leaves out her doubt.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that even our good works are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6). However, as those who have received God’s grace in Christ, we need not fear: God’s memory toward us is just as gracious as it was toward Sarah.
As proof, Burroughs cites the New Testament epistles: “When we look into our hearts, we can see nothing but uncleanness; [yet] God calls you his saints, the meanest Christian who has the least grace under the greatest corruption is [God’s] saint” (224). Burroughs—like every great Puritan—was eager to impress upon his readers God’s gracious heart for sinners.
2. Burroughs wants to push his readers toward contentment.
He argued that when hardship strikes, Christians should make good interpretations of God’s ways just as God makes good interpretations of our ways. Burroughs was no stranger to suffering: Living under England’s Laudian regime, he was forced to leave for the Netherlands to worship according to his conscience. He lived in exile for four years.
Burroughs knew firsthand that when suffering comes, it’s easy to doubt the Lord. He challenged his readers to make good interpretations of God’s works instead: “It may be that . . . God saw that if my wealth did continue, I should fall into sin, that the better my position were the worse my soul would be” (223–24).
Israel sinned in the wilderness by misinterpreting God’s works. They cried, “God hath brought us hither to slay us” (224). But Burroughs implores, “Oh, my brethren, retain good thoughts of God . . . [and] make good interpretations of his ways” (225). Just as God chooses to make good interpretations of our lives, we should, in some sense, return the favor by trusting that God is acting with love and wisdom toward us, even amid hardships.
We are called to love God, and, as we have seen, “love thinketh no evil.”
3. Burroughs wants his readers to take the principles given here and apply them to human relationships as well.
While he doesn’t make this explicit in The Rare Jewel, it was surely on his mind. Burroughs was intensely concerned with the unity of the church throughout his life. In his Irenicum, he lamented that minor doctrinal differences were causing divisions throughout England, concluding the reason wasn’t theological positions so much as it was selfishness and pride.
Just as God chooses to make good interpretations of our lives, we should trust that God is acting with love and wisdom toward us, even amid hardships.
But what if the church showed the same graciousness that God showed Sarah? If Christians obeyed 1 Corinthians 13:5 by thinking no evil against one another, wouldn’t petty divisions in the church be healed?
Burroughs challenges us to think deeply about God’s grace. If God has loved us enough to make good interpretations of our lives, shouldn’t we assume he has our best in mind, even when trouble comes? And, if we’ve been shown such grace by God, how can we withhold it from other members of God’s family who have been cleansed by Christ? As Burroughs says, “If there is only one good interpretation that we can make of a thing, we should rather make use of the good one than the bad” (225).
Reflecting with Burroughs on God’s gracious memory toward us should produce a gracious memory within us, leading us to pursue unity, contentment, and, most of all, love.