The Beautiful Roots of Courageous Submission

When you think of examples of biblical courage, who comes to mind? Perhaps Abram leading his 318 fighting men into battle to rescue his nephew Lot? Or perhaps young David and his sling facing off against Goliath? Or perhaps Peter and the apostles standing before the Sanhedrin and boldly promising to obey God and not men?

All of these would be good answers. But here’s another, courtesy of the apostle Peter himself: Sarah, the wife of Abraham. In his letter to the churches in Asia, Peter commends Sarah as a model for her spiritual daughters who “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6). Sarah is a prime example of biblical courage and fearlessness, and exploring the expression and source of her courage can strengthen women of God today.

Her Well-Ordered Soul

What form did Sarah’s courage take? It began in what Peter calls “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4). This is not a personality trait (as though God prefers introverts to extroverts). There’s nothing inherently virtuous in being a shy wallflower. Instead, “a gentle and quiet spirit” refers to mental fortitude, emotional strength, and spiritual composure. This sort of woman has a well-ordered soul, one that is composed and content in her calling and station.

A quiet spirit is the opposite of a loud one. Consider Solomon’s warnings about the forbidden woman, the adulteress: “She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home” (Proverbs 7:11). The apostle Paul issues a similar warning about women who are “idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (1 Timothy 5:13). The opposite of such loud, discontented, wayward women is those who “marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14).

In sum, Sarah-like courage begins with a composed soul, with firmness and emotional fortitude to be self-controlled — not brash, harsh, loud, or meddling, but sober-minded and strong in the face of dangers and potential fears. We might consider Peter’s commendation in light of an earlier exhortation, where he urges all of his readers to roll up the sleeves of their minds, be sober-minded, and set their hope fully on the coming grace of Christ (1 Peter 1:13). Such is the posture of Sarah’s spiritual daughters.

Feminine Courage in Action

Though such courage starts with the hidden person of the heart, Peter is clear that it becomes visible and manifest. He says that the well-ordered soul is a beautiful adornment for a wife — a beauty that is expressed not in the ostentatious and decadent way of the world, but in Sarah-like submission to her husband.

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. (1 Peter 3:5–6)

Notice that submission involves both actions and words. Sarah obeyed Abraham, and she called him lord.

Modern people may chafe under such exhortations or roll their eyes. Our egalitarian culture has conditioned many to bristle at any talk of obedience (at least outside of very small children). The words submit and obey now carry infantilizing or patronizing connotations. For a wife — a grown woman — to obey her husband is to debase herself. For him to desire and expect such submission is boorishly arrogant and presumptuous. What a different world the Bible is.

When Equality Goes Awry

C.S. Lewis would undoubtedly say that our imaginations have been baptized by the democratic and egalitarian sentiments of our age, and this to our own harm. While recognizing the need for some measures of political equality, Lewis lamented and warned of the danger of an undue elevation of equality.

The man [or woman] who cannot conceive of a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or bow, is a prosaic barbarian. (“Equality,” 9)

The submission of Sarah does not diminish her in the slightest. She obeys Father Abraham, the great patriarch, because she is Mother Sarah, the great matriarch. She calls him lord because she is his lady, his wife, his glory.

We ought to recognize the significance that Peter references Genesis 18:12: “So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” What’s remarkable about Peter’s citation is how unremarkable the term is in the passage. The use of the honorific term lord is, in context, rather mundane. This is simply the way Sarah talks about her husband.

Two Questions for Christian Wives

In commending Sarah at this point, it’s not necessary that we bring back the use of the specific term lord. The particular term is a matter of custom and convention, differing across time and space. The more pressing issue is the heart, the orientation, the spirit from which the words come. And so, Christian wives would do well to ask themselves a couple of pointed questions.

How do you speak about your husband? Do you speak well of him to others? If someone’s perspective on your husband were based solely on your words, what impression would they have of him? In other words, is your speech marked by respect and admiration for him, or contempt and dishonor? What sort of heart does it reveal — a loud and discontented one, or a gentle and quiet one?

What’s more, how do you speak to your husband? Are his initiatives met with scoffing and scorn, or with eagerness and support? Do you take his words, efforts, and labors (even the weak ones) and seek to make them more fruitful, more abundant, more glorious? To use other language from Peter, is your conduct toward your husband respectful and pure (1 Peter 3:2)? Does it show proper holiness, regard, and esteem?

Bravery Before Warriors

Looking to Sarah as a model of submission, obedience, and respectful conduct and speech doesn’t entail that a wife join her husband in disobedience, or passively accept his negligence and folly.

Just consider Abigail, a true daughter of Sarah if ever there were one. She recognized the ingratitude and idiocy of her foolish husband Nabal and immediately took action to save her household (1 Samuel 25:14–35). But she did so like Sarah, not like Abraham. Abraham showed courage by assembling 318 fighting men and leading them into battle. Abigail showed courage by assembling gifts and food and offering them to David with respect, honor, and gratitude while appealing to God.

In other words, Abigail, in seeking to rectify her husband’s sinful error and folly, showed the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Her soul was in submission to God, content in his kindness, and ready to speak and act with appropriate submission and obedience. And God blessed her.

Deepest Source of Courage

Sarah-like courage begins with a well-composed soul, the hidden person of the heart, and then expresses itself in respectful words and obedient conduct. But underneath the hidden person of the heart is something even more fundamental, which we dare not miss. The fundamental marks of women like Sarah are holiness and hope. “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.” Sarah hoped in God. He was her refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. He upheld and strengthened her in the face of dangers, and this holy hope composed her soul and quieted her heart.

Submission, obedience, and respectful speech adorned this hope. Maintaining this hope was undoubtedly difficult. It’s frightening to follow a fallible man, especially when God calls him to leave country and kindred and journey to a far country. Maintaining such hope requires real mental and emotional effort. But God was gracious, and Sarah hoped in God and did not fear anything that was frightening.

May her daughters today do so as well.

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