It is odd that humor, something that is so much a part of our lives today, is talked about so little in the Bible. There are some who have deduced from that fact and the awesome holiness of God that humor is somehow inappropriate in Kingdom work. Some have advocated that humor should not be a part of preaching, that it is somehow offensive to God and destructive to his glory.
But we live in a culture in which humor is ever-present: late-night talk shows, TV, movies, – it is everywhere. In fact, humor has become a moral value in America. I have heard a program or movie that is sexually explicit, vulgar, violent or profane defended by Christian people with the simple phrase, “But it is so funny”, as if the value of humor nullified any other moral issue.
What part should humor play in a Christian’s life? Is a preacher offending God’s holiness if he tells a joke in the pulpit? Are humorous observations inappropriate? What about teasing one other as we so often do? Are these things good? Are they bad? Is there some rubric by which we can cull out the bad and keep the good?
The Biblical Evidence
There is little in the Bible about humor. We know that God made us with a laughter mechanism and he called his creation good, so I hold out that there is a place for sanctified and sanctifying humor in a Christian’s life. Ecclesiates 3:4 tells us that just as there is a time to weep, there is also a time to laugh. But it gives us no hint as to how we can distinguish the two.
It is interesting that the vast majority or references to laughter in the Bible are negative. Laughter is seen as derisive, dismissive or belittling. To laugh at someone is to treat them contemptuously. In Psalm 2:4, God laughs derisively at the nations that rage against him – picturing that he is not threatened by them in any way.
In my observations of blogging, very often our humor is in line with this – meant to belittle or deride those with whom we disagree. In fact, Proverbs 26:18-19 chides those who do something evil and then claim they were only joking. It reminds me of the common blogging practice of saying something mean and hurtful and either tagging it as humor or attaching a smiley face to it – as if that ameliorates all the evil.
But there are a few places where laughter seems to be more positive. Abraham and Sarah laughed at the absurdity of being parents at ages 99 and 89, and named their son Isaac, based on the root word laughter. This was not meant derisively but as an observation of the absurdity of the situation. It was what comedians might call observational humor. In the Lukan version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:21) we are told that those who weep now will be made to laugh. This seems to be a reference to the joy that Jesus will bring into their lives.
So, while there is little biblical evidence on the topic, it seems safe to make the conclusion that humor is not ungodly, but it is a dangerous thing. It can serve God’s purposes and lift our spirits, but it is also easy to use humor to mask aggression, anger and other fleshly purposes.
It may surprise readers here to know that I was often in trouble at school for talking too much, and that the common theme there was my propensity to make what I thought were funny comments, not all of which were appreciated by those in charge. I don’t do a lot of joke-telling in my messages, but I do make (what I think are) humorous observations and give illustrations and tell stories that seem to make people laugh.
There was a time, though, when God convicted me that I was using humor in my preaching for purposes that were not right. My biggest problem was the desire to have people like me. So, I did not want to compromise the Word but I knew that the harsh truths of scripture might be taken harshly by people, so I would use humor to counteract that. Essentially, I was saying to the people, “You may not like the message, but it is God who is mean, not me. I’m just the messenger. Don’t hate me because you don’t like what God says.” I was using humor for fleshly purposes. For a time, I used no humor at all in my messages while I tried to think and pray through these things and see if God would sanctify my sense of humor. That was hard. Observational humor and teasing is part of who I am. Stopping that was a real trick.
I cannot say that I have reached a place of completely sanctified humor. But overall, I believe that what sense of humor I have adds to my ministry and does not distract. But in the process of working through all of this I have learned a few things I would share today.
Sanctified Humor? Can Laughter Serve Kingdom Purposes?
Here are some simple thoughts I would share about Christians and humor.
1) Obviously, Christian humor is not obscene.
At the risk of being labeled liberal, it is clear that this is a relative thing. I might share a joke with my wife that I wouldn’t share with anyone else. I might share a joke with close friends that I wouldn’t share with my congregation on Sunday morning. But rude, crude, obscene, sexually explicit joking are pretty directly forbidden in several verses, most notably Ephesians 5:4
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
But it seems obvious that there is more to this than a simple admonition against dirty jokes. I’ve observed people who wouldn’t think of telling a dirty joke say extremely hurtful things to others and call it humor.
2) Christian humor must not destroy, it must build up.
We, as Christians, cannot use our humor to deride, belittle or hurt others and then hide behind the “I was only kidding” defense. This is a common (and fleshly) tactic used by bloggers. We should be aware when someone’s “humor” is always directed derisively at those with whom we disagree. When that happens, it is usually a form of passive-aggressive personal attack. I may not want to say, “Buford McGillicutty is a big, fat jerk.” So, I make a joke about Buford McGillicutty that cuts him down to size, but I am able to claim, “Hey, I was only kidding. Lighten up! Don’t you have a sense of humor?”
That is a tactic unworthy of Godly men and women.
Wouldn’t godly humor build up – even build up the person who is the subject of the joke?
That may seem inconsistent – how can a person be built up by joking to them or about them? It is a tricky business. First, you do not belittle or devalue another using humor. But (and someone with a better understanding of human psychology than I have must explain this) people often feel honored to be mentioned and joked about. Its sort of like inclusion in family, in the club. It is a way of making people feel welcome. I don’t tease anyone on this blog more than I tease CB Scott. Please don’t tell CB, but I actually like the guy. And I do not yet think that any of my teasing has hurt him or torn down his fragile self-esteem. Gentle teasing is an act of friendship, a recognition of relationship and done properly, it makes people laugh and feel good. It builds up.
Humor can also brighten dark times. This is a natural response. When things are difficult, dark and threatening, an appropriate joke can lighten the mood and help everyone to see that all is not lost, that we should not despair. A little humor can remind us that there is hope and joy even in those dark times.
But we must be very careful that our words not injure other people, even if we were joking.
3) A Christian takes responsibility for his humor.
More than once, I have teased someone and it has hurt their feelings. Maybe I went too far. Maybe they misunderstood me. But if I am the one who tells the joke, I must be responsible for my words. If there is a misunderstanding, I should clarify. But if my joke hurts someone, even if that was not my intent, that is on me. I must take responsibility for my jokes. I cannot pass the buck by blaming the problem on the other’s lack of a sense of humor. If my humor offends, I must make amends.
4) Christian humor tends toward the self-deprecating.
If I am going to use humor, it should most often be at my own expense than it is at others expense. I often tell funny stories about things that have happened to me. But they are funniest when I am the butt of the joke, not someone else. If your humor tends to build you up at others’ expense, it is probably not God-honoring.
5) God is beyond our jokes.
This is a personal issue with me. I don’t tell jokes about God. He is holy and awesome. We human beings are frail and silly and funny little things. Humor about our situation is justified. When you read the stories of people transported into heaven they are generally falling down in awe. They are not laughing. I hate jokes about God. The human condition is fodder for laughter, but divine glory is not.
Is that inconsistent? Perhaps. I don’t know.
6) Christians laugh with others, not at others.
That’s a simple rule. If your laughter is at someone else’s expense and that person isn’t laughing, God isn’t amused either. Godly laughter does not divide, it actually builds unity and fellowship.
Now, Your Turn
This is a tough subject for those who desire to honor God in everything. Blogging is a haven for hurtful humor – the belittling, denigrating, dismissive kind that is so common in the Bible. This has no place in our fellowship. But it is very common.
What insights do you have about godly humor in preaching, in blogging and in our conversations with one another?