We live in a broken world, with astonishing levels of violence, rivalry and scapegoating. And only a fraction of it makes the news.
But one of the most counter-intuitive resistances human beings can do, and should do, is to laugh. Laughter is what makes us human, and since we are all made in God’s image, as Sydney Harris says, “God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed us with the incalculable gift of laughter.”
The New Testament does not have one single account of Jesus laughing. But it would be a mistake to think he never did. Jesus was most gloriously free and always unashamedly himself. He wore no religious masks. Laughter is not less than holy, but an actual fact of it.
I can’t read the story of the seemingly rude encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman in which Jesus refers to her as a dog – as anything but Jesus humourously teasing out of her a response that is a product of true faith, faith that sees. I suspect he even had a wry smile on his face as he did so, and so did the spiritually astute woman (Mark 7:24).
Sometimes our churches can be communities that are reduced. Places of simmered down spiritualities. Dour, serious, pious!
Maybe we’ve thought that to permit laughter is to allow victory to the devil. Some people get very serious when they get religion. That’s a shame. Maybe they think laughter represents weakness, corruption and foolishness of the flesh.
I think one of the holiest sounds in our churches, or anywhere, is laughter.
I love a good, deep belly-laugh.
I love good humour, brought about by good comedy.
There is lots of great comedy in the UK today – examples to us all of the sheer fun of being human.
The Reformer Martin Luther once said, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”
St Theresa of Avila once said, “…from silly devotions and sour-faced saints, save us, O Lord.”
My friend and theologian Rob Knowles, in his book ‘Relating Faith’, humourously bemoans how, when we speak about Jesus to others, often amounts to “embarrassing breaches of social etiquette.” LOL.
We only need to look through the window of some of our churches to hear us singing songs about joy, and even dancing – by people who look miserable and are rooted to the spot (myself included. I cannot abide being told to be joyful when I’m not (or when I am); or dance when I don’t want to (even if I want to). Despite this insecure introverted complaint, the point I make still stands…..I think)! LOL.
I think what I’m trying to say, is that holiness and laughter are like a tree and its roots. They are of a piece. One of the greatest men of our generation, Desmund Tutu, can hardly be seen without a smile from ear-to-ear. This is not the fake smile of religious mask-wearing, but the genuine outworking of God-centred joy.
Charles Spurgeon, often presented as a serious Victorian man, but not so. He loved to laugh. He said, “I would rather hear people laugh, than see them asleep in the house of God.” The story of a conversation he had on a train with a soldier about smoking is hilarious!
It is true that wherever there is community, there will be laughter. When the community of two, Abraham and Sarah, was joined by the birth of their miracle-child, they called the baby Isaac, which means ‘Laughter’. God had played a powerful divine joke on them all. A joke that in all seriousness, would lead to the salvation of the world, and the renewal of the entire cosmic order – how’s that for a punch-line?
What else can one do but laugh in the ways of the world. This is not to say that laughter is to be sought as entertainment is sought. As an end in itself. In a society that “amuses itself to death.”
We must neither ban laughter as the work of the devil, nor exalt it to a place of worship.
Sociologist Peter Berger says that laughter is one of those “signals of transcendence.” It is true. Some of the most humourous people I know are those who have rather comically, found themselves as spiritual community leaders. I who speak to you, am one. Humour and holiness are bedfellows.
The 17th century Christian theologian, pastor and writer, Richard Baxter, a Puritan of all things, said, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers.”
Maybe if our churches had less serious-minded business meetings and rather plain prayer meetings and predictable bible-study meetings, and a few more ‘Mirth Meetings’, we might see strange and holy things happening.
In a world that is now shaped increasingly by statistics and economic predictions and managerial huffing and puffing, that take on supreme god-like status, in a world of consumerism and bad news, most of us busting a gut to achieve, taking ourselves oh-so-seriously, there still remains something wonderfully unnecessary about the world we live in.
Laughter helps us to avoid the back-slapping triumphalism that we can so easily become accustomed too; and it also guards against a kind of false party-mode of being, where everything’s great as long as the drink keeps flowing to help me forget and to keep me cheerful.
Likewise, I am not advocating 24/7 humour. That’s wouldn’t be funny. Positivity, to use today’s parlance, should not prevent me of my inalienable right to be sad. And as a natural introvert and pessimist (thank God for the Gospel), I would be sunk!
I am talking about humour and laughter because the news in recent weeks has been so terrible, heartbreaking and sub-human. Laughter is not to avoid these events, but to not allow them to become the only narrative we hear about ourselves.
It is the Good News of Jesus Christ that is what the world needs to hear. When Jesus died on the Cross, it was God on the Cross. In the pit of human depravity and sin.
And yet, it was also the greatest triumph, the demonstration of God’s love and undoing of all that is evil. The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus is God’s triumph and victory over all death, sin and evil.
In the Cross and Resurrection, we hear God’s laughter over the world.
The biblical question: “Where O death is your sting?” is a great humourous cry of resurrection laughter!
So for all the seriousness in the world, its pain, our pain, and all the entailments of it, let us never forget that one of the chief characteristics of following Jesus, of being a Christian, a disciple, is joy. A joy that doesn’t avoid suffering, but arises precisely from within it.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ presents to the world a different narrative. One where joy, peace, strength and purpose arise in the midst of a world in which God has already declared he loves.
The narrative of the world isn’t conditioned by atrocities committed by Daesh, or economic predictions of doom by the finance industry, or whether the world will indeed see irreversible climate change, or rogue states using the nuclear bomb.
The world is firmly in the grip of God, who loves us in Jesus Christ with a vision, a purpose, and a laughable amount of patience, for our salvation.
Jean-Jacques Suurmond puts it like this:
“Over against the inescapable fate of tragedy stands the unpredictable surprise of comedy. Humour stakes its money on what is good and is still to come and is thus an act of opposition to the absurdity of evil.”
To laugh is not to make light of, nor deny suffering. True humour must constantly remain open to suffering lest it become superficial and friviolous.
Rabbi Jonathon Wittenberg says, “No, we cannot entirely fill our mouths with laughter in this world. It’s forbidden to seal our conscience.”
He’s right. In the face of such terrible injustice, anger is more appropriate not levity. But this anger, offered in holy prayer to God, should move us to action.
So suffering should never totally overwhelm us because laughter somehow subverts its ultimacy, and allows us to see that evil can never have the last word.
To use Julian of Norwich’s famous phrase, “Sin has its place, but all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”
And this betrays the whole point. The deeper mystery is that God has triumphed. Not only are those who love God safe and saved, they are joyous and joyful.
The Apostle Paul writes:
“And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
Suffered things are learned things, and the depth of our joy is inextricably related to our ability to embrace it.
So laughter is a major antidote to mediocre spirituality, banal living and the processing of terrible news feeds. Mediocrity towards Christ is a contradiction in terms, a passionless affair that blights many people.
It’s not just knowing that the scarecrow got a prize for being outstanding in his field;
But that Angels fly because they take themselves lighty!
Father, forgive us for the times we have reduced the gift of joy and laughter in our lives and churches to something resembling a lemon-sucking competition.
Forgive us laughing God, for assuming alternative versions of spirituality that betray true Spirit-given joy.
Father, let us hear the laughter of Heaven today; let us be assured of your love for us, for all humanity; and let us live our lives in joyful abandonment to Jesus, as we follow Him in this world.
(This post forms almost all of my recent BBC Radio Devon Sunday Service broadcast, which is available here, if you actually want to listen to it…..kudos to you – that’s hilarious)!