Godly Humor & Knowing When to Laugh

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In the heyday of The Late Great Planet Earth, an impressionable young man was accosted by an itinerant street corner preacher of the apocalypse. “Son, you better get right—or get left,” the preacher shouted into his face. Unnerved by the encounter, the young man decided to do something about his predicament. So he joined the John Birch Society.

That’s a Dan Edelen original, folks. It’s also about as close as I come to poking fun at the events of this last weekend’s Rapture bust.

The impression most people get about me from this blog is that I’m a super-serious, modern day counterpart to that street corner preacher of the joke. Laughter humor funPeople who meet me in person are often struck by the fact that I’m funnier than they thought and not so deadly serious. In fact, some people don’t understand why I’m laughing all the time.

Fact is, I love to laugh. People who can’t laugh at themselves when they should or who can’t lighten up at all bother me more than just about any kind of person. Something IS wrong with a stick in the mud.

Which is why I want to point out what bothers me about how we Christians joke around.

I read a ton of barbed yucks at the expense of Harold Camping and his followers over the last month. I can expect that from people who aren’t Christians, as the whole Rapture thing—even when viewed biblically and with solid theology—sounds weird to unbelievers. No surprise. It was the sarcasm from Christians that took me aback, though.

I was 25 in September 1988 when 88 reasons were given by some Rapture aficionado for the removal of the Church that month. I recall the stories of the euthanizing of pets, the homes sold, the bunker mentality, and so on. I also remember the subsequent suicides, the financial ruination, and the falling away by those who pinned their hopes on getting out of here on the predicted date, which obviously came and went.

In short, none of that aftermath was funny then. That stuck with me for this latest go-round of Rapture predictions. It’s why I wasn’t laughing over the Camping fiasco. Likewise, false teachings and false prophecy are not funny because they take a human toll.

The Bible says this:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
—1 Peter 5:5b

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
—Philippians 2:3-4

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
—Galatians 5:14-15

My experience in life is that cutting humor used against others has a surefire way of backfiring. When we’re making fun of someone else, it almost always has a way of getting out of hand.

It’s an issue of humility on our part, too. Sure, someone may be woefully deceived, but our role is not to  stand apart from that person but to help in any humble way we can to restore them to truth. Mocking others never accomplishes this goal.

Those Christians I have known who have had the most effective lives for Christ and for reaching out to others are universally NOT known for their jibes. Quite the contrary, they have a winsomeness that attracts people and lets those hurting or misled people know that they are dealing with someone who is safe and can be trusted. In such an adversarial age, when mocking is considered a high art by some, and people go at each other’s throats over the littlest things, shouldn’t the Christian response run counter to the way of the world?

At my core, I am an arrogant person. Of all the sins that afflict me, pride is the worst. I thank God daily that He continues to weed out this toxic root in my life. I truly believe that I am a more humble person today than I once was.

More than once in my younger days, I was confronted by fellow believers who told me I used humor to hurt other people. And they were right. It was a way of making myself look superior. But it was stupid on my part, and I know that now.

I share that because many Christians are still in that place of thinking more of themselves than they ought. It’s why their ministry is less effective than it could be. It’s why other people don’t seek them out when they need help. It’s why no one wants to listen to them when they try to witness. It’s why those Christians give up witnessing at all.

But this is a post about humor, and I don’t want to be all dour lest I perpetuate that false view that I’m some deadly serious killjoy.

I can’t point to any Scriptural mandate here, but I think humor works best within the shared human experience. Rather than poking fun at one person or at a group of people who have a serious problem, when we laugh at the silly things that afflict us all we find a way to cope with the world. God gave us laughter, and I think humor—when used rightly—has a way of defusing tension and making life more manageable. When we use humor to create tension, especially tension in or toward a person or group of people who are “not us,” we stray from God’s best.

Many years ago, I was at a large Christian retreat center. My group had plans, but I had others, so I stayed behind in the lodge and talked with an elderly man. We sat around and enjoyed the glorious day, relaxing and telling jokes. He was a stitch and had me in tears at several points. Just a really funny guy. When I asked him his name, he said, “J. Oswald Sanders.” I was stunned. This was the great biographer of the apostle Paul and one of the foremost theologians of the age.

So yes, Christians can be funny. Even the heavyweights.

And they should be.

Truthfully, too many Christians need to learn to lighten up. We all need to learn to laugh at ourselves a bit more, but not in a way that hurts others. I think that only comes with a willingness to be humble and to recognize that life is hard. Even if it isn’t hard for us, it may be for someone else, and we need to consider the state of another person’s life before we assault them with joking. We do need to consider what is funny for us may not be funny for someone else. Better that we find something mutually funny, something in the shared human condition, that makes it less about our superiority and more about the positive attitude that faith in Christ brings to help us overcome the vagaries of life.

4 thoughts on “Godly Humor & Knowing When to Laugh

  1. boethius

    I’m with you on this. I can’t resist shaking my head a bit at Camping, but ultimately I want to be slow to mock or criticize the guy. I am not sure if he should get a complete pass – after all, he’s leading a sizable flock astray with absurd numerological predictions – but ultimately these are thinking adults who make their own decisions. Maybe the Rapture isn’t supposed to be, but I will say that it was good fodder for a lot of pretty good jokes.

    • Peyton

      Boethius,

      Sorry to go off-topic, but I remember Mr. Camping from my Bay Area days. There was a great radio station there that brought good music, good teaching, good preaching to the area. The jarring exception to the good preaching was Mr. Camping. I wondered why they included him with all of the top-quality programming. Turns out he financed it! The poor man did a wonderful work within his calling as a philanthropist, (Giver, Romans 12:8) but failed miserably when he stepped out of it.

      I for one cannot laugh at Mr. Camping — but I am grateful for the sanity that he (unwittingly) brought to a mad world in spite of himself. May that be said for all of us!

      Back to subject. A dog and a ventriloquist walked into this church one day, and the dog said …

  2. merry

    “God gave us laughter, and I think humor—when used rightly—has a way of defusing tension and making life more manageable. When we use humor to create tension, especially tension in or toward a person or group of people who are “not us,” we stray from God’s best.”

    This is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time…I like to think I’m a humorous person, too, but I’m not sarcastic like so many people I know. In fact, sarcasm has always bugged me to no end, and I was always told it was just me and I was being “too sensitive,” etc… I know so many sarcastic people that I thought there was something wrong with me until my new pastor shared his views on sarcasm one day and he felt the samae way I did–he even went as far to say that sarcasm should hold no place within a Christian household. I was actually relieved to hear someone say that… I enjoy just straightforward, tension-easing humor, like you say, and I wouldn’t even worry about biting, caustic, and sarcastic humor if it weren’t for the fact that so many of my (Christian) friends use it endlessly.

  3. bob p

    Whike watching a DVD of You Bet Your Life, an EDITED outtake had Groucho giving one of his guests, a pastor, a joke he could tell to his congregation: (This is mid 1950’s)

    “Folks, there was this colored preacher who took the collection and the plate came back with small coins and buttons.[Groucho then does his hunched over walk.]

    ‘The preacher said, ‘You’ve got to do better than this, brothers and sisters, and by the way, I want you to notice this piece of mistletoe I’ve got hanging on my coattail….'”

    The pastor contestant said,” Groucho, I can’t use that joke in my sermon. Some minds are like a racehorse – they run better on a dirt track!”

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