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A Theology of Humor

By Cheryl Taylor

Cheryl Taylor is the director of the doctor of ministry program at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. She also serves as the vice president for academics at Asia Theological Centre for Evangelism and Missions, an Assemblies of God Bible college in Singapore. She previously served in local church ministry, on the district level, and on the foreign mission field.

At it fullest and finest, religion is replete with fundamental joy.

A professor of Old Testament remarked one day, "Class, if you have never seen God smile nor heard Him laugh, you do not know Him very well." Indeed, one’s understanding of God is unexpectedly expanded by discovering in Him —and in ourselves — the attribute of divine humor with its uniting, healing, revelatory, and life-affirming powers.[1] In grappling with the ever existent questions of the natures of God and humanity, a discussion of humor and its most obvious expression, laughter, is a legitimate subject for theological consideration. To state it another way, for the Christian theologian, humor is no mere laughing matter.

What Augustine once said about time could well be said about humor: that we know very well what it is until someone asks us to explain it.[2] Humor seems to mock all attempts at definition. In spite of the elusiveness of definition, it appears that, by general agreement, humor is more than the bare ability to make or perceive jokes. True, it often works through smiling and laughter; and laughter may be produced by and express joy, merriment, and amusement. But, it may also be produced by mockery, derision, and scorn.[3] Scripture provides examples of both types of humor. Thus, for the purposes of this article, humor generally refers to the capacity for amusement, with all of the varied forms that it may take. This definition is broad enough to include both "positive" and "negative" forms.

Historical Overview: Approaches to a Theology of Humor

Our Christian God concept is illuminated by our ability to consider humor as a part of the divine life.

Throughout history, Christians have swung the pendulum in two opposite directions as far as humor and laughter are concerned. On one hand, many Christians have acted as if faith and laughter are either incommensurate or contradictory. On the other hand, some have wholeheartedly embraced and sought after it. Why the great disparity? What answer does a sound theology give to this dilemma? Obviously, there is an important need to have a proper understanding of the place of humor in a balanced Christian theology.

Traditionally, theologians have widely claimed that the Old Testament does not abound in humorous passages because its tones and aims that are lofty and serious. Joy and pleasure are recommended as values to live by, yet these moods or human conditions are rarely, if ever, equated with lightheartedness. Admittedly, there are numerous instances of both overt and potential comic situations in Old Testament narrative as well as in poetic and prophetic passages. However, one finds that most of them veer towards the scorn, ridicule pole, rather than the merry facet of humor. In short, light-hearted comedy is not considered a popular Old Testament medium.[4]

Hvidberg, along with other Jewish scholars, challenge this traditional view. He thinks that "It is possible in the Old Testament to find the influence of divine laughter from the festivals of the common people in poetry like the Song of Songs, and in different anecdotes that have been told at the cult-places and market-places." [5] Laughter is the expression of joy and happiness in the Canaanitic cult.

Furthermore, much of current Christian theology impresses upon the theologian the ongoing foundations of Christian faith within Jewishness.[6] Therefore, in addition to a simple examination of the Old Testament, a much wider picture is afforded by subsequent Hebrew texts. Both the Talmud and the Mishnah can be considered as further testimony to the incompleteness and partiality of the current understanding of humor in the Biblical Hebrew text. While there is little study given to the humor that is found in the Old Testament, many Jewish scholars have studied Jewish humor of later centuries and published interesting anthologies of humorous literature.[7] Apart from the strictly ascetic view by which later medievalists condemned humor and laughter, the rabbis of the Talmudic period saw no reason for such a general condemnation. Humor and laughter simply expressed joy and relaxation; they were quite legitimate "this-worldly" pleasures.[8] It would be rather unlikely that the sense of humor, which scholars have found in Jewish literature of later centuries, did not exist at all in the Old Testament.[9]

God ordained laughter as well as tears, joy as fully as sorrow, fun as surely as serious endeavor.

Similarly, it should be accepted as natural that humor was a fairly strong sentiment among the first Christians, not in spite of the “eschatological” situation, but because of it. However, as time moves on, throughout the history of the church, one can find drastic extremes in relation to views of humor and laughter. The Early Church, because of its struggles with Greek and Roman paganism, tended to associate laughter and humor with pagan frivolity and a hedonistic philosophy of life. The church fathers were determined to separate themselves decisively from the hollow hilarity of those who would "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Thus, Chrysostom preached that "this world is not a theatre in which we can laugh, and we are not assembled together in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins." One can cite many similar counsels throughout the history of the church.[10]

At the other extreme, throughout the ages, the church has used laughter and comedy as a response to the church’s celebration of the victory of life in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter hymns have affirmed the victory of life by laughing at death. Easter sermons, during the Middle Ages, often began with and contained jokes. In addition, telling jokes both inside and outside of church, and in family gatherings, was a common practice on Easter Sunday in the Orthodox tradition. The basis of all joke telling was the cosmic joke God pulled off in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That Easter morning, God had the last laugh, and the whole world laughed at the devil’s surprise, embarrassment, and discomfort.[11] In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri reports that after he had made the tortuous ascent from hell to purgatory and had then drawn close to the celestial sphere, he suddenly heard a sound he had never heard before. Stopping and listening, he writes, "It sounded like the laughter of the universe."[12]

Reasons for the Neglect of the Study of Humor

Why have religious thinkers been of little or no help in the theological study of humor? Why is there a striking paucity of contributions on humor by theologians? It is strange that theologians, who in all ages have enjoyed the humor of puns, jokes, parody, wit, and satire, have not realized earlier the theological significance of humor.[13] In one passage of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, one monk furiously criticizes another one for presuming to think that Christ ever laughed.[14] One may dismiss his rigidness as excessive, but the question remains: Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our theology? There are most likely several reasons why the researches into the overall significance of humor have not been expounded by theologians.

1. Humor Cannot Be Analyzed

First, there is the prejudice at work against the supposed deadening effect that theory exerts upon all living phenomena. Analysis is for humor what ornithology is for the birds. "Humor," writes E.B. White, "can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind." Apparently, some feel that humor is only to be enjoyed, not understood.[15]

The widespread failure to recognize and to appreciate the humor of Christ is one of the most amazing aspects of the era named for Him.

2. Humor is Too Complex a Subject

Second, there is the complexity of the subject. It seems to defy analysis; there are as many types of humor and different kinds of "jokes, puns, whims, twits, and follies, and nameless little light-winged forms of small talk," as there are occasions, feelings, and acts. "Humor escapes science," concluded Bergson. It is too involved and overflows neat categories. "There is no subject," agrees Max Eastman, "besides God, toward which the analytic mind has ever advocated so explicit and particular a humility."[16]

3. Humor is Too Diverse

The third reason for neglect could be humor’s seeming omnipresence. It seems to be potentially, if not actually, in all places at all times. It is too obvious to evoke serious attention and too ubiquitous to stimulate concentration. Eastman is of the opinion that we would be "compelled to classify all things that are," and have "to kill and chloroform the whole universe and pin down the very wings of time, in order to complete this science and be sure that everything laughable is ordered and understood as it should be."[17]

4. Humor is Incompatible With Religion

Perhaps a fourth reason why theologians have not seriously concerned themselves with the consideration of humor is the apparently widespread belief that religion and humor are incompatible, even antithetical. Such a view holds that religion is an ultimate seriousness about life, and humor is mere frivolous fun or indecorous jesting: both have respective roles to play, but they are totally dissimilar, like oil and water, and can never be united.[18] This attitude may be more prevalent than one initially suspects. Religious scholar Sidney Mead once stated that he "never felt comfortable nor welcome within the temple of religion" because he was born with the "gift of laughter" and the "penalty of having a sense of humor." "Humor and religion," he says, "may be functional equivalents, but they are mutually exclusive."[19]

5. We Are Too Familiar With Bible Text Without Humor

A fifth possible reason for our failure to laugh is our extreme familiarity with the received text. The words seem to us like old coins in which the edges have been worn smooth and the engravings have become almost indistinguishable. This is particularly true of the words of the Authorized Version. The words seem so hallowed that they deepen the force of inherited assumptions, which may actually be contrary to fact.[20]

6. Influence of Asceticism

An additional factor may be the influence of asceticism. Asceticism was long believed to have special religious significance. Asceticism came to refer to the discipline for piety and religious virtue by curbing or denying the desires of the flesh. In the early Christian church, under the influence of the Greek writers and of certain Jewish attitudes, there arose an increased emphasis on asceticism until, in the second century, it was commonly held that ascetic denial and mortification of the body was a higher form of religious expression than the practice of the positive Christian virtues.[21]

It is not really surprising, therefore, that the Christian should laugh and sing; after all, he has a great deal to laugh about.

7. Influence of Puritanism

There is a seventh possible reason for the neglect of the study of humor. In the United States, the strong hand of Puritanism shaped and directed religious expression. While Puritanism made many constructive contributions to the life and character of America, it devoted itself so passionately to the God of Justice that it almost overlooked the God of Love. It was stern business to overcome "the world, the flesh and the devil," so stern that it left little room for laughter and gaiety. The Puritan’s spiritual heirs carried this even farther. Misery became the thermometer of holiness. In a sense, the decision for an action was easy; if it were a pleasant thing to do, it was wrong. If it was fun, it was wicked. God always demanded that men and women do those things which they did not want to do. The more somber and distasteful the action, the more holy it was likely to be. Unfortunately, this caused many people to divorce themselves from association with the Church. Their reaction was due largely to a misunderstanding of the true nature of religion. At it fullest and finest, religion is replete with fundamental joy. It puts songs on the lips, hope in the heart, and spring in the step.[22]

8. Humor is Too Frivolous a Subject

The final reason for the neglect is the most obvious, and yet the most defeating of all: it is considered too frivolous a topic for "serious" minds. The subject may be intriguing (in a peripheral way) but not worth the full consideration of the "real" scholar involved in "pertinent" pursuits.[23]

Beneficial Theological Ramifications of Humor

A bias against the study of humor, for whatever reason, is unfortunate in that it blocks several benefits. It is only in the past few years that theologians have begun to give humor the concerted attention it merits. This new emphasis should prove rewarding in the reaping of new theological harvests. Several theological ramifications make the study of humor vitally important.

1. Deepens Our Knowledge of God

The first theological ramification of a study of humor is that our Christian God concept is illuminated by our ability to consider humor as a part of the divine life. "The man without humor, even if he’s the pope, doesn’t know God. He sees in the mirror of his seriousness nothing but the image of his essential fears of the projection of collective necessities …. As Karl Barth was able to write: ’Theology is a joyful science.’ "[24] One limits his theology drastically when he sees life with God without humor.”God cannot creep into manhood and escape the small and hampered eternity to which we want to relegate him except through some immaterial breaches: love and humor."[25] This understanding encourages us into a deeper relationship with God.

When one finally begins to understand something about the playfulness of God, he discovers that God invites him to playfulness in return. There is a hardy and playful banter with God that seems to be much more prevalent in the Jewish tradition. There it takes the form of a particular expression of prayer known as Chutz pa k’lapei shemaya, boldness with regard to heaven. Its goal is intimacy — a deeper relationship with God made possible by the mutual acceptance of play.[26] For example, in the rabbinical tradition it is said that Moses once took God to task for using inconsistent pronouns in speaking of the people of Israel. In Exodus 3:10, Yahweh had said, "Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But after Israel’s sin with the golden calf, God said to Moses, "Go down, for your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves" (Ex. 32:7). Moses then cried in protest, saying, "Wait a minute, God. You can’t call them your people when they’re good and my people when they’re bad. Whether they’re good or bad, they’re still your people!" The rabbis, of course, knew that God broke into laughter at that moment, unable to resist the prayerful teasing of someone He loved.

2. Humor is a Part of Religious Life

The second theological ramification of a study of humor is that it encourages a freer exchange and healing honesty concerning the wholeness of our faith. Through the years, spiritual leaders have stressed the distinction between "worldly" and "sacred," placing everyday life apart from religion, so that the average person now assumes that religion has little to do with the world. Yet this is a false distinction, for religion at its best permeates all of life. All of life is religious, for all of its components are a part of God’s purpose and plan. God ordained laughter as well as tears, joy as fully as sorrow, fun as surely as serious endeavor. In the house of religion, it is a mistake to place gloom in the seat of honor and to relegate good cheer to the kitchen — or to the backyard.[27]

If God gives humor its significance and justifies laughter, then humor, in its turn, can bathe even theology in its dancing light.

When one takes all of life from God’s hand, religion ceases to be a sanctimonious segment from which one has squeezed most of the juices of joy. "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits," cried the Psalmist (103:2). "When one perceives that God does not place a premium on pursed lips, foreboding visages and sad hearts, a lightness and gaiety can enter lives to clothe religion with a deeper personal satisfaction and make more attractive, better-balanced people."[28] As E. Stanley Jones remarked, many gloomy personalities think that they are wearing martyr’s crowns when in reality they wear only dunce caps.[29] Christians need a graceful hilarity of experiencing life (the good and the bad) as a realistic joy which knows no separation between holy and profane existence, but in which all aspects of life cohere in a dynamic and ecstatic wholeness.[30]

3. Humor is an Antidote for Pride

The third theological ramification of a study of humor is that it can help one to deal with pride. Reinhold Niebuhr noted, "Humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point form which it is able to look at itself. The sense of humor is thus a by-product of self-transcendence …. This means that the ability to laugh at oneself is the prelude to the sense of contrition." [31] If it were not for the medicine of created laughter, there would be no adequate antidote to pride and vanity among men. God has created people with a self-consciousness which makes conceit possible, but He has also made them able to laugh and thus to provide a balance to this danger.[32]

4. Humor is a Coping Mechanism

The fourth theological ramification of a study of humor is that it helps one keep perspective. Humor can help people to cope with and properly understand their human existence. Human existence provides humorous reminders that they are not God. It also permits people to accept and celebrate their paradoxical existence.[33] Any alleged Christianity which fails to express itself in joy, at some point, is clearly spurious. The Christian is joyful, not because he is blind to injustice and suffering, but because he is convinced that these, in the light of divine sovereignty, are never ultimate. He is convinced that the unshakable purpose is the divine rule in all things, whether of heaven or earth. The humor of the Christian is not a way of denying tears, but rather a way of affirming something which is deeper than tears.[34] "The man who reacts with humor to the event that crushes him reveals the measureless measure of man. The man who smiles in face of his death already lives his immortality. Humor is a quiver of transcendence within the weight of mankind."[35]

Humor is the ability to laugh at oneself and thereby accept oneself with all of one’s vulnerabilities and faults.[36] Humor is one of the finest solvents for irritations in life, because it helps to get rid of conflicts that really do not matter; it disposes of irrelevancies by laughing at them. It enables one to get a fresh perspective on tough problems, a perspective which helps shift the situation into manageable proportions.[37] Laughter has the power to lift the spirit, for it can transform even tears into lenses through which to see life more clearly and can brighten black horizons with the light of hope.[38]

5. Jesus Appreciated Humor

The fifth point which validates of a theological study of humor is that even Jesus appreciated humor and joy. As Leslie Weatherhead has noted, when we clear away the accumulated assumptions of the centuries, the picture we get of the founder of the Christian faith is that of a radiant, laughter-loving friend, adored by children and magnetic in His appeal to all except those blinded by bias, self-interest, or importance. Like a subway train that, passing through the station, sets the little papers dancing after it between the tracks, so one could tell where Jesus had been by the lives that danced behind Him.[39]

One must endeavor to rediscover that twinkle in Jesus’ eye — that most effective device for puncturing the pomposity of those grave authority figures, from Jesus’ contemporaries to our own.[40] Jesus was at home with all the refinement of oriental humor, and very often His adversaries bore the cost of it. Jesus made use of irony and even insolence, both with sovereign freedom and humor. His humor was always opening doors; He broke down all human enclosures, whether that of the human heart, the society of his time, or that of Judaism and the synagogue.[41]

The widespread failure to recognize and to appreciate the humor of Christ is one of the most amazing aspects of the era named for Him. Anyone who reads the gospels with a relative freedom from presuppositions might be expected to see that Christ laughed and that He expected others to laugh, but our capacity to miss this aspect of His life is phenomenal. A misguided piety has made us fear that acceptance of His obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious. Religion, we think, is serious business, and serious business is incompatible with banter.[42]

It may well be that a growing sensitivity for the Jewish humor in Jesus can have significance far beyond the definition of genre and style. The consequences of Christ’s rejection of the dismal (Matthew 6:16) are great, not only for common life, but also for theology. If Christ laughed a great deal, as the evidence shows, and if He is what He claimed to be, one cannot avoid the logical conclusion that there is laughter and gaiety in the heart of God. The deepest conviction of all Christian theology is the affirmation that the God of the entire world is like Jesus Christ.[43]

6. God Has a Sense of Humor

A sixth and primary reason for the theological study of humor is that it is a direct reflection of the image of God. As humanity was endowed with reason, so was it given a bit of the Almighty’s sense of humor.[44] Humor is the sign of the presence of God in humankind. Humor is a unique and authentic aspect of human nature which can thereby assist one in a more complete understanding of the nature of God.

The characteristic of humor should not be avoided when discussing men and women being in the image of God. We attribute the powers of creativity, thought, feeling, desire, love, hate, and will to God, why not the power of mirth? We speak of God suffering, why not laughing? If tragedy gives us insight into God and the nature of humanity, why not comedy? Like as a father laughs at his children, why not God? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, consider the possibilities for His unlimited sense of humor and His ability to enjoy laughter, to laugh, to be amused. "Being logically consistent with his other anthropomorphic traits, the thought overwhelms the imagination. A supreme being devoid of the healthy ability to see the humorous, to be amused, to laugh at himself in any sense whatsoever, would be defective, if not demonic."[45]

To say God has a sense of humor and laughs, is not implying that God has a physical form to make laughter as we know it possible. Rather, His laughter reflects something of the depth of His character.[46] The anthropomorphism of the idea of God, which is obvious in the Hebrew literature, would not be completely described without paying attention to the humorous traits of the picture of God.[47] This is supported by the fact that although the biblical authors and the rabbis quite often use anthropological terms when talking about God, these terms are, in the Talmud literature, understood as allegorical interpretations of the eternal and spiritual. One should, therefore, expect that the rabbinic authors would exclude any hints of God as connected with humor and laughter. The Talmud, however, will show the contrary. The Talmud contains several examples which demonstrate that in spite of the great religious fervor and seriousness of the rabbis, they could use humorous parables and similes when talking about God himself. The great respect and humility towards God does not exclude such tactics in teaching, preaching, and defining theology.[48]

Humor comes in handy when dealing with the many idiosyncrasies of the Christian life.

A mirthless spirit is actually a distortion both of our basic humanity (what it means to be created in the image of God) and of Christian humanity (what it means to be re-created in the image of God). It corresponds neither to the nature of the first Adam nor the second. Still, despite copious theological efforts devoted to interpreting the meaning of the "image and likeness of God," little has been said about laughter and humor as important aspects of this image, let alone as important spiritual attributes.[49] The significance of humor has remained incomprehensible because of the failure to recognize its ontological character.

The omission is especially remarkable considering that it is seriousness we share with the animals, while in laughter we laugh alone. The creation of humanity was distinguished from the creation of all other creatures. While they were created after their own kind, Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. We are the only animals that weep and laugh, and know that we weep and laugh, and wonder why. We are the only creatures that weep over the fact that we weep, and laugh over the fact that we laugh. We are the most humor-seeking, humor-making, and humor-giving species that has walked the earth, ever ready to provoke or be provoked with laughter.[50] The simple fact is that the most highly trained and domesticated animals neither get the point of a single pun or witticism, nor devise any of their own. A capacity for humor is really what differentiates human beings from other animals. The spirit which they express is therefore, in an important sense, a reflection of the divine Spirit.[51]

It is noteworthy that even an infant, around the age of one month, and well before manifesting any of the more impressive "godlike" characteristics we pride ourselves on possessing — self-awareness, reason, speech, conscience, and the like — first of all smiles. Shortly thereafter the child learns to laugh. These are the first manifestations of its humanity (well, almost their first).The innateness, instinctive nature of humor is evidenced in a study by Black (1984) which cites an observation from a deaf, blind child who was completely without auditory or visual stimulation from her social environment. When the child was teased with a doll dropped inside the neck of her dress, she rollicked with laughter. This child had never seen anyone laugh or even heard laughter. How then could she have learned it? And why did she find the situation comical instead of frightening? Without ever having observed another’s response to a funny situation, how did the child find humor in this one? Does this not point out the innateness of humor?

Laughter and humor, however, are not always a clear image of God. Much laughter is fallen laughter. It moves in a direction and out of a spirit that is the opposite of the divine. Laughter and humor can be arrogant, taunting, scornful, contemptuous, sneering, vulgar, cruel, bitter, and insane. Because of these possibilities, it has been easy for some to see humor as pagan, and to treat laughter as a dangerous gas that must be tightly bottled up.[52] One must, therefore, be able to clearly distinguish between the kinds of laughter.

7. Humor is Healing

Seventh, not only does humor in the constitution of human beings provide insight into God’s nature, but it provides an avenue for God’s nature as healer to be made available to humankind. Laughter heals. God gave men and women the capacity for laughter and humor, thus providing a means to demonstrate His healing power in the lives of His creation. That humor and laughter have healing power is as old as Proverbs: "A cheerful heart is good medicine" (17:22). In the midst of the restless avidities of life, humor relaxes tensions and relieves pressures. It is like a medicine. It is an antidote, at times, not only for the pressures of humanity’s aggressive and ungratified impulses from within, but also for the threats of death, fate, error, and guilt from without.[53]

"Laughter is God’s soothing touch on a fevered world."[54] A good sense of humor can make life more tolerable and even improve physical well-being. A happy mind is a healthy mind, for laughter relaxes the mind from intense concentration. Religion traditionally has been people’s major means of reducing anxieties caused by the threats of existence. Since the reduction of anxiety is a fundamental element in humor also, it is in this respect similar to religion. Humor and religion, each in its own way, are profoundly regenerative; they are the two most effectively therapeutic means at our disposal for responding to our finitude.[55]

Proper Understanding of Divine Laughter

While giving a definition for humor, it was stated that there are two distinct elements of humor, and that both are found in biblical references to God’s laughter.

God Laughs At Us

At this point, the focus of this discussion shifts to a more negative aspect of humor. There is theological significance in the connections between humor and the theme of God’s judgment. The careful reader of Scripture is aware that God laughs a lot at human folly. Here is the classical passage:

Why do the nations conspire, and the people plot in vain? The kings of the earth

set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed, saying, "Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us." He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4, RSV)

Here God ridicules idolaters and self-serving people who foolishly arrogate to themselves divine prerogatives. Ignorance and pretensions of absoluteness are often the target of humor’s arrows. And God’s humor is no exception; it seems to delight in laying low the haughty, in humiliating the arrogant. God laughs to scorn those who set themselves up as high and mighty kings and who forget that they are only men, creatures answerable to God and to His law. It is as if God cannot help seeing the ridiculous and comical in the revolt and fighting of the helpless creatures who intend to hinder Him in completing His own plans.[56] The point here, then, is that humor in the Bible is clearly iconoclastic, designed to smash pretensions. As such then, wherever and whenever it happens in the world, it may be expressing the hidden, often mysterious judgment of God in our midst.[57]

God laughs at oppression and meanness? At first the idea sounds irreverent. With suffering and evil so rampant, how can a loving God laugh? God laughs, it seems, because God knows how it all turns out in the end. Further, the laughter of God does not come from afar. It does not emanate from One who can safely chortle from a safe distance at another’s pain. It comes from One who has also felt the hunger pangs, the hurt of betrayal by friends and the torturer’s touch.[58]

When it comes to humanity, as important as this kind of laughter is, it is incomplete if it stops at the pride, hypocrisy, and idolatry of others. Laughter at the faults and follies of others is only fully justified when one is willing to include oneself in the human comedy. Those without sin are invited to cast the first stone, and those with logs in their eyes are counseled about trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes. Humor is thus able to provide a sense of perspective on one’s own life, not just other people’s lives.[59]

God Laughs With Us

The idea of God laughing at us, however, is incomplete. A deeper look into the Scriptures indicates that God not only laughs at us, but also with us, and this makes all the difference.

God’s judgment always prepares the way for His salvation in Scripture. God never destroys just to destroy. And so also God’s humor, His laughing, presupposes a larger context. And this is the context within which one must study God’s laughing and humor. This wider setting is God’s salvation, which expresses his grace. Instead of moving only in the direction of the injustices of life and the follies of others, humor can embrace life and others in spite of failings and disappointments. The element of judgment in humor now passes over into mercy. The laughter of justice has now become the laughter of forgiving grace.[60] He laughs in a manner similar to a parent realizing that his son or daughter will make mistakes which he will eventually grow out of. When viewing our foolish rebellion, God is amused, but also hurt. Yet, this amused hurt is balanced by the realistic hope of future change on our part, and this gives his laughter a dimension of love and acceptance.[61]

God knows that the day will come when our ignorance will give way to wisdom and true knowledge. Then will begin the festive joy with Him that He had in mind from the start. It is not really surprising, therefore, that the Christian should laugh and sing; after all, he has a great deal to laugh about.[62]

By dealing with the imprisonment of the human spirit (in the world) by laughter, humor manages to imply that the imprisonment is not definitive, that one day it will overcome. Thus, humor also becomes an index of transcendence — and in this case takes the form of a discreet call to redemption.[63] Faith in God allows one to participate, as it were, in the divine laughter. The first and last word belong to God, and therefore not to death but to life, not to sorrow but joy, not to weeping but laughter. For surely, it is God who has the last laugh.[64] The opposite of joy is not sorrow. It is unbelief.

One’s faith in God, through belief on Jesus Christ, brings the nature of the new creation to the forefront. One key element of this is joy. Repeatedly, Christians are exhorted to rejoice in the Lord always. As was seen earlier, the biblical picture sees laughter as simply an expression of joy. Thus, the laughter of joy is key for Christians. In Psalms 126:2, it is said that when the Lord will return the exultants of Zion "our mouth will be full of laughter and our tongue of song." Laughter and song are, thus, the expression of joy.[65] A close study of the occurrences of words for joy in Scripture (especially in the New Testament) reveals that the Christian conception of joy is firmly based on the main doctrines of the Christian faith. It is founded on the very character of God the Father, the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, as well as the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of every believer.[66]

It has been demonstrated, that when one turns to the Scriptures, he finds God "laughing." In the Bible, God not only laughs at us, but also with us. He laughs in amusement at our folly, but He also laughs and dances with us in our victories (which are really His victories).[67]

While it would be wrong to give the impression that humor is a dominant characteristic of the Bible, it is being suggested that it is more theologically significant than scholars have usually allowed. (If frequency were the key for theological importance, then humor would be more important than the virgin birth and the baptism in the Holy Spirit.) Humor is rooted in our Creator, and hence provides for us a reflection of divinity. Thus, humor gains its most basic relevance for theological consideration. As Christians begin to see the humor in the Bible, God’s laughing will become more audible. One will begin to see the lighter side of God in a more meaningful way. The dynamics of humor open up a viable and creative approach to the task of enlarging and revitalizing the theological vocation. If God gives humor its significance and justifies laughter, then humor, in its turn, can bathe even theology in its dancing light.

While many do not often think of spiritual matters in humorous terms, it may be wise to do so. Humor comes in handy when dealing with the many idiosyncrasies of the Christian life. The Bible declares that "a cheerful heart is good medicine." But the Bible doesn’t single out laughter as a magic healing pill. The Bible seems to cite laughter as merely the signal of an overall attitude that both embraces life and wryly accepts our creaturely status before the creator. This attitude says that life is a good thing, a gift from God to be used as creatively and positively as possible. This may not bring belly laughs, but it should leave a deep sense of joy and hope. "This life embracing attitude also prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. Who are we, after all, to question the mind and nature of our all-knowing Creator? And when we see our simple silliness in the face of events that are obviously far bigger than we are, laughter is often the best response."[68]

To live authentically is to be true to one’s essential nature, and part of humanity’s essential nature is to laugh, to see the humorous dimension at the depths of existence. Humor expresses a dimension of consciousness that gives richness, value, and dignity to human life, despite the inescapable bonds of human fate. Through such divine humor, one is able to bear up under intolerable circumstances that otherwise would consume one. Such laughter is transcendent. It is beyond words. By humor, or ultimate discern, we transcends our conditioned nature and becomes united with God, the Ground of his being. Humor heals and unites us with one another and with the Ground of all being. Consequently, a Christian theologian without a sense of humor seems to be a contradiction in terms.

A proper understanding of divine humor should result in tremendous consequences for Christian life, worship, service, and relationship with God. Truly, one can rejoice in the Lord always. "The Christian faith is not a dirge but a paean of joy." Or, as St. Francis of Assisi expressed it, "Let us leave sadness to the devil and his angels. As for us, what can we be but rejoicing and glad?" [69] As one theologian so eloquently exclaims: "What I find myself longing for most is not a well-formulated theodicy. I wouldn’t be satisfied with answers to the problem of evil even if I had them. What I desire most of all is the assurance of God’s love, the echo of God’s laughter breaking over men in waves of playfulness that will not let me go. I am sometimes frightened when confronted by a God who must help me address the shortcomings and failures in my life, but then slowly the laughter begins to well, God’s arms open wide, and suddenly I know myself to have been loved all along. I even imagine God and I rolling over together in helpless laughter — shrieking a wondrously will Rejoice Chorus at our mutual triumphs." [70]

Bibliography

  • Benson, John E. "The Divine Sense of Humor." Dialog 22 (Summer, 1983): 191-197.
  • Brown, Colin, gen. ed. Dictionary of New Testament Theology. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986. Vol. 2: "Laugh," by E.M. Embry.
  • Byrnes, Diane. "RX: Laughter." Journal of Pastoral Counseling 24 (Summer, 1989): 44-50.
  • Cox, Harvey. "God’s Last Laugh." Christianity and Crisis 47 (April 6, 1987): 107-108.
  • Eastman, Max. The Sense of Humor. New York: Scribner’s, 1921.
  • Eckardt, A. Roy. "Is There a Christian Laughter?" Encounter 53 (Spring 1992): 109-117.
  • Grady, J. Lee. "Laughter in Lakeland." Charisma, August 1993, pp. 61-62.
  • Hildebrand, Kenneth. Achieving Real Happiness. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1955.
  • Hyers, Conrad. "Christian Humor: Uses and Abuses of Laughter." Dialog 22 (Summer, 1983): 191-197.
  • Ice, Jackson Lee. "Notes Toward a Theology of Humor." Religion in Life 42 (Autumn, 1973): 388-400.
  • Jonsson, Jakob. Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1985.
  • Lane, Belden C. "God Plays Rough for Love’s Sake." Christian Century 104 (October 14, 1987): 879-881.
  • Metz, Johann Baptist and Jean-Pierre Jossua, eds. Theology of Joy. New York: Herder and Herder, 1974.
  • Miller, David L. "Salvation and the Image of Comedy." Religion in Life 33 (Summer, 1964): 451-464.
  • Moody, Jr., R.A. Laugh After Laugh: The Healing Power of Humor. Florida: Headwaters Press, 1978.
  • Morrice, William. Joy in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman Publishing Company, 1984.
  • Muck, Terry. "Seriously Folks." Christianity Today, February 19, 1990, p. 11.
  • Niedenthal, Morris J. "A Comic Response to the Gospel: The Dethronement of the Powers." Dialog 25 (Fall, 1986): 286-290.
  • Pecota, Daniel. "When God Laughs." Sermon presented at Northwest College, October 19, 1984.
  • Radday, Yehuda T. and Athalya Brenner, eds. On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield, England: The Almond Press, 1990.
  • Trueblood, Elton. The Humor of Christ. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1964.

ENDNOTES

[1] Jackson Lee Ice, "Notes Toward a Theology of Humor," Religion in Life 42 (Autumn, 1973): 388.

[2] John E. Benson, "The Divine Sense of Humor," Dialog 22 (Summer, 1983): 191,192.

[3] Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner, eds., On Humour and the Comicin the Hebrew Bible, (Sheffield, England: The Almond Press, 1990), p. 39.

[4] Radday and Brenner, p. 40-42.

[5] Jakob Jonsson, Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash, (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1985), p. 47.

[6] A. Roy Eckardt, "Is There a Christian Laughter?" Encounter 53 (Spring 1992): 109.

[7] Jonsson, p. 41.

[8] Metz and Jossua, p. 145.

[9] Jonsson, p. 41.

[10] Conrad Hyers, "Christian Humor: Uses and Abuses of Laughter," Dialog 22 (Summer, 1983): 198.

[11] Morris J. Niedenthal,"A Comic Response to the Gospel: The Dethronement of the Powers," Dialog 25 (Fall, 1986): 288.

[12] Harvey Cox, "God’s Last Laugh," Christianity and Crisis 47 (April 6, 1987): 107.

[13] Ibid, p. 390.

[14] Cox, p. 107.

[15] Ice, p. 389.

[16] Max Eastman, The Sense of Humor, (New York: Scribner’s, 1921), p. 86.

[17] Eastman, p. 87.

[18] Ice, p. 390.

[19] Ibid, p. 391.

[20] Trueblood, p. 18,19.

[21] Kenneth Hildebrand, Achieving Real Happiness, (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1955), p.199,200.

[22] Hildebrand, p. 201.

[23] Ice, p. 390.

[24] Metz and Jossua, p. 90.

[25] Ibid, p. 90.

[26] Belden C. Lane, "God Plays Rough for Love’s Sake," Christian Century 104 (October 14, 1987):880.

[27] Hildebrand, p. 198-9.

[28] Ibid, p. 199.

[29] Ibid, p. 199.

[30] David L. Miller, "Salvation and the Image of Comedy," Religion in Life 33 (Summer, 1964): 453.

[31] Niedenthal, p. 289.

[32] Trueblood, p. 36.

[33] Hyers, p. 201.

[34] Trueblood, p. 32.

[35] Metz and Jossua, p. 90.

[36] R.A. Moody, Jr., Laugh After Laugh: The Healing Power of Humor, (Florida: Headwaters Press, 1978), p. 4.

[37] Hildebrand, p. 194.

[38] Ibid, p. 195.

[39] Ibid, p. 204,205.

[40] Jonsson, p. 6.

[41] Metz and Jossua, p. 93.

[42] Trueblood, p. 15.

[43] Ibid, p. 32.

[44] Ice, p. 388.

[45] Ibid, p. 390.

[46] Pecota, 1984.

[47] Jonsson, p. 49.

[48] Ibid, p. 52-56.

[49] Hyers, p. 198.

[50] Ice, p. 392.

[51] Hyers, p. 199.

[52] Ibid, p. 199.

[53] Ice, p. 395.

[54] Hildebrand, p. 194.

[55] Ice, p. 395,396.

[56] Jonsson, p. 48.

[57] Benson, p. 194.

[58] Cox, p.107.

[59] Hyers, p. 201.

[60] Ibid, p. 202.

[61] Benson, p. 195.

[62] Trueblood, p. 25.

[63] Metz and Jossua, p. 88.

[64] Hyers, p. 203.

[65] Metz and Jossua, p. 145.

[66] William Morrice, Joy in the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman Publishing Company, 1984), p. 153.

[67] Benson, p. 193.

[68] Terry Muck, "Seriously Folks," Christianity Today, February 19, 1990, p.11.

[69] Morrice, p. 154.

[70] Lane, p. 881.