“It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.” –John Ames
Ames, a congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa, is a fictional character in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. The book has been reading me, an aspiring pastor, more than I have been reading it. But this quote, in conjunction with another experience, led me to consider laughter afresh.
My friend and I sat after a brimming meal at his house. His wife took their little girl upstairs for a bath. Their giggles rang through the house, and my friend paused our conversation for what to me seemed like a few brief seconds, but for him it was a few lifetimes. He was enthralled. He was in bliss as he cherished each sweet chuckle. “I love those laughs,” he simply said, coming down from the clouds.
And that got me thinking about this gift of laughter. It had me thinking of those times our Lord must have laughed during his time on earth. Now it’s true, nowhere in Scripture do we have a specific record of Christ laughing. We do know that he was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). But also that he is anointed with “the oil of gladness” beyond his companions (Hebrews 1:9). It is more than reasonable to assume that the happiest person in the universe, after taking our flesh and our sorrows, untarnished by his own sin, often boiled over with the best of laughter.
Jesus was the very embodiment of love. He was filled with God’s Spirit, who produces the fruit of joy (Galatians 5:22). I imagine that he and his disciples roared in some good times of belly-aching, room-rocking laughter in their collective joy.
The text I draw this from is John 15:12–15, in which Jesus emphasizes how he is friends with those who truly follow him. He will share his joy, which he possessed first, with them (John 17:13). Of course, it’s true to say that this joy relates to the peace we have with God through Christ.
But more practically, think of the many implications, and manifestations, of such a pledge for those he was immediately speaking to. Is there true friendship without sharing laughter together? Without enjoying the gift of each other? If all things were made through and for Christ, that must include the joys of relationships, of friendships — of happiness shared in laughter!
These joys are such a significant part of the human experience that it would be odd, perhaps even sinful, for the Lord, who “put on our feelings along with our flesh” as John Calvin says, to have passed over them. Therefore, the joy of Christ — and thus our joy — is serious business with eternal costs.
Laughter Is Serious Business
So it’s right and useful to consider the ways his joy was expressed while among us. Perhaps because the gospel writers knew Jesus’s laughing would be so obvious a reality they needn’t bother mentioning it. Or perhaps their eyes were so set on Calvary that they dare not make the gospel vignettes seem trite. But that they did not record it all, John makes plain in striking terms: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30).
Perhaps no one is clearer on Christ’s laughter and joy than Scottish theologian, Donald Macleod:
Much has been made of the fact that Jesus is never said to have smiled or laughed. Linked to the description of the Servant as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ it has furnished a basis for the idea that Jesus’ life was unremittingly joyless and stressful. But this is a serious over-simplification. Apart from all else, a joyless life would have been a sinful life. Would Jesus have been guilty of the anxiety he forbade in others (Mt. 6:25)? Would he have fallen short of Paul’s attainment as one who had learned to be content whatever the circumstances (Phil. 4:11)? Or of the precept to ‘rejoice always’ (Phil. 4:4)? Could he have been filled with the Spirit and yet not have know the Spirit’s joy (Gal. 5:22)? Could he have given rest and relief to others (Mt. 11:28) while remaining depressed and disconsolate himself? . . .
There can be little doubt that, apart from the brief (although indescribably intense) moment of dereliction on Calvary, Jesus was serene, contented, and happy. He rejoiced, doubtless, in the being of his Father, meditating on him as an object of wonder and admiration; in his Father’s love, approbation and constant help and presence; in the beauties and glories of his Father’s creation; in doing his Father’s will, promoting his glory and saving his people; in the friendship, company and conversation of those the Father had given to be with him; and in anticipating his return to the glory he had with the Father ‘before the world began’ (Jn. 17:5). Such joy was an indispensable element in the psychology of his obedience. He served not as a slave but as a son. (The Person of Christ, 171)
Laughter is one way to see happiness and hear it; it’s happiness made visible and audible. It’s the sound of joy. It’s not joy’s only sound; there is joy in sorrow, in tears, underneath sobs, and in silence. And there is laughter — this happy treasure — to cherish as a gift from God.
Here, then, is a poem called “Beats,” on the holy laughter of Christ:
Mama & daughter giggle in the suds, Baby girl & sister wriggle crackin’ up, Sissy & bride squealin’ with white wine. Ladies straight thunderin’, rollin’ joyous tides! Bathing in their bright rivers roaring from their dam-bustin’ hearts, the founts of their baptizing, glad refrain, Sarah’s thankful son adores the bellows: the resetting glees these gals hurricane. I didn’t know folks could hear it: chords of happiness’ hootin’ ring. But ah, now I see it — that hearing laughter is hearing happiness: guffawing hymns that smiles sing. M’dearies, please howl more your melodies, your chortlin’, cheered cacophonies, For your sonance croons venerating: That Jesus goofed and laughed, joked and jabbed; that God composed these beats. And they are good.