The Safety of a Father’s Laughter

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One of the best things that a father can do for his wife and children is laugh at what God laughs at.

Now, some things are not laughing matters; for instance, God’s promises should never be laughed at. He’s someone you should laugh with, but never at. Consider Abraham and Sarah — first they laughed at what God said to them, but in the end, they came to see that the joke was on them. And it was a good joke too, good in every way.

He promised them a son in their old age. It was a long-hoped-for blessing, finally given after the realm of possibility had been left far behind. But upon hearing the news, they laughed, and not for joy. And if it wasn’t scornful laughing, it was close to it. Here’s what I mean:

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her.” . . . Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?” (Genesis 17:15–17)

We’re not told if Abraham laughed out loud, or just to himself. But his laughter isn’t gladness for news that he’s long wanted to hear. He’s laughing because common sense tells him it’s ridiculous for a man of his age to sire a son.

Sarah’s Snicker

When Sarah hears the news, she laughs too, and in her case there’s no question that she laughs out loud.

The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening from the tent door behind him. . . . So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” (Genesis 18:10, 12–13)

The Lord asks rhetorically, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Embarrassed by her gaffe, Sarah denies laughing, but the Lord won’t let it pass. In fact, he mocks her laughter — and Abraham’s too — by telling them to name their child Isaac, which means “laughter” (Genesis 17:19). As the saying goes, “He who laughs last, laughs best.”

But the Lord isn’t the only one laughing in the end. We see Sarah join in — now laughing for joy at the absurdity of her blessedness. “And Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me’” (Genesis 21:6). She goes on to say, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:7).

When Contempt Chuckles

We’ve toned down the scornful character of laughter in our time. I suppose it has something to do with egalitarianism — no one should feel bad, or be laughed at, ever. But I think that God knows more about laughter than we do. Can you hear the self-deprecation in Sarah’s final laughter? She’s been humbled and she’s glad. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for us: those who laugh along with God at themselves laugh best.

“Those who laugh along with God at themselves laugh best.”

I’ve had a hard time finding a reference to God’s laughter in the Bible without detecting a little scorn in it. Take this, for instance: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). The Lord laughs at kings who are foolish enough to plot against him. The verticality of the picture can’t be separated from its meaning. Without the downward glance, there’d be nothing to laugh at.

Fathers, our little worlds can seem inconsequential in the big scheme of things. But they’re microcosms — small versions of what we see in the big picture. And that means that our little worlds can, and even should, reflect what we see here in the second psalm — especially when it comes to our homes, and our work as fathers. A father’s laughter should have some scorn in it.

If that seems like a stretch, let me stretch this even more. The literary character who helped me make the connection between God’s laughter and a father’s laughter is none other than Tom Bombadil, that famously enigmatic figure in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Laughter of the Master

Tom’s house is off the beaten track, as far off it as you can get if narrative speed is your overriding concern. But there he is anyway, laughing scornfully — mocking Peter Jackson, and anyone else who thinks he should have been left out of the trilogy — and living contentedly between the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs.

If you’ve only seen Jackson’s films and have never read the books for yourself, you probably have no idea who I’m talking about. But I’m sure Tom doesn’t mind being overlooked by Jackson (or by you). He’s a recluse and easy to forget — even Elrond forgets about him. But if Tom wanted attention, he’d be hard to ignore, because he just might be the most powerful creature in Middle-earth. Yes, you read that correctly. He might even be more powerful than Sauron, the Lord of the Rings.

How can I possibly say that? The giveaway is his laughter. That and the fact that his wife Goldberry says he is the master. No one can catch him; he evades every net, laughing all the while. He laughs at Old Man Willow when he rescues Merry and Pippin from the murderous tree. He laughs even when he saves the hobbits from the Barrow Wight, a spirit of darkness.

And his laughter isn’t maniacal or vindictive, as though in some way he felt threatened by these wicked creatures. His laughter is delightful — and we can’t help laughing with him. It’s as though he’s gotten down on his hands and knees to wrestle with children. When the powers of the world huff and puff and charge at him with all their might, he turns them upside down and exposes their tummies and laughs. Then he tussles their hair. (In the case of the Barrow Wight, he sends him off to his room beyond the confines of the world to await the final judgment because he’s been that naughty.)

But the most dramatic episode in which Tom demonstrates mastery is during his time at the table with the hobbits. It’s the end of a long rainy day, and Tom suddenly commands, “Show me the precious ring!” Then Frodo, to his own surprise, takes the Ring of Power out of hiding and hands it over to Tom without hesitation. What happens next surprises everyone at the table (as well as readers sitting at home).

Tom mocks the ring and its maker. He holds it up to his eye, bringing the Eye of Sauron to mind, and he laughs. Then, he puts it on his “little finger,” and he laughs again. And to the amazement of all, he fails to disappear! Instead, he takes it, flips it in the air, and makes it disappear! Then he leans forward and hands it back to Frodo with a smile, like an uncle who’s performed a magic trick to amuse and astound his nephews. No one can catch ol’ Tom — not even the Lord of the Rings.

Mirth of a Father

A father’s laughter is richer and more meaningful than most people suppose. I think even the bitterest feminist can’t help smiling when a father laughs. Levity can lighten the mood and grease the gears of the social machinery. But I’m getting at more than that — I’m getting at something more in keeping with Tom Bombadil and the second psalm.

A father’s scorn can put his family at ease. When he laughs at bumps in the night, or even bumps in the economy, a warm blanket of security can descend on everyone under his roof.

“Only the laughter of a master can put people at ease — the laughter of a man of strength.”

Naturally, what he laughs at should be laughable. If it isn’t, then his laughter will be forced and thin. (Weak laughter only increases the anxiety in the room.) Only the laughter of a master can put people at ease — the laughter of a man of strength, someone who is more dangerous than the dangers he faces.

To produce a feeling of security in those under your care, you truly must know how to keep them secure. A scornful laugh is based not on self-help platitudes but on genuine strength (at least if you want people to laugh with you and not at you behind your back).

And naturally, the secret source of a father’s strength, even in the most capable men, is God himself. He is the giver of physical and mental strength, and when those fail, he is still the bedrock basis of a father’s confidence, because even when fathers fail, God never does.

So, on this Father’s Day, let’s praise fathers for their scornful laughter. And even more, let’s praise our heavenly Father for his. And like Goldberry, may our wives, like the bride of Christ, be able to say to our little hobbits, “Fear nothing! For tonight you are under your father’s roof.”

is a Presbyterian pastor living in the Pacific Northwest. He’s also been a college professor, a commercial real-estate investor, and a home-improvement contractor. He’s been married over thirty years and has three grown children, two daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren. His latest book is In the House of Tom Bombadil.