We have talked about the deadening power of the entertainment age in which we live. Just recently we saw this in APJ 1811. And we have talked a lot on this podcast over the years about the flippancy of the age, and of how humor and glibness sort of works its way into the language of the church if we’re not careful. On this point, I’m reminded of APJs 328 and 905, where we address that directly.
But here’s an interesting question about humor from a listener named Brian. “Hi, Pastor John! A question I have wondered about for a while is these commands to Christians in general, and requirements for elders specifically, that we be sober-minded. I see this in texts like 1 Timothy 3:2, 11; 2 Timothy 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; 5:8. I ask because my question is about humor. My default mode is outgoing and humorous. So I’ve wondered if maybe this is something I must repent of. I can understand not wanting to make light of things that are serious or holy. But do these commands to be sober-minded mean we should be serious all the time?”
There are several different Greek words behind the idea of sober or sober-mindedness. The basic idea is either “not drunk” (and all that implies as it applies to our mind) or the more general way we use it — namely, thoughtful, self-controlled, without any reference to drunkenness. In both cases, the import is the same: a mind that is alert and clear, and able to take reality into account for what it really is, and process things wisely, and draw informed and insightful judgments from what we observe and think about.
Three Aspects of Sober-Mindedness
In January of this year, Joe Rigney, the president of Bethlehem College & Seminary, where I serve as chancellor and teach preaching, gave a message in chapel on this very theme of sober-mindedness. And I found it very helpful. I think you can probably go to the BCS website and find it, but it was really illuminating for me. I remember even now, he drew out three implications from biblical texts for what sober-mindedness is, especially for younger Christians like our students:
- clarity of mind
- stability of soul
- readiness for action
And we can see all three of these features of sober-mindedness if we just look at the three uses of the word in 1 Peter, without even going to Paul’s letters or anywhere else. And then when we look at these, I’ll turn around and say something about Brian’s particular question about how humor fits into sober-mindedness.
So first, 1 Peter 1:13: “Preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” So you can hear readiness for action and a clear head that focuses on the hope of Christ rather than being cluttered and confused by worldly distractions.
Second, 1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” And you can hear the need for stability of soul because of how fraught with instability the end times will be. People easily fall prey to hysteria and conspiracy thinking and lose their footing and their stability. So don’t do that; be sober-minded, for the end of all things is at hand.
And third, 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” And you can hear the call for alertness to lion-prowling and a readiness to act in defense of your soul against this lion and the need for stability of soul, because living with a constant awareness that we have a supernatural enemy could easily throw us off balance. And we need very much to think straight and clear and biblically about our adversary and not lose our bearings or our soul’s stability.
President Rigney went on then to make application to the particular challenges of our culture, which are remarkably pressing today. Sober-mindedness turns out to be really in short supply and really needed, he argued, and I think he’s right. And you can check that out for yourself.
Sober-Minded, Not Silly
But Brian’s question is different. He says, “My question is about humor. My default mode is pretty outgoing and humorous. So I have wondered if maybe this is something I must repent of. I can understand not wanting to make light of things that are serious or holy, but does the command to be sober-minded mean we should be serious all the time?” Interesting question.
I need to define some terms here. I wonder if, when Brian uses the word serious, he might mean in his assumptions something like somber or dour or glum or the weighty look of the furrowed brow that you bring into every situation. If he does mean that by serious, then the answer is no, sober-mindedness does not imply that. But the way I use the word serious is this: its opposite is silliness, not joy. Silliness is the opposite of serious. Immaturity, trifling, frivolous, flippant, petty — those are the opposite of serious in my vocabulary. And I think sober-mindedness does prevent that kind of trifling humor.
“Sober-mindedness is the demeanor that corresponds to the weight of the things of life, the great things of life.”
Sober-mindedness is the demeanor that corresponds to the weight of the things of life, the great things of life. It is possible to be sober-minded and have elements of humor in our life. But it’s hard to be sober-minded and at the same time be the kind of person that we’ve all met, who is obsessed with being funny, so obsessed that he’s incapable of serious moments. He is actually allergic to them. I’ve known people like this. They are allergic to serious moments. If a serious moment starts to happen, they’re the first to break the mood with some pun or something. They can’t take it. They have to say something quick to break what they consider a seriousness that they don’t know what to do with. They’re just emotionally incapable of relaxing and enjoying seriousness. And that’s what I would warn Brian against. You don’t want to be that way.
Sober-Minded, Not Somber
On the other hand, unbroken seriousness of a melodramatic or somber kind inevitably communicates a sickness of soul to the great mass of people. And they’re right. This is partly because life as God created it is not like that. There are, for example, little babies in the world who are not the least impressed with our passion or zeal or sober looks. They are cooing and smiling and calling for their daddies to get down on the floor and play with them.
And the daddy who cannot do this because he’s so serious will not understand the true seriousness of sin, because he’s not capable of enjoying what God has preserved from its ravages. He’s really a sick man and unfit to lead others into health. He is, in the end, sober-minded about being sober-minded, not sober-minded about being joyful.
“The real battle in life is to be as happy in God as we can be.”
The real battle in life is to be as happy in God as we can be. And that takes a very special kind of sober-mindedness. It is significant, isn’t it, that the first use of sober-mindedness, in 1 Peter 1:13, puts it in the service of hope: “Being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” What could be happier, right? What could be happier than hope? Put your sober-mindedness to work for making sure that you remain hopeful and joyful as a Christian. That’s the great task of sober-mindedness.
So, Brian, there’s no conflict between sober-mindedness and joy at all. This is real joy, strong joy, stable joy, spiritually alert joy, ready-to-act joy. If your humor serves that, then praise God and go for it.