When Does Humor Become Sinful?
A listener named Tom writes in: “Hi, Pastor John! I recently read this quote from the late theologian Charles Hodge, who said: ‘Foolish talking and jesting are not the ways in which Christian cheerfulness should express itself, but rather “giving of thanks” (citing Ephesians 5:4). Religion is the source of joy and gladness, but its joy is expressed in a religious way, in thanksgiving and praise.’ Hodge seems to suggest the ideal for the Christian life is zero humor, because humor is an unfitting vessel for true joy. All joy must come from thanksgiving and praise from God. This is extremely counterintuitive. Is humor always sinful? Or, Pastor John, when does humor become sinful?”
Five things come to mind:
1) I look at these texts and I would say that the passage in Ephesians that he is quoting does not exclude laughter and humor. It says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). So, those words — filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking — I looked at them in the Greek just to make sure that they don’t exclude an exuberance with life in all of its unexpected, often humorous turns and the kind of sparkling conversation that erupts from time to time with side-splitting laughter. The verse doesn’t exclude that.
And I think the reason thankfulness is given as an alternative to crude joking and filthiness is a heart that is humble enough to recognize that everything is a gift and full of thanksgiving to God is the kind of heart that just doesn’t get ugly. It doesn’t do that sort of thing. There is something about a humble thankfulness that cleans up the mouth. And if you just go a couple of verses earlier to Ephesians 4:29 it says — and this is the criterion, I think, for what comes out of our mouth by humor — “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
“There is something about a humble thankfulness that cleans up the mouth.”
So, will our humor give grace? Will it tear down? Humor can be out of bounds for at least five reasons I can think of.
i) It is just corrupting. It is just dirty. ii) It is ill-timed. It just doesn’t fit the occasion at all. This is not the time to be funny. It is a time to weep. iii) It is egocentric. It is just making me look clever and not doing anything to take others into account. iv) It is demeaning. It is just putting some group down — like telling a joke about Irish people or Iowans. We used to kind of just choose alternative ethnic groups. Like Minnesotans or Swedes or moron jokes. We can be so careless, so demeaning. v) It is relentlessly superficial. We have all known people that just don’t seem to be able to do anything but try to be funny.
So, Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4, it seems to me, leaves wide open that there is humor that does none of those negative things, but is full of grace and well-timed and produces a healthy cascade of laughter. That is the first thought that came to my mind. But the texts just don’t go there.
2) The second thing that comes to my mind is that there are texts that do seem to give a description of the laughter of sheer joy at God’s goodness. For example, Psalm 126:1–2, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter.” And the impression you get there is not that these were sort of designated moments of praise to God or thanks to God. This was a moment of experiencing life under the grace of God after a horrible experience of punishment, and you are so thrilled with the blue sky and the green leaves and the cool breeze and the peace in the city that everybody is just brimming with laughter. That is the picture you get of those blessed by God.
3) The third thing that came to my mind is to say that this is just experience now. Belly-shaking humor happens. It just happens in real life. You don’t have to try to make it happen. And if you are a God-saturated person, when it happens, you don’t have to feel worldly that you are taken out of yourself with a kind of abandon in laughter. I can’t remember, but I am almost sure on one of the Ask Pastor John episodes, I told my favorite story of this happening in church when I was using an illustration of: “Come on, everybody. You want to be a dolphin, right? You want to cut against the currents of culture and you don’t want to be a jellyfish. Who in the world wants to be a jellyfish?” And a little girl right in the third row raised her hand. “I want to be a jellyfish!”
Everybody simply roared. I could hardly contain myself I was laughing so hard right in the middle of a very important point.
Now, my point there is you would be, I think, a very sick pastor if you didn’t stop and laugh at that. Humor just happens.
4) And another thing that comes to my mind is from Charles Spurgeon — my, I love Spurgeon: There is a difference between robust humor in the soul of a saint who is manifestly taking God with great seriousness and levity — that is the negative word — levity in the mouth of a resident clown, who can’t seem to be serious about anything. Here is the way Spurgeon puts it: “We must conquer, some of us especially,” — I have to laugh at that — “our tendency to levity. A great distinction exists between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and that general levity, which is a vice. There is a levity which has not enough heart to laugh, but trifles with everything. It is flippant, hollow, unreal. A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry.” I think that is a great quote from Spurgeon.
Spurgeon: “A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry.”
5) And the last thing to say is to try to go back and rescue Charles Hodge. I had to do this. I went on Logos Bible Software. I got on my Charles Hodge’s Works and looked for humor, and I don’t think that was the whole story, what was quoted by our friend. So, here are a couple of more quotes and an anecdote, and I will be done. This is from Henry Boardman in his memorial discourse. He said,
A very noticeable thing about Hodge was the facility with which he would pass from the lightest to the greatest themes, abounding, as he did, in anecdote. No boy enjoyed a good story more. Grim Calvinists, as he was said to be, his airy spirit revealed itself in a tide of humor as inexhaustible as it was refreshing. This beautiful gift — for such it surely is — never degenerated with him into irreverence, coarseness, or buffoonery. It never carried him so far away from the cross and its sublime verities that he could not pass at once and without violence to his own feelings or those of others from the spriteliest to the gravest of topics, from the commerce of small-talk bristling with amusing reminiscences and brilliant repartee to the discussion of some subtle question of metaphysics or theology or the luminous exposition of some controverted Scripture.
So, if I could have anybody ever say something like that about me, I would be very happy that they got humor in the right place. His son, Alexander, told in his biography this anecdote. He said,
In his examination of class, he was always kind and genial and sometimes his vein of humor came to the surface. On one occasion, he asked a student what the apostle Paul meant by the expression, ‘I am sold under sin’ (see Romans 7:14). ‘He meant,’ replied the student, ‘that he was taken in or deceived by sin.’ ‘Oh no,’ exclaimed the doctor, his eyes sparkling with fun, ‘Paul was no Yankee.’
And you have got to understand where Charles Hodge taught and what he thought of people in the North.
“Humor and laughter in their most natural and healthy forms are spontaneous, not contrived, not planned.”
Now, you could say that borders on an ethnic slur, I suppose, or a nationalistic slur against people. But the question is: Does the sparkle in the eye, does the tone of voice, does the whole temper of his life keep it from having that effect? So, the bottom line I think is: Humor and laughter in their most natural and healthy forms are spontaneous, not contrived, not planned. Therefore, the challenge in life, as in so many other traits, is to become a joyfully, holy, seriously happy kind of God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated person so that, out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth laughs.