The Bible says, “There is a time to laugh” (Ecc.3:4). But when is that time? Is it OK to laugh in church? Is humour off limits when it comes to preaching?
Many are divided on this subject. For example, in a bygone generation, T. Harwood Pattison was opposed to it, arguing, “Religion is too severe a matter to be treated in a trivial or jesting spirit.”
But others disagree. Charles Spurgeon, for example, said that when people laugh they open their mouths and when their mouths are open you can pop the truth in!
He used humour from time to time in his preaching and was criticized for it. His enemies referred to him as a “pulpit buffoon”. Journalists were amongst those who opposed his use of humour when preaching. In April, 1855 the Essex Standard wrote this condemnation of him: “His style is that of the vulgar colloquial… All the most solemn mysteries of our holy religion are by him rudely, roughly and impiously handled. Common sense is outraged and decency disgusted. His rantings are interspersed with coarse anecdotes.”
Yet, John Stott insisted that even Jesus used wittiness when teaching, saying, “It seems to be generally agreed that humour was one of the weapons in the armoury of the Master Teacher.”
Jesus And Humour
That last quotation ought to put the matter to rest. After all, Jesus came to reveal the Father to us. Any impression that we might have about God which doesn’t line up with the perfect representation brought to us by Jesus is a false image and should be destroyed.
Yet, for some reason Jesus is portrayed as always pious, somber and sad. It is true that His teachings addressed serious issues, and also that His mission led Him to a violent death upon the cross. But He could never be described as a kill-joy or party-pooper. He was often at parties, and even performed His first miracle at one. (Incidentally, I suspect that there are some who wished that He had turned the wine into water!)
When that old familiar question is asked, “If there were ten characters from history you could invite to your party, who would you pick?” how comes Jesus is nearly always on the list?
What Was The Purpose Of Jesus’ Humour?
But as important as it is to enquire if Jesus had a sense of humour when on earth, it’s just as vital to ask what the purpose of His humour was. In our culture we often use humour at the expense of others, i.e. to pay out on one another. But Jesus used humour to try to get us to laugh at ourselves.
In His day the religious leaders were the self-righteous Pharisees. The word ‘Pharisee’ means a separatist. The Pharisees were not only separated unto the Law, but separated from the general riff raff of society. They saw themselves as morally squeaky clean and wanted others to see them this way too.
Jesus, no doubt, raised many laughs as He pointed out how the Pharisees carefully positioned themselves at the intersections of the busiest roads when they prayed, so that others would notice them. And how they sucked in their cheeks and whitened their faces when they fasted, so that they would be admired for their spirituality. And if they invited you around to their house for a meal they would draw your attention to the spice-rack, saying, “I have paid tithes on everything that’s on that rack!”
The more they lifted themselves up and paraded their self-righteousness before others the more they cut others down with their judgmental, critical spirit.
Jesus used sayings which we are now so familiar with that we fail to see the humour in them. But in His time, when everyone was trying so hard to keep all the rules, these one-liners would have cracked His listeners up with laughter bringing much needed relief. He said they, “Strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” And He told them to take the plank out of their own eye before they attempted to remove a piece of sawdust from another person’s eye. He called them “Whitewashed tombs!” “A brood of snakes!”
Anyone who took themselves too seriously was a candidate for Jesus’ wit. It was aimed directly at self-righteousness.
There Is A Time To Laugh
Some say humour is OK as long as we don’t offend people with it. Well, Jesus offended people – on purpose. On one occasion, after the Pharisees had got stuck into His disciples for not washing their hands before eating, Jesus said, “It’s not what enters a man that defiles him, but what comes out of him.” Let me paraphrase that – it’s not our failure to keep religious rules that offend God, but our self-righteous crap. When the Pharisees heard that, they went away offended.
Maybe you are offended too, because I just used the ‘c’ word. Well, whatever word you choose to use for “what comes out of a man” when all is said and done that’s what self-righteousness is – a pile of human excrement! So let’s have a good old laugh at ourselves and snuggle back into the righteousness of Christ! (By the way, Paul used that description too, for self-righteousness – see Phil.3:8).
So there is a time to laugh. It’s when we catch ourselves with an exaggerated sense of our own importance. Just as it wrong to joke about serious things, it is equally as wrong to take seriously that which is a joke! Self-righteousness is a joke. In this context, laughing at ourselves is a form of repentance.