Laughter is an essential part of the Christian life. Play and laughter are at the very heart of spirituality. A sense of humour is intrinsic to the gospel, and laughter has a redemptive dimension. Laughter is part of the playfulness that is central to relationship with God.
Claims like these do not reflect the usual way of speaking about the Christian life. Indeed, some may well have difficulty in taking them seriously. However, perhaps that is appropriate because — as the great theorist of play, Johan Huizinga, argued — play is of a higher order than seriousness. Only a playful way of living, he suggested, does justice to the seriousness of life. (1)
The spiritual importance of play and laughter has occasionally been recognised. G.K. Chesterton observed, “Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.” (2) In various writings, he stressed the valuable role that laughter has for the Christian.
In current society, it is well understood that play and laughter have positive consequences for life in general – although some recent researchers are reserved about all aspects of that argument. In any case, the spiritual importance of laughter does not lie in its utilitarian value as a relief-giving, social-bonding, health-producing, trauma-relieving, psychologically beneficial, injustice-exposing phenomenon. Its importance to the Christian does not lie in the good that humour does, but more in what humour is—as an essential, central dimension of the believer’s relationship with God.
At least that is the way it should be.
“Laughter is … rather an intrinsic, spontaneous and joyful revelation of the nature, depth and ecstasy involved in communion with God.”
Laughter is not a mere addition, or a kind of optional, added bonus to an otherwise genuine and sincere relationship, but rather an intrinsic, spontaneous and joyful revelation of the nature, depth and ecstasy involved in communion with God. It is an act of praise and an expression of faith. It is the deepest relationship we have with God.
Spiritually, laughter is simply good. It is certainly connected with, and comes about as the result of, the way that humour enables us to see ourselves and the world as it really is. It is therefore part of the process of lessening our own desire to control life. Laughter teaches us to not take ourselves too seriously and it frees us from vanity. At the same time, it gives us an accurate view of a flawed, inconsistent, often ambiguous and sinful world as we laugh at its follies and ironies. All of these are extremely valuable, and yet, even more significantly, laughter is an appropriate response to an ever-deepening awareness of the nature and work of God. God in Christ is the genuinely unexpected, completely surprising and totally incongruous one – who is both transcendent and immanent, God and man, crucified and crowned, saviour and sacrifice. This deserves great laughter that goes beyond all other hilarity and merriment, an act of joy that expresses one’s faith, hope and love. Indeed, as it has been said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God”.
Although humour can be misused to hurt and offend people; in its usual form, it should be seen as a virtue, a disposition that is fundamentally good. It is an essential part of relationships between believers in the life of the church and socially important for the good order of society. Humour is not only of value in the present age, it is a present image of the future eschatological kingdom of God. It is an earthly anticipation of divine joy, an example of life in the kingdom. Humour is closely related to joy, hope and faith. It is a part of the nature of God and an element of human participation in life with God.
Laughter has frequently been looked down on by those claiming to be spiritual. The early church with its generally ascetic approach to the spiritual life variously saw laughter as, at worst, something wicked in itself and a danger to discipleship; or sometimes in a more nuanced fashion, as something to be permitted in strict moderation; or even occasionally, as a minor good in terms of rest and recreation that enables one to return to more serious spiritual pursuits! Rarely is laughter strongly approved and some churches have found it hard to shake off this attitude.
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Laughter in the Bible
The biblical situation with regard to laughter does not seem to have helped. It is often observed that Jesus wept but that he never laughed. A. N. Whitehead said that, “the total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature.”(3) Others, however, have reckoned that there is humour in the Bible and that we tend to miss it because of cultural changes and over-familiarity. Dorothy Sayers said, “If we did not know all His retorts by heart, if we had not taken the sting out of them by incessant repetition… we should reckon Him among the greatest wits of all time.”(4)
It is certainly a problem that so much humour is so culturally specific in form. My own experience in this regard is that I have found a lot more humour in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments than I ever imagined when I began my research. However, it must be noted that the significance of humour is not determined by the amount of humour that can be found in scripture any more than by its utilitarian value in life. These are not good measures of laughter’s theological or spiritual significance.
“The teaching of Jesus is clear, joy and laughter ought to be hallmarks of Christ’s disciples.”
There is quite a bit of humour in the Bible that is often unobserved. In the Old Testament the important covenant-establishing story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Genesis actually revolves around laughter, from the time both Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s promises through to the genuine laughter of joy at their fulfillment. The name Jacob means “he laughs”. Other Old Testament stories involve laughter that need to be interpreted in a theological and spiritual sense.
There is also laughter in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus was known as one who enjoyed celebrations. He notably helped things along at the wedding at Cana and, unlike his more ascetic-minded cousin John the Baptist, he happily joined others in feasting and drinking, as well as fasting. He called on his disciples to be like children, and in the well-known Sermon on the Mount he declared them to be happy or blessed. The Greek makarios used for this happiness/blessing describes the happy state of those who live in peace without trouble, and of the rich who have wealth and are carefree. The teaching of Jesus refers to the happy spiritual state of those who share in the blessings of salvation. They rejoice in being comforted, having the kingdom of heaven, inheriting the earth, being filled with righteousness, and having great reward in heaven. This joy becomes laughter and stands in contrast to the unrighteous who laugh now but who will soon mourn and weep. Those who follow Christ are to “rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven” (Matt 5:12). The teaching of Jesus is clear, joy and laughter ought to be hallmarks of Christ’s disciples.
Jesus also told parables that were humorous. The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23–35) begins with a king threatening to imprison a man who owes him 10,000 talents. That is an amount equivalent to 60 million day’s wages and it represents more money than there was in circulation in a sizeable country, like Egypt in the first century.(5) One can imagine the listeners grinning even before the story goes further, but it then has the desperate servant preposterously declaring, presumably with a straight face, “Be patient with me and I will pay back everything”! The parable is presenting a serious situation in a comical form.
The king unexpectedly forgives the entire debt and releases the servant who immediately goes and demands repayment of a debt owed to him by another servant. The amount he is owed is trivial and stands in sharp contrast to the massive amount he has been forgiven. Despite that, he is unable to show the same grace as the king and has the man who cannot pay him thrown into prison. Listeners would be aware of the irony involved here, would be likely to think “Yes, I know a so-and-so like that!” and they may well then laugh heartily at the king’s judgement on the unforgiving servant—that he be imprisoned and tortured—until he repays his massive debt, something that would be an impossibility if he was being held in prison and being tortured!
Only then would the listeners realise that they have been led into a trap as their laughter at the punishment of the unforgiving servant is turned back on themselves as Jesus draws out his intended message, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” At this point, if they are unable to laugh at themselves, they will learn nothing about forgiveness. Gaining wisdom and insight without a sense of humour is difficult, if not impossible.
There are, if you look, many other examples of comic and foolish characters and situations in the teaching of Jesus. There are silly farmers, tax collectors, worshippers, virgins, builders, soldiers, businessmen and kings. There are all sorts of unusual images and metaphors, there is hyperbole and exaggeration as well as irony, satire and paradox. Read it and let yourself laugh!
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Laughter and Love
But the greatest value of laughter does not lie in its educational function any more than it lies in either the amount one finds in scripture or in its psychological or social value, it lies in its intrinsic value as an essential part of our relationship with God
Laughter is at the heart of this relationship because, as Agnes Repplier says, “we cannot really love anybody with whom we never laugh.”(6) One may have other forms of relationship without humour or laughter of any kind but it is hard to conceive a love relationship that is devoid of it. At a purely human level the ability to laugh is one of, if not the most, valued qualities in relationships with life partners. It is prominent in what people seek when looking for a partner, significant in determining relationship satisfaction during the relationship, and important in what they say when eulogising partners after their death.
“At a purely human level the ability to laugh is one of, if not the most valued qualities in relationships with life partners.”
A purely work-related business partnership or a political alliance may well exist without a shared sense of humour (though it might be enhanced by one), but a relationship involving any intimacy or emotional feeling necessarily involves some humour. And this humour and laughter is not to be seen as additional to, or a consequence of, the relationship, it is, in a very real sense, a part of the relationship itself. Similarly, a shared sense of humour with God is a part of one’s relationship with God. Laughing together is as important for this relationship as it is for any other intimate, loving relationship.
Dr Brian Edgar
Professor of Theological Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary
The material for this article is related to Brian’s forthcoming book Laughter and the Grace of God: Restoring Laughter to its Central Role in Christian Spirituality and Theology (Cascade, 2019). Brian is also the author of The God Who Plays: A Playful Approach to Theology and Spirituality (Cascade, 2017) and God is Friendship: A Theology of Spirituality, Community and Society (Seedbed, 2013).
Brian is married to Barbara and teaches full-time for ATS. He commutes to the USA to teach intensives, but primarily resides in Melbourne, where he spends most of his time teaching or supervising students online.
Back to issue: Laughter
1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. (Boston: Beacon, 1955) 211–2.
2. G. K. Chesterton, Lunacy and Letters. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958) 97.
3. Lucien Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. (New York: New American Library, 1956) 30.
4. Dorothy Sayers, The Man Born to be King: A Play Cycle on the Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2011) 26.
5. Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd edition. ( Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014) 92.
6. James Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. (New York: Harper One, 2011). Kindle edition, loc. 3941.