The first thing I noticed about my wife on the night we met was her smile. It unnerved me, like a dare. I have since seen it reappear in a thousand different facets. It never fails to charm me. She has a laugh to match, pure as the ringing of a church bell and solid as iron. I have spent the forty-one years we have been together trying to elicit that sound.
Babies develop the ability to laugh before they learn to talk. They can laugh as early as twelve weeks. They do not begin to speak rudimentary words until the end of twelve months. What does this say about laughter? Is our ability to laugh more primal than our capacity for speech? Speech is learned, but laughter is not. Laughter is an emotional response. Language is the work of the intellect. Between the two, it is tempting to think that laughter is a simpler act. Words have nuanced meanings. A laugh is just noise. Or is it?
We Laugh for Many Reasons
“We laugh for many reasons” J. C. Gregory observes in his book The Nature of Laughter. “There is laughter of triumph and laughter of scorn; there is also laughter of contempt, superiority, and self-congratulation. When lovers laugh as they meet they are not contemptuous, nor are they amused. The pure laughter of play, like the laughter of greeting, is as innocent of amusement as it is of contempt.”
Psychologists suggest that laughter is the reward system people use to negotiate social relationships. Babies use it to trick their parents into teaching them how to be human. Science, which likes to reduce all human behavior to the involuntary responses of electronic impulses sent from the brain or mindless outworking of evolutionary competition, claim to see comparable responses in monkeys, dogs, and even rats. But laughter’s ultimate analog is not found in the animal kingdom but in God, who was the first to speak and the first to laugh. If the human ability for language has its mirror in God, why not our capacity for humor?
Humor is not the first thing we think of when we think about God. His thundering holiness is more likely to come to mind. The handful of statements which make explicit reference to divine laughter reinforce this impression. When the nations conspire against the Lord’s anointed, the One enthroned in heaven laughs at them in contempt (Ps. 2:4). If we must limit ourselves to those instances where the Bible explicitly mentions God’s laughter, we must conclude that His capacity for humor is limited.
Man of Sorrows
The New Testament reinforces this impression. The human face that Jesus puts on God in the Gospels is, for the most part, not a smiling face. As Isaiah predicted, He shows Himself to be “a man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus groaned at the grave of Lazarus. He denounced the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and the Scribes because they were spiritually dull. “He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell,” G. K. Chesterton notes. Yet where humor is concerned, Chesterton points out that “there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness.” Every Chinese restaurant has its laughing Buddha, but you would be hard-pressed to find a church with an image of a smiling Christ.
This absence is, to some extent, understandable. A religion that has the cross as its main symbol is bound to be grave in its tone. Yet if we look for more than explicit instances of divine laughter, we find a thread that points to that aspect of God’s nature that Chesterton rightly calls mirth. It begins in the Garden of Eden with God’s determination to create humanity in His own image (Gen. 1:26). To accomplish this, God forms Adam from “the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7, 22). There is a kind of divine whimsy in act. In Scripture dust is a symbol of lowliness or humility. Dust will be the serpent’s “food” after the curse (Gen. 3:14). Other elements of the creation account might also be seen as humorous. Eve engages in theological debate with a snake. The primary actors in the fall each point fingers at one another when asked to account for their actions. If not for the severity of sin’s effects, humankind’s whole history might be deemed a tragic comedy of epic proportions.
The half-truths told by Abraham and Isaac about their true relationship with their spouses, Laban’s bamboozlement of Jacob regarding the marriage negotiation for Rachel, and Haman’s that there is no one other than him that the king would rather honor might all elicit a chuckle. These stories are not comedies but histories that include comedic elements, as all human stories do. This proximity of humor and tragedy in the Bible’s account of sin and redemption should not surprise us. The enduring popularity of slapstick comedy is visual proof that humor almost always has a tragic edge. Comedy is tragedy worked out in ridiculous circumstances. Because of this, God’s whimsical way of working out His plan is not the only reason we find occasion to laugh in the Scriptures.
The Absurdity of Sin
Sin, by its nature, is always tragic, but it is also an absurdity. Theologian Josef Peiper explains, “Sin is an act against reason, which thus means: a violation against one’s own conscience, against our ‘better’ knowledge, against the best knowledge of which we are capable.” Paul puts flesh on sin’s unreasoning nature when he describes his own experience with sin as that of going against not only what he knows but what he approves. Every sinner has his own twisted reason for justifying their actions, but sin is also against reason as God defines it. “I do not understand what I do,” the apostle laments in Romans 7:15, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Sin is no joke, but it is ridiculous.
When we come to the New Testament, God’s good-natured humor meets sin’s absurdity head-on in the teaching of Jesus Christ. From the humorous scenarios described in many of His parables to the affectionately ironic nicknames assigned to several of His disciples, Jesus was not afraid to use humor to make His point. Without status or resources, a widow terrorizes a judge who does not care about God or man by simple persistence. Humor is so much a part of a healthy personality that Jesus’ perfect humanity would seem to demand it. From the humorous scenarios described in many of His parables to the affectionately ironic nicknames Jesus assigned to several of His disciples, Jesus was not afraid to use laughter to make His point. Without status or resources, a widow wears down by simple persistence a judge who does not care for either God or man (Luke 18:1-8). A legion of demons begs Jesus to be allowed to enter a herd of pigs because they do not want Him to cast them into the abyss and the pigs promptly stampede over a cliff (Mark 5:1-13).
The God Who Laughs
The God revealed in Scripture is not only a God who speaks but one who laughs. He is not the jolly god of pagan religion, but a being of infinite and inexpressible joy. Divine humor is a reflection of this joy. Although we have not yet experienced this joy in its full force, we have been granted a foretaste and are ourselves “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” through the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:9). Just as we need to be transformed through the grace of Christ to stand in God’s glorious presence, surely we will need to be similarly changed to grasp the humor that springs from His infinite joy.
Indeed, we must be transformed before we can even endure it. Without such a change, God’s humor must come crashing down upon us with the full force of His holiness and glory. Just as the light of dawn, “like solid blocks intolerable of solid edge and weight,” fell upon C. S. Lewis at the close of his imagined bus trip to heaven in The Great Divorce, the unmitigated humor of God would crush us. Without the transforming work of Jesus Christ, we could not bear it.
The book of Revelation tells us that when Jesus Christ comes again to take His stand on the Mount of Olives, He will be dressed in a robe dripped in blood. The armies of heaven will follow Him, and “out of His mouth will come a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” that oppose Him (Rev. 19:15). Likewise, the apostle Paul writes that at that time, Jesus will overthrow His enemies with the breath of His mouth and the splendor of His coming (2 Thess. 2:8). I have always thought that the phrase “the breath of His mouth” was a reference to speech. In the end, Jesus will defeat Satan and the Anti-Christ with a word. But it could just as easily be a laugh.