A former student of mine once complained about what he called “the language of unsustainable intimacy” that the church often uses when it speaks of our relationship with Christ. “I hear it most often from youth group leaders who tell students to ‘date’ Jesus for a year,” he said. At the time I had been reading through the gospels and had marveled over how little they seem to reveal about Jesus’ personality. They do not deny that Jesus had a personality. In fact, their emphasis on the reality of his humanity implies the opposite. Yet they tell us virtually nothing about the things we normally talk about when we describe what someone is like. We know nothing about the Savior’s physical appearance, and next to nothing about the sound of his voice. We know that he was a carpenter but what did he like to do in his spare time? How did he act when he was among friends?
We know that Jesus cried but do not know what made him laugh. We cannot see the gleam in his eye or the way his forehead might have wrinkled when he thought deeply about something. Indeed, I feel as though I have a much clearer notion of Simon Peter’s personality than I do of Christ’s. This does not mean that the Bible portrays a Christ who is devoid of personality. But it does, quite frankly, make it difficult for me to relate to him. At least, it makes it difficult for me to relate to him in the same way that so much of our worship music seems to suggest that I should. The overheated imagery of these songs often sounds like it was lifted from a romance novel.
In his essay on the emotional life of Christ, theologian B. B. Warfield describes the two dangerous tendencies that the church has exhibited in its attempt to understand the humanity of Christ. One is to lean so far into his divinity that the human is undermined. The other is to err in the opposite direction and so rob him of his divinity. “Between the two, the figure of Jesus is liable to take on a certain vagueness of outline, and come to lack definiteness in thought” Warfield warns. We must do justice to both dimensions of Christ’s nature without somehow allowing each to cancel out the other or ending up with a hybrid being who is neither truly God nor truly man.
I think we are on similar ground when it comes to Jesus’ personality. Some propose that Jesus had a perfectly balanced personality. They suggest that if Jesus had taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, he would have scored equally in every area. It seems to me that this is just a way of saying that Jesus had no personality at all. What is more, if Jesus was truly God in the flesh as the Bible declares, such a possibility seems extremely unlikely. If personality is the result of a combination of factors that includes both genetic makeup and experience, then Jesus must have had his own distinctive personality. Otherwise, he would not be human. To say that Jesus’ personality was perfect does not mean that it was indistinct.
Yet there are moments in the Gospels when the clouds of silence part and the rays of his personality peek through. When the religious leaders set a watch on him to criticize him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus gazes at them in anger “deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5). When a young man asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus looks at him with love (Mark 10:21). He speaks tenderly to a shy woman (Luke 8:48). These accounts open a window on what Warfield calls “the profound internal movement of his emotional nature.” The divine being revealed to us through the humanity of Christ is not only a God who thunders but a God of tears and sighs.
According to Warfield, these are the clues that fill in the gaps for us. In particular, they show that the personality of Jesus is marked by both compassion and justice. Jesus felt love and expressed anger. His love was directed toward those who suffered. His anger was aimed at religious hypocrisy and hardness of heart. Warfield notes that in the Gospel accounts Jesus comforts, rebukes, and threatens. Although the New Testament does not describe Jesus’ smile, Luke 10:21 says that he was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” when the disciples told him of their victory of the demons.
However, in the conclusion to his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton observes that there is a missing note in the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus’ personality. There is joy, grief, and even anger. “He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell” Chesterton writes. “Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness.” But shyness about what? According to Chesterton, the one thing that was too great for God to display while he walked upon the earth was his mirth. Zen Buddhism has its laughing Buddha but the Gospels do not portray a laughing Christ.
Does this mean that Christ was joyful but humorless? This cannot be true. Although the Bible does not say that Jesus laughed, there is an underlying wit reflected in his teaching. Many of his analogies use the ridiculous to make their point. Camels go through the eye of the needle. The religious leaders strain the gnat and swallow the camel. The most unlikely people find forgiveness and the least qualified are appointed to lead.
Divine mirth as Chesterton describes it seems to have more in common with glory than it does with what we usually think of as humor. It is hidden from us not because it does not exist but because we do not yet have the strength to behold it. Yet it should not surprise us if creation itself bears witness to the fact that God has the capacity to laugh. “Anybody who has ever wondered whether God has a sense of humor only needs to look at the platypus for an answer” someone has said. Or you might just look at what he has done with your own life.