I nearly died laughing
Is there a specifically Christian view of laughter, asks Colin Sedgwick?
I read something recently which reduced me to a state of helpless laughter. It was an article in the Church of England newspaper The Church Times (yes, really), and it was about a bishop of a bygone generation who had a wonderful if sometimes waspish sense of humour. Absolutely hilarious - it took me several minutes to regain control of myself. If ever you have had “a fit of the giggles” (and if you haven’t I feel really sorry for you) you will know what I’m talking about.
But the following day this article nearly caused me death by drowning. All right, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but for a moment it was decidedly dodgy.
I was doing my regular twice-weekly half-mile swim in the local pool (feel free to utter a gasp of amazement and admiration) when one of the bishop’s gags came unbidden into my mind. Whereupon I found myself floundering, spluttering and barely able to breathe. I wondered if I was about to suffer the same fate as that man who died of a heart-attack while rolling about in laughter at a Morecambe and Wise television programme.
Well, here I am now writing this, so you will realise that I did in fact survive the experience. But it made me do some thinking about laughter. Is there a specifically Christian view of laughter?
Only indirectly. The Bible has very little to say about it - Ecclesiastes 3:1,4 is about the nearest we get: “There is a time for everything... a time to weep and a time to laugh...”
There are, true, indications elsewhere that God delights to see his people laughing - have a look, for example, at Psalm 126:2 and Luke 6:21. But the laughter mentioned there is laughter from sheer happiness rather than at jokes or wisecracks. There’s not much at all about what we call “a sense of humour”. Still, these verses do remind us that God loves to see his people happy. (Is that a reminder you need?)
Lacking much to go on in the Bible, I’ve been doing a bit of rummaging around in Christian history to see if some of the church’s wise heads have much to offer. And I have been impressed by the things they have to say.
Here is Martin Luther, short and to the point: “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there”. (I suspect, mind you, that that isn’t one of his more deeply thought-out theological utterances.)
Here is Richard Baxter, the 17th century puritan pastor and scholar: “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers”.
Amen to that! I recently spent a morning in the company of a group of volunteers stuffing publicity envelopes for the Africa Inland Mission, and it really was a laugh-a-minute business: completely silly, perfectly innocent - and very uplifting.
And here is somebody called Sydney Harris: “God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter”. Yes?
And somebody called Grant Lee: “Shared laughter creates a bond of friendship. When people laugh together they cease to be young and old, master and pupil, worker and foreman. They have become a single group of human beings, enjoying their existence”. I think that’s worth a second read... laughter is a great leveller, ironing out the inequalities and breaking down the barriers between people.
Of course it isn’t only Christians who have good things to say.
Here is the Jew Philo, who lived around the time of Jesus: “God is the creator of laughter that is good”. That last bit is important, of course - sadly, this world is not short of ugly, nasty, spiteful, vulgar laughter, and as Christians we should not be guilty of it.
And here are a couple of proverbs: “He is not laughed at that laughs at himself first”. I like that! How good are you at laughing at yourself and your own quirks, idiosyncrasies and ridiculousnesses? Do you take yourself too seriously? Lighten up!
And from Spain: “One who is always laughing is a fool, and one who never laughs is a knave”. Well, perhaps that word “knave” is a bit harsh; some people are naturally humourless without being bad people. But certainly there is something a little disturbing about people who can’t laugh.
I’ll finish with a word of advice, just in case you might need it one day: It’s not a good idea to combine (a) swimming with (b) having a fit of hysterical laughter. Trust me; I know.
Meanwhile, a note to self: Must laugh more. And a prayer you might like to make your own: Father in heaven, thank you for the wonderful gift of laughter. May my laughter always be pure, wholesome, health-giving - and honouring to Jesus. Amen.
PS. By the way, did you hear about the scarecrow who was awarded a prize for being outstanding in his field?
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com