THE PRAISE OF LAUGHTER
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Have you ever praised God for the enjoyment of laughter? Some of the greatest of God's people have. When Theodore Cuyler, the American preacher, visited the great London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, they told each other the crazy things that happened in their respective ministries. They enjoyed their laughter as they walked in the woods, and they were about exhausted after so many amusing stories. Spurgeon said, "Let's kneel down and praise God for laughter." So these two great men of God knelt together and thanked God for this gift.
If we are to love God with our whole being, then it follows that we are love God even with our laughter. They were praising God for the gift of laughter. In Psa. 126 we see God's people praising Him with the gift of laughter. The Israelites were so filled with the delight that they were no longer captives, but free citizens back in their home land. They laughed out loud with joy. It would be hard to laugh and sing at the same time, but verse 2 puts them together, and their mouth is filled with laughter, and their tongues with songs of joy. Maybe they would tell stories of their joyful return, and then laugh together, and break into songs of praise for God's providential guidance in their lives. All we know is they were a happy people, and their laughter was a part of their praise to God. Laughter is another aspect of the physiology of praise, for it is a bodily function whereby the heart and mind manifest their feelings and thoughts.
Dr. Paul Rees tells of the Christian businessman traveling to St. Louis who left his hotel on Sunday morning looking for a place to worship. He asked a policeman for direction to the nearest Protestant church. When he gave him the information he asked why he had recommended that particular church out of several possibilities. The policeman smiled and replied, "I'm not a church man myself, but the people who come out of that church are the happiest looking church people in St. Louis. I thought that would be the kind of church you would like to attend." Laughter and smiling make a statement to the world about the God we worship.
There is one well known pastor in a large church in California who always ends his sermon with a joke. It is so that people go out laughing. That can seem somewhat sacreligious, and it can be inappropriate for some themes, but there is no escaping the truth that laughter is a powerful witness to the good things God has done for us. The nations round about Israel were impressed with their laughter and joy, and they had to confess that the Lord has done great things for them.
God is glorified among those outside His family when those inside are full of laughter and songs of joy. Praise like this is not just for their own self enjoyment. It is a powerful tool for evangelism, for people want to know a God who can bring joy and laughter into their lives. D. L. Moody said, "If Christians are gloomy and cast down, and not full of praise, the world will reject their Gospel. It is not good news if it does not produce praise in those who have it. Praise, joy, and laughter are a big part of our witness to the world." A Lord who never gives laughter to His people is not appealing, but is appalling. He is seen more as a tyrant and task master rather than a loving heavenly Father who leads His family to enjoy the fun of life, and to laugh at the funnies of life.
There are serious times in life where laughter is inappropriate, but all to often Christians have assumed that worship is one of those times that must always be somber and solumn, and not a fun time. Time with our earthly father can be a time of rolling on the floor, tickling and telling jokes, and having a good time. But spending time with our heavenly Father is not to be fun, but only serious. It seems to be irreverent to laugh and carry on with hilarious songs of joy. Yet, these are the kinds of activities that we see in the worship songs in the Old Testament. You have to be childlike to enjoy this sort of thing, but we have grown out of that into sophisticated adults where solemnity is the only mood we feel is appropriate.
The paradox is that the people who have used the Psalms for their hymnal have been the most solumn of Christians. Ellen Glasgow in her autobiography tells of her father who was a Presbyterian elder who was full of rectitude and rigid with duty. She writes, "He was entirely unselfish, and in his long life he never committed a pleasure." Many godly Presbyterians, and other Puritan type Christians, were trained to avoid all smiling and signs of enjoyment in the house of God. Worship was serious business, and woe be the bottom of any child caught laughing.
The devil, no doubt, split a side laughing at his success in blinding Christians to the message of their own songs, which were inspired by God, and which indicated He gets the same pleasure out of His children laughing as we get out of ours. There are few things in life more cute than a laughing child. We know God feels the same, and Bildad was right when he said to Job in Job 8:21, "He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy." Eccles. 10:19 says, "A feast is made for laughter..." You cannot have a feast without a lot of food, but if everybody just sits silently eating, it is still not a feast, for there has to be merriment in conversation, and jokes that lead to laughter to make it a feast.
The Bible links laughter to joy and to feasting, and these are both vast subjects in the Bible, making laughter a major aspect of the godly life. A study of all the Hebrew words dealing with laughter revealed 91 references to either mocking or merry laughter. It is a major part of life, and it is a major part of the biblical depiction of life. Let's keep in mind that laughter is not just a response to humor. It is also a response to pleasure. It may be physical pleasure, or the mental pleasure of good news, or the psychological pleasure of any positive exciting event. People don't just cry at weddings, they also laugh for joy. They laugh with pleasure when they see their team make a clever play and score. They laugh in endless ways at that which is pleasurable.
Amazement and wonder, which are so much a part of biblical worship, are also capable of producing laughter if we let ourselves express the pleasure in such wonder. It is not just the silly, but the sublime, that can lead to laughter. There are records of early Christians getting so excited about the truth of Easter that they laughed, and it became a common phrase to talk of Easter laughter. In the Greek Orthodox tradition the day after Easter was a time to gather and tell jokes and stories. Laughter was their way of celebrating the big joke God played on Satan. It was funny how God tricked Satan and conquered hell by means of death. Satan thought the cross was his victory, but it spelled his doom, and allowed Jesus to enter His kingdom and take the keys of death and hell from him. It was the most serious business of all history, and yet it was the basis for laughter, because God used Satan's greatest evil to accomplish His own greatest good.
Abraham and Sarah were so amazed that they could have a child in their old age that they laughed. It was such a wonder that they named their baby Issac, which means laughter. It was funny for a 90 year old woman to have a baby. It was so unusal and odd that it produced both wonder and laughter. We had an experience like this once when our grandson Jason was about 10 months old. We had a dog named Cuddles who could leap into the air and catch a frizbee. When Jason saw that he burst into laughter that was so deep it came all the way from his toes. Lavonne and I exploded with laughter at his laughter, for we had never heard anything quite like it. We kept at it until we were exhausted. It was the perfect state of happiness. A child's laughter had the power to produce a worshipful spirit, for it made us thankful to God for His gift of life, and the gift of love and of laughter. It is rare when laughter can produce that kind of pleasure and gratitude to God, but Psa. 126 reveals that it is a God ordained experience.
This Psalm is not dealing with an everyday experience. They had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years, and they had not spent a lot of that time laughing and singing. But now they are back home, and it is like a dream. This is the only place in all the Psalms where the word dream is found. They were in a state that seemed to good to be real. After 70 years of exile where it seemed hopeless to ever return, they are now free and at home. Pinch me, they are saying, I must be dreaming, for this can't be real. This was a way of describing what seemed to good to be true. Polybius described the joy of the Greeks when they were unexpectedly rescued from the Macedonians. "Most of the men could scarcely believe the news, but imagined themselves in a dream as they listened to what was said, so extraordinary and miraculous it seemed to them."
The saying is, if it seems to good to be true, it probably isn't true. This is a valid view to take when looking for investments, but lets not forget the Gospel itself falls into this category. It is hard for people to believe that they can be set free from all their sins and guilt by trusting in Jesus Christ, and believing that His death paid the judgment they deserve. It is like a dream to hear you can be liberated from bondage to all the sins that keep you captive to powers over which you have no control. Many hear the Gospel and their response is, "What a joke!" And they laugh it to scorn. The Bible is full of this response to the things of God. Mocking, and skeptical laughter is very common in the Old Testament, and Jesus had His share of it too. But what we seldom see is the other side: The laughter of belief, and the laughter of acceptance. Martin Luther said, "The Gospel is nothing else than laughter enjoy."
There are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who laugh at God, and those who laugh with God. If you laugh with God, you will laugh at those who laugh at God. From God's point of view the most ridiculous thing in the universe is people who choose to fight against Him. You would laugh too if a little two year old threatened to beat you up. It would be ridiculous in your sight. In Psa. 2 we read of the kings who gathered together against the Lord, and verse 4 says, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs..." In Psa. 37 we read of the wicked plotting against the righteous and verse 13 says, "But the Lord laughs at the wicked for He knows their day is coming."
There are other verses where both God and the righteous laugh at the folly of the wicked who expect their evil ways to prevail. Righteous laughter has two sides. There is laughter at the undeserved joy of being in on God's grace, and there is laughter at the stupidity of those who think the way of evil is better than the way of grace. There is no end to the things for Christians to laugh about.
The prophets are always making fun of the folly of idolatry. The joke of the age was the idol maker who cuts down a tree, and with part of the wood he roasts his meat, and with another part he makes a god. Human nature is silly beyond comprehension, for it will bow down to a piece of wood, and ignore the God who made the wood, and man, and all the universe. The prophets did not hesitate to make jokes about such religious stupidity. Elijah went so far as to be rather crude in his mockery of religious folly. When the 450 prophets of Baal were crying out for the god Baal to hear them and send fire on the sacrifice, there was no response all morning, and they began to dance around the altar.
Elijah thought the whole scene was a major comedy of errors, and he began to mock. I share with you the Living Bible's version of his mockery because it brings out the rudeness of the Hebrew, which most versions hide as being to offensive. I Kings 18:27 reads, "About noon time, Elijah began mocking them. You'll have to shout louder than that, he scoffed, to catch the attention of your god! Perhaps he is talking to someone, or is out sitting on the toliet, or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened."
Humor is used as a major weapon by the prophets against the folly of worshiping idols and false gods. Laughter is a powerful weapon, and Jesus used it often in His ministry to fight the corruption that the Pharisees had brought into Judaism. This is a vast study in itself, but let me give you one paragraph from Conrad Hyers book, And God Created Laughter. He wrote this in 1987, and he says, "The Bible pokes fun at human pride and pretension, selfishness and greed, and the myriad other sins to which flesh and spirit are heir. Jesus freely used humor, irony, and satire to that end. His descriptions of the hypocrisies of the Pharisees use overtly humorous images: the blind leading the blind; straining out a gnat, then swallowing a camel; meticulously cleaning the outside of a cup while leaving the inside flithy; maintaining whitewashed tombs that are outwardly beautiful but inwardly full of dead bones; loudly honoring past prophets while plotting to kill present ones who preach the same message."
Elton Trueblood wrote an entire book called The Humor Of Christ. He deals with the 30 passages in the Gospels where Jesus uses humor. We hardly to never laugh at these passages because we have been conditioned to never see Jesus as humorous. Jesus can talk all He wants to about the laughable nonsense of man-made religion, and He can talk of His joy being ours, and being filled with the spirit of joy, and that life with Him is a wedding banquet, but we have been so conditioned by tradition that we will not be able to join Him in laughter. He is the man of sorrows to most. But this was only a small fraction of His life. Out of His 33 years of life, He was only the man of sorrows for a matter of hours. These were crucial hours, to be sure, but they so captivated the history of art and theology that Christians have lost the picture of His total life, which was filled with much joy and laughter.
The laughter in Psa. 126 is special laughter. It is laughter that is incorporated into joyful worship. It is praise laughter. John Calvin writes of this Psalm, "He would have the people so to rejoice on account to their return, as not to bury in forgetfulness the grace of God. He therefore describes no ordinary rejoicing, but such as so fills their minds as to constrain them to break forth into extravagance of gesture and of voice." This extravagant laughter is the laughter of restoration. It is the laughter that was heard in the home of the Prodigal when he returned, and there was music, dancing, and joyous laughter, for light won out over darkness, and the son who was dead and gone is now resurrected and restored to life and family.
This is just a taste of the eternal laughter in the Father's house, where all evil will be overcome, and there will be praise laughter forever. This is what Jesus was referring to in Luke 6:21 where He said, "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." The Gospel of laughter is this: no matter how rough life is, and how much sorrow its fallenness brings to you personally, there will be victory in Christ, and eternal rejoicing and laughter. God's people will have the last laugh, and it will never end.
For 70 years the nations laughed at Israel, for they were in bondage, but now they are back, and they are so blest that even the nations that laughed have to admit that God has done great things for them. The point is, you never let go of the hand of God no matter how awful and dark the path, for even if you go through the valley of shadow of death He will bring you out again into the sunshine. He will fill your mouth with laughter and songs of joy. Judgment is never the last word for those who cling to their heavenly Father. The last word will always be joy. In essence, that is the message of the book of Job. It is a book loaded with lament, but the last word is laughter, and the happy ending of joy in God is the bottom line message of the Word of God.
Laughter is, therefore, a present taste of heaven. It can be an appropriate way to rejoice in the Lord and praise Him for the great things He has done for us. Yet, in spite of all the evidence of this in the Bible we just can't accept laughter as a legitimate form of worship and praise, because it has been secularized. There are many books written on the humor of the Bible, and the humor of Jesus, but these books have little impact on Christians because we are conditioned to reject comedy as inconsistent with godliness. Comedy, humor, and satire run all through the Bible, but God's people refuse to take it seriously, and to talk about laughter in worship is considered to be borderline sacreligious.
Surveys show that one of the key qualities that both males and females are looking for in an ideal mate is a sense of humor. Yet, when we look to the God in whose image we are made, we are afraid to attribute to Him a sense of humor, and likewise with His Son, who was the only perfect specimen of mankind ever to live. God and Jesus are suppose to be totally humorless and infinite in gravity, and so in all dealings with them we too are to be totally humorless and grave.
Great authors have fought this tendency all through history. In the middle ages you have Dante's Divine Comedy. It is a journey from a humorless hell to a humor filled heaven. His hell is like the modern astronomer's black hole which swallows up all light, and is black with self-centeredness. It is the least comic place in the universe. But Dante moves from this black hole of hell to the light of heaven, where love and joy are all embracing. Dante exclaims as he approaches the 8th level of heaven: "I seemed to see the universe alight with a single smile." The nearer we get to heaven the wider the smile, and the greater the laughter. This is an authentic biblical message.
When Adam and Eve fell they fell from laughter by taking themselves too seriously. Satan did not get to them by getting them to engage in enjoying their abundance to excess. He got them to focus on their one area of denial, and become serious about this issue. They were deprived. They were being mistreated. Life was unfair. Pride was exalted, and a rebellious spirit took over. Their deadly serious attitude led them to lose heaven on earth, and gain a hell on earth. Laughter is a focus on the things to celebrate about life. Laughter is the is the guest at parties, feasts, reunions, weddings, birthdays, and holidays. People are saying yes to life in laughter, and they are enjoying their life and their loves.
Remove laughter, and start taking all of life very serious, and you will focus on the fear, the dangers, and the risks. Problems will grow, and obstacles will rise up to make life a mountain climb of extreme difficulty. The less laughter in your life, the more you will make life a burden rather than a blessing. C. S. Lewis wrote, "Humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this....We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment."
In contrast to this we look at the early Christians in the book of Acts, and we see just the opposite of this serious self-centeredness. We see joyful otherness as they shared together, and cared about the whole body, and not just their own life. I was surprised when I looked up the word gladness in Acts 2:46-47. Listen to the context: "Everyday they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people."
My surprise was this: There are 9 different Hebrew and Greek words behind our English word gladness, but the most forceful of them all is the one in this text. It is the word agalliasis. It is a word of such overwhelming gladness that it can't remain just a feeling. It has to be expressed by the body in leaping for joy. Jesus used it in Matt. 5:12 where he says when you suffer persecution and evil because of Him, "Rejoice and be exceeding glad for great is your reward in heaven." You can laugh at those who hurt you for your faith in Christ, for every pain they inflict is a deposit in your eternal bank account. You can laugh even though it hurts, because in their efforts to make you miserable they are really making you rich. This is one of God's jokes on a fallen rebellious world.
Peter uses this same strong word in his sermon at Pentecost as he quotes the Old Testament passage which describes the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Listen carefully because we miss the amazing message of Peter that Jesus could laugh at death and hell, and be filled with gladness as He faced the cross, for He knew God's big joke was to be the resurrection. The pain would be temporary, but the pleasure would be forever. Listen to all the positive words that surround the awful death Jesus had to endure. Remember, the word glad here means to leap for joy.
Acts 2:25-28: "I saw the Lord always before me. Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence."
Jesus actually did what He said we could do. He practiced what He preached. When evil threw its worst at Him, He laughed and leaped for joy, for He knew His reward was eternal pleasure, not only for himself, but for all the redeemed. The biggest joke in the universe is that God took the greatest act of evil in history, and turned it into the greatest act of salvation. The cross was the devil's masterpiece of hate and horror, but God made it the greatest symbol of love and victory. We can look at the cross and laugh with God, for the cross is the guarantee that all tears will be wiped away, and sin and sorrow be no more in that kingdom where we will laugh and leap for joy forever. It was that scene of eternal joy that enabled Jesus to endure the cross.
Heb. 12:2 says, " Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." Jesus could endure hell for us because He could see beyond it to the laughter of heaven. This is also the key to our enduring a fallen world. It is the joy of the Lord that is our strength, and that joy can be manifested in the praise of laughter.