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Toward a Theology of Humor

Salt: from bland to overbearing

Humor permeates through every part of our culture and this wasn’t always the case. It used to be that there were lots of places that you would never find humor and lots of subjects that were off limits for joking. That seems to be no longer true. From church worship services to funeral homes you can expect to find humor everywhere. And from death to religion no topic is too sacred.

To be clear I’m a student of humor. I don’t fault humor for its abuse. I love a good laugh and apparently I’m not the only one. According to eHarmony.com, the most desired trait by both men and women is humor. More than anything physical, more than any skill, it seems that people want to have someone with whom they can laugh.

Now while it hasn’t always been as expansive as it is now, it has been around for a long time. Humor was invented in 500 BC by a Greek philosopher named Slapamines. Slapamines was studying chickens on his farm and watching as they crossed the path between his stables and his coupe. When he began to wonder about their intentions and he became the first to ask why they were crossing the road. Okay that’s not true, but humor can be traced back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. The Greek comedies, many of which were written between 500 and 400 years BC, have a surprising number of ‘modern’ comedic devices – including some rather risqué humor.

So humor is everywhere, its vital to relationships and humor is ancient, but as a student of humor I just want to take a look at what the Biblical view of humor is. Many Christians (myself included) make an unintentional assessment regarding what kind of humor is acceptable for Christians: the kind that makes me laugh. This isn’t a good litmus test and with as common as it is in our culture, I think its time we move toward a theology of humor. Upon researching this topic I turned up an interesting passage of scripture that I never would’ve thought much of before.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Colossians 4:6 emphasis added

This is interesting for two reasons. First, the word picture of “seasoning” conversation with “salt” was a phrase in Greek literature. The commonly understood meaning of ‘salt’ in this context was ‘wit.’ Second, in the Greek, the word for seasoned is artuō. It means to fit or arrange – so its connotation isn’t what we think of as randomly putting salt on something, but rather meticulously allowing just the right amount.

So, it seems here that we’re actually told to include wit in our conversations, but also grace. Equally important to note, however is that we’re told to be ‘seasoned’ with wit in a measured amount – not too little, not to much.

So what is too much salt?

Here are a couple of passages that I turn to that outline what ‘too salty’ might look like.

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Ephesians 5:4

Honestly this is a tough scripture for me, because I don’t like to put limits on joking. Let’s take a look at it. First off, none of the words used here for ‘obscenity’, ‘foolish talk’, or ‘course joking’ appear anywhere else in the new testament so we have nothing to compare it to. Studying the words you’ll find that ‘obscenity’ in this case could be defined as ‘that which offends Christian purity.’ ‘Foolish talk’ – means just that; don’t be an idiot when you open your mouth. Course joking  – well it means course joking, but it can also mean dishonesty. Okay let’s look at another scripture.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Matthew 7:6

I hope this one is obvious; certain things in life are sacred – if you give them up to be treated as fodder for animals, they’ll do exactly what you’d expect an animal to do.

Okay so when is there too little salt?

I think part of the answer is in that verse in Colossians. Before we’re told that our conversation is to be seasoned with salt, we’re told that it should be full of grace. Social grace is a loving act that extends a willingness to seek to understand the other person. I believe a key element in this is a willingness to joke about yourself. I also think you have to let scripture and the Holy Spirit guide you

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Romans 12:15

Don’t be a stick in the mud! Don’t laugh in the face of tragedy! Be willing to laugh at yourself when other laugh at you, be willing to cry when others are crying. God wants us to have a balanced, healthy temper. Jesus tells us that even while fasting we’re not supposed to be somber, tortured souls

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18

I refer to this scripture for two reasons: It shows us that Jesus doesn’t want his followers to be gloomy people. But it also shows that Jesus doesn’t mind using a little sarcasm to make a point. “I tell you they have received their reward in full.” That’s sarcasm! That’s comedy! Dr. Elton Trueblood has written a book on the Humor of Christ (the only remaining ‘new’ copy on Amazon.com can be yours for only $351.39!) In this book he outlines 30 different places where Jesus uses humor such as sarcasm, irony and hyperbole to teach. For a good article on Jesus’ use of Humor check out this one from biblestudy.org.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

First we’re told to rejoice (twice) in the Lord! Second we’re told not to worry – that means cynicism is not a God-condoned form of humor. And finally we’re told the kind of things about which God wants us to think. This to me is the ultimate test for anything that you’re struggling with: Is it God’s will for me to dwell on this? “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy..” Can you say that about your sense of humor?

What the Bible says about humor:

  1. Harsh humor at anyone’s expense is not Christ-like. Harsh joking is clearly outlined in Eph. 5 as the opposite of being an ‘imitator of Christ.’ You cannot use “but, its the truth!” as an excuse. Harsh is harsh and as Christians we’re called to be Loving. – That being said, Jesus himself used some sarcastic humor towards others (see his introduction to Nathaniel) in John 1:47. I don’t think we’re supposed to take ourselves so seriously that we can’t have a light jab thrown our way.
  2. Humor that is not pure, is not God honoring. Let me step back and say that ‘purity’ does not mean ‘free from sex.’ If that were the case then the Shakers were the only pure people among us. “Purity” means free from sexual sin – sin like lust and sex outside of marriage. Jokes that endorse, romanticize, trivialize or promote sexual sin are not a part of a holy life. Jokes that endorse holy matrimony while upholding its sanctity are pure.
  3. What’s sacred is Sacred. Human life, salvation, the human body, Jesus’ passion and the teachings of scripture are not to be trifled with. Do I think every joke about someone going to heaven and meeting St. Peter is sinful? No. I do believe that you should think twice before making any jokes on these subjects, however. Humor is one thing, flippancy is another – be sure that you’re not throwing pearls to pigs.  Me personally? I don’t joke much about death, salvation and judgement.
  4. Intentionally deceiving people in a humorous way is still lying. Lying is still wrong. I’m not saying it’s wrong to say something outlandish to make a point or even to get a laugh; Jesus even used hyperbole. I’m saying that if you’re really lying – even if its out of amusement and not ‘malice’ its still lying.
  5. Jesus himself had a sense of humor. He used humor to teach, to get points across, to be memorable. To be humorous in a pure, holy and loving way is actually (dare I say it?) Christ-like.

In Conclusion

If I’m honest with myself, if I can read in the Bible and not feel convicted then I’m happy. That means I don’t have to change. I’ll often try to read into things in such a way that it fits my life-style as it exists. That’s not the way we’re called to live. If you, like me find these passages convicting try to consider it tomorrow. I think the final question to ask yourself is this: is my humor loving? Is it really out of love for others?

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:35

In all things we are to be loving. So next time you find yourself laughing or making a wise-crack, ask yourself “Is this too much salt?”

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