“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”G. K. Chesterton
“The gods too are fond of a joke.”Aristotle
There is a habit of mind among evangelicals that everyone ought to have a “life verse”: a verse that one memorizes and that guides one’s life. The most commonly chosen verses are, of course, John 3:16, John 14:6, Joshua 24:15, any portion of Psalm 23, portions of Romans, II Thessalonians, and so forth. For years I would respond with John 14:6, but I secretly wanted to give the same answer as the great writer Philip Yancey’s brother. He would stand and recite 1Chronicles 26:18, “At Parbar westward, two at the causeway, and two at Parbar.” If he was in a bad mood, he’d quote Psalm 137:9. It reads, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Yancey’s brother and I would get along just fine.
In recent years, I’ve changed my answer. Now I say, Psalm 2:4, “He that sitteth in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.” I love that verse for so many reasons. First, God laughs. There are a few other examples of His laughter in Psalm 22:4 and 37:12-13, but so many churches teach otherwise these days. God has a sense of humor. Of course He does, He made us in His own image and, Lord knows, some of us can get and take a joke.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to make people laugh. I was selected as class clown by my high school graduating class, unanimously. The God who made and loves us, to my mind, could not possibly be dour, constantly vengeful, and always angry, as some portray him. We could not relate to Him if that were so. Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Laughter is a part of His creation, and that makes it a gift of God. This life is difficult enough without knowing that not only does our Lord have a sense of humor, but He wants to share it with us.
When something in the Scriptures strikes me as humorous, I perceive the Lord putting it in there with a theoretical wink., showing us His humor. After all, this is the God who, in Job 39:17 informed us that storks are stupid.
The Best Jokes in the Bible
The book of John gives us elbow-in-the-ribs evidence of a little competition between John and Peter. For example, in John 20:14, John just had to tell us that he beat Peter to the tomb when they ran there after Mary Magdalene informed them of Jesus’ missing body. He also made the point that he saw Jesus first. Then in John 21:21 he makes sure to mention when Jesus said that he, John, wouldn’t suffer even when Peter demanded to know why John wouldn’t have to go through suffering. Remember, this is the disciple who called himself the one whom Jesus loved. I wonder how the rest of the disciples felt about that claim. (By the way, many of them were dead when he wrote it.) It reminds me of what I often say to people: “Jesus loves you, but I’m His favorite.”
In Matthew 7:3, where Jesus attacked the act of being judgmental, I can’t help but grin when I read about the guilty looking at the mote in another’s eye while they ignore the beam in their own eye. Just picture a stick of wood in your eye, and you can hear Christ’s knowing exaggeration that He used to teach His lesson. I’m pretty sure that some of those to whom it was not addressed got a kick out of it—and they certainly got the point (no pun intended).
One of the best jokes in the Bible is found in the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal. When their “god” didn’t set fire to the sacrifice, Elijah went on a sublimely sarcastic and ridiculing rant against Baal. If one reads it closely, Elijah suggests that perhaps, among other things, their god might be busy relieving his bowels. They’re praying to a god who can’t hear because he’s passing stool? Sorry, but that is just plain funny.
In 2 Chronicles 21:20, the death of King Jehoram is described this way, “He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried.” What an epitaph. That funeral must have been the driest-eyed in history. He died, so what else is new? That ought to at least induce a chuckle.
Zacharias and Jonah
I conclude with two of my favorite examples of what I perceive as intentional humor. John the Baptist’s father Zacharias was informed that he would have a son and he should name him John. When he doubted the angel Gabriel who delivered the message, he was made mute until the proper time. Fast forward to the official naming of the boy in the temple. Attendees tried to prevent his mother, Elizabeth, from naming him John. So, in Luke 1:62, “they made signs to his father as to how he would have him called.”
They made signs to him? Really? He was mute, not deaf. Why were they making signs? They could have just asked him. I can’t imagine how ridiculous they must have looked to Zacharias.
Finally, there is almost the entire book of Jonah. What a head case the Lord chose here. God told him to go to Nineveh and preach to its inhabitants in order to bring them to faith. Jonah hated the Ninevites, so he refused. Then he tried to run away.
Good thinking, Jonah. Run away from God. He’s only omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Just how far or where could he have run? Jonah got on a boat and sailed away. He was eventually thrown overboard in a storm, swallowed by a huge fish and kept in there for three days and nights, got vomited up by the fish on the shores near Nineveh, and then he begrudgingly preached to the people. Successfully. They ditch their other gods and worship the Lord.
So what did Jonah do after this triumph? He whined, complained, and asked God to kill him because he didn’t want Nineveh saved. It would be as if a University of Alabama fan who was an evangelist was sent by God to preach to the students at Auburn. Just imagine the banner over the platform: “Jesus loves you, but I don’t.”
An Even More Beguiling God
These examples show me an even more beguiling God. Laughter intensifies our relationship with Him and makes Him more captivating and loving. It provides an even more inviting vision of our Lord to the unsaved. He’s not just the One on whom we call during strife, or emergencies, or when we are so blessed and thankful. He is also one who not only wants us to have joy, but wants to enjoy it with us.
Humor also magnifies His fatherhood. By showing His humor in the Word, God emphasizes that we are His children made in His image and that He, our father, can laugh at life, perhaps even along with us after we do something funny—just like an earthly father. We know that He desires fellowship with us. What better way to encounter that joy of companionship than to begin with a smile?
Humor is in the eye of the beholder. The fact that there are a few examples of it in God’s Word makes me love Him even more. To those who don’t see the humor in these examples, you are free to make your own interpretation, and may the Lord bless you. I might recommend the book titled The Humor of Christ by Elton Trueblood, the distinguished theologian and chaplain at both Stanford and Harvard Universities. He makes a further elaborated and much more scholarly case for humor in the Scriptures.
As for me, I like this quote by author Ken Bruen: “He who laughs last probably didn’t get the joke.”