Meditations on the Laughter of Christ

Though raised in the church, I have not been a Christian for most of my life. Quite the opposite, in fact; as a young man I thought of Christians as a bunch of dour killjoys, stony-faced hypocrites who – to paraphrase H.L. Mencken – were deeply concerned that someone, somewhere might be having a good time. Now, however, I’ve gotten to the point in my walk with Jesus where I can plainly see, “Hey…we aren’t playing with Monopoly money here.” To put it another way, I fully believe that the response one offers to the question of “Who is Jesus?” is a matter of eternal life or death (Joshua 24:14-15; Daniel 12:2; John 11:25-26; John 14:6; Colossians 1:15-20). If we believe the Bible to be the Word of God (and I do), then there is nothing at all funny about someone rejecting Jesus as Lord and Savior.

To briefly illustrate the point, I can tell you about two different guys who attended a men’s recovery group with me several years ago. Both of these men were able to admit that they were seriously messed up and needed help. I genuinely liked both of them right away and – as I’ve often confessed here on ESI – that immediate-liking response is somewhat unusual for me. The fact that I felt something like agape love for both of them, so quickly, could only have been the work of God’s Holy Spirit. During one meeting, one of these men buried his face in his books during prayer time and cried out to God, “I surrender! Lord Jesus, please save me!” On a different night, the other guy was clearly trying to discern how far he could push the boundaries of Christianity and still (somehow) stay within the faith. The second guy’s questions revealed a heart that wanted to know, “Just how much will I have to give up for Jesus to save me?”

As I have said, I very much liked both of these guys, so much so that I offered to pour some of my own time and effort into their recovery, walking with them as they sought not only to step away from drugs, alcohol, and a grab-bag of other debilitating sins, but to also draw closer to the One Who alone is able to provide full, effectual healing. Guy Number One is currently working his way through a graduate degree program at Covenant Theological Seminary and hopes one day to counsel other men who are throwing their lives away by giving into various forms of addiction. Not too long after trying to figure out if being a Christian would mean that he also had to give up several other lifelong sins, Guy Number Two accidentally overdosed and died.

Two guys, two lives, both trapped in similar circumstances and hang-ups…two entirely different outcomes. I can point to the day we buried my friend as a turning point in my own understanding that, while God is indeed patient (Exodus 34:5-7; 2 Peter 3:9) and longs for sinners to draw near to Him (Psalm 27:7-8; Matthew 23:37-38), His patience will most definitely not last forever (Genesis 6:3; Proverbs 1:24-33). I actively resist speculating on the eternal destiny of anyone; that is God’s business (Matthew 25:31-46) and no one can ever know with certainty the disposition of another person’s heart. Heck, we can barely figure out our own hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). The point I am trying to make is that putting a highly-likeable young man into a casket has a decidedly chilling effect on one’s sense of humor.

So where does this leave us as Christians? How do we balance our clearly-commanded joy (John 15:11; Philippians 2:17-18; 4:4-5) with the certain knowledge that many, many people around us are on a fast track to their own destruction (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 1:18-32; Revelation 16:8-11; Revelation 16:8-21)? Surely no one would say that it’s OK to laugh as we watch person after person, all bearing the image of their Maker, on a conveyor belt that empties itself into an everlasting fiery furnace? How can we laugh when so many around us are destroying themselves with adultery, alcohol, deception, pornography, narcissism, drugs, greed, fornication and the like?

As with so many other questions regarding the practical living out of the Christian faith, it seems to me that we once again need to walk a tightrope. Veering too far in either direction – a legalistic “We should never, ever laugh about these things!” vs. the postmodern “Nothing really matters, so we might as well laugh at all of it.” – will almost surely put us into a ditch that bears little resemblance to biblical truth. To illustrate the point, here are two meditations on laughter, both written by well-respected Christian authors. Try to hold their ideas in tension by assuming that what both of them say is probably true:

Daily Hope with Rick Warren, Purpose-Driven Connection
“Jesus Laughed” by Jon Walker, Author of Costly Grace
Sunday, June 26, 2011
I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. John 17:13-14 (NIV)
Have you ever considered that Jesus laughed? Can you imagine him as a joyful man, full of humor? Perhaps his eyes twinkled with grace and acceptance? Jesus said he wanted to pass the full measure of his joy to those who believe in him (John 17:13). If we’re always frowning and glowering, is it any surprise that non-believers have difficulty understanding how Jesus brings us into a joyful, abundant life? I once interviewed Bruce Marchiano, the actor who played Jesus in The Gospel According to Matthew. He said the greatest surprise he found in playing Jesus was portraying him with joy. Bruce said most portraits of Jesus show him as constantly serious; yet, the Gospels reveal Jesus to be full of joy and compassion. One scene in The Gospel According to Matthew shows Jesus, portrayed by Bruce, healing a man and they both fall on the ground hugging and laughing. It is a joyous moment for Jesus as he gives the man new health, and it is a joyous moment for the man as he receives this gift from Jesus. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is known for its bloody presentation of Christ’s final hours, but one scene that is often overlooked is Jesus in a playful conversation with his mother, Mary. He smiles and laughs. Back in the 1960s, Playboy magazine printed a drawing of Jesus – laughing. Although the magazine’s philosophy stood counter to God, their point was that Jesus must have been a joyful man, because who would be attracted to a frowning, judgmental teacher? They were also reacting to a world full of frowning, judgmental Christians. Jesus came enjoying life and he wants us to enjoy life, too (Matthew 11:19). Becoming like Jesus includes learning to laugh and smile with the full measure of his joy.

Orthodoxy, Chapter IX: Authority and the Adventurer
by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their 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. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

At first blush, it would seem that these two meditations, both written by faithful Christian brothers, are somewhat opposed to each other. Walker does a bit of extrabiblical speculation on the joy and humor of Christ, but makes a truly excellent point when he asks, “Who would be attracted to a frowning, judgmental teacher?” It is hard to imagine that Jesus would have attracted the huge crowds that He did if the entirety of the New Testament read like Matthew 23. Chesterton, for his part, is quite right to point out that the Bible, i.e. the actual text itself, never gives us a detailed portrait of Jesus laughing. I agree with Chesterton that we are only likely to see the full extent of God’s joy and humor when we are at home with Him in eternity.

I am not going to pretend that I have the definitive answer as to why Jesus is never portrayed as laughing in the Bible, but what I can tell you is that since I joined The Crossing in Nov. of 2001, I have laughed harder than I ever had before, safe in the company of fellow believers who have been entrusted to point out my ridiculous behavior, faulty thinking and foolishness. I have also wept with a greater sense of grief than I had known previously, compelled by the Truth of Jesus to jump into difficult relationships and contend for the faith, often in the face of outright hostility, many times being asked to simply watch as someone turns away from the beauty that is Christ, fully aware that most adults who turn away will never be back. My sense is that somehow we will all laugh ourselves silly in eternity with Christ, even as we weep for the lost.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (ESV)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

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