I must repent. Not until recently did I consider humor a Christian virtue. Likewise for its close cousins, laughter and fun. Humor had its place in the church. But its role was mostly as an additive, much like salt. Some of it sprinkled in enhances flavor. But salt isn’t necessary and should be used sparingly. Few things anger me more than over-salted fries (I’m looking at you, McDonalds).
So it was with humor, I thought. Some lightheartedness was fine. But too much was troubling, probably the result of kiddie pool faith.
I suspect I’m not alone here. The church’s relationship with humor is no laughing matter. Yes, I paint with a broad brush. And, no, the pun is not intended.
Many churches position humor in direct opposition to faith. Lightheartedness and fun have their time and place, but the time is never on Sunday morning and the place is rarely in the presence of other believers, lest you be accused of not being serious about God.
I could ramble on about how and why the church pushed humor to the margins of faith. But I don’t have time for that. Neither do you. If for some strange reason you have the time, I will plop a few resources at the end of the post.
What I want you to know is my perspective on humor has changed. Far from an additive, I believe humor is an essential ingredient for healthy, balanced Christian living.
Healthy Christians don’t put laughter and mourning in competition. There is a time for both, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says. When we neglect humor, we do so to the detriment of our faith.
Here are 7 spiritual benefits of humor and fun.
1. Humor drives out fear.
Recent studies have shown that humor and fear can’t coexist. This is particularly important when it comes to theology. I suspect many churches see humor irreverent or excessive because their theology is built primarily on fear. I know this was true for me. When you believe God is always judging you, there’s little room for lightheartedness and fun. Heaven and hell are on the line, after all. That’s no laughing matter.
As my primary image of God shifted from fear to love, so did my perspective on life. When you know God accepts you despite your mistakes and failures, you’re free to enjoy life. You can laugh at your yourself rather than beat yourself up. You can laugh at your failures rather than drowning in shame.
How do you use lightheartedness and fun? The answer reveals something about your image of God.
2. Humor is a powerful tool for evangelism.
You’ve probably never thought of humor as an evangelism tool. Such an idea was silliness to my serious faith until recently. James Martin makes this point in his book Between Heaven and Mirth. He says, “For believers in general, humor shows your trust in God, who will ultimately make all things well.”
Here’s the deal. Every day, we’re inundated with stress and anxiety of all kinds. The news basically says terrorists are going to bomb our house. Work is stressful. Financial troubles equally so. Add to it, the weight of parenting and marriage.
As Christians, however, we serve a God who is greater than our stresses and anxieties. To smile and laugh with joy in today’s world sends a powerful message. Living this way will draw the attention of others. When this happens, we now have an opportunity to share the hope we have in Jesus.
3. Humor cultivates humility.
C. S. Lewis says, “A proud man cannot laugh because he must protect his dignity…But a poor and happy man laughs heartily because he gives no serious attention to his ego.” The Bible is pregnant with warnings about pride. It seems to be on our Mount Rushmore of temptations as humans, to think of ourselves more highly than we should.
Humor and fun are a great way to combat this temptation. If you believe it’s your job to save the world, fun is a distraction. If you desire to build your personal kingdom on earth – whether your kingdom is an organization or a reputation – laughter and humor are intolerable.
History’s most notorious dictators and authoritarians, I’m told, share one common trait. They cannot laugh at themselves and refuse to allows others to laugh at them.
Humility reveals the presence of God, as Paul implies in Philippians 2:3-5. Christians who understand the humility of Christ are not enslaved to their ego, they don’t need to protect their reputation and they are very seldom offended, as the Spirit of God is un-offendable.
4. Humor keeps us in touch with reality.
Fake news is a real problem in today’s world. Humorous stories have a way of cutting through the crap and uncovering the truth of the matter. Funny stories can help you see a point with greater clarity, in a way you might not have seen otherwise.
Humor also keeps us connected with reality by awakening our wonder. Without humor, we miss out on a lot of life. Mostly we miss the mundane and seemingly childish humor. Every day, I’m taken back by how naturally my kids smile and laugh. My five-year-old son learned his first joke last week, one that actually has a punch line and makes sense. He’s told the joke at least a dozen times and falls out in laughter every time. This is the innocence of children. They find joy in simple and mundane.
To regain our childlikeness is one of our greatest (and most difficult) tasks as Christians. It takes unceasing prayer and an unwavering confidence in our identity through Christ.
6. Humor is disarming and welcoming.
Most of us are attracted to people who are funny and enjoy life. Ever thought about why? I think we know, even if we can’t verbalize it, that life is meant to be enjoyed. Those who have fun reveal something about the way is supposed to be.
Humor is also a powerful tool to disarm tension and discomfort, especially in group settings. Humor relaxes people and invites them to let your guard down.
6. Humor reveals courage.
Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, says, “The Christian is merry, not because he is blind to injustice and suffering, but because he is convicted that these, in the light of the divine sovereignty, are never ultimate.”
That’s a strong quote.
Opponents of humor might point to the depth of injustice across our globe and argue these evils are too serious for humor. This was my stance, in fact. And it’s partially true. From sex trafficking to the lack of basic needs like clean water to the millions of orphans, darkness exists all around us. And these matters are serious. But again, we can be both serious and humorous. We need both, in fact, to be effective ambassadors for Christ.
The serious side keeps us focused on the fight. The humorous keeps us focused on who’s in charge. Christians should never be indifferent to injustice. We should also never doubt that God is in charge of the changing.
Both attitudes, I believe, give us hope and remind us that evil is not eternal.
7. Humor can have positive physical effects on your body.
Psychologists have shown several important ways humor heals the body. When you laugh your brain releases powerful chemicals. These chemicals can reduce stress, relax your body, boost your immune system, reduce pain and break negative thought patterns, among other benefits.
Humor then must be an outpouring of God’s grace. A well-timed joke or humorous moment can provide relief from suffering and loss. Especially with respect to personal pain and illness, humor can pump the brakes on negative thought patterns.
I also believe humor can heal the body of Christ, the church. When a community of believers grieves the death of someone they love or a leader’s abuse of power, humor can act as a step in healing’s direction. It’s not that we laugh at someone. Sin is never humorous. But, when applied properly, humor can give our grief and pain relief.
This is by no means a comprehensive argument for humor as a Christian virtue. But I hope it’s a pseudo-convincing one. Some churches understand the important balance between the serious and humorous. Bayside Church is one of those. The gospel is a serious matter with incredibly important implications. But this doesn’t negate lightheartedness and humor. The leaders at Bayside are great models of this healthy, balanced perspective on Christian living.
As promised, here are a few resources if you so desire a deeper study of humor as a Christian virtue.
Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin
The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood
Surprised By Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis, Terry Lindvall
“The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Terry Lindvall
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.