This is one of the first articles I ever wrote for publication; it was printed as a “Reflections” column for Christian Standard in 2004, long before I was blogging. But ten years later I still don’t hear much in our theology about Jesus belly-laughing. And I believe he did.
Attending Sunday School as children, we all knew the shortest verse in the Bible— “Jesus wept”—and depended on it to score a few easy points in Bible memory competitions. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve realized how profound those two words are. John tells us the world was created through Jesus; yet Jesus cried real tears when he considered the fate of Jerusalem and the death of Lazarus.
The opposite is also true, of course: if Jesus wept, surely he laughed. And yet in decades of attending church, I don’t ever remember hearing that Jesus enjoyed life or even smiled much.
Most of the movies about Jesus depict him as a gaunt man with a furrowed brow and a vaguely stoned look that is, I suppose, intended to connote otherworldliness. If I met this Jesus, I’d be less interested in his teachings and more interested in making some coffee to sober him up.
Even The Passion neglected this aspect of Jesus. In only one scene do we catch a glimpse of him laughing, teasing his mother and splashing her with water. I’m grateful for a movie that communicates so well the reality of Christ’s suffering for me, but the “shock and awe” I experienced while viewing the film owed more to violence and blood than to an emotional connection with Jim Caviezel’s portrayal of the Savior.
Jesus hung out with tax collectors and fishermen. I doubt he convinced them to leave their professions by promising they, too, could roam the countryside looking pale and tragic. Instead, he promised to give his followers life “to the full.” The Message translates that as “real and eternal, more and better life.” Jesus preached a revolutionary message, but he also demonstrated a radical understanding of life as God intended it: a life of more freedom, more grace, and more laughter.
Laughter honors God
In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey writes, “In Jesus not only do we have a window to God, we also have a mirror of ourselves, a reflection of what God had in mind when he created this ‘poor, bare, forked animal.’ Human beings were, after all, created in the image of God; Jesus reveals what that image should look like.”
Whenever we act in ways consistent with the character of God we honor him. Working diligently, teaching our children, loving our spouses, demonstrating patience to our friends; these activities bear witness to the Creator of work, family, friendship. Romans 12 reminds us that even the “daily-ness” of our daily lives provides opportunity to worship.
During the years he invested in the apostles, Jesus’ daily life involved mentoring, teaching, praying, healing, and listening. I wonder, though, what else the long days included. Jesus didn’t just love these twelve men—he genuinely liked them. How did he express his affection? Playing keep-away with Peter’s lunch? Giving them “noogies,” perhaps?
Many years ago, while on vacation with my family, my dad came across an advertisement inviting readers to name a new flavor of Edy’s ice cream. (One of the dangers of having an editor for a father and an English teacher for a mother is a tendency to be drawn into these things.) The promise of free ice cream for life sealed it.
“We should do a celebrity theme.”
“What, like name the flavors after famous people?”
“Yeah. Like Dom Deluise.”
“His name is really Dom?”
“Nothing goes with Deluise. Dad, this is stupid.”
“Wait, I’ve got it: RUM DELUISE!”
“Yeah, we should do a whole line named after B-list celebrities.”
“You know, like Zsa Zsa Gabor.”
“ZSA ZSA GALORE!”
In laughing with my family that morning, I honored my earthly parents as well as my heavenly father. We still giggle about our lost chance at greatness—we didn’t win the contest. Then again, we aren’t faced with eating a lifetime supply of Rum Deluise, either.
Laughter communicates grace
One of my favorite cartoons portrays a couple in a restaurant. “I’m already too full of myself to eat,” the woman explains to her date. I laugh at the drawing’s honesty, but it’s a little too close to reality.
The truth is, I’m someone’s difficult person and—let’s just face it—you are too. We’re all a little “extra-grace-required.”
Listen to any group of people telling stories and laughing, and the stories are sure to revolve around the little absurdities and frustrations of life. Preachers tell the funniest stories, and the best ones usually relate to ministry goofs: the wedding where everyone fainted, the choir soloist who shouldn’t have been. We laugh—after the fact, usually—about silly arguments and foolish mistakes. Laughter reminds us we’re in it together.
A few years ago I visited my brother and sister-in-law in London. Toward the end of the visit we took a quick weekend trip to Amsterdam. It was the classic “someday you’ll find this funny” scenario: waking up at 3:30 a.m. to catch the plane, hauling luggage around Schipol airport searching for the right subway platform, finally getting on a train, my brother’s hesitant words, “Um, ladies, I think we’re on the wrong one…….”
I couldn’t believe Geoff shepherded us on a train because he “sort of thought” the sign said Central Station. (Apparently our ₤75 airfare also bought him fluency in Dutch.) He couldn’t understand my annoyance since I read maps at a second-grade level. (My sister-in-law Lisa behaved patiently and graciously throughout, demonstrating that whatever his other faults, Geoff knows how to pick a wife.)
By the time we arrived at “Hotel Tulip,” feet were sore and tempers were short. But that night the three of us watched bad Dutch soap operas on our 13” TV and laughed until we couldn’t breathe. Perhaps it was just a lack of sleep that made life seem so funny, but our laughter washed away the residue of misunderstandings and aggravation from the morning, and reminded us how lucky we were to be together. (And to have found the hotel.)
A God who laughs
In The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood writes, “If Christ laughed a great deal, as the evidence shows, and if he is what he claimed to be, we cannot avoid the logical conclusion that there is laughter and gaiety in the heart of God.”
A few years ago I helped lead a small Bible study. At one of our first meetings, I played a clip from The Visual Bible’s Matthew series. These videos show a Jesus who plays with children, hugs his disciples, and laughs with delight as he heals people. This Jesus delivers the Good News like it’s actually….good.
Together we watched Peter walk on water to join Jesus. As Peter’s trust wavers and he starts to fall, Jesus extends a strong hand and pulls him from the waves. I’d always assumed Jesus looked disappointed with Peter at this point. “Again with this?” I could hear him saying. (Matthew just didn’t record that part.)
Instead, this Jesus’ face shows compassion and encouragement with a huge grin. “You of little faith,” he says smiling, shaking his head a bit, “Why did you doubt?” And then, amazingly, he laughs, grasps Peter’s shoulders, and pulls him into a bear hug, right there on the water.
When I turned off the TV, I looked at the group. Around the circle sat hundreds of years of faith, but I knew many of the women, like me, expected Jesus to be angry with Peter. “I can’t believe he was smiling,” one said.
How had we concluded that the Creator of laughter didn’t smile? For one moment we sat quietly, sheepish and speechless at a God who came to earth and modeled a life of more.