Humor

Preaching and Worship Resources about Humor

Humor is the amusing perception of life's absurdities — a delightful recognition of its incongruities that can provoke both laugher and insight. Contrary to Charles Baudelaire's assertion that "holy books never laugh," the Bible at times presents its serious message using tools of humor such as satire, sarcasm, verbal and dramatic irony, exaggeration, wordplay, and humorous situations. The Bible also ripples with laughter, from Abraham and Sarah's chortling (Gen. 17:17; 18:12, 21:6) to Jesus' promise: "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" (Luke 6:21).

In Scripture

Lot and His Sons-in-law "So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, `Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!' But his sons-in-law thought he was joking" (Gen. 19:14, NIV)

Sarah "Now Sarah said, `God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me'" (Gen. 21:6).

Good Medicine "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones" (Prov. 17:22).

Time "There is . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh" (Eccl. 3:4).

Irony "So the girl went and called the child's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, `Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages'" (Ex. 2:8b, 9). "So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai." (Esther 7:10).

Sarcasm "At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, `Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened'" (1 Kings 18:27). "Then Job answered: `No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you'" (Job 12:2). "Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!" (Job 38:21).

Exaggeration (hyperbole): "Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God" (Jonah 3:8). "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" (Matt. 7:3). "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matt. 23:24).

Satire "When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, `What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?'" (Num. 22:27, 28). "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a lazy person in bed. The lazy person buries a hand in the dish, and is too tired to bring it back to the mouth" (Prov. 26:14, 15).

Humorous Situations " . . . Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, `The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior'" (Judges 6:11-12). "On recognizing Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate" (Acts 12:14).

Points to Ponder

Nature of humor: "The Bible does not contain a term for humor. This word derives from Latin, and refers to the ancient belief that the body contained four liquids, or `humors' (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) that affected health and temperament. The present significance of the word — having an amusing or comic quality — dates from the late 16th century."

What makes something humorous? "Various theories have attempted to explain the nature of humor. The three main kinds are relief theory, superiority theory, and incongruity theory. Relief theory explains humor in sexual jokes and malicious jokes. These jokes represent a relaxation of social restraint, according to proponents of relief theory like Sigmund Freud. The superiority theory explains why mocking others is found by some to be humorous, and is sometimes found in the Bible. The story of Ehud and Eglon in Judg. 3:15-30, for example, mocks the Moabites by presenting their king as gluttonous and gullible and his guards as slow-witted."

Theory of Humor "The most promising theory of humor for understanding the Bible is the incongruity theory. This idea explains humor as the linking of disparate things in a fresh and sometimes disrupting way, and is the sort of humor we primarily find in the Bible: Sarah having a child as an old woman (Gen. 21:6-7), Mordecai, son of Jair, being honored by the king instead of Haman (Esth. 6:3-11), and a crucified man being hailed as the savior of the world (1 Cor 1:18)."

Laughter and sorrow: In Scripture, laughter is the music of both the merry and mournful soul. "Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief" (Prov. 14:13). "Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad" (Eccles. 7:13). Other perceptive voices note this linkage as well: "Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven" (Mark Twain). "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt".(Erma Bombeck). "Laughter transforms pain — humor is sorrow's catalytic converter. It's the emotional process by which we're able to convert the dark substance of living into something that can be expelled like carbon dioxide" (Joe Fassler).

Humor as an expression of scorn: Humor, like laughter, can be positive and good-natured or negative and derisive (see Ps. 2:4, 37:13 for examples of God's scornful laughter, and Job 12:4, Psalm 52:6, and Matt, 9:24 for examples of humanity's scornful laughter). Freud believed that humor arose from disguised hostility — a refined form of aggression and hatred. Art Spiegelman writes, "Whenever I'm considering why something's funny or not, I always tell myself: find the victim. Humor is targeted. It may be aimed at an individual, at an institution, or the entire superstructure of rational thinking. But something is always being skewered."

Humor as a gift of grace: The New York Times notes: "Studies show that humor improves our health, helps us get along better with others and even makes us smarter. . . . Laughter literally loosens up our blood vessels, promoting healthy circulation, in a way similar to aerobic exercise. . . . In one famous humor study conducted by James Rotton at Florida International University, subjects who watched funny movies after surgery requested 25 percent less pain medication. Another study showed that watching an episode of Friends reduced anxiety three times as effectively as just sitting and resting. Subjects also performed better on cognitive tests, such as word-association problems, after reading funny jokes and watching videos of Robin Williams performing stand-up comedy."

Humor as a rhetorical device: Effective humor can be a useful device to establish connection between a preacher and congregation as well as to regain listeners' attention. At a deeper level, as humor functions by highlighting life's incongruities through surprise/misdirection and contradiction/paradox, it has the cognitive power to startle listeners into new awareness.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.