by Ken Stephens
According to a recent article in Psychology Today, “the average six-year-old laughs 300 times a day, the average adult, just 17.” Why is that? Somewhere along the line, we learned not to laugh. That’s right. A baby giggles for the first time at about nine weeks of age. Between 4–6 months, touch and sound make a baby laugh and by ten months an infant will seek out laughter, usually through games such as peek-a-boo. This is a natural part of human development.
But at some point, perhaps when we enter school, we begin to hear such messages as, “Don’t act so silly,” “Wipe that smile off your face,” and “Grow up.” Remember? Again and again, we hear these phrases throughout our formative years. So what we learn is: be more serious and be more mature. (Bah! Humbug!)
Then we learn about No Laughing Zones. They are everywhere. Places we frequent. Places where we spend many of our waking hours—work, school, even church. We are expected to keep our nose to the grindstone at work, be mindful at school, and be reverent in church. Anything else is, well … inappropriate.
To top it off, there are emotions that squelch laughter. Their names are: Embarrassment, Humiliation, Pain, Rejection, and Criticism. They tell us to keep our composure, stay in control, and—don’t act foolish!
What is the truth? Laughter is good for us. What other bodily function can give us a healthy workout inside and out, can alleviate stress, relieve pain, and help us gain a better perspective on our lives? Laughter is a tension reliever. Have you ever felt your mounting anger give way to a burst of laughter? It can be an icebreaker at a party—“Did you hear the one about . . . ?” Laughter has the ability to transform us from fearful and discouraged to spirited and encouraged.
Often, we have little control over life’s events, but if we learn to see humor in these situations and laugh, we can minimize the impact. Just one more reason to laugh: Men’s Health reported that watching a couple of hours of Mary Tyler Moore reruns will actually burn about 100 calories. Ha!
The Bible gives us much encouragement to see the humor in this life. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken” (Prov. 15:13). “All the days of the afflicted are evil: but he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast” (Prov. 15:15). “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones” (Prov. 17:22).
We find in the Scripture the principle that laughter is good, encouraging, healthy, and uplifting. A person who is a pessimist has a hard time seeing the good things in life. I am often encouraged when I am with someone who sees the humor in difficult situations.
My parents were always available to entertain missionaries or visiting preachers. As kids we used to enjoy sitting and listening to the guests as they would relate experiences they had had in the ministry. Many of those experiences were funny. I remember my dad saying that it takes a sense of humor for those in the ministry to be able to endure the stress that accompanies the Lord’s work.
Years ago I remember Larry Johnson, missionary to East Pakistan, telling our family of a newspaper account of a killing in East Pakistan. It told of two priests who were having an argument. One of them pulled out a knife and stabbed the other to death. When police questioned him about the incident, he said that they were just having a good time and he was tickling the other priest with his knife. I remember Larry saying, “Yes, I can hear the priest saying, ‘Stop that! You are tickling me to death!’”
We can endure a difficult situation if we can see the humor in it. It takes the sting out it.
The same is true, however, in the realm of the forbidden. I can remember the day when immorality was viewed as a terrible blight. It wasn’t talked about openly. It was understood that a marriage commitment was a serious decision and people did not go into marriage without having thought long and prayed hard about it. People didn’t talk of adultery openly or lightly. Then “adultery” began being referred to as “having an affair.” To take the edge off of it even more, people started telling jokes about people being unfaithful to their marriage, and the discussion became more and more common. Then the late night comedians got their mileage out it. The more it was used as common conversation, the more it was the theme of jokes . . . and the more it became palatable in the minds of people.
Then came the television commercials for the liquor industry. These commercials made extremely effective use of humor. Now Budweiser’s three croaking frogs are doing more to influence our children than Joe Camel ever did. It has made drinking beer seem innocuous. Why? Because of the humor. Humor can be used very effectively, for good or for evil.
At a recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Clinton presented himself as a stand-up comedian using jokes to make fun of his misconduct. He also used humor to lay cautiously placed barbs against his critics. The 2,000 guests made up of the political and media leadership of the country should have been ashamed of themselves for laughing at such grossly immoral behavior on the part of the President of the United States. Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley, however, was not one to think these comments deserved laughter. He stated, “The fact that the jokes might be funny and well delivered doesn’t mean the audience ought to laugh with Mr. Clinton. Decent people no longer laugh at racist jokes because there is nothing funny about racism. And there is nothing funny about Bill Clinton’s shameful conduct as President.”
Our society used to view sexual perversion as grossly unnatural. It was something disgraceful and was whispered about in the locker room. With the looseness of our society came the promoting of “alternate lifestyles.” The promotion of these lifestyles made their way into the media, which made them acceptable. Who were the major promoters? Again, the late-night comedians. The jokes seemed to take the immoral sting out of these lifestyles. It seems there is something tantalizing about making fun of the forbidden. When people take these topics and make light of them, they make wicked things palatable.
Do we really want to laugh at immorality? Do we really want to laugh at street language? Thanks to Hollywood, people now laugh at nudity, promiscuity, and vulgarity. Our society is now speaking of these things in common conversation which makes these things acceptable behavior. The Scripture cautions the believer against looseness of conversation. “For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret” (Eph. 5:12). “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3–4).
As Bible-believing Christians, we need to censure laughter that mocks righteousness and tears down moral inhibitions. We need to set an example of what is proper humor and what is improper if we are going to protect our families. You see, with some things there is a good reason not to laugh. What example are you setting for your family and society in general?
The “Art of Parenthood” was an essay written by Wilfred A. Peterson and published in The Art of Living Treasure Chest (Simon and Schuster). This essay gives us a good example to present to our children.
Of all the commentaries on the Scriptures, good examples are the best. In practicing the art of parenthood, an ounce of example is worth a ton of preachment. Our children are watching us live, and what we ARE shouts louder than anything we can SAY. When we set an example of honesty, our children will be honest. When we practice tolerance, they will be tolerant. When we demonstrate good sportsmanship, they will be good sports. When we meet life with laughter and a twinkle in our eye, they will develop a sense of humor. When we are thankful for life’s blessings, they will be thankful. When we express friendliness, they will be friendly. When we speak words of praise, they will praise others. When we confront failure, defeat and misfortune with a gallant spirit, they will learn to live bravely. When our lives affirm our faith in the enduring values of life, they will rise above doubt and skepticism. When we surround them with the love and goodness of God, they will discover life’s meaning. When we set an example of heroic living, they will be heroes. Don’t just stand there pointing your finger to the heights you want your children to scale. Start climbing, and they will follow.
In short, we can teach what we know, but we will reproduce what we are. If we expect our children to have strong moral principles we must set the example. We need to be careful about what we see as humorous. Laughter is revealing.
This article first appeared in FrontLine • July/August 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
At the time of original publication, Dr. Ken Stephens was pastor of Front Range Baptist Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.