n the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius identified key temptations against living the Christian life. He named eight of them, and they became the eight deadly sins. Now we know that Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to seven to fit them in with the symbolic biblical number. But unfortunately the sin that Gregory conflated into sloth was the sin of sadness. Sadness in the face of God’s grace and mercy was a denial of faith and hope.
But it isn’t the vice that concerns me. It is its corresponding virtue, what Evagrius identified as the blessing of hilaritas as essential to Christian living, even if you were an ascetic monk and especially if you are a lawyer or accountant.
The place of humor and laughter in the Christian journey can lead one down the broad path of destruction, or it can lead up to the pleasure of God. One remembers that the Westminster Catechism defines the chief end of man as being “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” How many of us have actually enjoyed God today?
Now one recognizes that laughter in the Scriptures is treated with ambiguity. Much of the laughter is mocking. Koheleth, author of the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes, warns that although there is a time for laughing, there is also a time for weeping. It is better to attend funerals than festivals, advised the prophet of futility. It is better to eat thistles than to eat cake. It is better to be miserable than to be happy. “Sorrow is better than laughing, for sadness has a refining influence on us.” Koheleth does not seem to be the best dinner companion for when you are depressed.
In the very first psalm, we are warned not to walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers. However, in the very next psalm, we are told that “He who sits in the heavens laughs; The Lord scoffs at them!” Now, I argue with my wife, are we not to be like God in all things? Can we not imitate His holy mocking? When, she replies, you are as holy as God, you may mock like God.
“Woe to you who laugh now,” warned the great Jewish teacher, Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke. Was His admonition targeted against the practice of laughter? No, the context places the judgment against Pharisees who were arrogant and proud. Jesus denounced those who had hardened their hearts now, in the presence of God. He admonished those who asserted their superiority over others and neglected justice and kindness. Woe to them and to the lawyers who compound burdens as well.
As in all comedy, timing is key. Just a few verses earlier in the Beatitudes, a comic reversal takes place, a harbinger of hope for humor. Jesus promises laughter to those who suffer now. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh!” Laughter in itself is not a vice to be condemned; it is a reward for those who would follow Jesus. The significance of laughter is that it must know its time and place.
Laughter is a reward of humility and utter dependence upon God. It descends like rain upon a parched heart. Condemnation doesn’t shower people with a sense of humor but rather those rich, well-fed, and stiff-necked souls who assume superiority over others. So, too, the apostle James later explodes in his warning to hypocritical sinners: “Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom” (4:8–9).
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul warns against foolish talk (morologia), best exemplified by the fool who says in his heart “there is no God.” Such talk is damned folly. Paul also warns against a twisting of the good (eutrepelia), where virtue and justice are perverted for laughter.
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