Surprised by Laughter

surprised_by_laughter_headerAmong God’s many creatures, only human beings laugh.

| by Phil Wagler

Life is serious business. There are bills to pay. There are people to please and those we’d rather not please. There are children to discipline and marriages to work on. There are strained relationships. There are “honey-do” lists to be done today and “what-I-want-to-do” lists that get set aside for tomorrow, again. There are disappointments and challenges. There are wars and rumours of wars. Life can be seriously sufferable; how is one to cope?

Abraham Lincoln faced much as Civil War president before a bullet took him down at Ford’s Theatre. In light of the sobering leadership challenges he faced, Lincoln said, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.”

Ironically, the most revered of presidents was assassinated during the funniest line of the play “Our American Cousin.” John Wilkes Booth intentionally waited for the burst of laughter to muffle his shot that changed history. Suffering and laughter are strange and oxymoronic bedfellows.

We all know this is true. As Jack Handy of “Saturday Night Live” once said, “Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.” Great comedians can take the serious stuff of life, even the politically incorrect, and surprise us with an angle of thought, a twist of the tongue, an irreverent notion, that tickles the funny bone. In that strange moment something wonderful happens: we laugh. You can try to suppress it, but you have to be seriously stubborn—and perhaps comatose—to contain a good chuckle. A laugh is a beautifully surprising thing and it’s upon that part of our nature that comedians prey.

“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs,” wrote the crusty German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” While Nietzsche, whose ideas on the death of God and the meaninglessness of life still shape our culture, might not exactly be considered a reliable source of snigger therapy—except for perhaps his wild 19th century mustache—he might be on to something.

Human beings uniquely, among all God’s creatures, laugh. Even hyenas are only “laughing” because we think they do. Given the other possibilities for coping with the sobering realities we face, laughter may very well not only be the best option, but a divine gift. It may, in fact, be part of the image of God in us.

God gave Abram a promise that through him all nations on Earth would be blessed. Quite an unlikely promise given that Abram and Sarai were childless and beyond even Viagra-aid. The idea of those two procreating is kind of like going down the fearful path of thinking about your grandparents “doing it.” Yeah, enough said. Nevertheless, God keeps His word. The impossible becomes reality and the suffering couple’s hopeless, faith-filled journey into retirement is upended by the arrival of a bouncing baby boy when Abraham is 100. They boy is named Isaac, which means, “he laughs.” Sarah rejoices, “God has made laughter for me…” (Genesis 21:6). God makes laughter—what a marvelous thought.

Have you ever thought that God loves to make us laugh? Where is God making laughter for you?

The laughter of God’s making that refreshes and washes the soul is most often surprising. Sarah had attempted to create hilarity by giving Abraham her maidservant and Abe, the drooling old fart, went along with it. That didn’t go so well and created bitterness, competition and a lot of difficult conversations around the nomadic campfire.

Conversely, the laughter of God’s creation surprisingly interrupts our reality with His faithfulness, often in spite of our sad attempts at humouring ourselves. God’s laughter-making is hinted at in the art of the comedic, but is only truly experienced in the discipline of being open to surprise. And, the discipline of surprise is a position of faith that is sure God alone can invade the mundane and even the painful with the surprise of a smile, a giggle and eventually a hearty belly laugh that can revolutionize the world as we know it.

In that light, laughter may very well be a gateway to worship—the suffering human beings wonder and surrender to the God who will one day wipe away every tear and fill our mouths with shouts of joy.

Phil Wagler is a father of five who keep him laughing and pastor to many who remind him to keep laughing at himself. He is the author of Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church and lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia.

The article above was featured in the November 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.