Humour enriches our spiritual life

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on August 30, 2023

As soon as I see a new issue of Sojourners in my mailbox, my heart leaps. It’s an award-winning Christian magazine from the U.S., full of news and commentary about the issues facing our world, along with theological reflections and biblical commentary. But I always flip first to the back page. Why? Because it features a humour column – and nothing beats a good laugh, especially these days.

Humour helps us get through tough times. And it’s just plain fun and joyful. It releases the child within us, opening us up to joy – a key spiritual value.

Did you know the words human, humour and humility all have the same Indo-European root – ghom, best translated by the English word humus? Humus is key to any ecological system, whether it be forest, grassland or garden. Healthy garden humus combines fruit and vegetable matter with leaves, grass clippings and earth. Similarly, for our lives to thrive, we need many different elements, including humour.

What a tragedy, therefore, that Christians have so often been seen as dour and humourless. When I think back to the church I attended as a teenager, one my strongest memories is that it was deadly serious. I can’t remember a single time when laughter rang through the church. I suspect that my experience was all too common.

Many biblical scholars believe that Jesus had a lively sense of humour. His message was serious, but sometimes he got his point across by making people see the ridiculous side of life. Jesus was a master of wordplay and satire, often with an element of humour. He made serious points in humorous ways. “Are grapes gathered from thornbushes?” he asks, “or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). People who did farm work in that culture surely smiled at the self-evident answers. Consider the image Jesus used to describe how hard it is for a proud rich person to enter the Kingdom of God: like a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle (Luke 18:25). Can you imagine his audience not laughing as they tried to picture this in their minds? Unfortunately, neglect of the element of humor in the teachings of Jesus has led to an unduly sombre piety.

In his book, The Humour of Christ, Elton Trueblood shows how Jesus used humour to convey his message, often in parables and short dialogues. He lists 30 humourous passages in the gospels, mainly one-liners, parables or stories Jesus told.

Humour also infuses the Hebrew Bible. God directs laughter toward arrogant leaders who think their power exceeds his. Psalm 2:2,4 declares that when “the kings of the earth take their stand,” marshalling themselves “against the Lord … and against his Anointed One,” then “the One enthroned in heaven laughs.” A more caustic example of humour is directed at King Jehoram in Chronicles: “Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.” (2 Chronicles 21:20)

Other faith traditions are not shy about incorporating humour into their belief system. Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama often wears an impish grin and calls himself a “professional laugher.” He says it’s important for spiritual leaders to be playful. Laughter and humour are also integral elements of life for First Nations people. Despite an upbringing marked by severe challenges, Tomson Highway’s acclaimed memoir Permanent Astonishment ripples with a light-hearted perspective. Similarly, Thomas King, another respected Indigenous writer, weaves humour into his writing, despite his serious subject material.

Humour reminds us that we are human and share both positive and negative qualities. Humour is often a kind of realignment with the force of life that laughs at our attempts to impose our order on things. It reminds us that we share at our core the same frailties and vulnerabilities.

Humour constantly reminds us of our humanity, and of the creative and spiritual potential within us. “There is, in fact,” writes Jungian analyst Helen Luke, “no real spirituality without the laughter which a sense of humour brings.” Humour offers new points of view on every situation. It takes the facts of our existence and plays with them in creative and insightful ways.

So, let’s lighten up!


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