This blog post had its origin as an address to my home congregation when COVID case loads and government restrictions on civilian social connections were at their peak just a few weeks ago. I realize these are sobering times, and as a leader of an academic organization, I know that frivolity is perceived as rather un-scholarly. Nevertheless, joy remains the beating heart of the Christian faith, and humour, comedy and laughter are healthy staples of our common humanity. It is spring, and fresh air calls. So I persist.
A poorly worded church website reads: “Don’t let worry destroy you – let the church help.” Why is it that we make jokes about the church being a stressful and gloomy place? Do we have a reputation for being depressed—or angry—rather than a people of a king’s great party?
The fact is, most Christian kids are familiar with the verse “Jesus wept.” Why? In some English translations, it’s the shortest verse in the whole Bible. It stands out. What is so beautiful and comforting about this prominence is that it emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. Believers can know God cries for his friends, as his grief comes at the death of his friend Lazarus. But what is so unfortunate and misleading about the prominence of this verse is that there is no equivalent that pops to mind which reveals that Jesus’ humanity also included his laughter.
Well, stay tuned. I found evidence in Luke 10.
Let’s be clear. This is not escapism from grief or a denial that catastrophes like COVID, injustices like racism, or travesties like pollution still spoil and shake our world. Our personal lives, too, are shattered by betrayals, financial loss, and medical disasters. This is not a theology of glory that overlooks the cross. This text I’m going to draw attention to comes in the context of Jesus saying to his 70 disciple-missionaries: “I send you out as sheep among wolves.” There is talk of welcome in some towns, but also rejection, too, which Jesus connects to judgment with reference to Sodom, demons and hell. These are things we are quite shy about today. So this text is not saying “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s more like, “Worry appropriately, and be very alert.”
Frankly, Jesus is not a superficial happy-go-lucky type. He says elsewhere: in the world you have trouble. This is the baseline of our experience in life: our very exit from the womb entails pain and suffering.
COVID is a constant front page reminder. The New York Times reports that “languishing” is the “predominant emotion of 2021.” “Languishing”: it is this vague no-man’s land between flourishing and depression, they say. The blahs. You’re not burnt out or hopeless, but there is this “sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” Decreased vitality. Little progress. Aimless at times. Languishing. Oh no.
So I thought, let’s turn our attention to lighter matters. A distraction that is both good and true. My family is a serious religious bunch and at the end of every dinner time of late I lean across to the counter, grab the good book, and open up… a joke. Yes, we are reading regularly from Garrison Keillor’s Pretty Good Joke Book. Just to help the family laugh a little. Here’s one from last week: “The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
Then I exchange the joke book for the Bible, to assure us the laugh is backed up by reality. Laughter is not just an instant vacation, it’s the promise of God’s goodness in time. The universe is not an accident heading for a disaster. There is reason to hope.
The joy of the Lord is our strength says the prophet Nehemiah, who lived under Persian occupation and began rebuilding a new life with God’s covenant people in the ruins of Jerusalem. He actually said in context, “Eat festival foods and sweet drinks. The joy of the Lord is your strength.” He said this as the scriptures were read to the people. God’s instructions for life were the bedrock of their hope and joy. A word from beyond. And I believe Jesus, as the exemplary Word of God, exemplified this Joy of the Lord.
No One Wants to be Happy All the Time
I’m going to argue that Luke 10 suggests the disciples laugh, Jesus laughs, and believers should laugh, too. We can toggle from the Oh no of extended lockdowns to the ah ha of hope’s promise.
First I want to define what joy might be. Joy is not superficial happiness with constant good times.
The Atlantic is having a “Pursuit of Happiness” webinar on May 20th this year that “explores what it takes to be happy”—because happiness is as much a part of the American way of life as the flag, the eagle or hot dogs.
But when Christians recite “rejoice in the Lord always” they are not talking about how to be happy all the time. Pursuing joy as if it were an object just out of reach. Think about this. No one wants to be happy every day. God generously gave us a range of emotions, and to lock in on happiness would be very annoying. Your computer crashes and you’re happy. You hear the news of bombs in Israel, and you’re happy. A loved one dies, and you’re happy. It is very inappropriate and actually, it is intensely creepy. Happiness should connect with circumstances that are happy.
You see, happiness and pleasure are over-rated in our therapeutic hedonistic culture, and I would go so far as to say that psychological well-being is also over-rated. Mental illness is certainly a distressing reality, but the ultimate purpose of life is not the pursuit of happiness or even our own psychological well-being. For a believer, it is trust and obedience, which leads to a life of service for God and neighbour. Joy will be the result, but maybe not a giddy personality, and certainly not all the time.
It is interesting how joy can get lost in Christian teaching. I have The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality and The Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible and Kathleen Norris’ Vocabulary of Faith and there are no entries under the title “Joy”. Not in the index either.
The virtue of love gets the most attention. It’s the first in the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Joy is second, kind of overshadowed, as if it were shy and not seeking to overplay itself. Tucked in as second, which we call in North America “the first loser.” Destined for oblivion.
But listen to this. Lewis Smedes wrote many years ago in How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? that the joy of the Lord is the birthright of resurrection people, not dependent on current circumstances: “You and I were created for joy, and if we miss it, we miss the reason for our existence! More, the reason Jesus Christ lived and died on earth was to restore to us the joy we have lost. Jesus himself told us; all that he said to us on earth came down to one primary goal—that we should share his joy.” (11)
In sum, joy is a deep well that taps into the ground water of God’s goodness, and laughter reflects a hope that tastes its refreshing sweetness.
1. The disciples laugh: they display the joy of small victories.
Luke 10 says the disciples returned, probably after a few months in ministry, “full of joy,” or “jubilant” or “exhilarated.” They had been sent out like sheep among wolves but come back having tamed the wolves. They have aced the test, conquered the mountain, ran across the finish line with their arms in the air. Ah ha!
You ever seen a kid come home after winning something at school? Whether they are shy about it or babbling away about it, they are at least smiling from ear to ear. It’s the joy of small victory smattered with a laughter that signals hope for the future.
This news of his disciples’ success is actually more significant in Jesus eyes. He says: “Yes, I saw Satan fall like lightning.” He had a vision of the master demon being utterly defeated. Martin Luther wrote in his hymn “A Mighty Fortress”: “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his wrath and power are great and armed with cruel hate. But one little word shall fell him.” What is that one little word? Not “Jesus.” Luther said it was this: “Liar.” “Liar” unmasks his ultimate strategy—to deceive us and rob us of the joy and confidence of God’s goodness—and this exposure leaves him impotent. “Satan” means “accuser” and when this ruse is revealed, his power vanishes like lightning.
What is the lie? You are a loser and there is nothing to laugh about here. You are doomed.
Still, Jesus cautions the disciples not to be triumphalist. Yes, he says, ministry has its powers, and God isn’t intimidated by any demons. But there is a bigger show going on: it is about your permanent entry into life everlasting. It is about the unfolding kingdom of God, he in effect says to them.
2. Jesus laughs: everything’s going to be alright
This is it. This is the counter-equivalent to “Jesus wept.” Right here in verse 21, which has been translated “Then the Holy Spirit made Jesus feel very happy” (ERV), where “happy” has also been translated as glad, full of joy, exuberant, elated and extremely joyful. The Greek literally means “jumped for joy.”
So we need to imagine Jesus here with a “jump for joy” expression on his face. One commentator says this was an extremely significant moment for Jesus: “The return of the seventy to Jesus is the occasion for one of the most exalted experiences in his entire career.”
So lets pause and examine this further. If you are “exceedingly glad” and “exuberant” you must be smiling; in fact, you might even laugh. Your friends are successful in a great challenge and you have a vision of the defeat of evil forces. Ah ha!
One commentator elaborates on what kind of laugh we should imagine here: “the laughter here is the laughter of relief, not laughter at a person, but laughter with a person—in this case, laughter among the disciples and the members of the Trinity. The healing was entrusted to these neophytes, and they did it!” Ah ha! We succeeded!
So. C. S. Lewis said joy is the chief business of heaven and it is no cheap emotional frill: the other Lewis, Lewis Smedes says: “we are talking about the discovery of all-rightness in the essence of life.” Everything is going to be alright.
Read this carefully: in this world, says Jesus, you have trouble. Let’s be honest, most of our life is a struggle then a rush followed by a brief moment of rest. Yet: sometimes in that brief moment we can tap into an underground current of all-rightness, the place of joy and gratitude that knows God is ultimately in charge, that there is little truly lacking, and all is at its core good, a gift. This is the heart of why Jesus laughs.
Jesus loves little children, says the gospels, and children always laugh. As Jesus says in this very passage: “You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” The kingdom of God, he says elsewhere when playing with the children, belongs to such as these. Ah ha! Those crazy kids!
In my younger days I had a paid subscription to The Joyful Noiseletter, a newsletter mailed to my house whose mandate was “to celebrate the joy of Christian living more than twice a year.” They sold pictures of Jesus laughing, one of which I ordered to grace my dorm wall. Why? We’ve all seen enough of the sweet Jesus, the angry Jesus and the morose Jesus, not to mention the bloody serious Jesus. But what about the play-with-the-children Jesus, the “take a log out of your eye” or “squeeze camels through the eye of a needle” riddler Jesus, or the victorious conquered-the-grave-and-death ascended Jesus?
This image of Jesus is modelled after my friend and songwriter Glen Soderholm. His friend Steve Jones is the artist.
Here’s the point for those of us who seek to put Jesus at the centre of our lives, and see him as the key connection to the divine presence on the planet: who you think Jesus is will determine the character of your spiritual life. And if Jesus was fully human, he would display the full range of human emotions. But since he was divine, the delightful goodness and overflowing joy of the Lord would be his strength. In fact, it’s so deep-rooted this joy is quite incredulously stronger than crucifixion and death.
Jesus sees Satan fall like lightning. A whole book was written by Rene Girard on the implications of this gospel text. Jesus’ journey to death absorbs the violence and hate of the world, and his resurrection effectively launches a new pattern for life: redeeming wrong, assuaging guilt, inaugurating a community of love and joy.
3. We can laugh the laugh of hope
I have maintained here that joy is a deep well that taps into the ground water of God’s goodness, and laughter reflects a hope that tastes its refreshing sweetness. This is not the luxury of just the rich. Think of this: the 70 disciples of 30 A.D. didn’t have a benefits package attached to their job. They had no expense accounts, and no hotels to stay in—this whole chapter from Luke (or Matthew 10) suggests a ragged existence. The disciples were regularly separated from their families, they had no cell phones to call home every night, and they weathered a lot of rejection and abuse. They had no pension plan, no RRSPs, no retirement home options. In fact, many of them died most unpleasant pre-mature deaths.
Still, when they were with Jesus, they drank wine with sinners, shared parables of banquets, and laughed at his one-liner zingers about religious people. Jesus was a food-loving, fellowship-finding, feast-friendly kind of roving charismatic prophet.
He knew how to celebrate life. So for those seeking to imitate Jesus’ life, one thing we can do during social isolation is remember past parties.
A friend turned 50 this past week and had a staggered-drop-in party in her backyard. I should have taken the photo before I ate more than my share…
The Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Waterloo, Brian Bork tells me he remembers pre-COVID having 15 students gathering in his house for dinner, laughing, sharing, and eating a tally of 122 tacos. This includes having a math graduate student calculate how many possible permutations of tacos there were around the table, given the topping options. It was a feast of the likes which Brian says have led to friendships and weddings through the years of his ministry, and few things prophesy more of the kingdom of God than wedding banquets!
Another thing we can do while socially isolated is anticipate future celebrations: maybe a small group BBQ with neighbours or such. Something—or anything—to look forward to. Let your imagination fly.
Don’t resist this gift of laughter. Once more, I’m leaning on Lewis Smedes. He writes that joy is killed by a few temptations, one of which is feeling responsible for every need or trouble. He tells the story of Pope John XXIII: hounded by a Cardinal who was trying to make him feel guilty and intervene in some grand and complicated affair. Oh no. It was tempting to be so righteous and responsible and intervene. But the Pope said an angel came to him in the night in his papal bedroom said, “Hey there Johnny boy, don’t take yourself so seriously.”
Here’s the truth: You can’t earn joy; it is always a gift. But you can at least remove the barriers. Don’t take yourself so seriously. The redemption of the world began with people afraid to risk joy. Remember the book of Genesis records Sara’s laugh when she heard she’d be having a son with old man Abraham. Well, the baby came in spite of their incredulity. What did they call their son? Laughter. That’s what Isaac literally means. The history of God’s covenant that climaxes with Jesus begins with laughter.
If laughter is hope unspoiled, can you laugh, trusting that God is good, that surprises happen, and that God’s kingdom will come fully some day?
This has not been my normal blog. If you are languishing, lean into hope. Joy can be yours in Jesus Christ and the well will never run dry.
We know Jesus wept. There is life’s persistent oh no. But this Luke 10 text suggests that the disciples laughed, and make no mistake, Jesus surely laughed too. And so we should laugh. In fact, if Jesus saw Satan fall like lightning, I might venture that I saw COVID fade like winter. It’s a promise to hold onto in a time of languishing. Joy is a deep well that taps into the ground water of God’s goodness. Don’t let COVID steal your joy. Spread some joy around you today, in a non-annoying way.
To end: sometimes music and dance can help move us towards a lighter mood. This is not a deep video, but it is joy-full and draws on a vast and varied crew of dancers. Note the church choir that appears multiple times in the video; yes, church can be a place to be happy, too. Jesus would approve, given the appropriate season…