Anyone for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance… Ecclesiastes 3:4

It is a fair, even-handed adjustment of things that, while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.

Do you know who wrote those words?

I know people who make a point of reading A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, every year as Christmas approaches. And I reckon it’s not a bad habit. It’s quite short, after all, this account of the sad life and wonderful rebirth of Mr Ebenezer Scrooge, and while the quote I’ve given is at the heart of it, there’s plenty more besides in this vivid, powerful tale.

It’s about guilt and shame; greed and materialism; loneliness and isolation; a wasted life and a hardened conscience. And it’s about redemption and new beginnings; innocence and purity; good humour and laughter.

What an imagination Dickens had! A Christmas Carol is a story to bring tears to your eyes – tears of sorrow and tears of joy. If you’ve never read it, I certainly recommend it.

I don’t know how much of a Christian Dickens was, but he certainly knew his Bible, and I think Proverbs 17:22 could well have been his favourite verse. I think too he would have nodded his head in approval of Martin Luther’s plain (if slightly shocking) statement, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

Yes, “A cheerful heart is good medicine” is certainly a great Bible saying.

But of course no single verse tells the whole story. Didn’t Jesus himself teach that “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4)? Didn’t his brother James write, “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9)? And what about Ecclesiastes 7:2-3 (just get this!)? “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting… Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” Er, pardon me!

Are we confronted here with one of those many contradictions some people like to find in the Bible?

Of course not! The Bible is a big collection of books which were originally written for particular times and particular circumstances, and which reflect different aspects of truth, even when they’re hard to harmonise. Which is why we should do our best to read all of it, not just picking bits here and there as they happen to suit us.

There are of course times for mourning. When Jesus pronounced “those who mourn” as “blessed”, he wasn’t talking about people at a funeral. No, he was talking about people who are sad at the sinful state of their hearts – or at the sorry state of our fallen world, and the sufferings of the persecuted, the hungry and the lonely.

James 4:9 is explicitly addressed to “sinners” and “double-minded” people. And Ecclesiastes 7:2-3 is – this is my understanding, anyway – the words of a man shaking his head in pity and sadness over the shallowness and stupidity of so many of our efforts to “have fun”. It’s hard to see any other meaning in these sombre verses.

When the Bible commends laughter and cheerfulness, it is talking about the normal state of affairs for people who are living their everyday lives at peace with God and with their fellow-men and women.

They are sinners, of course; but they are forgiven sinners, and that makes all the difference. Their laughter will be of a healthy, and health-giving, kind: not coarse or crude, not sarcastic or wounding, not cynical or mocking. Their good humour will be like that of Mr Fezziwig in Christmas Carol, or that of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew Fred.

God help us as Christians to keep our humour clean and wholesome!

I like the words of the seventeenth century Puritan writer Richard Baxter: “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers.” Amen to that! (Hey, I thought Puritans were supposed to be dour and humourless!) And the words of Sydney Harris: “God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter.”

A couple of other thoughts strike me…

First, is it any accident that when Paul gives us his list of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5), joy comes in second place, second only to love…?

Second, is it any accident that God’s eternal kingdom is compared to a party – the “wedding of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7)…? Wedding receptions usually have a fair amount of mirth and merriment, don’t they?

So, as Christmas is almost upon us, let me borrow the words of Dickens’ Tiny Tim and say: “GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE!”

Lord God, restore to me the joy of your salvation. Help me to be merry in Christ – and not only at Christmas time! And may that precious gift spill over to everyone I meet. Amen!

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