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Lighten up!

There is a time to weep—but also a time for a good laugh

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After waiting for an hour in pre-op, growing increasingly anxious, my husband had to answer a call of nature. No sooner had the bathroom door closed behind him than the gurney arrived. Our neighbor in the next bay had been assuaging his own anxiety with a stream of wisecracks, and the stage was now set for the best joke of the afternoon. How to shock my husband out of the john and into the operating room? “Tell him you’re pregnant,” the neighbor said.

Why was that funny? Recall one of the oldest jokes in the Bible, played on Sarah as she stood just inside her tent, eavesdropping on a conversation between her husband and a visiting stranger. In one year, the stranger told Abraham, your wife will have a baby. It was funny because Sarah was about two decades older than I am now. She could not suppress her cynical laughter at what seemed a cruel joke—but she didn’t have to wait long for the punchline. A 90-year-old woman becoming pregnant met all the hallmarks of comedy: the surprise, the reversal, the incongruity of a dignified gentleman slipping on a banana peel. When the prophecy came true, Sarah had to laugh again, but joyfully, not cynically.

Does God have a sense of humor? Peter Kreeft insists that God is the creator of humor and author of humanity’s best jokes (namely, humans). To expound on the point, Kreeft wrote a book titled Ha! A suitable title for a very short book, almost half of it comprised of his favorite jokes, but Kreeft is a philosopher and philosophy professor. Hence the subtitle: A Christian Philosophy of Humor. His list of books extends almost literally as long as my arm, but if the reader is not prepared to take this one seriously, the author explains his (more or less) serious purpose in its introduction.

“This book almost didn’t exist. I was about to write a serious, heavy book entitled How to Save Western Civilization, as a sequel to my book How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss. But writing it was not making me happy, and reading it was not going to make anybody else happy either.” Very true: Saving Western civilization can so occupy the minds of conservative philosophers, pundits, and podcasters that there’s no room to crack a smile. Ordinary folks like us, who imagine our free and prosperous way of life sliding into socialism (and other ideas from the cultural abyss), see no laughing matter in the prospect. Are we taking ourselves too seriously? Friendships are destroyed and families divided over politics, when a good joke could dissolve tension and restore some perspective. God in heaven laughs at human pretensions (Psalm 2:4) and, sometimes at least, so can we.

Not all varieties of laughter are healthy, such as the scornful kind, the mocking kind, the dismissive and ­sarcastic and disdainful kinds. Kreeft writes of the best kind, the laughter that comes at the expense of our own frailties and pomposities. Life is not a joke, but we are: created in dust but destined for glory, with countless pratfalls along the way.

In the throes of pain or heartache or conflict there is a time to weep. But joy comes after a night of weeping (Psalm 30:5). This is the Divine Comedy, made richer by suffering—or as Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21). “The heart of ­suffering,” writes Kreeft, “points beyond itself to final laughter.” God Himself entered the heart of suffering on the cross, the darkest and heaviest six hours in history. Yet in the end, God’s greatest joke: the reversal that knocked Satan back on his heels and secured an eternity of holy laughter for ridiculous humans.

Our world has always been determined to make itself miserable, but we don’t have to play along. It’s not that we’re immune or indifferent to misery: We’re just waiting for the punchline.

—This column has been updated to correct a reference to the amount of the time Jesus spent on the cross before He died.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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