Calvin’s not usually known for his sense of humor, nor should he be. I mean, he’s funny in print sometimes, but the general consensus is that he was a pretty serious fellow. Actually, Luther was the riot among the Magisterial Reformers. I mean, the man named a treatise “TO THE SUPERCHRISTIAN, SUPERSPIRITUAL, AND SUPERLEARNED BOOK OF GOAT EMSER OF LEIPZIG WITH A GLANCE AT HIS COMRADE MURNER: GOAT, BUTT ME NOT.” To my knowledge, aside from an early treatise satirizing the use of spiritual trinkets and other ‘holy’ objects, Calvin didn’t produce anything so…pugnaciously humorous. He did use the word “stupid” on numerous occasions to great effect, though.
In any case, he makes an important exhortation on the subject of humor in his comments in Colossians. When explaining what it means to “sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” to one another (3:16), Calvin would have us expand Paul’s encouragement to all aspects of our speech:
Psalms, hymns. He does not restrict the word of Christ to these particular departments,but rather intimates that all our communications should be adapted to edification, that even those which tend to hilarity may have no empty savor. “Leave to unbelievers that foolish delight which they take from ludicrous and frivolous jests and witticisms; and let your communications, not merely those that are grave, but those also that are joyful and exhilarating, contain something profitable. In place of their obscene, or at least barely modest and decent, songs, it becomes you to make use of hymns and songs that sound forth God’s praise.”
—Commentary on Colossians 3:16
Now, we might find Calvin a bit dour here. Surely there’s a time and a place for nearly pointless jokes. I enjoy a funny cat-falling-off-of-a-fan video as the next guy. I also love the back and forth of a good-natured battle of witty replies and roasts. Still, I find myself challenged a bit here when it comes to the way I use my humor. We live in snarky, sarcastic, and downright mean culture. And, let’s be honest, it’s hilarious sometimes. Okay, I’ll be really honest and say that a good chunk of my own humor is mockery-related. I mean, I work with college students–things get ridiculous at times.
Still, for those of us called by the God who speaks life and redemption through his words, all of our words should somehow bear testimony to that grace. I’m not saying we should all start making Bible jokes, (which are incredibly hard to do well unless you: a. know a good bit of the Bible; b, have an audience who does as well; and c. have a good sense of timing). And yet, I am saying that we still have something to hear in Calvin’s comments here.
Too often our speech-patterns, including our humor, is too conformed to the patterns of the world. Calvin spoke more directly to obscene and frivolous speech, but it might equally apply to uncharitable utterances. I had a mentor who would constantly call out his boys in Sunday School for putting each other down and then trying to cover it with “Just Kidding.” He’d look at us and say, “Here’s the thing, most of the time it still hurts anyways and you don’t want to tear down your brother, so just find something else to say.” Or something like that. I was in the 5th grade. In any case, while I think some playful ribbing is fine among brothers and sisters, he had a point. How often are our words aimed at building up our brothers and sisters? Can we think of the last time we used our humor positively? To build someone up instead of chipping away at them?
Calvin seems to think there’s a way for all of our speech to be ‘profitable’, even our hilarity.
To some this might seem like a recipe for a stiff, humorless life. Of course, the challenge is to get more creative with your humor. If you can’t think of a joke that doesn’t somehow trade on negativity, attack, or a put-down, you might not just be lacking in charity, but in imagination.
Take it as a challenge then: it’s not that you’re going to entirely eliminate the occasional joke at another’s expense, but rather, try to see your humor as one more area where you can obediently submit yourself to Christ/ Strive to creatively build up the body in all that you do–even in your jests.
Soli Deo Gloria