I remember the first time I made someone laugh in French, after many failed attempts. It felt like I had finally regained a piece of myself. That period of awkward inability to make other people laugh during my first few months on the mission field helped me see that humor taps into something deeper and more profound than I had realized.
Individual cultures develop a unique sense of humor. As sociologist Peter Berger notes, “What is funny on one side of the Pyrenees is not at all funny on the other side” (48). Simply laughing at a joke together with others is such a milestone for new missionaries because it indicates understanding, not just of language but of culture. Laughter is unifying, it signifies acceptance and inclusion, and it feels good to share in something simple and human with people from another culture.
“Simply laughing at a joke together with others is such a milestone for new missionaries because it indicates understanding, not just of language but of culture.”
Missionaries, however, do not move overseas to make people double over in laughter, but if the nature of humor and the nature of the gospel overlap, then it is worth digging a little deeper into the subject.
What Is Humor?
Unfortunately, describing the nature of humor is terribly unfunny. Just as no one wants a joke explained to them, no one wants to have the mechanics of humor explained to them either. This is partly because there is a wonderful mystery and joy in the comic, and any attempt to demystify the hilarious might rob us of some the joy we derive from it.
However, there is a central principle at work in humor that is essential to understand: incongruity. Humans have a basic tendency towards the congruous, that is, towards ordered reality. Incongruity occurs when something defies that order.
Someone going for a walk is supposed to stroll nicely along, and when they trip and fall headlong into a stream, they defy the order of the walk. An observer of the whole affair laughs at the incongruity. Something happened that was not supposed to. This concept is the basic building block of the comic dimension.
The Theological Dimension of Humor
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18 ESV). Folly is “the comic at its most intense” because it presents “a counter-world, an upside-down world” (Redeeming Laughter, 207). Folly is not merely incongruous; folly screams in defiance of ordered reality.
Human logic says that crucifixion is the ultimate shame; the foolishness of God says that a crucifixion will free humanity of shame forever. That God would become a fragile human, that God would willingly suffer, that God would sacrifice himself for fallen humanity—this is foolishness. Yet Paul reminds us that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Cor. 1:25 ESV).
The cross is incongruous. The death of the Son of God makes no sense. But the resurrection is the ultimate incongruity. Our ordered reality tells us that death is inescapable. The resurrection screams in defiance of our ordered reality, and it shows us an upside-down world where we are able to live forever with our Creator. Little wonder that men and women walking closely with Jesus have some of the most genuine smiles I have ever seen.
Reinhold Niebuhr summarizes the subject neatly, and he leads us to what this all implies for missions: “The intimate relationship between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. Humor is concerned with the immediate incongruities and faith with the ultimate ones (“Humor and Faith,” 1).”
The Comic Dimension of Missions
Sharing the gospel, therefore, is similar to making someone laugh. When you make someone laugh you are drawing someone’s attention to an immediate incongruity. Likewise, when you share the gospel you are drawing their attention to ultimate incongruities. We all die, yet we all long to live forever. We all sin, yet we all feel guilt when we do. The gospel holds the key to these incongruities that live within every human being.
Os Guinness observes, “[Humor’s] genius lies in its capacity to open up a vantage point from which the world looks different” (75). A missionary encourages people to look at the world a different way when they urge them to consider what is possible in a world where Jesus rose from the dead. In a world where Jesus conquered death, grace can be real. But grace is not an option within most peoples’ ordered reality. So, part of the missionary’s job is to oppose peoples’ ordered reality, just like a joke does.
“Part of the missionary’s job is to oppose peoples’ ordered reality, just like a joke does.”
The Joy of Evangelism
And just like a person telling a good joke seems to always have a gleam in their eye because they know the punchline, so the joy of knowing Jesus personally should be evident when we present the gospel. We know that death has been conquered. But as Peter Berger admits, “There is a long line of grim theologians” (198). Christians are often straight-faced and serious, especially when going about the serious business of the Lord in their serious suits with their serious methods. But giving joyful, life-changing news in a dour manner is the kind of incongruity that will lead people away from the gospel, not toward it.
Clumsy Humor, Clumsy Evangelism
My early attempts to share the gospel on the mission field were just as clumsy as my early attempts to make people laugh. But when I started regaining my ability to make people laugh, I also started to have more nuanced and effective gospel conversations with people.
Looking back, I don’t see this as a coincidence. The same cultural exegesis that was necessary for me to understand the local people’s sense of humor was also necessary for me to understand how to share the good news effectively with them.
Gaining the ability to draw someone’s attention to a small incongruity and make them laugh helped me to also draw their attention to a big incongruity: We deserve death, yet Jesus died in our place. Eternity rings with the sound of joyous laughter at this glorious, cosmic punchline. The world will see our joy and think us fools. Do not be offended. Embrace it, for “we are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor. 4:10 ESV).