Father James Martin on the Sacredness of Laughter

Is the Bible…funny? That’s a question we asked Father James Martin, best-selling author of Between Heaven and Mirth.

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Jesuit priest and best-selling author Father James Martin

We spoke to Father James Martin, Jesuit priest and best-selling author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, about the sacred link between humor and spirituality…

What first got you interested in the spiritual side of humor?

As I went around the country talking about my book My Life with the Saints, I found that people were often shocked by stories I shared of the humor of the saints. It reminded me that we don’t understand the place of joy that humor and laughter in the spiritual life.

Why do you think that is?

I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding of who Jesus was. He was fully human. So he had a fully human sense of humor. The image Jesus chooses for heaven is a banquet or a party. It’s very significant that his first miracle is to make more wine at a party. That symbolism would not have been lost on the people of his time. Jesus’ miracles would have been occasions of joy for people.

How do you think humor is significant when it comes to a relationship with God?

God became human so we would be able to approach and encounter God. If we always see God as serious and judging and angry, then our ability as people of joy to relate to God is going to be limited. It’s going to really prevent our entering into a relationship with God on a deep level because we’re going to be afraid of God. You might even think, for example, that God frowns on laughter, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

You mention humor, joy and laughter as virtues. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Jesus continually says, “I have come so that your joy may be complete.” Humor is a virtue because it helps us not to take ourselves so seriously. Laughter is an enjoyment of God’s world. It’s a wonderful gift from God. Each of these things is holy in their own right.

Are there any Biblical examples of Jesus’ humor?

Sure! Many scripture scholars say we don’t understand the humor of first-century Palestine. Many of the parables probably would have been laugh-out-loud funny. Stories about a man who built his house on sand or gave his son a scorpion instead of a fish would have been seen as humorous. Jesus told clever stories and funny parables.

One of my favorite examples of biblical humor is that at one point Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You strain out a gnat and you swallow a camel.” The Aramaic word for camel is gamlâ' and for gnat is qalmâ'. It’s a little wordplay. He’s doing a little pun. You can imagine his hearers thinking that’s pretty clever. But when we translate it into English, it doesn’t retain that sense of playfulness.

Are there any Old Testament examples of humor that we gloss over?

The first one would be Abraham and Sarah. When Abraham and Sarah, who are very old, find out they’re going to have a child, Sarah laughs at God. God says, “Why did you laugh?” and she says, “I didn’t laugh.” God says, “Oh, yes, you did.” And when Abraham and Sarah’s son is born, they name him Isaac, which means “he laughs.” The beginning of the three great monotheistic religions is a laugh!

I’ve never thought about it that way! All of my associations with that story are negative—Sarah disobeying God by laughing...

Right! But if I walked up to a 90-year-old woman and asked when she’s going to have a baby it would be funny!

So what do you think the spiritual significance of laughter is?

I think [laughter] is a spiritual release. Many times we laugh at something that is ridiculous so there’s a sense of perspective that the world is not perfect. If we can laugh at ourselves, it’s even better. It’s a sense that we’re not God. Even if we just laugh at a joke, we can enjoy life. There’s a release of spiritual energy. It’s like saying “I love this life” or “I enjoy this world” or “I’m not so perfect after all.” How can we say that each of those insights is not spiritual?

How can we cultivate a more joyful perspective of the world?

Well that’s a good question. I think the first thing would be to interact with people who have a joyful perspective and try to see the world through their eyes. The second thing is creating a joy inventory where you list all the things that make you joyful or make you laugh. And the third thing is taking every opportunity to laugh at yourself. That’s invaluable. There’s good laughter and there’s bad laughter. Good laughter builds up, bad laughter tears down. Good humor is self deprecating. Bad humor tries to make fun of someone else. It’s important to keep those things in perspective.

Read more: Divine Humor: How Laughter Benefits Us Spiritually

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