“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17: 22
Can I ask you an honest question: Can you laugh at yourself? I ask this because life can be so serious…especially in these tumultuous times. Life can be particularly serious for pastors who constantly deal with life and death situations, and are often overworked, under stress and tired. When we are under stress and uptight, we become defensive and have a hard time laughing…at ourselves…or at a situation.
The Latin word “umor,” from which we get our English word humor, literally means “a liquid or fluid.” Humor flows within us and literally courses through our bodies with the ability to refresh perspective, heal attitudes, and balance our equilibrium. Author Tim Hansel says, “Those who laugh, last!”
When Norman Cousins was the famous editor of the Saturday Review World Magazine, he got a diagnosis of a terminal illness from his physician. Instead of checking into a hospital as his doctor prescribed, Cousins checked into a hotel and rented movies… and spent most of the day laughing. He played I Love Lucy TV Shows and Laurel and Hardy movies…and laughed…and laughed with friends he knew would enjoy these shows. Within three months…Cousins was on the road to recovery! In fact, Norman Cousins became a lecturer on the topic, “the healing power of humor” at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles! Laughter is some of the best medicine of all. This is why the Roman Catholic priest, Father John Powell said, “Blessed are those who have learned to laugh at themselves… for they shall never cease to be entertained!”
The theological basis for these truths about laughter is found in what might seem like a strange place… our reformed doctrine of justification by grace through faith. This doctrine is essential to being a healthy human being. Let me explain with an illustration. I was coming into my office at 11:30 one morning, and a lay leader in our congregation looked at his watch and smirked, “Boy, you pastors have the life of Riley! You sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, and get to work at 11:30! It must be nice!” Instead of laughing, I found myself getting defensive. I felt the need to justify myself…so I replied, “I had a 7:30 breakfast meeting, followed by a visit to the intensive care unit at the hospital to see a family in crisis, and then I just stopped by the Women’s Association Planning Meeting, at the home of the President…and now I’m here at the church…and am running late for yet another meeting!” When I closed the door to my office, I said out loud, “Why did I do that?” I realized that I was SO uptight that I tried to justify myself and I could not see the humor in this man’s kidding!” Here is the irony…I preach justification by grace through faith…but I often live as if I am justified by my works! Does anyone relate to this?
Once we internalize the fact that we don’t have to justify ourselves and are “free” to simply be who God wants us to be, then we can laugh at ourselves and laugh with other people. If only I could have relaxed, and kidded with that man, it would have been a joyful moment, instead of an awkward situation. The issue was…I was WAY TOO INTENSE!
Being able to relax and be playful with life is truly life giving for our bodies. This was the key to Mark Twain’s success as a writer. Twain’s writing captured the humor in life and he was able to laugh as his human tendency toward sloth and laziness. He said, for example, “It is easy to stop smoking…I’ve done it dozens of times!” He also said, “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise…I sit down until the urge passes!” Twain is laughing at his human tendency to avoid self- discipline! Stopping smoking and starting exercising are challenging. But instead of being hard on himself, and putting himself down…Twain was able to laugh at himself. And people could relate to his writing!
Are we able to laugh at ourselves? If not, then we need to understand and assimilate our Reformed Theological Doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith. This doctrine reminds us that we do not have to justify ourselves…we are justified by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sam Shoemaker, the spiritual mentor to Bill Wilson, the Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, once said, “The surest mark of the Christian is not faith…or even love…but joy.” I believe that Shoemaker was on to something. Learning to laugh at oneself, and with others is the prescription for a healthy life!