H is for Humor :: Warren Wiersbe

Charles H. Spurgeon was standing in the hall of his house when there came a knock at the front door. The famous preacher opened it himself, and there stood a man with a huge stick in his hand. The man sprang into the hall and announced that he had come to kill Spurgeon!

"You must mean my brother," the preacher said, trying to calm the fellow. "His name is Spurgeon."

But the man would not be dissuaded. "It is the man that makes the jokes I mean to kill!"

Fortunately Spurgeon was able to get the man out of the house! Later the police picked him up and returned him to his room at the asylum. But it is interesting that even a madman identified Spurgeon as "the man that makes the jokes."

This brings to mind another Spurgeon story, one which may be apocryphal but is still worth repeating. An irate woman approached the pastor and scolded him for his humor in the pulpit. Spurgeon replied: "Well, madam, you may very well be right; but if you knew how much I held back, you would give me more credit than you are giving me now!"

Is there a place for humor in the pulpit? I suppose the only answer we can give is: it depends on the man and on what you mean by humor.

Certainly there is no place for what Phillips Brooks called the "clerical jester": "He lays his hands on the most sacred things, and leaves defilement upon all he touches. He is full of Bible jokes... There are passages in the Bible which are soiled forever by the touches which the hands of ministers who delight in cheap and easy jokes have left upon them." Brooks was not against the pastor having a sense of humor and using it because he knew only too well that the pastor who cannot laugh at life is going to have a difficult time. "Humor involves the perception of the true proportions of life," he explained. "It is one of the most helpful qualities that the preacher can possess. There is no extravagance which deforms the pulpit which would not be modified and repressed, often entirely obliterated, if the minister had a true sense of humor."

In other words there is a difference between humor, on the one hand, and jesting, buffoonery, farce, and comedy, on the other, to cite but a few aspects of the art of laughter. The pompous, solemn preacher may be funnier than the clerical jester! A man can be serious and still smile or even laugh out loud; but the man who is somber and solemn is perhaps taking himself too seriously, and that in itself may be funny. Certainly the pulpit is a serious place, and the preacher who is fighting Satan and battling for souls is not going to joke about it. But neither is he going to abandon his sense of humor-if he has one.

The experts disagree on Spurgeon's use of humor in the pulpit. After the great preacher's death his friend W. Robertson Nicoll wrote: "Mr. Spurgeon is thought by those who do not know his sermons to have been a humorous preacher. As a matter of fact there was no preacher whose tone was more uniformly earnest, reverent and solemn." Since Nicoll had read all of Spurgeon's printed sermons and heard him many times, his judgment can be trusted.

However, a modern student of Spurgeon, Helmut Thielicke, in his Encounter with Spurgeon took a slightly different view of the matter: "When Spurgeon was cheerful and humorous in the pulpit, he was putting himself into his preaching; he was entering into the sermon with his whole nature…A church is in a bad way when it banishes laughter from the sanctuary and leaves it to the cabaret, the night club and the toastmasters." The German professor (who himself is a very popular preacher) felt that Spurgeon's humor was not something outside himself, something brought in to spice up the discourse, but a part of the preacher's God-given equipment; therefore it could be dedicated to God. The whole man must be in the pulpit, and if this includes a sense of humor, then so be it.

Obviously some men ought never try to be humorous in the pulpit. Their humor is borrowed or (worse yet) forced. They stop in the middle of an important point to "tell a joke," and thereby erase from the minds of the listeners whatever truth they were getting across. But when a humorous aside, or a humorous way of saying something, is natural for the preacher and fits naturally into the message, then it certainly can be used of God.

John Broadus said it perfectly in his Yale Lectures: "When humor is employed in preaching, it ought to be an incidental thing, and manifestly unstudied. It is so natural for some men to indulge in quaint, and even in very odd sayings, they so promptly and easily fall back into their prevailing seriousness that the humorous remarks are unobjectionable and sometimes, through the well-known relation between humor and pathos, they heighten the effect. But an effort to be amusing, anything odd that appears to have been calculated, is felt to be incompatible with genuine seriousness and solemnity."

One of the almost-forgotten Yale lecturers, William Jewett Tucker, summarized it like this in the lectures of 1898: "It is impossible to discuss the question of the introduction of humor into the pulpit apart from the knowledge of the man. The humor of one preacher may be as reverent as the solemnity of another."

Our great American humorist Mark Twain wrote something similar in 1906: "Humor is only a fragrance, a decoration…Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited, I have allowed it a place in my sermon [Twain referred to his public lectures as "sermons"], but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor." For all his foolishness, Mark Twain understood the place and power of humor in influencing mankind. "The human race has only one really effective weapon," he wrote, "and that is laughter."

Even the "gloomy dean" of St. Paul's, William R. Inge, admitted: "I have never understood why it should be considered derogatory to the creator to suppose that He has a sense of humor."

And did not wise Solomon write, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine" (Prov. 17:22)? Even a somber book like Ecclesiastes informs us that there is "a time to weep and a time to laugh"(3:4). Thus a preacher can be humorous not because he is not serious but because he is serious. "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness" (Prov. 14: 13). Solomon was a good psychologist.

The records indicate that John Wesley was not given to using humor in his preaching. "Beware of clownishness, " he warned his Methodist preachers. "Let your whole deportment before the congregation be serious, weighty and solemn."

I must disagree with D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones's statement in Preaching and Preachers that George Whitefield was "never humorous." You will find little humor in the edited versions of his sermons, but if you go back to the originals, you will find humor. If you own the valuable set 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, check the biographical essay on Whitefield in volume 3 and read the unedited sermons that follow.

Even Zwingli, the great reformer, knew how to use humor in his messages; since he usually preached for an hour, no doubt the congregation appreciated the opportunity to laugh!

I was amazed to discover that some of his contemporaries thought John Bunyan a bit too frivolous! In his "Author's Apology" that introduces the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan wrote:

But some there be that say,
He laughs too loud:
And some do say, His head
Is in a cloud

Some things are of that nature,
As to make
One's fancy chuckle, while his
Heart doth ache.

Bunyan suffered for Christ's sake, and he knew that sorrow and joy usually go together. (A modem humorist has suggested that perhaps Jewish people are so funny because they have suffered so much. There is food for thought there.)

It is interesting that Carl Sandburg combined these two topics in chapter 50 of his one-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: "Lincoln's Laughter-and His Religion." Lincoln admitted during the Civil War, "With the fearful strain that is on me night and day if I did not laugh, I should die." A story made the rounds during Lincoln's administration telling about two Quakers who were discussing the war. One said, "I think Jefferson Davis will succeed."

"Why?" asked his friend.

"Because he is a praying man." the first replied.

"But Abraham Lincoln is a praying man," the second argued.

"True," said the first Quaker, "but the Lord will think Lincoln is joking."

One of the most interesting studies of humor is Elton Trueblood's The Humor of Christ. The author listed thirty passages in the synoptic Gospels that he considered "humorous." He maintained that humor was part of Christ's strategy and that we cannot fully understand several of His parables apart from His humor. Trueblood listed several other titles that the interested student might want to secure.

What, then, is the conclusion of the matter? First, humor is a definite part of life and the ability to laugh (at the right things, of course) is an evidence of maturity. The man who has been wounded and gone through the flames knows the true meaning of laughter. Second, if humor is a natural part of the preacher's equipment, then he dare not eliminate it completely from the pulpit. The whole man must preach. But his humor will not be studied and artificial: it will be spontaneous and natural; it will be acceptable because it belongs. Third, humor will always assist the message and not detract from it. If it becomes a distraction, then it is sin. Jesus made some of His most telling points on the waves of laughter. Finally, the preacher needs to cultivate his sense of humor, if for no other reason that to help maintain his own balance in a difficult world. If humor indicates contact with reality, and if contact with reality is a mark of mental health, then the happy man ought to be mentally healthy.

On 16 August 1900 G. Campbell Morgan delivered an address in memory of his dear friend Dwight L. Moody, who had died on 22 December 1899. Morgan listed eight qualities that characterized Moody, and the second of them was humor. He said: "Is it not, invariably, the man of tears who is the man of laughter? With what relish Moody would listen to, or tell a good story! His merriment was constant and contagious. Yet none can charge him with having worked up to a point to make his audience laugh. The seriousness of the business of preaching was too real to him. Nevertheless his addresses always sparkled with humor, and, as I have sat by his side and watched the eager crowds, I have marveled at the power with which he touched the fountain of tears and then immediately lit the tears with a flash of humor. The supreme gladness of man will abide as one of my most cherished memories of him."

Morgan could have said the same thing about his good friend Gipsy Smith, whose bubbling humor and deep pathos were often blended into a heart-stirring message. These men, Moody and Gipsy Smith, were not comedians: they were ambassadors-but joyful ambassadors. And because of their sanctified humor they were able to touch men for Christ. Not every preacher can do this but those who can use humor should not bury their talent. It remains for each preacher to assess his own abilities and to be willing for God to use the other man as He sees fit.

Bibliography
Broadus, John. A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. Philadelphia Smith and English, 1870. Reprinted-New York: Harper and Row, 1944.
Brooks, Phillips. Lectures on Preaching. New York: Dutton, 1877. Reprinted-Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969.
Harries, John. G. Campbell Morgan. New York: Revell, 1930.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972.
Thielicke, Helmut. Encounter with Spurgeon. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963. Reprinted-Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975.
Trueblood, Elton. The Humor of Christ. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
Tucker, William Jewett. The Making and the Unmaking of the Preacher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898.

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Author:Warren Wiersbe

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