A while back, my husband and I were out getting ice cream when we noticed a couple of young adult men laughing together. I wasn’t sure what they were laughing at, but when we passed by to get in line we realized: they were laughing at the lady in line in front of us because she was overweight.
I was incensed and indignant,though relieved that she couldn’t hear them. Still, it felt like a punch in the stomach when I realized that they were part of a Christian youth group that had come to enjoy ice cream after church.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s the culture we’re in, after all: one where it’s perfectly acceptable to be cruel, as long as you’re funny and “no one gets hurt.”
And believers aren’t exempt. We know better than to laugh at people who are hurting or who have fallen down in front of us, generally, but we’re not always so great at cutting the cruelty, the derision, and the mockery from our everyday speech and observations. We make cutting remarks about hairstyles and clothing styles. We laugh at names and speech patterns and characteristics. We do mocking impressions of bosses and coworkers and that guy who approached us on the street the other day. And we do so sensing that as long as the object of our amusement doesn’t actually notice or hear us, we’re somehow okay. We do so because in our hearts we don’t really view those little comments or asides as cruel or hurtful; they’re part of our shared cultural vocabulary. We do so because we convince ourselves that as long as we’re being lighthearted about it, it isn’t really mean.
But casual cruelty, even in the name of humor, is not okay for a believer.
It’s strange, because many believers care a great deal about the nature of humor and its potential to be sinful. I know many a Christian who will not stand for dirty jokes, but who will snicker at the young woman who teeters in with eight-inch fingernails and stiletto boots. Who decries any amusing comment that might border on blaspheming the name of God, but who imitates the gestures of the man at the next table for a good laugh.
I know, I know. We don’t really mean anything by it, right? That person deserved it, daring to wear that outfit in public. Don’t they expect people will notice the way they wave their hands around? It’s just a comment, a snide remark, a joke. Lighten up. But then I come to this in James 3:6:
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
And then this in James 3:9-10:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
It doesn’t matter if anyone hears you, or whether or not your words were meant to hurt feelings. The casual cruelty of mockery and derision has no place in the vocabulary or on the tongue of a believer: rather, our words are to constantly be life-affirming, God-affirming, and mindful of the fact that all those around us have been created in God’s likeness.
Because you know what? Jesus never made fun of anyone. Jesus never mocked anyone. Not the people who came to Him for help, not the people who turned away from Him, and not even His disciples with their easily-swayed focus and absurd, annoying questions. I suspect that inherent kindness in Him was part of what made Him approachable: no one was afraid of Jesus. No one was afraid to come close to Him. No one was scared to be vulnerable. Sure, He might say some difficult stuff and make some difficult requests, but He wouldn’t mock you. Wouldn’t laugh at you.
Because the thing is, when we make fun of others, when we’re casually cruel in the name of humor, even if it doesn’t hurt the object of our mockery it’s hurting us. It’s hurting our ministry and our witness to those around us. It suffocates the light of the Spirit in us, and it changes the way people will relate to us and the way we relate to them, too. How can people approach you in good faith and without fear when your mouth is full of scorn and cruelty?
And lest you think it doesn’t matter, one final story:
At my old church, I was friends with a young woman who was relentlessly mocking- always in the name of “good humor,” never with “intent to hurt.” She laughed about a choir director leaving a button accidentally undone, chuckled about the mispronunciations of someone in our foreign-language class, and did unflattering impressions of her boss at work. “Sorry,” she’d apologized lightheartedly, “I’m just critical by nature. I don’t mean anything by it. It doesn’t bother you, right?”
I never admitted that it did. She wasn’t making fun of me, after all. And yet, at the same time, when I was with her I always felt myself to be a potential target: to be one step away from doing something or saying something that would be worthy of mockery, of some of those cutting remarks. I was remarkably guarded around her; I imagine others were too. The painful thing is that I doubt she ever knew.
Let your words be life-affirming. If you want to draw others to Christ, if you want to engage others and serve them, be mindful of what and who you’re laughing at, and why. Banish casual cruelty and mockery and derision from your speech, and replace it with life-affirming, God-praising words, kindness, and warmth.
You’ll be amazed at how people will respond.