God’s Sense of Humor and the Divine Laugh

While it is common to learn that God invented marriage and God invented pleasure, it is not as frequent to hear that God invented laughter. While the attributes of God throughout the Bible acknowledge His power, wisdom, justice, mercy, love, and beauty, the notion of the Lord as the God of laughter at first sounds incongruent. Yet man, the image of man, who smiles, laughs, and plays, reflects a sense of humor as part of his endowment as a reflection of God. Of the many definitions of man from “rational animal” to a being “a little less than the angels” to an “embodied spirit,” none touches on this aspect of human nature as man’s essence. The view of man as “homo ludens” (the smiling man) or as “a risible being” often appears as an accidental characteristic rather than as intrinsic aspect of human nature. In the closing lines of Orthodoxy, however, G. K. Chesterton writes, that joy “is the gigantic secret of the Christian,” and he speculates that Christ also hid a great secret: “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” Although not as explicit as His anger, God’s mirth reflects an aspect of His being that corresponds to His presence at the marriage at Cana and the miracle of the wine, for the goodness and joy of creation naturally produce laughter.

fishBlessed Bishop Fulton J. Sheen explains that man’s sense of humor reveals the mark of human intelligence because only man “sees through” a joke, detects a pun, recognizes the exaggeration of a caricature, or appreciates wit. The words human, humor, and humility all share a common origin in the Latin word humus that means dirt. Man comes from and returns to the earth, dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Humor brings a man down to earth as when a star-gazing philosopher slips and falls into a ditch to remind him that he is neither God nor angel. Humility prevents a person from forgetting his lowliness and cures him of pride, his air of superiority. Fallible human beings who make fools of themselves deserve laughter as a medicine to restore them to common sense. If man, then, is an image of God, then his nature as homo ludens or risible being derives from God, the author of laughter, humor, and man, and the model of humility who washes the feet of the disciples.

In George Macdonald’s At the Back of the North Wind fairies, angels, and children all play the the role of messengers of joy who bring mirth, laughter, and fun wherever they enter human lives. For example, when Diamond, a young boy, recites nursery rhymes to his baby brother who giggles with laughter at the music of the verse, the mother refers to Diamond as a “silly” because the mirth and smiles he produces compare to the joy angels bring from a heavenly realm “at the back of the North Wind.” Mr. Raymond, the poet and storyteller in the novel, associates the word “silly” with its older meaning of blessed, simple, and innocent. A “silly,” then, is an ancient term for angel or fairy—a pure spirit from a heavenly, joyous realm whose speech or song overflows with childlike happiness and extraordinary joy. Laughter, then, is born in Heaven, communicated through angels, and transmitted by fairies in stories and by children in real life.

The following true story bears witness to the God who invented laughter and found this situation a perfect occasion for reminding man that luck is the nickname of Divine Providence as old proverbs testify; that, as the saying goes, “When you do succeed, chances are you were not trying too hard in the first place”; and that, in Chesterton’s phrase, the more coincidental things seem, the less coincidental they are:

A graduate student at the University of Kansas had chosen as a topic for a master’s thesis Henry Fielding’s idea of luck in the novel Joseph Andrews. Dr. Nelick, his advisor, recommended that he consult collections of proverbs to gather the perennial wisdom associated with good fortune. Many of the proverbs identified good luck with children and fools (beginner’s luck and the luck of the fool). Two proverbs that especially brought a laugh were these: “His net caught fish while he was asleep” and “Throw a fool into a river and he will come up with a fish in his mouth.” The proverbs were summarizing the ancient truths about the mystery of luck. First, the lucky do not strain or exercise themselves about success. In other words, they are not gamblers intent on winning the stakes. As it is often said, “When you do succeed, the chances are you were not trying too hard in the first place.” Second. Luck requires a certain lightheartedness and care-freeness associated with the fool who lives nonchalantly without anxiety. Without seeking fortune or worrying about gain, he finds it without even looking.

One windy April day in Kansas the graduate student, who was also a teaching assistant, had collected student essays from his class and placed them in a folder that he held tightly. Walking on campus, he confronted a gust of wind that blew several of the essays in all directions.

He thought he had a firm grip even with the Kansas wind blowing, but he had underestimated Mother Nature. He rushed to collect all the loose pages he saw, moving in panic in all directions lest he lose a student essay and make a total fool of myself. He could easily imagine the situation: he would stand up in class on Monday and make some feeble excuse like, “I’m sorry, but as I was walking home from class, some of your papers blew away.” The whole campus would soon hear the story, and his notoriety would embarrass him before all his colleagues.

He felt confident that he had collected all the loose sheets the wind had blown in all directions. He saw no more patches of white on the ground as he scanned the area. He anxiously waited until he could arrive home and check each essay for missing pages. What he had dreaded the most as he walked the rest of the way home had come true: several essays had missing pages, some as many as two or three handwritten sheets. As many as seven or eight students had at least one page that had disappeared. After this check of missing pages, he realized that he needed to retrace his steps and search some more. That evening’s walk produced not a hint of the lost pages.

The following morning he made one final, desperate attempt to redeem himself. He paused near the spot where he had located many loose sheets when the wind first blew them from his hands. The area was near a parking lot that on this Saturday morning was completely vacant. As he paced in different directions looking for some evidence of white paper, he noticed a sewer. As a last resort he bent over and peered into the darkness below.

Unbelievably, he did see some white-looking papers that he had assumed could only be litter that had fallen through the openings. He also noticed a stairwell that led to the bottom of the sewer where the white papers lay. He wondered if he could lift the sewer cover and discovered, to his utter astonishment, that it was loose and could easily be taken off. Descending into the underworld, he climbed downwards into the dark regions of mud and dirt, hoping that this ridiculous search was not in vain while feeling skeptical the whole time.

Wonder of wonders! The white, smudged papers at the bottom of the sewer were indeed the lost pages of student essays. “What luck!” he thought to himself as he collected the missing, muddied sheets and congratulated himself on his great detective work and perseverance. His happiness had hardly begun when, amid the leaves and the papers, he spotted a $100 bill. “Throw a fool into a river, and he will come up with a fish in his mouth.” “Throw a fool into a sewer and he will come up with a $100 bill in his hand.” The graduate student was absolutely dumbfounded as he saw before his very eyes the perennial wisdom of the ages perfectly verified. He had proven his master’s thesis without having written a single page. If only he could convince the faculty committee and appeal to their sense of humor! He could hear God’s divine laughter echoing throughout eternity. Here was the irrefutable proof that God invented laughter. Yes, it is absolutely, universally, and objectively true for all people in all ages in all times: “Throw a fool into a sewer and he will come up with a fish in his mouth.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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