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April fool

Careless words, foolish talk, and the fear of the Lord

Skip this column if you have never made a joke you regret. In my house that would be just the cat, although my husband is more admirable than most in this regard. Nor let me diminish his virtue by saying that his sense of humor does not admit of censurable excess.

In 1981 (as we remember these things by recalling how old our kids were at the time) a woman I recall only as “Kyu’s wife” rebuked me for an offhanded remark I made about my then-husband. Stung, I defended myself: “It was a joke,” I said. “Even as a joke it’s not good,” she said. I hated her for a while.

The ensuing years proved her admonition prescient.

Then last week my own son, who wasn’t even born in the aforementioned time, gently upbraided me for a joke I told at our weekly Sunday Bible study about growing up in my father’s house. I didn’t defend myself with “It was a joke” this time, which is very little progress to boast of over 40 years.

My personal perennial challenge became to sort out what is allowable humor.

“Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I am only joking!’” (Proverbs 26:18-19).

Particularly regrettable is that I am well aware from Scripture of the deficit to the accrued capital of one’s good name (Proverbs 22:1) that even an instantaneous stumble will cost. “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor” (Ecclesiastes 10:1).

Irksome disproportion indeed, but there it is.

My first husband (the one Kyu’s wife was concerned with) once said to me in what I took at the time to be merely a general and nondirective observation about mankind, “People will laugh at your jokes at the moment, but afterward they will think less of you.” 

Humor and joking have been my lifelong bane, like crack or gambling for others. Once a Christian, my personal perennial challenge became to sort out what is allowable humor versus humor displeasing to God. Life is just so funny, in a tragic sort of way, and invites running commentary on its perverse ironies. But is that edifying? That’s the question.

Because in evil times the “prudent will keep silent” (Amos 5:13), social commentary is forced underground and packaged in jokes. Satire becomes more instructive than much journalism, its priest the YouTube comic. Like the court jester Feste in Twelfth Night, he learns the art of concealing while revealing, of reviling without penalty—until he is caught and deplatformed. No buffoon but a complex character, the jester stands above the play to point out the follies of men under the sun.

The Word of God says, “Be sober-minded” (1 Peter 5:8). What does that look like? Does it preclude joking? Was Jesus Himself never sardonic?

Evan Roberts, a key figure in the 1904 Welsh Revival, went around exhorting the revived with four admonitions, among which was: “Get rid of everything doubtful in your life.” It’s the word “doubtful” that gives me pause. 

“I tell you, on the day of judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). “Let there be no filthiness, nor foolish talk, nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).

What is a “careless word”? And what is “foolish talk”? In moments of intense personal fear of the Lord, usually after some rebuke, I think I know. Oh, for an abiding spiritual clarity.

“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit” (Psalm 34:11-13).

If it is commanded by the Lord to guard one’s lips, then it is doable. 

Besides, who wants to be shown up by the cat?