Strasbourg, France. The stunned gasp from the congregation was totally unexpected. I racked my brain trying to figure out what had happened. I had been preaching and used a big theological word and suddenly realized that many of the non-native English speakers in the room might not know the word. So, I had stopped and asked if someone could define the word for the benefit of everyone. A young American university student raised his hand and I called on him.
His definition of the term was correct, but contained several equally difficult theological terms. I rolled my eyes and said, “Thanks, that was SO helpful. It REALLY cleared things up.” He, and a few others in the room laughed, but their laughter was drowned out by the loud gasp of many others in the room. What could the problem be?
I suddenly realized that I was the cause of the gasp. Rather than understanding my remark as light-hearted teasing, many thought that I had ridiculed a young man’s attempt to be helpful. He had been bold enough to answer my question, and I had made fun of him in front of everyone.
The awkwardness was a common problem in France. The humor of one culture doesn’t translate well into other cultures. On the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, where I had spent 14 years, the teasing among friends was almost constant. But in France, I would think of some quick retort only to find it falling flat and the people around me looking confused or sometimes hurt. I found myself constantly find myself biting my tongue to keep from saying things that people wouldn’t think were funny.
One of the things that I noticed was that American humor (along with British humor) tends to be filled with sarcasm. It is the quick jibe or clever put-down that gets the laugh. The late Don Rickles was a master at it. Living in Strasbourg, I learned to restrain myself. There were also difficult conversations trying to explain that if Americans said something that seemed mean to you, it probably meant that they actually like you. It reminded me of a pastor I knew who was devastated when he woke up and saw toilet paper hanging from all the trees in his yard. He assumed that someone in the church hated him and had a hard time understanding that the youth group had done it because they loved him!
Now that I am back in the United States, I find my tongue is looser. But I don’t like what is coming out. The light-hearted put-down which so rapidly comes to my mind tastes sour, even though my intent is to build relationships! The sarcastic quip doesn’t feel “right” anymore. But why? Is it one of those things that is just a normal part of culture and requires some “translation” to understand (like toilet papering someone’s house), or is there something else going on?
Since I observed that much of American humor is sarcasm, I decided to look up the word in the Bible. While there are examples of sarcasm in the Bible, the word itself isn’t found there. Interestingly, the word sarcasm comes from a Greek word meaning “to strip or cut the flesh”. The dictionary goes on to define the English word to mean “the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way.” So, we use the excuse of humor to say things that can wound or injure others. After all, we were only joking!
I did some more searching online about sarcasm and came across several interesting sites that were devoted to fiction writing. They said that sarcasm in dialogue can be used to show that a character in a story is cynical, bitter, and usually arrogant. Sarcastic characters are typically impatient and do not respect the person at whom the sarcastic comment is made. Those character traits didn’t seem to fit with the fruit of the Spirit. Things like love, joy, peace, and patience hardly produce snarky sarcastic comments.
Then I ran across a quote from Ellen DeGeneres (of all people). Here’s what she said, “Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at someone else’s expense. And I find that’s just a form of bullying in a major way.” That made me pause and think about the quick-witted jest that tears at someone’s flesh just to get a laugh. It is not really much different than the brute who pushes the little kid into the mud puddle because it is funny.
This way of joking is a far cry from Ephesians 4:29. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only that which is useful for building others up according to their needs so that it will benefit those who listen.”
What is the driving force of the sarcastic quip? Perhaps it is a desire to fit in with a group of people that loves put-downs. We all feel the desire to be accepted by others, but you would think that we would have overcome succumbing to peer pressure when we left our teen years behind. Perhaps there is bitterness or arrogance inside of us. Perhaps we are cynical and have become deeply pessimistic. Perhaps we harbor a secret desire to tear others down to make ourselves feel better or to look good. These things poison the well from which our speech flows. They cause us to excuse hurtful speech in the name of humor.
As followers of Christ, we are called to live lives of radical love. When our hearts are full of his love, our mouths will be filled with a sweetness that will build others up according to their needs. Our desire to encourage others should far outweigh our need to fit in with a group that loves to tear one another down. And so, I am setting a guard over my mouth these days. But even more, I am paying attention to the words I speak and asking the Lord to reveal what is behind what I am saying. I want my words to be full of grace and seasoned with salt so that it will benefit all who hear them. To do that I need to be willing to look at the source from which my words flow.
May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be pleasing in His sight (Psalm 19:14).