Does God enjoy cartoons?
I’d never considered it until an intense university student pushed me to grapple with the question. A Christian college invited me to lecture there for several days, and during the Monday evening session, I showed a scene from Pixar’s Finding Nemo where Marlin (the dad clown fish) meets up with Crush (the rollicking, laid-back sea turtle). I don’t recall the reason for showing this clip, but I do remember waves of laughter the scene prompted and the groans circling the hall when the lights came back on.
I did manage to finish my talk, however, and as soon as I stepped away from the lectern, a husky, somber fellow approached and asked if we could talk in private. Because of his brusque tone and dull demeanor, I assumed he was wrestling with some intense struggle and perhaps wanted to unload his heaviness on a stranger. I was wrong.
When the young man got me to the corner of the room, he asked how I could jest one moment and speak of devotion to God the next. How I could possibly condone wit or lightheartedness when proclaiming something as sober and foreboding as God’s truth? “God doesn’t laugh,” he said sharply, “except at the destruction of the wicked.”
I stood there, mouth agape. I don’t have the foggiest clue what I said in response, but I remember thinking later that this was a sad fellow who had entirely misunderstood much of the heart of God and His kingdom. He possessed theological knowledge but was utterly oblivious to the joy that shimmers all through Scripture and creation, that pulses from the life and teachings of Jesus. This is the joy God brings to us amid the laughter of children—the holy happiness that spills over from friendship, love, and beauty.
The Bible insists that God’s work, from creation to today, has been a long journey toward joy. God’s Genesis refrains (now this is good, and this is good, and oh, this—this is very good) are not merely dry observations recounting creation’s moral quality. Rather, these are the great Artist’s exclamations, exuding delight in the craft of His hands. These words are sheer joy, evidence of our God’s deep gladness, and it is something He intends His image-bearers to know as well.
Throughout Israel’s Scriptures, God invited His people to full-throttled joy, encouraging them to receive wisdom and practice faithfulness. His purpose was not to demand slavish obedience; rather, He was eager for their families to thrive, their crops to be abundant, and their festivals to arrive as celebrations of their overflowing bounty. God wanted Israel to “be altogether joyful” (Deut. 16:15). Ecclesiastes pronounces this same hope: “I commend the enjoyment of life,” says the wisdom teacher, “because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (Deut. 8:15 NIV).
When our story has finally concluded, we will discover how, every day of our existence, God conspired for our joy.
In Luke 2, the angels appeared to quaking shepherds with a stunning pronouncement: God’s bold action, the epicenter of all His intentions for humanity, would soon break loose. With Jesus, God would be born among us. “Don’t be afraid,” I always imagine the angel saying, “I’ve come to give you good news which will instigate fantastic joy for all people.” Those boisterous angels lit up the Galilean sky, heralding a message that resonates even now. Whenever God arrives, joy erupts.
In His expansive sermon unfolding the wonders in the kingdom, Jesus told the disciples that the motivation undergirding all His teaching was this: a dogged desire for their unceasing delight. “These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus said, “so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11). Jesus wants God’s people to experience lives shot through with delight and goodness. That’s why we can be filled with new possibilities and fresh hopes—even when sorrows threaten to swallow us whole.
Too many of us view God as a character akin to a demented schoolmaster in a Charles Dickens novel. It is a gross injustice to envision God as an inflexible taskmaster or a harsh authoritarian begrudgingly dissuaded from tossing the lot of us into eternal flames. The Scriptures assure us that God is not miserly or grim, but generous and patient and full of kindness. When our story has finally concluded, we will discover how, every day of our existence, God conspired for our joy.
But what exactly do we mean when we speak of joy? Scripture abounds with definitions and descriptions. There are passages where it refers to our experience of cheer or delight. At other times, joy equates with revelry or celebration. I have particular fondness for older translations that describe joy as being merry. However, at its deepest plane, joy is the experience of one who is learning to trust in God. This is why the apostle Paul would instruct us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). Paul was not a cliché-spouting Christian who ignored harsh realities. Quite the opposite, Paul had encountered God in such a profound way (and amid such evil) that he was convinced even dire conditions or grave tragedies did not own the final word. Paul believed that God would somehow work all things, even the sorrows, to his good. In other words, Paul believed God had rigged the game in his favor. If this is true, then a gritty kind of joy is always possible.
God-inspired laughter is a joyful protest against the absurdities around us, an act of faith as we surrender our lives to God’s good care.
Some of us, however, have encountered such sadness and disappointment that we believe joy a quaint idea only for the naïve. Jaded by our experiences, we discard all hope of sturdy, abiding joy. Others of us, committed to a narcissistic version of happiness, cram our lives with one self-absorbed experience after another and recoil from any suggestion that our final happiness can come only from God. Regardless of the reason for our suspicions, the promise remains. Joy is available—uniquely and decisively—in God.
True faith always runs toward joy, like rivers to the sea. Given this, if our lives foster a dire or miserly posture, if our worship and doctrine yield a sullen discipleship, if we find it difficult or awkward to laugh, or if life with God carries no deep delight, then we should reconsider why we are at such odds with the God of all joy.
For some reason, many of us act as though being a Christian is always a very, very serious affair. Of course, we do have much to be thoughtful and careful about in this unhinged world. But if underneath all our seriousness we enjoy no levity, we have missed a distinctive quality of life with God. Many of us take ourselves too seriously, and joy makes it possible for us to (in all the appropriate ways) forget ourselves. We can accept the inherent humor in being human, being flawed. If joy means trusting God, then we are free to do our best, all the while knowing that God holds us even when we run in wrong directions or make blunders. We are free to relax into God, to take risks without fearing that heaven and hell always hang in the balance.
G.K. Chesterton believed laughter to be a crucial expression of joy. “A characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity,” he wrote. “Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness ... Seriousness is not a virtue ... For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” It’s striking that the very final word in a work as stern and stiff-sounding as Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is “mirth.”
Since laughter signals a happy “self-forgetfulness,” it can also be a sign that we are learning how to trust God and hold our life, reputation, and future loosely. God-inspired laughter (distinct from coarse or demeaning humor) is a joyful protest against the absurdities around us, an act of faith as we surrender our lives to God’s good care. It lets us be free of self-delusions and shortsightedness, returning us to our senses and fueling joy.
A year ago, my sons sat at the dinner table discussing science trivia, and I found myself pulled into the conversation. One of the boys intended to toss me a beginner question: “Which is bigger,” he asked, “Earth or the sun?” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Earth, of course.” Both stared at me, dumbfounded, before erupting with gut-splitting laughter, waving their arms and jumping around the kitchen. They weren’t trying to shame or embarrass me, but my blunder struck them as hilarious. I had two choices. I could either attempt to salvage my dignity by fighting the outbreak and attempting some explanation for my utter failure at second grade astronomy, or I could snicker at my idiotic answer and join in their amusement. Laughter encourages us to drop our guard and join the party.
The poet John Blase says, “A hearty guffaw indicates that you’re in the backyard of Grace whether you believe it or not.” And I’m inclined to agree. Laughter signals joy, and joy always signals God.