Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, the Lord hath done great things for them. Psalm 126:2
The study of human behaviors is a large and fascinating enterprise, drawing research from every religious and secular worldview known to man. Laughter is perhaps one of the most commonly relatable human behaviors. Most babies laugh by four months of age, and a visit to any schoolyard during recess sometimes makes one think that children communicate through laughter alone. The entertainment industry reaps huge profits by churning out every sort of comedy imaginable, and most adults laugh regularly with their loved ones. Even the dourest individual laughs every now and then. However, compared to other common human behaviors, there is a surprisingly small body of research focusing on laughter. What we do know about laughter is interesting and might be instructive as to the state of our spiritual health.
The physiology of laughter reveals that it is the result of neurons communicating with several sets of muscles simultaneously to elicit multiple responses. These muscles work in concert to cause the characteristic sounds and facial expressions associated with this behavior. First, our diaphragm and rib muscles tighten to produce the sound of laughter (variably described as a chuckle, chortle, giggle, guffaw, titter, cackle, or snort). The constricting of these muscles results in air being squeezed through our vocal tract at a very high pressure to produce both the sound and the rhythmic nature of laughter. Most people have a characteristic laugh that includes both rhythmically melodic and non-melodic sounds. These different sounds occur from the air interacting with different components in our vocal tract. Each of these sounds is typically much higher in pitch than our normal speech. Also, whether we want to admit it or not, most people’s intense laughs include a few snorts that are the result of turbulence in the nasal cavities. In addition to rib muscle and diaphragm action, two sets of facial muscles are engaged during laughter. One set controls the corners of our mouth and the other set controls the area around our eyes. While everyone can voluntarily control these facial muscles, relatively few people have voluntary control over these eye muscles.
In humans, laughter can be stimulated by tickling, play, humor, chemicals, and pathological conditions (and, in some extreme experiments, directly by electrical stimulation of the brain region thought to regulate laughter!). Other laughter triggers that, curiously, are not commonly addressed in the scientific literature are those associated with joy. Think of family members meeting again after years spent apart, a one-year old seeing his father walk in the door at the end of the work day, or someone receiving incredibly good news. In each of these cases, the heart is overcome with joy and laughter simply bubbles out. With respect to laugher elicited by tickling and play, humans might not be unique. When other mammals such as primates and rodents engage in play or are tickled, rhythmic vocal expressions are produced that are strikingly similar to those of human laughter.
Other aspects of laughter include the fact that most people find it difficult (if not impossible) to laugh genuinely on command, and that most people have little difficulty discriminating genuine laughter from false laughter (by both the sound and the facial aspects). Current studies also indicate that both males and females laugh frequently, but females laugh significantly more than males. One interesting aspect of laughter is that it can be contagious, and appears to be more contagious between people who are well-acquainted with each other in a positive manner compared to strangers.
While we perhaps associate laughter most often with humor, tickling, or play, the majority of human laughter is not associated with any of these stimuli. In our society, laughter is a common component of normal conversation, and therefore for many of us, most of our laughter takes place absent any humor. Most casual conversations are frequently punctuated with laughter, even when the conversation is about the most mundane topic. Anyone who uses public transportation or observes people in a crowded shopping mall or beach can attest to the fact that laughter is sprinkled through just about every conversation. During these casual conversations, the speaker tends to laugh measurably more than the audience, and when these normal human social interactions are studied, laughter is much more likely to accompany ordinary phrases or comments unrelated to humor (for example, preceding or following the phrase “It was nice to meet you”). Laughter in response to something categorized as a joke or humor is in the distinct minority. Even when laughter follows a “joke-like” comment in a conversation, the “joke” is typically not something that would normally be thought of as particularly funny or that would be met with laughter if it were told with the express purpose of being a joke. The laughter that accompanies normal conversations is spontaneous (that is, genuine, not false), but at the same time is systematically placed within speech patterns. This social laughter most frequently punctuates phrase breaks in speech, not the middle of a phrase. For example, it is actually quite common for a person to say something such as: “What time are we meeting? Ha-ha,” but one will rarely say “What time are, ha-ha, we meeting?” While this laughter is genuine, the fact that it reliably occurs in specific conversational locations indicates that the content of the speech is more important than the laughter, and therefore, the laughter is punctuating the speech. On the other hand, laughter associated with humor or physical stimulation takes precedence over speech or other behaviors (it can be difficult to articulate a sentence while being tickled or directly after hearing a hilarious joke). Therefore, it is thought that even though social laughter and laughter from other stimuli elicit the same physical effects, they may be governed by different neural processes and may be subtly different behaviors. In any case, simply observing human interactions supports the research above: laughter definitely is an important social behavior that impacts human relationships. In fact, compared to the quantity of laughter occurring in social settings, laughter is virtually non-existent in solitude; the laughter that does occur in solitude is typically associated with humor.
We can gain valuable insight into laughter as an aspect of human behavior through these studies. More importantly, though, our Creator has provided us with a good amount of instruction on laughter in His Word. First are the well-known examples of God Himself laughing. In Psalms 2, 37, and 59, God’s response to plots against Him and His people is holy laughter. To the almighty God, the machinations of wicked men who shake their fist at their Creator are nothing more than the vain barking of dogs (Ps. 59:6). This divine laughter is a laughter of contempt: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision” (Ps. 2:4), and “But thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them; thou shalt have all the heathen in derision” (Ps. 59:8). Quickly following God’s laughter is the wrath of a just God: “Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure” (Ps. 2:5), and “The Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming” (Ps. 37:13). What a fearful thing it is for an individual to be laughed at by the Lord! Clearly, God’s laughter is a description of His disposition toward His enemies as they attempt to work against Him. It is not the same thing as the laughter of humans described above.
The Scriptures do, however, address human laughter in several places. When studying scriptural accounts of human laughter, it quickly becomes clear that there exists both proper and improper laughter. The well-known passage in Ecclesiastes verifies that there are times when it is proper to laugh: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4). Further, Jesus promises that a time of laughter awaits His children who currently weep (Luke 6:21). A prime example of proper laughter is found in Psalm 126:2: “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.” In this Psalm, the Jews who had returned to the Promised Land from their Babylonian captivity could not help but break out in peals of laughter for God’s goodness to them. Therefore, laughter in response to providential blessings is entirely appropriate.
The history of God’s promise of a covenant son to Abraham also provides great insight into proper laughter. When Abraham was 99 years old, Jehovah appeared to him and promised that he and his wife, Sarah, would have a son, and that this son would stand first in a great line of kings eventually culminating in the Messiah. Abraham’s response was one of worshipful laughter, as he fell on his face and then proceeded to keep God’s covenant by circumcising all the males in his household (Gen. 17). This was laughter of faith and wonderment and was captured for posterity in the name of Abraham’s son, Isaac, which means, “he laughs.” After Isaac was born, Sarah also laughed in faith and amazement for the goodness of God (Gen. 21). Again, the example of proper, God-pleasing laughter is that it breaks forth due to the unbelievable goodness of God. This type of laughter is perhaps different from those already described above. It is not marked by humor, physical stimulation, or a verbal punctuation. It is an emotional response that is the vocalization of joy, but it is joy arising from the believing soul. Faced with the incomparable and overflowing goodness of our Lord, sometimes the believer is only able to respond by laughing!
In the account of Isaac’s birth, we are also provided with an example of improper laughter. When the Lord visited Abraham a second time and reiterated His promise, Sarah overheard and laughed at the thought of a 90 year-old woman bearing a child. In this case, doubt and unbelief produced laughter. The book of Job also variously describes proper and improper laughter. As Job and his friends speak to each other, laughter is brought up at least seven times, sometimes describing the proper response of a believer and sometimes describing sinful, mocking behavior. Scripture is replete with additional examples of sinful laughter. When Hezekiah attempted to reinstitute the keeping of the Passover, his decree was “laughed to scorn” by many in the nation (II Chron. 30:10). The enemies of God’s people laugh at them exactly because they put their trust in the Lord (Ps. 22:7-8). Both Proverbs (cf. Prov. 14:13) and Ecclesiastes (cf. Eccl. 2:2; 7:3, 6) caution against vain laughter. Jesus Himself was mocked with laughter when He said that Jairus’ daughter was sleeping (cf. Matt. 9:24; Mark 5:40; Luke 8:53). With the rest of human behaviors after the Fall, laughter is naturally used for evil.
From all these biblical examples, principles on laughter can be developed to guide us in our use of this gift. Laughter is a creature, created for our enjoyment and for God’s glory; therefore, we must be wise in our use of it. When considering the instruction of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, we should be aware of the strong temptations to pursue vain laughter. We know that the Internet contains endless forms of temptation, and we usually focus our warnings on digital fornication found there. In light of these Scriptures, though, we should probably be just as vigilant in guarding ourselves from the incredibly popular websites where memes and videos are posted primarily to induce laughter. If we regularly visit websites to laugh, we need to consider whether this humor-induced laughter is describing the perfect man before God (“Til he fill thy mouth with laughing, and thy lips with rejoicing,” Job 8:21) or a man who pursues vain pleasure (“Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness,” Prov. 14:13). Surely, participating in virtuous humor is included in “a time to laugh,” but the regular pursuit of humor is likely also addressed in Ecclesiastes: “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this is also vanity” (Eccl. 7:6).
In the same manner, we should take time to reflect on what moves us to laughter, understanding that both secular science and biblical categories of laughter view it as an emotional response that gives insight into our mindset. When presented with non-virtuous memes, jokes, or videos, whether one is easily moved to laughter or cringes at the inappropriate material may be an accurate indicator of the spiritual health of the individual. It is worth taking time to reflect on our own responses to non-virtuous humor. Even a suppression of laughter and a wry smile at this type of humor is revealing.
At the same time, we should take stock as to whether or not we are often (or ever!) moved to laughter when we consider the gift of our salvation, which can sometimes be almost too wonderful for speech. As exemplified by Abraham, Sarah, and the psalmists, holy laughter is that which bubbles up uninhibited from the joyful soul and finds expression in the physiological manifestation of laughter! Surely, we believers who are aware both of our own natural miserable condition and of the exalted condition that has been freely granted to us through Christ will at times laugh when we contemplate this or when speaking about it with others.
Another aspect of Sarah’s response to Isaac’s birth is instructive here too. Contemporary science has noticed that laughter is almost always a social behavior. Sarah knew this already, and called to her believing friends and family to come laugh with her. She knew the joy that God had placed in her heart was for the purpose of jubilant, worshipful laughter with the church. So, let us heed Sarah’s call to sanctified laughter, and laugh together for God’s goodness!