The Apostle James wrote to a group of believers who were experiencing great difficulties, “My friends, consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way, for you know that when your faith succeeds in facing such trials, the result is the ability to endure.” (James 1:2) There is great power in laughter, and it is a vital element in our search for inner peace.
Years ago, I was invited to do a five-day speaking engagement (which we Baptists call a revival) in a little country church. In fact, the nearest thing to a town was a general store that sold everything from feed to soap. Everyday after lunch, all the men of the town would gather around the cracker barrel to drink coffee and trade stories. I ended up joining them there for the five days while I was in town. The owner of the store was a man named Alvin who was one of those sweet saints whom God creates. Everyone loved him, everyone was welcome, and they came and drank his coffee each day.
Alvin had a son about my age, a big guy at 6’4”, whose name was Alvin Junior. This young man was mentally challenged, had a low IQ, and was the only child they had. The doctors cautioned them not to have anymore children after his birth. Junior worked at the feed store and while we talked each day, he would walk around the table and every time someone laughed, he would laugh. When they would frown, he would frown. He wanted so much to be included. The men had known him for years and didn’t pay much attention to him.
One day when we were talking, someone mentioned something about a motorcycle. Alvin Junior jumped right into the conversation and said, “My cousin Jimmy Smith has a motorcycle. Last Friday, when I got off work, he drove up on his Harley-Davidson and gave me some goggles and a helmet, I got on behind him, and we took off. We went so fast we passed everybody. We went so fast that the next morning at daylight we were in Honolulu, Hawaii!” Well, everybody just roared and I laughed along with them.
Then I thought, “It must have hurt Alvin Senior that we were all laughing at Junior.” So I went back into his office and said, “Alvin, I have an exceptional child also and I want to apologize for laughing at Junior.”
“That’s okay! I was laughing harder than anybody else,” he said. “Junior doesn’t even have a cousin named Jimmy Smith, much less one who owns a Harley-Davidson! He does this all the time and I laugh as hard as anybody else. My wife and I believe that God gave us Alvin Jr. to remind us every day of the power of laughter.”
What a shame that we have separated religious devotion from laughter. I grew up in a tradition where it was almost a sin to laugh. If they caught you laughing, they thought there must be something evil going on. We have a bunch of “sad sacks” running around the church. The truth is that there should be no sad saints. Jesus surrounded Himself with laughter. What a shame that we have equated humorlessness with devotion to God.
It is true that humor can be negative and destructive in some cases…humor that is used to put someone else down or humor that is used as escapism. Psychiatrists tell me about counseling with people who will crack jokes to keep from dealing with crucial issues. So there are negative forms of humor.
But healthy humor—which I define as the humor we can use to face life’s troubles—is what James was talking about when he advised them to laugh when faced with troubles, as it will empower them to endure.
Let me share with you three important facts about the power of laughter.
Laughter Empowers Health
Healthy laughter empowers physical and mental health. Laughter is good for you. Years ago, journalist Norman Cousins had crippling arthritis. The doctors sent him home, he was in constant pain and all he could do was take pain killers. He didn’t want to become addicted to the pills, so he started trying an experiment. He loved the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. So he began watching them for hours. Their antics never got old to him. He belly-laughed every time he saw them. Finally, he discovered that ten minutes of solid belly-laughing gave him two hours of pain-free sleep.
When he told his doctors about this, they began to experiment and found that when you laugh heartily, your body produces an enzyme that is a natural pain-killer. Today it is universally accepted that laughter is good for you. I read in Psychology Today where they analyzed tears shed in laughter and those shed in grief. The ones shed in laughter produced a chemical that aids the immune system. The others don’t. Laughter empowers physical health.
Laughter aids your mental health. Daniel Goldman has a best seller out entitled “Emotional Intelligence,” where he talks about an experiment he did with college honor students. He put them in two separate groups with the same creative problem to solve. Ten minutes before the deadline, he gave one group a lot of sad input—scenes of the Holocaust, mayhem, and murder. The other group got jokes. The ones given the humorous input solved the problems 20% faster than those given the sad input. Laughter is good for you mentally.
Laughter is a powerful thing. Proverbs 17:22 says that a laughing heart is good medicine, since a downcast spirit dries up the bones. The Hebrews believed that the bones were like the infrastructure of a building. If they are brittle, the whole house collapses.
The only time I ever talked with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, he had just celebrated his 90th birthday when I called him—and to my utter surprise—he took my call. He said, “Oh, yeah, I know who you are. You are that gray-haired preacher from Austin that takes those calls live on television.”
I thought, “Wow! Norman Vincent Peale is watching me on television!”
He said, “I really like your sense of humor.”
I asked him, “What is it like to be 90 years old? What do you do every day?”
He said, “Well, every day I make sure that I learn something new. I make sure I go over my grudges and get rid of them, and every day I try to find something to laugh at. Laughter will make you live a long time.”
Laughter Empowers Relationships
Laughter empowers your relational health. Laughter helps people get along better. Abraham Maslow was the first psychiatrist in our century to study healthy people in order to formulate his view of human nature. Others studied sick people to arrive at their theories of human nature. Maslow studied what he called “self-actualizing people”—those who have it all together, those who are integrated. He tried to find out what they all had in common. The one thing he discovered was that they all had a keen sense of humor.
Maslow studied their marriage relationships. What made self-actualizing people stay married a long time and enjoy each other? He studied their sexuality, too. He said, “Great sex over a long period of time has to have a sense of humor. In great sex between long-time lovers, laughing is as common as panting.” There are many different models of good marriage we can follow, but the one thing they all have in common is an ongoing sense of humor. Humor is good for healthy relationships.
Laughter Empowers Spiritual Health
Let’s be honest: If you look at the world objectively, why laugh? I can’t find anything to laugh about in AIDS, corruption, war, hatred.
Think about love. I’ve been in love with the same woman since I was 13 years old. I was married at 20 and have been married to her for over 40 years. We are both facing the fact that one of us will have to spend some years by ourselves. We are going to lose the people we love, so why love? It’s absurd. You’re going to lose it. It is going to be painful in the end.
If you look at life realistically, why laugh? I can only think of two reasons to laugh:
Denial: Laughing is a good way to deny the awful realities of life. It is better to laugh than go around crying all the time.
It’s a declaration of faith: Laughter expresses our deep confidence that as bad as things are, there is a God underneath it all and behind it all, who wins in the end.
Eugene O’Neil wrote a play called “Lazarus Laughed,” which is based on the story of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. He depicts Lazarus coming out of the tomb. When they unwrap the burial shroud from his head, he is laughing. He looks into the eyes of Jesus and they don’t say a word to each other. All Lazarus says is, “Yes.” The people try to get him to talk, but all he does is laugh. When they ask him a question, he just laughs and says, “Yes!”
Pretty soon people gather around him and ask, “What is it like on the other side? What’s beyond here, Lazarus?” He just keeps laughing.
After awhile, Lazarus finally speaks and says, “What’s beyond here? There is only life. There is only the life and laughter of God. I heard the laughter of Jesus in my heart and it said, ‘You were born out of the laughter of God and you soon return to the laughter of God. Death is only the fear that is in between.’ My heart, being reborn to life began to laugh the laughter of God. There is no death. Death is dead. There is only life. There is only laughter. There is only the laughter of God.”
In short order, people begin to gather around Lazarus—people of different creeds, people of different color, people who were formerly enemies—and begin to put aside their animosity. Lazarus begins to attract so many people that the religious authorities are threatened and they accuse him saying, “You are neglecting doctrine. You are doing things that are unorthodox. How dare you laugh and celebrate and not be pure.”
It isn’t long until word of what is happening filters to Rome, to the Emperor himself, Tiberius, an old man near death and his evil young son who is about to inherit the throne. They summon Lazarus and his followers to Rome, and by the time they get there all of the guards accompanying them are laughing and celebrating. Finally, Tiberius’ son realizes that Lazarus is a threat to him. He tells him, “If you don’t stop laughing, I’m going to kill you.”
Lazarus says, “You’re going to what? There is no death. Death is dead. There is only the laughter of God.”
Finally, Tiberius’ evil son says, “Even though you are making me laugh, Lazarus, I must kill you in order to prove there is death. If I don’t kill you, I can’t be Caesar. If there is no death, men will not fear me. There has to be death.” So he orders that Lazarus be burned, but no one will ignite the fire. So he gags Lazarus so he can’t laugh, sets the fire himself, and as Lazarus is being consumed in the flames, his eyes are still laughing. As the gag burns off, Lazarus is consumed but as his ashes float upward, his laughter can still be heard.
The evil young man cries out, “Oh, Lazarus, forgive me. I forgot. I am only a man. I forgot that death is dead and there is only laughter.”
That story is very dear to me because of a personal experience I had many years ago. I’ve only heard the audible voice of God one time in 40 years of my journey as a Christian. I’ve had definite thoughts and feelings, but I’ve only heard God’s voice once. It was the day my son was born. He was born early, and the doctors said he would not survive. He was in the intensive care unit and they were trying to get him to breathe. Lois was still under sedation from the delivery.
I had people all around me, but I needed to be alone. I found a bathroom in the hospital with only one door and one toilet and I locked myself in it. I was so angry with God that I actually began to call Him names and curse Him. I wanted to die. I said, “Take me. Don’t take my son. If he dies, I want to die too.” I began to call God every kind of name I could think of. I wore myself out screaming at God.
When I finally exhausted myself, I sat quietly with my eyes closed and just sobbed, seething in anger. Then suddenly, way back in the inner recesses of my mind, I heard God’s voice. Do you know what He said? He didn’t say anything. He just laughed! I knew from His laughter that He was saying, “I am your friend. There is no death. Death is only the fear between being born out of the laughter of God, and returning to the laughter of God.”
So my word to you on your quest for inner peace is, “Cheer up!” And as Forest Gump would say, “That’s all I have to say about that!”
- This series of Posts is based upon Dr. Gerald Mann’s book The Search for Inner Peace. The author and the MakeTrix have received the permission of Gerald Mann’s wife, Sandy Mann, to use the contents of his wonderful masterpiece in this series of articles. We are honored and humbled and wish to thank her for her generosity. This series is of course, and as always, provided free at no cost to the reader.
- Dr. Gerald Mann, The Search for Inner Peace (Austin, TX: Gerald Mann Ministries, 1999), pp. 97-109. ISBN: 0-9678502-0-7, Out-of-Print.
- For more information, read our previous posts:
Introduction: The Search for Inner Peace
Chapter 1: Challenging Our Illusions
Chapter 2: Accepting the Truth About God
Chapter 3: Feeling God’s Forgiveness
Chapter 4: Giving God’s Forgiveness
Chapter 5: Making Matter Matter
Chapter 6: Dissolving Anger