But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
When I was Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, the men of my church went on an annual retreat. Yes, there was plenty of time for singing, prayer, and Bible teaching. But one of the distinctive elements of our men’s retreat was humor. We told jokes and stories. We did silly skits and pranked each other. We laughed and laughed. Once in a while, during informal gatherings, one of the men might tell an off-color joke. The others would chuckle and forget about it.
Until one year; that year a man I’ll call Harry showed up at the retreat. He seemed a bit put off by the humorous tone of the event, preferring a more prayerful ambience. But he was especially critical of some of the suggestive stories. He cited Ephesians 5:4 as his authority, challenging the men to avoid “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.” Most of the other men wanted to reject Harry’s criticism by labeling him a killjoy. But some, including some who had enjoyed a racy joke or two in the past, knew they couldn’t simply reject biblical instruction because they didn’t like it. They wanted God’s Word to govern all of their lives, even their language at the men’s retreat.
Harry’s criticism launched us into a wider discussion about the appropriateness of humor at the retreat. Was it right to be silly? Was some of our humor too negative? Some folks pointed to the King James Version of Ephesians 5:4, which cautions against “filthiness,” “foolish talking,” and “jesting.” Does this mean all joking around is wrong?
When we carefully study both the context and the language of Ephesians 5:4, we see that Paul is not saying Christians should never tell a joke or a funny story. This is not a blanket prohibition of all humor and laughter. Rather, we are being cautioned about language that is obscene and impure. We are to avoid words that degrade what God has created for good, including our sexuality. (Many off-color words and jokes effectively cheapen the human body or various bodily activities.)
After considering Ephesians 5:4, the men from my church decided that it was fine to do much of what had made our retreats fun. Most of the jokes, stories, and gags were both enjoyable and edifying. But they did make a new commitment to avoid off-color language and risqué stories. It seemed to me that their discernment was both consistent with Scripture and conducive to an even better retreat, one in which all men felt welcome and encouraged.
Something to Think About:
Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that of the men from my church? What happened?
How can we know when our humor goes over a line and is no longer consistent with God’s intentions for us?
Something to Do:
Is there something in Scripture that you know challenges an attitude or activity in your life, yet you are avoiding that text? If so, why don’t you talk with God about this. Maybe it’s time for you to discover new freedom in Christ over some part of your life.
Gracious God, you have made us with the capacity for laughter. You have given us the gift of humor. Like all of your gifts, we can receive this particular gift with gratitude, using it in ways that please you. Or, we can take your gift and corrupt it. Forgive us, Lord, when we use humor in ways that degrade your creation or hurt people. Help us to discern when our joking around is edifying and when it is hurtful. Give us a refreshed desire to use all of our words for your purposes. Amen.