I have a theory. I can’t prove it, but I think it is absolutely true.
I have a suspicion that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the teachers of the Law—did not laugh very much. I don’t think they smiled a lot, either.
In the Gospels, these leaders seem as if they were often angry, consistently judgmental and quick to spark a religious debate. I just don’t see them sending off an attractive vibe that would draw in people who were hurting, hungry for community or seeking a connection with God.
Jesus, on the other hand, took delight in children. He found wonder in simple faith. Our Savior loved a party and looked for reasons to hang out with people from every walk of life.
The Gospels paint a picture of Jesus having an attractive personality and a passionate love for those around him. I can picture Jesus smiling and laughing in many of the biblical accounts. I believe this is one of the reasons so many people were drawn to him.
Through the years I have discovered that I don’t trust church leaders who rarely smile or laugh. I am cautious around pastors who seem as if they are fueled by anger and drawn to conflict.
Don’t get me wrong—there are times when we should be sober and serious. God also calls us to truth and discernment. But joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Christians bear the best news in history.
Of all the people on the planet, followers of Jesus should be the most attractive. We are grace-bearers, and God’s grace is still amazing. People who are far from Jesus should be drawn to the Savior as they see the joy and energy—the health—that fill his children.
Some years ago I wrote a book titled Leadership From the Inside Out: Examining the Inner Life of a Healthy Church Leader. As I considered the soul and inner life of pastors, I ended up writing an entire chapter about the need for church leaders to laugh and live with a spirit of gladness. In the book’s introduction I shared this note from a pastor:
I need to laugh more than I do. I sat with a woman whose husband, the man who said, “For better and for worse,” ran off with a woman half his age. I cared, prayed and felt helpless to relieve her deep pain. I battled through a board meeting with a gifted group of leaders who couldn’t resolve a critical issue. I did a funeral for a 7-year-old boy whose body had been ravaged by leukemia. I processed ministry challenges with a volunteer who does not really fit where she is serving. Have you ever had to fire a volunteer?
As the week comes to a close, I could really use a friend who will talk with me, laugh with me, watch a comedy with me. Sometimes I feel like if I can’t laugh, I’ll lose my mind. And some days laughter is hard to come by.
Over the past three decades of full-time ministry in the local church, I have learned that care for my own soul is an essential pursuit. Like David in Psalm 139, I must continually pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.”
I am wisest when I examine my soul and nurture an inner life that is consistent with what people see on the outside. One marker that helps me know my inner life is healthy is when I smile regularly, laugh constantly and don’t take myself too seriously.
When I sense that my joy quotient is running low, I have a few ways to help me get back on track. I hope and pray these ideas will help you grow your joy and increase the laughter in your life.
1. Develop a theology of joy.
Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit. At the point of conversion, the very Spirit of the living God moves in and never leaves. The Spirit grows joy in us when we stay tuned in to his work and movement in us (Gal. 5:22). The Psalms give us examples of thankfulness, celebration and joy. Read some of the Psalms that focus on celebration and let the joy of these songs increase your commitment to celebration (e.g., Psalms 92, 93, 96, 98 and 100). Christians can even rejoice in hard times and sing through the storms of life (Acts 16:11–40).
All through the Old Testament, God’s people are called to engage in festivals, feasts and remembrances of his goodness and faithfulness. Make sure your theology includes a robust awareness that the practice of joy and celebration honors our God and strengthens your life.
2. Exercise Sabbath rest.
Christians who refuse to follow God’s rhythm of the Sabbath will often find their joy reserves running low or even on empty. God made us to work, but he also made us for rest (Gen. 1–2; Ex. 20:8–11).
If we ignore the call to rest one day in seven, our body and soul move out of their God-ordained pattern of health. If you are having a hard time living with joy, make sure you are taking a weekly Sabbath during which you stop working, turn off the electronic devices and actually disconnect from all work so you can connect with God, people and your own soul.
3. Build in play.
Find activities or hobbies that you enjoy, and commit to setting aside “playtime” on a regular basis.
My wife, Sherry, and I both love our work and really pour ourselves into the kingdom assignments God has given us. But we also build play in to every day. Most evenings when we get home, we make time to play cribbage or backgammon. We might play for 30 minutes and then head to our offices to do a little work. Then, we meet again and play some more. This balance brings health into our home and hearts. On the weekends, we set aside time to hike the hills near our home.
We don’t let work get in the way of these times. We see our hikes and even our playtime as sacred and honoring to God.
4. Spend time with funny people.
To keep your life in balance and your soul healthy, connect with friends who really know how to laugh and have fun.
One couple God has placed in our lives for the past decade is Rick and Veronica. We attend the same church and do ministry together, but we also know how to enjoy life. Both of them have a great sense of humor, and they love Jesus with a passion. We appreciate this friendship for many reasons, but one of them is that when we are with them, we know we will share laughter and joy.
There are many ways to care for your soul and lots of markers of a healthy life and vibrant faith. Often overlooked are our joy quotient and the ability to play and take delight in life, faith and the people around us. I encourage you to search your heart, examine your joy level and grow these attributes in your life. It will be very, very good for your soul.
Kevin Harney is the lead pastor of Shoreline Church in Monterey, California, the founder and visionary leader of Organic Outreach Ministries International, and the author of the Organic Outreach series and many other books, studies and articles. For more information: KevinGHarney.com