The Bible is a Crazy Book
JANUARY 25, 2023
The Bible is a “crazy” book for a lot of reasons.
It’s from God and, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8–9). Paul recognized the crazy nature of God’s revelation by calling it the “foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:25). The Bible is also crazy because it is so frustratingly counterintuitive. It violates almost everything that seems to be logical, balanced, and understandable. Jesus found it necessary to correct religious people’s common and seemingly reasonable understanding of Scripture: “You have heard . . . but I say to you” (Matthew 5). He still does that. The Bible is crazy because an infinite God simply doesn’t communicate to finite beings or—at least shouldn’t—because there simply are no words. As Calvin wrote, the Bible is God’s “baby talk” to us.
There is probably no place in the Bible that seems crazier than its teaching about triumph and tragedy, joy and tears, and laughter and lament.
I’ve done this religious thing for most of my life as a pastor, professor, and writer. Over all those years I can’t think of a single Christian funeral I’ve officiated or attended where there wasn’t laughter. I understand the loss and tears when we listen for the sound of footsteps that are no longer there. I also understand the nervous laughter as people walk through a graveyard at night. But when the loss is affirmed and even embraced, and the laughter is free and authentic, something is going on that needs to be examined.
I recently talked with a close friend who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I called her up to pray with her and to see if I could give her a degree of pastoral comfort. She was having none of it. Actually, we laughed together more than we cried. She told me, “Steve, I hate this, and certainly wouldn’t have chosen it, but I’m okay with it. And, just so you know, I’m not being spiritual in saying this, but I have a peace that is deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced.” That was an amazing statement of faith. But what puzzled me was the laughter.
It is said that at parties in ancient Egyptian cultures a mummified corpse was placed at the head table. It was there, I suppose, to remind the partygoers of their mortality. But it should have been more than just that. Those who were wise also saw that at a party one should never forget that every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it, and in the worst of times, there is always a motivation to party. The awareness of tragedy and the desire to have a party are often a form of denial—kind of like dancing on the deck of the Titanic.
But what if laughter and lament aren’t denial? What if the laughter and the lament are embraced with a full awareness of the darkness of the lament and the light of the laughter? What if there is a mystery in both that is transformative and powerful? What if God participates in both? Could it be, do you think, that this is the witness Christians give to the world where pain is almost always cursed, and laughter is almost always cynical?
As I looked at the subject of laughter and lament, I discovered perhaps an even more important truth about a scandalous freedom, a freedom that is a believer’s heritage. A number of contemporary Christian worship songs speak of how God “breaks every chain.” He does, but the way he does that—and this is kind of surprising to me—is by using laughter and lament.
When my late friend, Jack Miller (Westminster professor, author, founder of the mission agency, Serge, and one of the fathers of the grace movement), often said that the whole of biblical truth could be summed up in two sentences—“Cheer up, you’re a lot worse than you think you are. Cheer up, God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.”—he was referencing both laughter and lament. With apologies to Jack (who I don’t think would mind), let me play off his words. Cheer up, the world, you, and everybody else are a lot worse and bent than you think they are. Once one gets that, lament becomes biblical, deep, wrenching, and profound. Christians (and everybody else) have a tendency to run from the dark. One must run to it. The tears and the sorrow of lament have to be accepted and even affirmed.
But cheer up! God and his sovereignty, love, mercy, and grace are far bigger than you ever imagined. When Jesus said, after talking about the darkness of the world, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11), he was teaching us about laughter and lament. And then, just to make sure we got it, Jesus said, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). Then, because he’s such a good teacher, Jesus changes the words and repeats the thought, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart [I might add, give a great big old belly laugh]; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
What’s the point? You have to go to graveyards to witness resurrections.
When you stop by the graveyard, cry appropriate tears, but check out the spider webs in the empty tomb. Only then will you be able to shout and laugh with the freed slave:
“Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”
Adapted from Steve’s new book, Laughter and Lament: The Radical Freedom of Joy and Sorrow.