Learn to Laugh When Life Hurts

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How Humor Helped Us Fight Cancer

In the years since my son Jonah was first diagnosed with cancer, several people have asked me what books I read for encouragement during those hard days at the hospital. It’s a great question, but I’ve hesitated to answer because I know that they’re usually looking for resources that directly address the problem of Christian suffering. Those weren’t the books I was reading.

During the long days of watching my son endure needles and surgery and toxic drugs, my daily reading consisted mainly of my Bible, especially the Psalms, and a lighthearted book of humor.

The reason I read the Psalms is obvious. In the middle of difficult times, those words kept my faith anchored in God’s sovereignty and kindness toward us, especially in our trials. But when I say I read books of humor during that time, it seems to strike people as frivolous and not quite pious enough for a suffering Christian. I think that’s a mistake.

Time to Laugh

When cares and troubles threatened to close me in, a P.G. Wodehouse novel — or a collection of redneck misadventures — kept me from forgetting the raucous and surprising world God has made for us to delight in.

In our fallen world, children get cancer. This is certainly cause enough to grieve, to weep, and to meditate upon our mortality. But answer me this: Is it less fitting to smile as those same children ride down hospital hallways on their IV poles like scooters, spinning around and bumping into other kids doing the same, until they are left dying of laughter?

God is the author of our lives, and both tragedy and comedy are part of the plot. I think most of us know quite well that we don’t honor the Author when we turn a blind eye to sorrow. But less obvious is this: we also dishonor the Author when we stifle our laughter and pretend that we don’t notice his humor.

As Solomon reminds us, there is both a time to laugh and a time to weep (Ecclesiastes 3:4), and like our Savior, we will certainly experience times of weeping and deep anguish in which laughter has no place. Jesus came as a man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). And yet we must not forget that he also came anointed with the oil of gladness (Psalm 45:7). He came bringing startling metaphors — of rich men as pack animals attempting to squeeze through a needle, or of Pharisees as freshly painted tombs. He came turning water to wine, calling corpses out of the grave, and transforming an instrument of murder into the gateway to life. In fact, as his enemies gather against him, our God does something we might never expect: He laughs (Psalm 2:4). And in Christ, so may we — even in the face of the last enemy.

Hospital Punch Lines

One thing I’ve learned about my own chapters of suffering is that God is a master of comic relief. Sometimes, even something as dreadful as getting a syringe full of poison injected into your spine is the perfect setup for a punch line.

On an early morning before one of his dozens of monthly spinal taps, my Jonah spent a comfortable hour surrounded with expensive gifts from a local non-profit, as nurses hovered around his bed, bringing extra pillows and freshly warmed blankets, and other staff set up games for him to play on an iPad.

But when the anesthesiologist and oncologist walked in with a tray of medications and syringes, all the pampering came to a halt. As Jonah gave back the iPad and watched the Propofol being attached to his IV, he raised his arm with his index finger extended and announced, “First, they treat me like a king. Then . . . they stab me in the back!” The entire room exploded with laughter. Jonah’s arm dropped, and he slipped into chemical sleep while the rest of us continued to chuckle.

Learning to Laugh

Laughter in these circumstances does not come naturally to most of us. In fact, learning to laugh — with genuine good humor rather than bitter cynicism — might take years of practice. To smile in the face of something as daunting as a life-threatening condition will likely require seeing the humor in all the minor mishaps and inconveniences through the years leading up to that crisis.

Learning to laugh also requires spending time in the company of people (or their books) who can help us see the divine comedy unfolding in the places we’ve missed it. When I tell the tale of a family vacation gone wrong, I tend to make it out to be a real sob story. Woe is me. But when I read a Patrick McManus story about a spectacularly disastrous camping trip, I laugh until I cry. And through Wodehouse’s stories, I’ve learned that pitying Bertie Wooster’s plight and laughing at his situation simultaneously are not mutually exclusive at all. Even so in life.

Sometimes, I realized, the only difference between a tragedy and a comedy is a few juicy similes and the perspective of the storyteller. And perspective is exactly what Christians should have, because God has given us a glimpse of the bigger picture and of the joy that awaits us on the other side of our sorrows. While the world may sink into despair or attempt to heal the wound lightly with empty sentiments, the gospel is true good news. Christ passed through death ahead of us and stripped it of its sting so that in him, even the grave is safe. Resting in the promises of God frees us to weep as those who have hope and to laugh whenever he brings comic relief.

Kings and Queens of Clay

Finding joy and laughter during our troubles also requires humility, gratitude, and trust in God. Pride, thanklessness, and fear are always at war with holy laughter, whether the trials we face are big or small. So which traits are we regularly rehearsing? How do we respond when we strike out in the ninth inning, feel the rain start to fall on our picnic, or remove our kids’ training wheels? I can tell you this: people who make angry excuses, complain about the weather, and wring their hands with worry do not suddenly turn around and laugh in the face of death.

Christians have a distinct comedic advantage because we know our place in the world. We must learn to revel in the wonderful and hilarious paradox of our lowly status as creatures of dust, susceptible to hangnails and hiccups, yet also exalted sons of God and heirs of the eternal kingdom. Only when this paradox settles in our bones may we look trouble in the eye and laugh at the days to come.

Suffering is hard. And sometimes to make room for laughter we must first empty ourselves of tears. But putting a little humor into our relationships, and our reading list, is a valuable way to train our sensibilities to delight in God’s plans — and to see past the pain to the punch line.

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