Laughing at Sin

By now you know David Letterman publicly admitted to committing adultery with multiple women on his staff. Apparently he announced this on his show under the pressure that someone else was planning to break the news. It is a very sad situation, but apparently not scandalous to a live audience. The crowd didn’t boo or rise up in protest or walk out of the studio. In fact, as Letterman publicly confessed of his adultery to his audience frequent laughter erupted from the audience. The confession was really just another platform for his jokes, the audience was entertained, and (after a short commercial break) the show continued on as planned.

There is no need to dwell here. Scripture tells us that fools mock sin’s guilt (Proverbs 14:9).

It was laughter from a different crowd that grabbed my attention.

On Sept. 16th John Piper spoke to a large gathering at the American Association of Christian Counselors. At the beginning of his message (“Beholding Glory and Becoming Whole: Seeing and Savoring God as the Heart of Mental Health”), Piper opened his message by talking frankly about personal sin.

Piper’s blunt talk about sin generated repeated laughter from the audience. If there is one speaker in the world who is not easily mistaken for a comedian, it’s Dr. Piper. Piper is a serious preacher in the lineage of Jonathan Edwards. And this fact alone makes the first five minutes of his message, well, bizarre. Have a listen:

Of course I was not at the conference. And I’m not quite sure how Piper’s message was set up or how the conference atmosphere was crafted. (If you were in attendance, I would appreciate your perspective.) Yet I am perplexed when a man goes much deeper in addressing sin than merely addressing particular sins (like Letterman), but exposes his lifelong battle with sin and honestly acknowledges the depth of sin entrenched in his own heart and gets a laugh for it. Especially because his address was delivered before several thousand men and women who have seen with their own eyes the wicked fruit of sin, who have watched alcoholism destroy lives, who have seen the dark realities of suicide, who have watched men and women toy with sin and destroy themselves, their families, and their churches as a result. If there is a room full of people that should not confuse honest talk about sin with a punch line, this was it.

But I want to capture this moment to check my own heart. Do I laugh at sin? Do I take seriously the sins of others? Do I laugh at sin portrayed in fictional sitcoms? Before a holy God, is this any less serious than laughing at Letterman or laughing at Piper?

My sin—our sin—insults a holy God. God hates sin. And we should hate even the garment stained by the flesh (Jude 1:23). If there is an inappropriate response to sin, it is laughter. May the Lord help us not to follow the pattern of the world. In the sight of sin and its guilt, may he turn our laugher into mourning (James 4:9). For no response is more appropriate.

17 thoughts on “Laughing at Sin

  1. Piper’s words, starting at 3:40, tell me he wasn’t joking and was just as perplexed as you. I think many in our trivial society just don’t know how to deal with seriousness, and that mindset has made its way into the church. For instance, have you noticed that many evangelical preachers begin their sermons with jokes, as if they’re obligated to “lighten up” the audience before they begin? Perhaps this audience has been conditioned to expect speakers to begin with humor. On occasion, in totally different settings (secular), I’ve also found myself trying to say something meaningful and serious only to have the audience laugh. It’s a sad commentary on the frivolousness of our society.

  2. That’s hard listening, but you’re absolutely right – we have to check our own hearts here. We still have deeply sinful hearts, and I know that for my part I can laugh at my own sin quite easily – think it trivial, light, or even funny. That’s a terrible place to be. We need to continue to seek to mortify the flesh every day, or we will be those proverbial fools.

  3. I thought that someone had come in after the fact and inserted “crowd laughter” until John started addressing the crowd personally … this is just bizarre to listen to … I have no words …

  4. I agree brother – VERY bizarre, particularly when he called them on the fact that they were laughing and that “this is a serious talk.” I actually felt bad for John, knowing he was trying to bring them into the gravity of sin, and they felt as if it was a monologue. What a tough spot there at the outset. Maybe Wyeth (above) is correct – people aren’t used to seriousness, even such clear seriousness as was present in John’s voice. Thanks for pointing it out, chiefly so that 1) we might not make silly our own sin and 2) that we might proclaim (as John was has done) the seriousness of it to others.

  5. That is the strangest thing I’ve ever listened to. Dr. Piper really seemed baffked by their laughter.

  6. Wyeth is correct in this. I know someone who is a Christian Counselor and attended this very conference. She said that it was awkward and unusual. She said that at these conferences generally and at this one in particular that all of the speakers start out with humor.

    So yes, context is king when you hear this recording. It sounds very sad, but you have to understand the context of why they were laughing.

  7. I think it is sobering to consider my response to sin. But the audience seems to be responding directly to Dr. Piper and his statements, not just laughing at sin.

    My perspective has been that Dr. Piper’s humor is never telegraphed nor accompanied by different expressions from Dr. Piper. He delivers comedy, most the time unaware, in the same manner as statements of teaching. This makes his comedy indistinguishable, and it leaves the audience to interpret how a sentence is to be received and responded to.

    I think if Dr. Piper had not opened with remarks labeling the audience as perceptive, there would not have been confusion for the message of his introductory remarks. He then reinforces both the statement and the comedic aspect by saying he would “spare the audience the analysis by just telling them that he is a sinner.” After that some of his examples of sin are shared experiences, which can be funny. Like, being upset and instinctively blaming it on someone else.

  8. That may be so, but I think it had to become pretty clear that he was not talking about funny things… it certainly did to me. Then again, it’s possible that’s a function of the fact that I’m familiar with Piper and his ministry; a lot of these people may not have been. In any case, I think he handled it with a lot of grace given the circumstances.

    The larger point, of course, is that hit on by both Tony and Wyeth: the trivialization of sin and the general trivialization and “lightening” of all things. There is a time for silliness, to be certain – but there is also a time for gravity and serious pondering of weighty things. Sadly, even the church is often plagued by an overabundance of the former and a dearth of the latter.

  9. once again, all I have to say is context is king when anyone wants to judge another’s thoughts or actions… taking that into consideration…

    Piper was one of the latter speakers of the conference where the prior speakers all used humor in their openings of their talks. I thought when Piper talked about how he might as well be honest about himself speaking in front of counselors who could probably see right through any false representation of himself, I thought that was pretty funny myself, maybe thats just me though.

    But I do understand the graveness of sin and it isn’t something that should be laughed at and should be taken very seriously. But the context needs to be understood before throwing Christian Counselors under the bus.

    My friend who was there said that it was awkward, confusing and bizarre herself to be there. She understands why it comes across the way it does, but please people… context is king.

  10. Once again I am convinced that many “Christian” counselors aren’t Christian.

    “I am a sinner” (uproarious laughter)

    Do they not consider sin to be the root of all problems? It is sad that those who “minister” to hurting people don’t recognize this.

  11. It may be possible that John Piper was wearing a smile in the first five minutes, making the laughter understandable.

  12. Thanks for all the comments on this post. I have decided to close the thread because it has seemed to lose value as the discussion continues (as blog comments are prone). Was the situation strange? Yes, it was strange. Someone there said it was strange, the speaker said it was strange. That’s not the point of this post. The point is that we must be very careful ourselves about what generates laughs. We should not snicker at sin, we should not allow preachers to tweak sin for a laugh, we should not laugh at sin like it’s some form of superficial entertainment. This is the point of this post. Thanks for the comments (and your emails). I appreciate you all! Tony

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