‘Mark Twain’, the pseudonym which Samuel Langhorne Clements chose for himself, arising from his days on Mississippi steamboats, is remembered affectionately for his humorous writings and comments.
Most of us know his description of golf as ‘a good walk spoiled’, and we will have heard his response to reports of his death. He cabled home from Europe, ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration.’ We might also have heard his advice about handling anger; ‘When angry, count one hundred. When really angry, swear!
Twain once warned that June was a bad month in which to invest in the stock market. The others, he said, were January, September, July, April, October, March etc. In addition to his scepticism about financial investment, he also made a miscalculation about heaven. He once wrote, ‘There is no humour in heaven.’
That pessimistic view runs contrary to Christian understanding. Humour and laughter are intrinsic parts of life. Various philosophers have attempted to capture the quality which human beings unique. One says, ‘Man is a political animal’; another says ‘Man is a religious animal’. Man has also been described as ‘a tool-making animal’. Undeniably, man is a ‘laughing animal’. The Christian belief that we are made in the image of God suggests that all that is best in us somehow corresponds with the nature of God. The Psalmist tells us that ’The One enthroned in heaven laughs’(Psalm 2;4). One man wrote, ‘God cannot be solemn or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter’.
Critics who dismiss religion as something which stifles human life suffer from a misapprehension, or have been unfortunate in their experience. The New Testament is the most joyful book imaginable. Jesus, whom we often describe as a ‘man of sorrows’, when taking leave of his disciples desired that ‘they may have the full measure of my joy within them’(John 17;13).
Locked in a Roman prison and awaiting at any moment the summons to face an executioner’s swordstroke, the apostle Paul dictated his ‘Letter to the Philippians’. Running through the letter is the command ‘Rejoice’. The word joy, in its verbal and noun forms, occurs 16 times in four short chapters. C.S. Lewis wrote that ‘joy is the serious business of heaven.’ Until we reach that blessed estate, let’s remember what R.L. Stevenson called the ‘great task of happiness’.