What is holy laughter?
S. Michael Houdmann
Got Questions Ministries
The term "holy laughter" was coined to describe a phenomenon during which a person laughs uncontrollably, presumably as a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit's joy. It is characterized by peals of uncontrollable laughter, sometimes accompanied by swooning or falling down to the floor. Firsthand accounts from those who have had this experience vary somewhat, but all seem to believe it to be a sign of a "blessing" or "anointing" of the Holy Spirit.
The experience of holy laughter is, by nature, a subjective one. Therefore, in an effort to find the truth of the matter, we must try to be objective. When our definition of truth depends upon our experience of the world, we are a very short way from becoming entirely relative in our thinking. In short, feelings do not tell us what is true. Feelings are not bad, and sometimes our feelings are aligned with scriptural truth. However, they are more often aligned with our sin nature. The fickle nature of the heart makes it a very unreliable compass. "The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). This deceitful-heart principle is specifically applicable to the phenomenon known as "holy laughter." There is no doubt that people have indeed begun to laugh uncontrollably at revival meetings. That is a fact. But what does it really mean?
Laughter is addressed a number of times in the Bible. Often it is used to describe a mocking or scornful response, as was the case with Abraham and Sarah who laughed when God told them they would bear a child in their old age. Some verses use it as a sign of derision (Psalm 59:8; Psalm 80:6; Proverbs 1:26), and still others make pointed statements about the nature of laughter itself. Solomon, for example, made the following observation in Ecclesiastes 2:2: "I said of laughter, 'It is madness,' and of pleasure, 'What does it accomplish?'" He then goes on to say, in 7:3, "Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy." Proverbs 14:13 says the reverse: "Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief." Both of these verses are true: a sad person may laugh to cover his sadness, and a person may cry although he is inwardly happy. So, not only does emotion fail to give us truth, but we also see that laughter is not always indicative of joy. It can mean anger, sadness, or derision. Likewise, the lack of laughter does not automatically mean sadness. Laughter is clearly subjective.
The most convincing scriptural argument against what is called "holy laughter" is found in Galatians 5:22-23. It says, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." If self-control is a fruit of the Spirit of God, how can uncontrollable laughter also be a fruit of His Spirit? Revival leaders claim that being filled with the Spirit means that we are sort of "tossed about" by His whims. But the idea that God would make people act drunk or laugh uncontrollably or make animal noises as a result of the Spirit's anointing is directly opposed to the way the Spirit acts, according to Galatians 5:22-23. The Spirit described in Galatians 5 is one who promotes self-control within us, not the opposite. Finally, there was no one in the Bible more filled with the Holy Spirit than Jesus, and not once does the Bible ever record Him laughing.
In light of these things, it is profitable to take a look at the following passage from 1 Corinthians 14; where Paul talks about speaking in tongues: "But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?" (v.6).
"For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air" (vv. 8-9).
"What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God" (vv. 26-28).
"...for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (v. 33).
In those days, many people in the churches were speaking in languages that were unrecognizable to others, and, therefore, Paul says they were useless in the church because the speaker could not edify others with his speech. The same could be applied to holy laughter. What does it profit (Paul asks) unless we speak to one another with revelation, teaching, knowledge and truth? Again, he says, "Let all things be done for edification." He caps off his argument by saying, "God is not a God of confusion, but of peace," which makes it clear that he does not want the atmosphere within the church to be one of confusion and meaninglessness, but one of knowledge and edification.
It seems, from what Paul is saying, that which is called "holy laughter" would fall under the category of what is "not edifying" to the body of Christ, and should therefore be avoided. We have recognized that a) laughter is an unreliable emotional response; b) it can be a sign of several different emotions; and c) it does not accomplish anything useful. Furthermore, uncontrollable spasms of emotion are contrary to the nature of the Holy Spirit. It is advisable, therefore, not to look to "holy laughter" as a means of growing nearer to God or as a means of experiencing His Spirit.
I believe much of the "holy laughter" we see today – particularly on TV – is counterproductive and out of order. The Bible does speak much of "mocking" or "derisive" laughter, but that has little if anything to do with most of the laughter I have seen. Scripture tells us that a merry heart can be a good medicine (Prov. 17:22), while the fruits of the spirit, include that often elusive quality of "joy," directly after love, (Gal 5:22). Jesus said he was accused of drunkenness, which leads me to think he had no shortage of levity, and since Solomon wrote there is a time and season for everything under heaven, including laughing (Ecc 3:1-4), it seems to me Jesus would have experienced his share. Why else would the children have loved so to be carried on his shoulders (Mark 10:16)? When Paul said, "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice," it is my understanding the implication is that of overflowing joy, which it seems to me would be a good definition for laughter.
While I do not agree with those who feel that staggering around like a bunch of drunken sailors, howling like coyotes, or walking someone around on a leash while they crawl on all fours has anything to do with godly order in the congregation, I have witnessed times, where individuals and even an entire congregation became filled with joy to the point of overflowing with laughter. It usually came about during celebratory worship, did not go on for hours, did not prevent the delivery of a meaningful sermon, did not disrupt worship, or send visitors scurrying toward the doors. A few times, it came about during a time of quiet congregational prayer, and it was never commonplace. I have probably experienced this a half-dozen times in 35 years.
Afterwards, it became apparent that some of the members of the congregation had been in severe depression, and, more than once, I was one of them, suffering from both a debilitating illness and the loss of my only daughter. It had been over a year since I could laugh, and even a smile took a contrived effort, but lasted only a moment. Somehow, by God's grace, when that spirit of joy came, there was an amazing release in my spirit. Not only did I laugh, but I received the gift of faith, that God was good and I could trust everything to Him. Proverbs 17:22 and Ecclesiastes 3:4 had come to life. You just don't know how good it feels to laugh, until you've wrestled with suicidal thoughts day and night, week after week, month after month, because the world has gone so dark, you honestly question what the purpose of life could possibly be. Those rare but special times gave me a release in my spirit better than any psychiatric medicine ever could, and it was a release that lasted. There is good purpose that can come from a holy laughter, just as much foolishness and confusion can be contrived from its counterfeit.