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Lighten Up, Francis

Wisdom in not being a mischief maker

Proverbs 26:18-19

18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death,

19  Is the man who deceives his neighbor,
And says, “I was only joking!”

Proverbs 27:6

6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.


If you happen to travel in Europe in the springtime, be sure to make your way into southern Switzerland. There, in the region of Ticino, you will encounter one of the most wonderful local traditions of the season: the annual spaghetti harvest. 

Each April, when the last sighs of winter begin to give way to the warm Mediterranean sun, the spaghetti trees ripen. Entire villages turn out to begin the harvest, a task that involves young and old in a time-honored tradition of picking and preparing the regions bounty. A BBC TV news segment from 1957 explains the process: 

After picking, the spaghetti is laid out to dry in the warm Alpine air. Many people are very puzzled by the fact that spaghetti is produced in such uniform lengths. This is the result of many years of patient endeavor by plant breeders who succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti.  

Once the spaghetti has reached the perfect consistency, it heads to the market, where it will fetch premium prices. The villages and towns of Ticino will then begin a month-long harvest celebration that is always inaugurated by a meal of the choicest, freshly picked spaghetti and includes countless bottles of the region’s famous wine. 

Just kidding. 

Or at least, that is what the production team of the BBC program Panorama attempted to say once their operators began to receive thousands of phone calls from befuddled audiences seeking clarification of the obviously bogus story. Meant as a practical joke, so many British television viewers were convinced that the story was real, that a crisis of confidence swept the nation. 

Family arguments arose between those who were convinced that spaghetti grew on trees—because “trusted announcer Richard Dimbleby had said so”—and those who knew that pasta was made with flour and water and could not convince others of the obvious. To make matters worse, to further the gag, BBC switchboard operators were told to respond to spaghetti farming inquiries with:

"Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

What began as an April Fool’s Day joke had blossomed like the spaghetti trees into a full-blown harvest of confusion. Once word of the prank spread, good-natured British humor (or humour) won out and life returned to normal.

True humor is a gift from God, and its proper use can be a blessing to all who can enjoy it. But what happens when humor is misused, pranks go bad, or joking becomes a form of insult—or even assault? Where humor can be a wonderful thing to strengthen a relationship, it can also be a great breaker of ties and a destroyer of friendships. Solomon, in Chapter 26, offers a word of caution about its proper use:

18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death,

19  Is the man who deceives his neighbor,
And says, “I was only joking!”–Proverbs 26:18-19

Here, Solomon pairs two verses into one proverb to serve as an admonishment against humor with ill-intent—or more specifically: using humor to cover evil. It is a warning about not being a “mischief-maker.”

You, like anyone, knows how it feels to tell a joke, only to have it fall flat, or to have it taken in the wrong way. The entire phenomena of “political correctness” in modern culture is built around a spine of humorlessness and taking offense at innocent remarks. Solomon is not teaching you about comedic timing, he is talking about causing intentional harm.

Mischief-making is a product of the Fall inasmuch as it is one more evidence of our sinful nature. One might say that the Devil is described as “crafty” (Genesis 3:1), a “deceiver” (John 8:44), and used his wiles to torment Jesus in the wilderness, tempting our famished Savior to turn “rocks into bread.” 

Other tricksters fill the pantheon of idols in many cultures, from Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus to give the Greeks, to Loki: the trickster god and blood-brother of Odin. These characters seek to unwind the fabric of divine and human relationships, and wreak havoc everywhere they go—much like Solomon’s fire-throwing madman of verse 18.

The images of “madness,” “fire,” “arrows,” and “death” speak of the seriousness of humor that is used to harm—or used as a cover for harmful actions. Two important things to remember about humor are: timing is everything, and humor is almost always laughter at someone else’s expense. This means that humor can often be a form of humiliation in disguise. 

It is unclear in this proverb whether the one who hurts you and then seeks to cover his sin by saying, “it was only a joke,” is revealing this before—or after—he has been exposed in his maliciousness. It is very common in regular speech or in online interactions to claim that someone simply “cannot take a joke” or is “triggered” by a harmful comment or action. When such an excuse is delivered to a wounded soul, it can serve to “twist the knife” and cause more pain.

In this life, relationships are important, and friendships are invaluable. Just as God has sent His Son to restore your relationship to your Heavenly Father, He also sends you friends in this world to accompany you on your journey. C.S. Lewis captures the essence of friendship and its divine importance in his book The Four Loves. He first tells you of its uniqueness:   

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.– C.S. Lewis

Then, he reminds you that you do not have “accidental” friends. You may think that you have chosen your friends carefully, or fallen into them due to shared interests or age, but you are wrong:

But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you," can truly say to every group of Christian friends, "Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another." The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”– C.S. Lewis

The “secret master of ceremonies” is the hand of God’s providence at work, and this makes every friendship a precious thing. So much so that God even connects it to the Sixth Commandment. More than simply avoiding murder, we should take every step to promote the opposite of murder - in word and deed

See with all our power to have right relationships with all of our brothers.

In other words: to be a godly friend. Jesus gets specific about this in His Sermon on the Mount:

22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.–Matthew 5:22

Has this verse ever caught you up short? Whom among us has not uttered the word “fool” to someone, or at least felt it in his heart? Jesus is doing more than simply calling out someone for their stupid behavior. Sinclair Ferguson explains:

Jesus means here, the deliberate belittling of someone’s person because of the animosity of hatred of our own heart, and the desire to have mastery over them. That is murder.–Ferguson

Think of someone who has insulted you, or said snide, harmful things about you, only to try and weasel out of it by saying “lighten up, Francis” (in parody of drill Sgt. Hulka in the comedy movie Stripes). What they have done is tantamount to murder in Jesus’s eyes. Jesus is teaching that we must do more than “not kill,” but to seek the good of others. To be a friend. 

As the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) states in Q. 107: we are to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him, to protect him from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.

You, as a child of the King, and a redeemed soul, are the possessor of the greatest treasure of all time: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can you use your own sense of humor to glorify God? After all, Jesus was created human in every way, and even He had a sense of humor!  As His Sermon on the Mount drew to a close, Jesus employed several funny metaphors to keep his weary followers’ attention:

Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?–Matthew 7:9-10

Like Jesus, you need to make sure your humor is in correct proportion to life. Your sense of humor may have derived as a defense mechanism against painful things in your life, but it can be sanctified when used for His glory. Solomon touches on this in another proverb:

6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.–Proverbs 27:6

An enemy who covers evil with affection can do lasting harm, but a friend can often speak a hard, but necessary truth to your heart. Humor can help with this. A well-timed joke can snap the tension in a room filled with conflict, and laughter can restore friendships. Life is not a joke, and sometimes humor can be used to avoid painful truths, or if overdone can cause you to seem an unserious person. As Reinhold Niebuhr writes:

If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problems of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy, we also reduce it to meaningless. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy.–Reinhold Niebuhr

As a keeper of the Gospel message and a bearer of the image of God, seek to do so with proper gravity and reverence when dealing with others. As a friend, take stock of your words and make sure that you are helping and not harming with your humor, jokes, and pranks. Humor can help you earn the ability to share the Christ with your friends in a way that others cannot—and that is worth its weight in gold. 

 Writer, producer, and actor Penn Jillette made a remarkable statement recently about the seriousness of this. He says he admires those who proselytize as engaging in a form of intellectual honesty.

I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

Jillette is not a Christian, but he makes a point:

I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.–Penn Jillette

If the message of the Gospel is as important to you as you know it to be, then say and do everything you can to live to share it with others—especially your friends. 

In this way, laughter can be the best medicine indeed. 



The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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