“Seriousness is not a virtue.” – G. K. Chesterton
Recently, a Christian posted the above quotation on his social media page without further comment, and I found the assertion to be quite disconcerting. To be blunt, I felt it was a rather thoughtless pronouncement void of any biblical support. Surely Christ would consider most forms of seriousness to be excellencies, would He not? My immediate conviction, in fact, was that the second beatitude of Jesus was wholly sufficient to blow Mr. Chesterton’s argument right out of the water: “Blessed are those who mourn…”
I had no doubt, of course, that the Chesterton quote had been wrenched from its original context, and upon further investigation I was able to ascertain that, according to my comprehension of the fuller text of Orthodoxy, Mr. Chesterton was merely pointing out the importance of being able to laugh at oneself, or take oneself more lightly. At least that was my optimistic take. Still, even on this point, his argument was more philosophical than biblical, which was to be expected from a larger-than-life Christian apologist whose romanticism and cleverness sometimes carried him away from the moorings of Scripture and into the waters of creative speculation.
Indeed, I did have to wonder when Chesterton (in another essay) went so far as to state that seriousness is “the fashion of all false religions.” So where exactly does biblical Christianity fit into that panoptic view?
The foremost concern I had, however, was the fact that a professing believer would cite such a quote in the first place with no regard to any context, and who seemed quite comfortable in letting the quotation stand alone as an unequivocal condemnation of “seriousness.” Had frivolity and levity truly become the overriding tenor of this person’s Christian walk? If so, how does a Christian come to the conclusion that seriousness and solemnity are no longer admirable traits and are somehow detrimental to the believer’s life?
These are the types of questions which led me to reevaluate the direction and tone of The Sacred Sandwich, whose original comedic format sometimes merely winked at the world. As I looked out upon the current evangelical landscape, I noticed with sadness a rising focus and emphasis on “just having fun” and a growing segment of believers liberally engaging in the American culture of amusement and entertainment, regardless of the profitable content. Woefully, there are far too many examples of so-called Christian humor “memes” on the internet that photoshop sunglasses on old Sunday School illustrations of Jesus and have him crack one-liners like a hipster or gangsta rapper.
The individual who posted the Chesterton quote, therefore, was quite simply reflecting (on a lesser scale) the more monolithic sentiment among a larger body of professing believers who are unabashedly fascinated with cultural fads and fancies over and above an interest in matters of sober spiritual significance. They support the vain products of Hollywood and their ilk: TV shows and movies with questionable subject matter and dialogue, and fantasy literature poisoned with displays of mysticism and man-made philosophies.
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. I am not trying to make a blanket condemnation of a fellow Christian’s level of interaction with the world, nor will I engage in the slippery slope of Pharisaism that attempts to mark the exact point in which such intimate contact becomes sinful. I fully acknowledge the scriptural view of allowing for the believer to live within the confines of his own informed conscience in these worldly matters which the Bible hasn’t specifically called out and dressed down. Certainly there are grey areas that I believe require much more discernment, but I will sincerely try to reserve such judgment as a private opinion for the sake of another’s Christian liberty.
However, what I believe can be biblically challenged is the idea that “Christian liberty” gives a believer carte blanche to openly promote those worldly things that might bring confusion, controversy, or worse, undermine the Gospel message. You say you feel free to watch Game of Thrones in the privacy of your home? So be it. That’s between you and God. But when you feel the need to announce on the internet your enthusiasm for the program, or try to publicly defend it on the basis that it’s “redemptive themes” somehow trump the pornographic imagery and immorality portrayed on the screen, then you have treasured your love for the show more than your love for the “weaker brother” or the unsaved neighbor who is now confused by your apparent moral ambivalence.
This is about the sanctity of our Christian witness and our testimony, and ultimately about how our public enjoyments reflect on Jesus Christ and His truth. It is not a matter that allows for unfettered levity or a time for preeminent frivolity. This is a matter of seriousness, especially in a world that places such value on the secular philosophy of “eat, drink, and be merry.” Some Christians might say to me, “Lighten up!” but Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Such a distinction means we must not be distracted from our particular calling by the public pursuit of a temporary, earthly merriment that will have no place in eternity.
Should we have full joy in the Lord and embrace those wonderful blessed times of godly humor, laughter, and enjoyments that the Lord provides us? Of course! The Bible admonishes us to do so. A good clever joke can be a worthy balm. Yet we live in a time where it seems that the American church is chasing more and more after the world’s superficial pleasures and amusements as the fountainhead of our happiness. And when Christians begin to insinuate that seriousness is not a virtue, and in fact they embrace that idea without apology or biblical support, then we are seriously losing our way as a distinctive people of profound faith and gladness.
Said Charles Spurgeon, a man known for his humor: “We must conquer –some of us especially– our tendency to levity. A great distinction remains between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and that general levity, which is a vice. There is a levity which has not enough heart to laugh, but trifles with everything; it is flippant, hollow, unreal.”
Likewise, John Angell James, the English Nonconformist clergyman, pronounced, “It is hard to conceive how earnestness and spirituality can be maintained by those whose tables are covered, and whose leisure time is consumed, by the bewitching inspirations of the god of laughter. There is little hope of our arresting the evil except we make it our great business to raise up a ministry who shall not themselves be carried away with the torrent; who shall be grave, without being gloomy; serious, without being melancholy; and who, on the other hand, shall be cheerful without being frivolous, and whose chastened mirthfulness shall check, or at any rate reprove, the excesses of their companions.”
Lest I be unclear, let me reiterate: I am not saying we should double-down on the world’s perception that we are all a sad bunch of dour-faced curmudgeons and heartless legalists, but I am arguing there is a balance to be obtained by joyfully expressing our love for God and neighbor through a more measured sobriety that properly honors the seriousness of our faith and exhibits our grave concern for lost souls on a trajectory to hell. We should not allow for the introduction of a classic Hegelian dialectic of problem – reaction – solution which creates a false crisis (the perception that seriousness is a stumbling-block to reaching our culture) and then uses that unfounded notion to persuade us to “dumb-down” our Christian message and practice to appeal (or capitulate) to that culture.
On this matter, I will always appeal to God’s word for insight and direction concerning the correct (and more balanced) disposition of the believer. Here are a few verses to quickly consider:
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” – Ecclesiastes 7:4
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” – 1 Peter 5:8
“But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.” – 1 Peter 4:7
“Therefore let us not sleep, as others; but let us watch and be sober.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:6
“But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded.” – Titus 2:1-6
“Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” – James 4:9-10
Above all, let us follow the Lord Jesus Christ in this endeavor. During His earthly ministry, He knew with all joy that victory over sin and death was at hand, but instead of laughing in the face of the deadly consequences of a fallen world, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). As Archibald Brown remarked, “Jesus pitied sinners, pleaded with them, sighed over them, warned them, and wept over them; but never sought to amuse them.” In Christ Jesus, and not in the frivolous things of this world, we have the perfect Example for our consideration.
Seriousness can, indeed, be a virtue.