I’ve been told I laugh too loud. I can’t help it - if something strikes me funny, a bubbling flow of hot laughter lava starts boiling in my gut. Shoulders and ribcage tremble as mounting mirth nears the surface and eruption spills peals of delight over anyone within earshot. Am I offended that my all-too-obvious pleasure annoys a percentage of those who get splashed? No. I’m not going to change. The truth is, I don’t know if I can.
My laugh is a part of who I am. It is sewn into the hem of my being. I can make attempts at stifling it, I can swallow it down so that only a shoulder tremor gives me away, but in my truest and most honest moments, it rises up and bursts out as involuntarily as breathing.
When I was in high school, a good friend and I discovered that laughter was touted as the best “ab workout” possible. We would lie under her dining room table (usually at about four in the morning) and fake laugh, trying to whittle down our obliques and tone our midsections. As one might expect, fake laughter - especially under such silly conditions - lasted for about thirty seconds before surrendering to real laughter. Her mother would often get up to go to work in the morning and find us laying on the dining room carpet, giggling like fools.
Fake laughter doesn’t always lead to real laughter, however. It tends to sputter and spit, stale in the absence of authentic delight. We laugh when we’re nervous. We laugh when we’re being polite. We laugh when we’re trying not to cry. Laughter is captured and looped on tracks then played during sit-coms and game shows to cue an audience when they ought to be amused.
It’s been occurring to me lately that obedience is a lot like laughter. That may sound strange, given that most people suspect laughter and obedience don’t run in the same circles. One is considered a measured expression of self-control, the other a playful celebration of being out of control. One has a reputation as banner of the righteous, the other as mascot of the rebellious. Rarely the twain shall meet.
The truth is, both are less about themselves than they are about the thing which causes them. I laugh with my friends not because I am expected to, but because they delight me. When I focus on them, on their presence and their wit, joy hops expectantly along my eyelids, amusement dances on my lips. Any moment, any word, any glance could send the two leaping into one another, leaving me gasping for breath, silenced by a laugh that is too loud.
If I were forced to laugh - guilted into giggles or bullied into chuckles - it would be nothing more than an empty sound, sucked dry of the very thing that gives it purpose. Laughter is enjoyable because it is secondary; the person, the joke, the circumstance which causes it is the primary object of affection. Laughter is evidence of that affection.
Obedience, however, is also secondary, although it often gets pushed onto center stage. We are told to obey because we ought to obey those we are expected to obey: our parents, our bosses, our government, God. We are guilted into being good, bullied into right behavior - obedience becomes a chore, sucked dry of the life it actually promises to give us. When obedience, for its own sake, is the object of our attention, we swing wildly between poles of pride and guilt. If we have obeyed, we are good. If we have disobeyed, we are bad. We place ourselves at the center of a vicious cycle and wonder why we feel dizzy.
Although God is often accused of being a rule-crazed dictator, the Bible sheds a little light on what He actually thinks about obedience:
“If you love Me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15)
“I am the Vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
“As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Now remain in My love.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
You are My friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last...” (John 15:9-16)
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Obedience doesn’t seem to be much about gritting one’s teeth and miserably submitting to a holy lifestyle. Instead, it appears to be requested by a friend and prompted by love. Not only is it prompted by love, it is fed and fueled by God, Himself. It’s as if He commands us to buy Him an ice cream cone every day, but proceeds to drive us to Dairy Queen, slip us five dollars, and treat us to a chocolate-dipped cone (with sprinkles), as well. The point is not that we’ve offered God something He demanded but that we’ve enjoyed an ice cream together.
When I focus on God, on His presence and His love, joy hops expectantly through my veins, thankfulness spills from my lips. His goodness washes over me and I cannot hold it back from splashing onto those around me. He is the Vine, I am the branch - His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control flowthrough me (not from me) and blossom into petals of obedience. This obedience becomes enjoyable because it is secondary: God is the object of my affection and the source of my delight. Worship leaves me gasping for breath, I am silenced by a righteousness I cannot produce. I can only let it rise up in me and flow out, as natural as laughter.
Holiness doesn’t always come easy, though. There are days when I obey only through sheer will. I have a soft spot for temptation that sweet-talks my heart and often threatens to cripple my resolve. On those days, I cannot rely on a “laugh track” obedience, one that I maintain purely to be "the example", cueing others on how they should behave. It’s the fake laugh - the one I force because it’s good for me - I must fall back on, instead. The more determined I am to exercise muscles of obedience, the sooner I find myself surrendered to real righteousness. The secret is that I’m not alone; it’s God and I on the carpet under the dining room table.
My laugh is loud, I pray my actions to glorify God are louder still. I do not rely on my own strength to produce those actions, just as I do not rely on my own humor to make me laugh. The objects of my affection birth both mirth and holiness in me. I am grateful for the God who awes me into obedience, and I am grateful for the friends who tickle the joyful places in me, peals of delight raining down on us all.
Change the way I react to whatever strikes me funny? Please. Don’t make me laugh.