Gravity and Levity

Meaning demands wisdom and wisdom demands truth. Life is short and we need discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff, the ephemeral from the eternal. If our priorities are off, our lives will rot. The philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal knew this:

Man’s sensitivity to the little things and insensitivity to the greatest are the signs of a strange disorder.

Before Pascal, Saint Augustine wrote of love’s disease. As fallen creatures, we too often make our love for God partial and our love of things total. We are flippant about eternity and serious about triviality. Why attend church when we could stay home and watch a football game? Why read the Bible when we can play video games? Why give to a pro-life organization when we can take another cruise?

To live a meaningful life of wisdom based on truth, we need to distinguish gravity from levity. In a way, all of life is grave, since it is lived before the face of God in the few years we are given under the sun. The Bible speaks in one voice on this. Moses writes:

Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).

The Apostle Paul exhorts us:

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is (Ephesians 5:15-17).James writes:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15).

Life is suffused with divine meaning. We should learn seize the day in light of eternity. The wise separate gravity from levity.

By gravity, I mean the things of moment, of importance, of significance. When a deadly or debilitating disease hits a loved one, this is grave. When a corrupt and corrupting politician undermines the foundation of a great nation, this is grave. Even the humor that ridicules this travesty can be serious, and dictators hate humor used against them. As A.W. Tozer wrote in “The Use and Abuse of Humor”:

Dictators and fanatics have no sense of humor. Hitler never knew how funny he looked, nor did Mussolini know how ridiculous he sounded as he solemnly mouthed his bombastic phrases.

Consider Charles Chaplin’s masterpiece, “The Great Dictator” (1940). This film does not make light of political evil; it creatively derides it. We should watch it today and apply it as fitting.

By levity, I mean things of little concern. They are frivolous, trite. Someone recently told me she reads romance novels because they are light. None of them will win a Pulitzer Prize, nor will any of them be in print fifty years hence. Few will be reread. Perhaps a romance novel functions as a literary hot tub—it relaxes and poses no challenges. Levity bids one to read romance novels at the expense of the Bible or great literature or contemporary books. Levity embraces trivia as meaningful or at least as a preferred distraction.

While the best humor is intelligent and instructive, much humor is trivial or worse. As Tozer warned:

Humor is one thing, but frivolity is quite another. Cultivation of a spirit that can take nothing seriously is one of the great curses of society, and within the church it has worked to prevent much spiritual blessing that otherwise would have descended upon us. We have all met those people who will not be serious. They meet everything with a laugh and a funny remark. This is bad enough in the world, but positively intolerable among Christians.

The fall of humanity turns everything upside down. We errant mortals obsess on trivia and ignore tragedy; we fixate on the frivolous and forbid the serious. What can be done?

Holy Scripture is the antidote for the malady confusing gravity and levity. It gives us wisdom and sobriety in all things:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Consider the Jesus found in our four Gospels.

We know that the Son of Man dined and talked with the down and out. For this, he was accused of being a glutton and a drunk. He was neither. He was enjoying himself with others who needed to hear his teachings. There must have been laughter. Since Jesus was the perfect human, he had a jolting sense of humor. But his life lacked levity in the way I define it. Jesus was always doing his Father’s work. He knew when to laugh. He knew when to cry. As John wrote, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:16). Hebrews tell us: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

A prig cannot laugh. Stuffed shirts never burst their buttons in hilarity. There is a time to laugh. But there is no time to slough off what should be taken on. There is no time to push aside a cross we are meant to bear. And there is no time to take seriously what ought to be taken lightly.

 

 

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

One thought

  1. The Roman emperors took levity to the extreme. The colosseums stood as monuments to that levity. The emperors lacked all moral perspective, resulting in a culture of death. Do we not have a similar set of playgrounds in Hollywood and other cultural outlets of shallowness and death? The recent releases about Planned Parenthood’s economic exchange of aborted babies exhibits the frivolity of out-of-place attempts at humor (the mention of a Lamborghini purchase) and stuns the senses. The irony is whether that exchange turns on profit or not and not on any sense of rightness. Depravity raised its head with the call to punish those who exposed this economy of death. Such is the twisted lot of the New Rome.

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