This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Comedy is, perhaps, the most subjective of the arts. Humorous entertainment strikes some in the funny bone and whizzes over the heads of others, leaving a large no-man’s-land where factions manifest as devotees to some comedic form or another champion the cause of their realm of humor as being the purest or most “hashtag lit.” One comedic sub-genre that has never captivated me, though, is that of the “dark comedy,” the style that pokes fun and searches for smiles amidst oftentimes gritty, grisly, and gruesome circumstances. Some see this breed of comedy as particularly prescient considering the subject matter with which it seeks to make light. Be that as it may, I, for one, am not fond of this style and find it more than uncomfortable when stabbings or assaults or aspersions are made the punch line. Perhaps I just don’t get what the creator or artist is going for, other than just seeing the vulgarities they desperately want to record on film, instead of the thought-provoking message they’re trying to assert.
I’ve recently decided that God has a unique affinity for dark comedies. His sense of humor is sadistic at times. Perhaps you find that an unscrupulous statement bred in the waters of sacrilege. But I assure you, God is smiling in the storm. At least, that’s how I’ve looked up and seen him lately.
You see, 2018 was one of the most challenging years of my entire life, the last several weeks and months of which have been exceptionally exasperating and draining. It feels as though I’m living in a dark comedy. I don’t mean to write in clichés or to hyperbolically reinforce the point I’m trying to make. These days, though, have literally been some of the darkest in recent memory. It all started around Thanksgiving when we awoke to find that our 6-year-old German Shepherd had passed away in her sleep. The heartache of losing a pet, especially one that young, was difficult to accept at first, and still is. Then add to that the recent news that the ministerial role which I’ve held for the past year is about to receive some drastic changes involving a move from full-time to part-time (and lots more that I don’t have time for). The unsettling predicament of going back on the job-hunt to make ends meet was greeted with no small amount of stress as I not only began seminary classes but also prepared to welcome my son into the world in the coming year.
And as if that weren’t enough dour ingredients in an already bitter cocktail, my mom suffered a severe relapse in her cognitive wellness. Those close to me and my family perhaps will remember the affliction my mom endured this past June. A fierce emotional and mental health crisis ravaged my mom’s sensibilities, leaving her in a dense fog, a malaise of hope. In the last several weeks, my mom’s plight hasn’t alleviated, rather, it has exacerbated — making for a holiday of anxiety and a less than “merry” yuletide season.
Once again, I’m left to search. To hope. To doubt. To question. To trust. To pray. Once again, I feel as though I’m all cried out. I have no more tears left to cry. My emotional reserves are on empty. Emotions have collided and have remained in conflict ad nauseum. I am spent.
It’s in these sorts of seasons in life where church compatriots are often tempted to acquiesce your grief with staid platitudes and pithy phrases. Among the many church axioms that I wish would die is, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” While the adage might sound good, I don’t know if it carries much in the way of truth. Actually, to be quite frank with you, I think that line of thinking is a rank pile of horse crap. It’s “Christianese” for “I don’t know how to talk to you about what you’re going through right now. Thanks. Bye.” And well-meaning though the words may be, they feel cold and meaningless for hearts that are in the midnight of the soul.
What’s more, I don’t think “God won’t give you more than you can handle” holds up theologically either. Notwithstanding the Pauline letter from which this pithy principle is derived (see 1 Cor. 10:13), the theological hoops one has to jump through to reach that truism not only nullifies the apostle’s point but also robs our Good Father of his glory. Our strength in the midst life’s crises does not come from the notion that I’m just strong enough to get through — that the catastrophe may push me to the brink but never over the edge. Sometimes life pushes us over the edge and into a pit. And it’s the free-fall, the time when God feels furthest away, that most reveals his nearness. Nineteenth century Scottish minister and hymn-writer Horatius Bonar put it this way:
Sorrow should produce a very different result. It should not veil, it should unveil Christ. It should not throw you to a distance from him, or bring in some mountain of separation between you and him; it should increase your nearness; it should bring you nearer to him and him to you. It should make him to be felt as more precious, more desirable, more entirely suitable, more indispensable.1
In suffering, God unblinds our eyes to see that he’s been there all along. He’s never left. He’s never once thought about casting us off. He boasts in the moonless moments that reveal himself as the only true source of light and hope. God repeatedly gives us more than we can handle, that way we’re inclined to fall on him all the more.
This, to me, is God’s ghastly gospel, his darkly comedic tidings in which the dreadful and dire realities of life are permitted to exist and the delicacies to vanish. Sort of like that scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Del and Neal’s rental car bursts into flames after an errant cigarette-butt throw lands it in the back seat. After all that they’ve endured up to this point — diverted plane landings, stolen taxis, swiped cash, missing rental cars, and the like — the bumbling duo can’t do anything but laugh at their predicament. The piling on of anguish was so tortuous it had become comedic. Frustration was too exhausting. There’s was nothing left to do other than smile.
I’ve always loved Planes, Trains and Automobiles. For some reason, it’s always felt like the only true “Thanksgiving movie,” even though the usual Thanksgiving tropes don’t get much screen time. It’s similar to the current argument that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Nevertheless, Planes, Trains and Automobiles centers around Neal Page’s (Steve Martin) fervent quest to return home for the holidays. His journey is continuously stunted by perilous misfortune and the clumsy misadventure of Del Griffith (John Candy). I still get emotional, though, when Blue Room starts belting out “Every Time You Go Away” at the end. And even though the film does contain a few comedic gags, most the humor is found at the expense of the two leads. Their anguish stirs our laughter. It’s comedy in tragedy.
In 1962, in an interview with the Associated Press, acclaimed comic Bob Newhart quipped, “They say that comedy is tragedy plus time. After getting the bills I believe it.” Oftentimes, the tragedy of the moment doesn’t allow for laughter. It’s only after time has buffered the raw emotions from it that we’re able to smile. Other times, like in Neal and Del’s case, the misfortune of the moment leaves you with no remaining option other than to chuckle at the absurdity of it. Or, in my case, I just have to look up and say, “Really?”
It’s in these precise moments that God’s appalling mercy is made all the more evident. For all the insufferable atrocities of life “under the sun” are suffered and swallowed by him. He’s not unfamiliar with my catastrophe nor yours. Nor is he indifferent towards it. He has consumed all the world’s horrors, all of life’s tragedies, as he himself was consumed by death for us. In an essay that has become increasingly precious to me, entitled, “He Descended Into Horror,” Ian McCloud writes the following:
God, in assuming humanity for himself, divests himself of imperviousness to horror. For in taking flesh he takes on the radical vulnerability to suffering and horror that is our inheritance from Adam. From the moment of his birth he gives himself utterly to the world’s disposal, adopting the limitations we resent and inhabiting our frailty. For the first time, the Son subjectively experiences futility and the grief of lifelong defeat at the hands of intractable, anti-human, anti-God powers. Becoming man means forsaking invulnerability and from his first breath he is inundated with the disappointment and dysfunction of the world . . . The body and soul of Jesus Christ became a black hole absorbing all the putrid stupidity of the world’s fallenness.
After darkness, light. The shadow gives way to hope. In the midst of the storm, God is smiling. He is, at once, the Lord over and Deliverer from every disaster that strikes us on this mortal coil. And even as the mayhem of our lives whirls around us, a smirk that bespeaks his condescending lovingkindness appears on our Father’s face. He smiles not because he loves my suffering. Not because he’s divinely sadistic. But because even in this darkly comedic moment he knows he’s the lux aeterna, the ever-burning light of heaven through whom nothing occurs at random. As Christ calmed the raging waves (and the disciples’ hearts) with the simple cue, “Peace be still,” I believe he did so with a smirk. When God whispers, “Don’t be afraid,” he does so with smile. Almost as if to say, “Watch this.”
My one comfort in this solemn and sorrowful term remains the fact that this darkness and brokenness is precisely what the enfleshed Creator came to make right.
The Incarnation of God in Christ is the heavenly intervention and intrusion of the earthly, in which every wrong will be made right and all things will become new by God’s own efforts (Isa. 9:7). What’s more, it’s not only the insipid brokenness that’s wreaking havoc in my mom’s mind that he came to correct, but the brokenness in my own heart, too, which reveals itself in interminable bouts of faith and faithlessness as I precariously navigate this season of life. Even though I’m faithless, he remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). Even as I question God’s timing and abilities and decision-making, I think God smiles. He loves the comedy in the dark. Because he is the light. And the darkness won’t overcome him. For he has overcome the darkness (John 1:4–5). He has overcome sin. Overcome the grave. Overcome death.
The dispiriting last several months have done nothing to unravel the uncertain days that lie ahead. I don’t know when this troubling time will end — or even if it ever will. Nevertheless, in my own faulty sort of way, I’m grasping for the Light that shines in the darkness. I’m clinging to the gospel of post tenebras lux — after darkness, light. That mantra is helping a little. Because even though it’s not funny, I’m learning to crack a smile.
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954), 228.