Heartbreaking and Hilarious~Martin Luther’s Humor

Here are the final paragraphs from Carl Trueman’s book Luther on the Christian Life.  Appropriately enough, Trueman ends with Luther’s humor. Luther was many things, but near the top of the list was his ability to use humor to keep himself and those around him cut down to size. Protestant theologians have kept Luther’s legacy in many ways. But we need more humor. And that is why I love Doug Wilson. He might be the closest man in modern times to Luther’s humor. But even  Doug Wilson is tame compared to Dr. Martin.

And this leads me to my last thoughts on Luther. One of the most striking things about the man is his sense of humor, and one cannot possibly write a book on his understanding of the Christian life without reference to this. In general terms, of course, Protestant theologians have not been renowned for their wit, and Protestant theology has not been distinguished by its laughter. Yet Luther laughed all the time, whether poking fun at himself, at Katie, at his colleagues, or indeed at his countless and ever-increasing number of enemies. Humor was a large part of what helped to make him so human and accessible. And in a world where everyone always seems to be “hurt” by something someone has said or offended by this or that, Luther’s robust mockery of pretension and pomposity is a remarkable theological contribution in and of itself. 

Humor, of course, has numerous functions. It is in part a survival mechanism. Mocking danger and laughing in the face of tragedy are proven ways of coping with hard and difficult situations. Undoubtedly, this played a significant role in Luther’s own penchant for poking fun. Yet I think there is probably a theological reason for Luther’s laughter too. Humor often plays on the absurd, and Luther knew that this fallen world was not as it was designed to be and was thus absurd and futile in a most significant and powerful way. 

Thus, he knew life is tragic. It is full of sound and fury. It is marked by pain and frustration. The strength of youth must eventually fade into the weakness of old age and finally end in the grave. We believe ourselves to be special, to be transcendent, to be unique and irreplaceable. And yet the one great lesson that everyone must ultimately learn in life is that they are none of these things, however much we want them to be true and however much we do things to trick ourselves into believing our own propaganda. We are fallen, finite, and mortal. We are not God. And because God is and has acted, because in incarnation, Word, and sacrament he has revealed and given himself and has thus pointed to the true meaning of life, our own pretensions to greatness are shown to be nothing but the perilous grandstanding of the absurdly pompous and the pompously absurd. 

Indeed, in light of the fact that God is God and has revealed himself in the foolishness of the cross, the tendency of us all to be theologians of glory appears in all its risible futility. That we who cannot even escape our own mortality would assume that God is like us, that we are the measure of all things, including the terrifying and awesome hidden God who rides on the wings of the storm and calls all things into being by the mere Word of his power-that we poor, pathetic, sinful creatures would be so arrogant as to assume such a thing is surely the greatest and darkest joke of all. Luther knew that the tragedy and the comedy of fallen humanity is that we have such a laughable view of ourselves: one that would aspire to tell God who and what he must be. As humans are at once both righteous and sinful, so human existence is at once both heartbreaking and hilarious. Luther cites Psalm 2:4 on numerous occasions to make precisely this point: the tragedy of humanity is that God laughs at our ridiculous attempts at autonomy. 

This is where I leave you with Luther. While the world, even the Christian world, remains populated by the self-important and the self-righteous, the figure of Luther, with his rumbustious theology and his cutting humor, will not cease to be relevant. Many of his writings have a refreshing and appropriately irreverent style to them, tearing down the pompous and the self-assured. They offer a breath of fresh air amid a forced and stale piety. And his emphasis on the objectivity of the action of God in Christ puts all things in perspective and exposes our lives outside of Christ for what they are, acts in a silly farce played out in the shadow of the beckoning grave.