Is sarcasm sinful?

(Photo: Unsplash/Tim Mossholder)

Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I love a joke – whilst I can take myself too seriously at times, for the most part I like to think I am fairly jovial. I would say I have a satirical sense of humour, but at times my humour is searingly sarcastic, and I have had opportunity in recent times to reflect on the pitfalls of this not just as a pastor, but as a Christian.

Without wasting too many words on it, I use 'satire' to describe a positive rhetorical device, whilst 'sarcasm', in my mind, describes a much more negative use of language. Sarcasm is sinful, therefore, whereas satire is not necessarily sinful.

Satire and Sarcasm in the New Testament

My sarcastic brethren and sistren (that's a real word, I looked it up!) are no doubt nimbling their fingers ready to tell me, 'Paul used sarcasm' or 'Jesus was sarcastic, at times.' Which I think is partly true; in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 Paul's words read like biting sarcasm, and the classic example in the words of Jesus is that of Matthew 7:3 which speaks of logs in eyes.

Given my definition of terms above, though, I would suggest these incidents represent satire more than they do sarcasm.

The people in the Bible (not least Jesus himself) certainly don't fit into the 'Ned Flanders' style caricature of a totally pious but also thoroughly naïve persona sometimes conveyed of Christians in society, they utilise humour fairly liberally throughout the scriptures.

But we simply cannot take these examples (where, notably, we lack any non-verbal context such as tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.) and call them 'sarcasm' as an excuse for sinfully belittling others whilst seeking to elevate ourselves.

Making the point or attacking the person

The question I have formulated to ask myself in relation to my sarcastic tendency is does this use of humour make the point, or attack the person? Am I communicating something beneficial through my humour, or am I simply taking the easy way out, mocking and ridiculing someone to shame them out of disagreeing with me?

Some will argue otherwise, but I am personally not persuaded that Paul or Jesus used sarcasm to deride and belittle; I am convinced they used satire, but not sarcasm (as I have defined them above). Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love so that we will "grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ."

Does our humour communicate truth in love and with the intent to unite the body, or does it simply attack the recipient, lacking in love and respect for them as an image bearer of Christ? Does it cause division in the body of Christ by making them feel like an outsider?

Truth in love

I suppose the question in its most basic form is 'are we communicating truth in love?' I'm not suggesting that we 'just have to love everyone' in the sense that we fail to call out sin or fail to challenge the body where a challenge is due. We need truth – but our truth ought to be communicated with love.

Satire can be a mechanism for clear and gentle communication of truth, whereas sarcasm is an instrument of torment, used to deride, belittle and abuse. For those of us who self-identify as satirists, it is our responsibility to ensure that our quips and witticisms don't cross the line from satire to sarcasm, from making a point to attacking an image bearer of Christ.

Courtesy of Press Service International