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I come from a long line of family members who use sarcasm as a regular part of conversation. Most of the time, it’s not used with the intent to hurt anyone’s feelings or cut people down. Rather, it’s used as a form of humor or to point out the irony of a situation. But is it biblical? Should Christians use sarcasm?
The Bible is clear about what types of talk should and shouldn’t come out of the believer’s mouth. If we look at Ephesians 4:29, it gives the instruction, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Reading these words, it would make sense that sarcasm is not included in what is considered helpful for building others up.
But what about the instances in the Bible where there seems to be an underlying sarcasm or satire in the tone of the speaker? Although the tone is not stated, there are passages throughout the Bible where the words speak for themselves. One of my favorites is Elijah when he taunts the prophets of Baal:
“And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’” 1 Kings 18:27 ESV
I think it’s safe to say that Elijah does not believe these gods are actually using the bathroom or are on some journey. The verse states in black and white that he’s mocking the Baal worshippers. He can’t resist throwing these words out there, thus making a point about who the one true God is. Is this sarcasm? Or is it satire?
While these two words used to have different meanings, they are now used almost interchangeably. In the past, satire was more often used in reference to plays and writings which expose human folly, which is what Elijah is doing here. He is exposing the fact that these prophets’ beliefs have no foundation in truth.
When it comes to sarcasm, the intent of the Christian is key.
Here are five things to consider before using it:
1. Are your words aimed to hurt others or be cruel?
If the answer is yes, then it is better to be silent. Scripture is filled with reminders about the power of our words, and we can use this power for good or evil. While it is not a sin to become angry, our anger does become sinful when we act out of rage or with the intent to harm someone else. Our words can either point others toward Jesus or away from him, and when we’re mindful of this truth, we can impact generations of people in the best possible ways.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Proverbs 18:21 ESV
2. Are your words motivated by pride or an inflated ego?
Sometimes we use sarcasm because of an inflated sense of self. We want to draw attention to the fact that we think we’re better than whatever shortcoming our sarcasm is aimed toward. This is another instance where it is better to either keep our mouths shut or reevaluate how to use our words. Although we may think we’re better than the establishment, rule, or deficiency we’re ridiculing, Paul gives clear instruction about how we are to view ourselves:
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Romans 12:3 NIV
3. Is this means of communication effective for your audience?
A few of the pastors of churches I attended over the years would occasionally use sarcasm in their sermons. When it was used, it was always with the same intent Elijah likely had when using it with the Baal worshippers: to expose human folly and or a tendency toward a certain sin. It was not with the intent to inflate themselves or make themselves look smarter than anyone else. They were well aware that they were as in need of grace as everyone else, and sarcasm was more a form of humor used to get a laugh from the congregation. Perhaps more importantly, it was effective at illustrating their point. Congregants responded and understood the intended meaning.
There are several instances where Jesus used this type of communication as well. Often, it was directed toward the Pharisees or religious leaders who claimed to follow God, but their hearts were far from him. In one notable instance, they were ready to stone Jesus because he had just claimed to be equal with the Father. This was Jesus’ response:
“Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” John 10:31-32 NIV
4. What is your desired goal?
Many times, the goal with sarcasm is simply to be funny. And often, it works. While there is nothing wrong with humor, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it at someone else’s expense?”
Other times, the goal may be to expose human error or our propensity toward sin. While there’s nothing wrong with this intention either, even in this case, we need to tread with caution. Sarcasm can easily become hurtful and demeaning, and the way we portray Christ matters. Often, others are watching us without our being aware of it. If they see us being sarcastic and demeaning all the time, they will likely not be drawn to a God who is both loving and merciful.
Paul talks about the importance of the appeal we are making to others on Christ’s behalf, saying:
“You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 2 Corinthians 3:3 NIV
5. Are you pointing others toward truth?
As we’ve discussed, the point of sarcasm is often to expose folly and point others toward truth. While some may argue that a better means of communicating could be used, it is effective nonetheless. Throughout scripture, we see men who followed God use sarcasm. It is not with the intent to be hateful but to point others toward truth.
The bottom line with the use of sarcasm is this: Proceed with care. Most of the time, a more loving and effective means of communicating can be found. While it may be unrealistic to say that Christians should never use sarcasm, we do need to be mindful of how our speech affects others. If our goal is to be cruel, to inflate ourselves, or demean, we need to reevaluate. God is ready and willing to direct our speech when we seek his wisdom, and a better path may be on the other side of an honest request for guidance.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/jacoblund
Abby McDonald is a writing coach and the author of Shift: Changing Our Focus to See the Presence of God. Her mission is to empower women to seek God in the middle of life’s messes and to share their faith with courage. Abby writes regularly for Proverb 31 Ministries’ daily devotions team, and her work has been featured in numerous publications. You can connect with Abby on her website where you can grab a free worship playlist to help you shift your focus toward God. You can also connect with Abby on Instagram.