“Spiritual Sarcasm”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations
In recent days, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions with other Christians about whether sarcasm, especially in a tense confrontation with enemies of the church, is ever appropriate for God’s people. A host of familiar passages would suggest that it is not. In Luke 6:28, Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us. In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul insists that the Lord’s bondservant must be kind and gentle. In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter counsels us to make our defense with gentleness.
And yet, all three of these men used sarcasm in confrontations with enemies of the gospel. In John 10:32, Jesus sarcastically asks the Jews which of His good works has caused them to stone Him. Similarly, in Acts 4:9, Peter asks the Sanhedrin (“Really, guys?”) if he is on trial for a benefit done to a sick man.
In Acts 8:3-5, Paul calls Ananias the high priest a whitewashed wall (a hypocrite, as in Matthew 23:27) for claiming to try him according to the Law yet ordering him to be struck unlawfully. I also believe that Paul’s “apology” in v.5 is not truly an apology but rather a sarcastic allusion to the fact that Ananias was not appointed high priest according to the Law either (#notmyhighpriest). In doing so, he would have been playing to the Pharisees, who also did not believe that Ananias was rightfully appointed, and to whom he would appeal directly in a few moments.
There are plenty of other examples throughout the New Testament and still more in the Old Testament, many of which come from the lips of God. However, these three suffice to show that the godly employed sarcasm in defense of the gospel. Indeed, sarcasm is a much better attested practice than (for instance) partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week!
However, there must be some way for us to distinguish between the general rule of gentleness and these exceptions in practice. Otherwise, the exceptions will swallow the rule! In fact, the use of godly sarcasm appears to be limited to a narrow set of circumstances: first, it is in defense of truth; second, it is used in response to bad faith by adversaries; and third, it highlights the bad faith.
For example, the Jews in John 10 are clearly not acting in good faith. The many miracles that Jesus has worked have provided abundant evidence that He is from God. However, rather than considering Jesus’ challenging statement about Himself in the light of this evidence, the Jews react with closed-minded fury. Jesus’ sarcasm in v. 32 emphasizes the chasm between their self-righteous rage and the unrighteousness of their conduct.
The truth will always have its opponents. Those who disagree with us in good faith, even when they disagree strongly, are entitled to a courteous and kind reception from us. Such good treatment, in conjunction with a vigorous defense of truth, will win the honest adversary over to the cause of Christ.
However, others are committed to opposing the truth no matter what. They will not scruple at the use of any low, underhanded, hypocritical tactic if they believe it will bring God and his people into disrepute. In such cases, we are justified in using sarcasm to shine a light on their bad faith. The hypocrite will not enjoy the experience, but neither does anyone else whose evil deeds are exposed to light.