Some of the easiest and most common humor in our world is based on bodily functions, particularly excretion. To a lesser and milder extent, these same jokes are common in the conversations of Christians, even educated evangelicals. A common justification for these is the seemingly graphic nature of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament in the Law and histories, when discussing these sorts of topics. However, these might not actually be connected to the issue of determining appropriate humor. Looking at a couple passages will show that this is not crudeness, but actually direct glorification of God.
In Judges 3:15–30, God delivered Israel from the rule of Eglon of Moab through Ehud. Judges recounts a number of cycles in which Israel abandoned God to pursue idolatry, God turned the people over to foreign control, the Israelites called out to God for relief (not necessarily contrition), and God delivered them from foreign rule through the instrumentality of a human judge. Therefore the primary actor in the story of Ehud and Eglon is God (cf. vv. 15, 28). God appointed Ehud deliverer of Israel, and used his plot against the Moabite king to rid His people of their oppressor and embolden them for the battle He would enable them to win. After managing to obtain a private audience without witnesses, Ehud treacherously stabbed Eglon in his private chamber. Many initially find what follows rather childish:
Ehud stretched out his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh and thrust it into his belly. The handle also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the refuse came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule and shut the doors of the roof chamber behind him, and locked them. When he had gone out, his servants came and looked, and behold, the doors of the roof chamber were locked; and they said, “He is only relieving* himself in the cool room.” They waited until they became anxious; but behold, he did not open the doors of the roof chamber. Therefore they took the key and opened them, and behold, their master had fallen to the floor dead.
*Lit: covering his feet
This section describes the gore of a blade being swallowed up inside a man’s belly and makes two references to defecation. Many parents are uncomfortable reading this to their children as a bedtime story. But if the Bible is the Word of God, this story glorifies Him by revealing His character to man. How does this seemingly juvenile humor reveal God’s character?
The key to remember is that this passage displays God’s power over His enemy and for His people. Eglon is God’s enemy, utterly powerless before the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. His death is his humbling; Eglon had shown immense pride in assuming that he could rise up against God’s people, rule over them, and thereby effectively declare himself comparable in power to Yahweh. The bodily humor conveys a powerful message: Eglon is as nothing before God.
That Eglon was so fat his body swallowed Ehud’s sword, that his colon dumped its contents at his death, and that his servants assumed he was simply indisposed underscores Eglon’s weakness. Before God, he has no independent dignity; he is just a man. Unlike God, he is not always active and ready. Unlike man, God is never exposed or vulnerable. Eglon’s total humiliation is a foil to express God’s glory and total power.
A similar incident occurs in 1 Samuel 24, as Saul pursued David with hopes of killing him. David and his men hid from Saul in a cave, into which Saul conveniently wandered:
He came to the sheepfolds on the way, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve* himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the inner recesses of the cave. The men of David said to him, “Behold, this is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold; I am about to give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’” Then David arose and cut off the edge of Saul’s robe secretly.
*Lit: cover his feet
Again, God’s Word mentions a man covering his feet with his garment as he squats and defecates. And again, the story is used to magnify God.
God had chosen Saul to be king over Israel, but Saul failed on three key occasions in 1 Samuel 13, 14, and 15 respectively. After this God anointed David to be the next king of Israel, to which Saul responded by trying to kill David. Saul, although God’s anointed, is now also God’s enemy. By seeking David’s life, he seeks to overthrow God’s plan.
However, the humbling moment in the cave reveals just how weak Saul is. Saul not only unwittingly exposed himself to great danger, he also lost part of his garment in the bargain. Saul posed no real threat to God’s sovereignty. The natural functions of Saul’s body provided a foil against which the power and constancy of God are displayed.
This was not the only time David spared Saul’s life; he did so again in 1 Samuel 26. This time Saul was sleeping in his camp. David and Abishai successfully sneaked inside and stole a spear and jug from by Saul’s head. Here again sleep underscores the weakness of man and the completeness of God. God has no need of rest, no need to stop to fulfill bodily functions. Only God is fit to rule the universe. Man should respond to his weakness in humility.
This then provides a sort of theology of the restroom, in parallel to a theology on sleep. Practically speaking, every time a Christian goes to the bathroom, he can recall that even such mundane events highlight his weakness and inadequacy. The only fitting response to humility. God alone is adequate and ready to every circumstance, an ever present help in trouble.
Further, there are practical implications on the humor we use in conversations. Whereas the Bible has clearly used its references to gore and excretion to intentionally magnify God’s sovereignty, the jokes in our conversations are rarely if ever directed at greater purposes. This can very well be the sort of foolish talk the Bible warns against (Eph 5:4; Col 3:8; 2 Tim 2:16). But a careful distinction should be made: it is not the lexical or definitional content of the words that is the problem, but the lack of edifying intent behind them, or perhaps the purely secular manner in which they are used while avoiding mindfulness of God. Such a subtle distinction is still important: it captures the effect that the Christian is being encouraged in passages about speech to direct all words toward God-honoring purposes.
The de facto standard often unintentionally set for Christian speech is to use enough Christianese clichés and avoid a certain set of words banned by the FCC. As usual, the Scriptural standard is much less superficial. God doesn’t want superficial speech from His people, He wants intentional, thoughtful speech. That’s a much higher standard, and it demands careful thought by every believer on the exact convictions he should develop on the matter.