The Problem of Sarcasm


When the majority of people speak and write these days, their words are frequently laced with invective, casual profanity, a profound sense of self-absorption, or all of the above. If there is any evidence of how far society has strayed from God, it's in our words. Many believers have ignored the principle of separation, and as a consequence, their speech and words unfortunately mimic the rest of society. This should not be so. As ambassadors for Christ, believers have a responsibility to not only watch their actions, but their words. Of course, assuming a kind of air-headed and rose-colored phoniness is not the answer. Exterior behavioral changes can never alter what is inside. The Holy Spirit, however, has the power to urge a person to model themselves after Christ. Jesus spoke not only with Godly love, but with Godly conviction. Note the adjectival emphasis here: Jesus' words reflect the Father in every way. Fallen Man gravitates toward speaking with love and conviction that serves the Self. James, brother of Jesus, cautioned us about our speech and its powerful effects in James Chapter 3:

8 No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.
10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
Now we come to the problem of sarcasm. It is ubiquitous in speech and writing today, and Christians are no less guilty of using it than others. The etymology of the word sarcasm is very telling. It comes from the Greek word sarkazein, which means to "bite the lips in rage." This doesn't have a particularly Christian ring to it. Rather, it bears much greater resemblance to the "gnashing of teeth" in Hades from Luke 13:28. Sarcasm has been variously defined as "witty language used to convey insults or scorn" and "a mocking or contemptuously ironic remark intended to wound another." The latter definition is less lenient but also far more accurate. It is also more relevant for Christians because motive is addressed. The purpose of sarcasm is ultimately about justification of Self. "Look at me. Look at my cleverness." A Christian might use sarcasm to defend a point, yet what is gained? God may be referenced, but He is not reflected. Righteousness and purity are not priorities of sarcasm. Instead, biting comments inherently involve the belittling of another individual or group's intellect, understanding, physiology, and so on to enhance the righteousness of oneself. Self is central to sarcasm.

Paul wrote to the believers in Colossians Chapter 4:
6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
When Paul wrote of "salt," he didn't mean salt in the modern sense of earthy language, but rather words revealing God's Truth. Christians should be witnesses to God's Truth, not worldliness. It is not uncommon to see Christians making fun of other Christians. Christians of all stripes engage in sarcastic jibes at each other, often on subjects falling within the realm of Christian liberty. This is grievously unfortunate, for did not Paul also warn: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters"? (Romans 14:1) Christians who appear uneducated, simple-minded, fundamentalist, or generally unworldly (and lacking irony) are often the targets of derision by other Christians. What happens is, by the very worldly appeal of sarcasm, unbelievers are unwittingly invited to join in the mockery. The cleverness of the put-down or incisive wit is applauded, but God is not glorified. Consider this: if you were in error, how would you react to a Christian brother or sister correcting you with sarcasm? It would set your resolve to continue in error, harden your heart, or turn you away from God's Truth. Sarcasm breeds resentment and, as such, enables sin. That does not seem to be compatible with Matthew 7:14 or 1 Corinthians 8:9.

The Bible does not directly condemn sarcasm. There are many topics which Scripture does not touch upon directly, but that doesn't mean the Bible hasn't something to say about everything. In these cases, God wants to guide us to Him first and foremost, by living in obedience to His Son and His Word. Can our use of sarcasm really pass the test of gracious speech? Is it about our cleverness and intellect or God's immutable Truth? You must answer these questions for yourself, for only God knows what's in your heart. But an unbeliever -- or a brother or sister who is weak in faith -- hears or reads only your words. They cannot see into your soul. Do your words reflect a love of irony or a love of God? Referencing the years when he fell away from his faith in God (cf. 1 Kings 11:1-4), Solomon wrote: "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Long, long before the postmodernists made relativism fashionable, Solomon understood that life without God has no meaning. Nihilism is the father of irony, and irony is the bedfellow of sarcasm. And these concepts all revolve around Self (which is death), not God (eternal life). The above passage from James Chapter 3 finishes with this verse:
12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.


jacko said... on 11/13/2007 11:20 PM  

Thank you, this was helpful to me.

Anonymous said... on 11/16/2007 4:34 PM  

Your comment is appreciated. Thank you!

PaulLohaus said... on 4/29/2009 4:42 AM  

Jenny Chandler said,
"Always make sure (you) aren't lying to yourself that you have forgiven when you haven't.
Sarcasm is often thinly veiled bitterness and a clue to the state of the heart on the matter."

PaulLohaus said... on 4/29/2009 5:06 AM  

Red Giants, Thank you for these insights. As you said, sarcasm falls within the realm of Christian freedom but one should be aware of his brother of “weak faith” and those who have been wounded by sarcasm. I found it interesting to read Romans 14 and substitute sarcasm for meat. I believe sarcasm is not necessarily sinful, even the Apostle Paul (Galatians 5:12, let them emasculate themselves), the prophet Elijah (I Kings 18:27, taunting the prophets of Baal), and even God (Judges 10:14) himself uses it on occasion. Even Jesus seems on the edge of it sometimes in his interactions with the Pharisees. The healed blind man in John 9 certainly used it (see verse 27). Most of these people were speaking for God and God knows the heart so he can speak in ways that we cannot. We have the freedom to use sarcasm but I believe we need to be careful because often sarcasm has a barb in it that can wound and it always runs the risk of wounding our brother and hurting relationships. I know sometimes sarcasm can help us laugh and take the edge off a tense situation and I acknowledge that God has used it to prick people’s consciences. The following article was very interesting to me, especially the part about sarcasm:

I ran into another article ( that articulates very well why sarcasm may lead to sin. Often sarcasm is about one-up-man-ship and trying to prove who is the more clever and it does not pass the biblical test for gracious speech. (Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 4:29).

Hope you found these insightful.

Anonymous said... on 5/01/2009 12:37 AM  

Paul, good points. Thank you for your input and the links you provided.

The Biblical examples you cite raise the critical issue of tone in speech re: sarcasm. To me, it's difficult to analyze sarcasm in these written passages without bringing at least some of our cultural/personal presuppositions into the equation.

Yes, Elijah used his mocking speech as a sword, for the purposes of glorifying God. But consider the objects of his scorn; anything less harsh would've been throwing pearls before swine.