Last Sunday I began a new sermon series in the New Testament book of James. I love James for his relentless drive to expose false faith and promote genuine faith. In doing this, James says some extremely radical things — things shockingly counter-world. For example, James exhorts his readers to stop laughing so much: “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (4:9). It’s things like this that make one wonder if James could ever be a pastor in today’s typical American evangelical church.
I say this because of how pervasive “flippancy” is in today’s culture. By flippancy I mean our default instinct to always make light of something serious. Or, as C.S. Lewis said, always finding a ridiculous side to every serious subject. And as Lewis masterfully shows in The Screwtape Letters, flippancy is one of the great tactics the devil uses to dull us to God.
In chapter eleven, Screwtape (the senior devil, uncle, and mentor to aspiring junior devil Wormwood) takes up the topic of laughter and commends flippancy as the best form for the devil’s purposes of keeping us away from the “Enemy” (i.e., God):
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.
Flippancy, like so many other manifestations of worldliness, is a quiet killer of the soul. Like a fog in the night, it creeps in subtly. But James sounds the alarm. I’m grateful, and looking to this trusted guide to help get us safely home.