Is Sarcasm Always Wrong?

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Sarcasm. It’s a cultural icon today. From Hollywood to Washington, on TV and radio, sarcasm seems to rule the day.

Unfortunately, the church has followed suit. Instead of defending apologetically, explaining logically, reasoning morally, conversing factually, or supporting theologically, we too often resort to mocking sarcastically. And no issue or person is exempt. These days, anything or anyone can be the target of anger’s ugly cousin.

But is sarcasm always wrong? You may already have your mind made up on that quite personal question; or maybe you’ve never considered it. Regardless, it is my hope that this perspective will be used by our Lord to help the bride of Christ speak in ways that propel us more towards Ephesians 4:29 (building up) and away from Galatians 5:15 (biting and devouring).

The Eytomology
Some etymology would be helpful here.  Essentially, the word sarcasm has developed from Greek words that indicate a “tearing of the flesh,” especially sarkazein. Over time this Greek verb came to mean “to bite one’s lip in rage,” “to gnash one’s teeth,” or “to sneer.” At its root, this word describes a wounding of sorts; an injury of some kind. Even the mid-16th century French word sarcasme, or the Latin sarcasmos, both retained this root understanding.

The word’s formation, then, is linked to something deeper than humor, irony, or even joking. There is an intent to hurt. Sarcasm aims at ‘tearing the flesh.’ By the word’s very origination, it’s goal is pain.

The Definition
By definition, sarcasm is “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny.” Of course, though humor is a nuance within this definition by Webster, it is humor at someone else’s expense. I’d contend that is humor gone wildly wrong.

Another source defined it as “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” Here again, one might say irony is a legitimate, literary device. But the end-game of that device prompts me to call this use into question. In fact, when its intention is to humiliate or mock, it may very well no longer be irony; at that point it degenerates into sarcasm—a ‘tearing of the flesh’ through words.

The Exception
In order to be definitive and precise, and because intellectual honesty demands it, we need to wrestle with some appropriate uses of sarcasm in the Scriptures, namely Elijah (1 Kings 18:26-27) and Paul (2 Corinthians 11:19). Admittedly, it’s not an overwhelming amount, but it is there. And were they wrong? In short, no. Why? Because they were arguing and battling for the truth of the gospel.

In these instances, it seems the core truth of the gospel was at stake. Twisters and rejectors of the gospel were boldly reshaping God’s truth, shutting their eyes and the eyes of others. What was used to show them their error? Sarcasm. As Pastor Laurence Veinott of New Life Presbyterian Church in Canton, NY said in a message, “God can use our sarcasm to open the eyes of unbelievers. Or He can use it to render them inexcusable. God did both things through Elijah’s taunts. When the opponents of the gospel close their eyes to the truth that is made clear to them—and instead insist on believing the lie—then sarcasm should be used against them.” I prefer to say “can be used” instead of “should be used;” but either way, the use would not be unbiblical.

Additionally, Arthur Pink writes regarding this encounter in 1 Kings 18 that the use of sarcasm “is fully warranted in exposing the ridiculous pretensions of error, and is often quite effective in convincing men of the folly and unreasonableness of their ways.”

Furthermore, the Kairos Journal, associated with BibleMesh, notes that “Elijah and Paul used it in a godly fashion.” In fact, their article Holy Sarcasm was thought-provoking, concluding that, though these verses do not encourage sarcasm, much less demand it of God’s people, to “dismiss it utterly [is to] rebuke Elijah and Paul – an act of arrogance in its own right.”

Of course, other passages have been mentioned as uses of sarcasm (1 Corinthians 4:8-13, Matthew 7:5), but I contend that they were actually irony or satire. Still, there are the two situations with Elijah and Paul, and since those are legitimate cases, they must affect how we view the rightness and wrongness of sarcasm.

The Answer
So is sarcasm always wrong? When the core truth of the gospel is at stake, sarcasm may be an acceptable, biblical use of language for the defense of truth. So no, it isn’t always wrong. But between believers, it is my contention that the kind of sarcasm we use is generally unbiblical, unhealthy, and unwarranted. As Lindsey Carlson wrote, “It’s nothing but fancy-schmancy passive-aggressiveness, and it leads to bitterness, anger, and unresolved conflict.” Too often we move beyond humorous irony and revealing satire and become malicious with sarcasm that is meant to belittle another and elevate our own self. When this is the intent, sarcasm is never appropriate. Never.

Moreover, sarcasm to this intent violates the biblical exhortation to Christians to build one another up. It never promotes unity or builds relational trust. Instead, it does the opposite. Nothing good comes from sarcasm of this kind. And why would we think it would? Could anything good come from “tearing the flesh” of another? I think not.

However, we’ve grown accustomed to living with sarcasm. It is part of the course, rough fabric of everyday life for many of us. Frankly, I know my own sinful tendency to use this carnal tool to make a point or gain an upper hand; to get an edge or drive home an observation. It’s a daily battle to reign in the sinful use of sarcasm.

What can one do? Let me suggest a few things.

  1. Let your first words be positive words. Seek to build and affirm first in every conversation. Even when the conversation calls for honesty and perhaps painful disagreement, do so in a way that isn’t painted with the brush of sarcasm.
  2. Enjoy humor, but don’t go beyond humor. This is often only discerned in the moment, so you’ve got to have your radar turned on and tuned in. As we’ve often heard and even said, laugh with, not at. It’s in the “at” that our humor too often disintegrates into sarcasm.
  3. Be willing to live against the grain. Late night shows, political talking heads, and bloggers by the dozens rely on sarcasm. It’s the communication device of choice for far too many. And it creeps into our marriages, small groups, and sermons. I encourage you to swim upstream and display a disciplined, obedient use of your tongue by eliminating sarcasm from your language. I’m confident there’s not a single area of your life that wouldn’t improve by this one, single pursuit.
  4. When you fail, don’t quit. Confess, then humbly resolve yet again to live without sarcasm. Admittedly, this side of the consummated kingdom we will never fully conquer a sinful tongue (James 3:8). But we can, by God’s grace and through his Spirit, sow peace and reap righteousness (Jams 3:18), especially in how we talk.

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