Why Did Those People Laugh at John Piper?

Pastor Bob O'Bannon

If you asked me to think of a word to describe John Piper, I think one of the last to come to mind would be “hilarious.” And yet at a conference for the American Association of Christian Counselors back in 2009, that’s exactly how he was perceived to be.

Forgive me for commenting on this more than four years after the fact, but this just came to my attention recently, and it’s so utterly bizarre and unexplainable that I couldn’t resist writing about it. The video is about five minutes long, but it’s worth your time to watch here.

Here are some of the highlights:

Piper says he feels vulnerable and exposed to speak to this particular group. He says he senses that this group, being counselors, could see straight through him, and the audience laughs.

Piper declares himself to be a sinner, and the audience laughs.

Piper lists a number of his own weaknesses and besetting sins, including the instinct to blame his sins on someone else, and the audience laughs.

After much patience, Piper finally admits that he finds the audience “very strange,” that he was not expecting laughter, that he is “continually perplexed “ at their reaction to his comments . . . and the audience laughs again.

The great 20th century British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote that

the man who tries to be humorous is an abomination and should never be allowed to enter the pulpit.”

It was reported that the great 19th century Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne had people in tears on Sunday mornings even as he walked to the pulpit. I don’t happen to agree with Lloyd-Jones, and McCheyne’s experience was highly unusual, but even more unusual is when a man of Piper’s reputation (a serious and weighty proclaimer of God’s word) stands before this particular audience (a group of Christians) and presents himself with even more vulnerability than normal (admitting to problems in his marriage and his own temptation toward self-pity), and is met with repeated guffaws and cackles.

The only explanation I can think of is that we happen to live in a culture in which people expect that they must always be entertained. We are conditioned to immediately assume that speakers must always try to be funny. The fact that the Piper incident happened among a gathering of Christian counselors suggests that this expectation is apparently even cultivated in our churches.

In my opinion, there are appropriate places for humor in a sermon or worship service, but I don’t think the Israelites were giggling when they approached God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19; I don’t think the Old Testament prophets opened their calls to repentance with jokes; I don’t think Peter or Paul or Stephen were looking for laughs in the sermons that are recorded for us in the book of Acts. And I’m quite sure John Piper wasn’t looking for laughs when he spoke to that group of Christian counselors.

So, can someone tell me – why were those people laughing at John Piper?