February 21, 1993


“A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).

Have you ever heard of TOTS disease?  It’s got some nasty symptoms.  It can make you feel miserable, it can give you headaches, it can paralyze your face in a chronic scowl, and if you don’t watch out, it can even kill you.  Oh, one more thing about TOTS disease:  if you’ve got it, you yourself forget how to laugh, but the people around you will often laugh at you.

I was impressed again by the impact of TOTS disease when I saw a victim on TV.  Oh, did that man look sad!  He said that he’d been down in the dumps for the last year or so.  He complained that he was dreadfully underpaid, his employer didn’t appreciate him, and he was so demoralized by the whole situation that he just didn’t feel like putting 100% into it any more.  He blamed it all on his job, but it was clearly a case of TOTS disease.  It was a sad story, and at last, I couldn’t hold back the tears.

Actually, though, my tears were tears of laughter.  You see, the forlorn soul pouring out his heart on TV was a professional baseball player, and TOTS disease is the problem of T.O.T.S.–Taking Ourselves Too Seriously.  This man’s grief came from the fact that during the past year, his salary had been a paltry $3 million, and nobody in management had been eager to discuss the matter with him or renegotiate his contract.

Now, maybe I’m hardhearted, but I just couldn’t work up too much pity for this guy.  He’s getting paid $3 million just for hitting a little ball with a stick, and he thinks he’s got it rough.  He’s making more money in one year of playing a game than the average person could make in a hundred years of working at a real job, and yet he’s feeling underpaid and maltreated.  His entire year had been ruined because he thought he deserved more money and more respect.  If Taking Ourselves Too Seriously is a disease–well, this man had a mighty bad case of it.

Have you read how Sports Illustrated described “bawl players”?  “Bawl” was spelled B-A-W-L.  Instead of enjoying their success, they’re always bawling about how tough they’ve got it.

They get millions of dollars, but they think think they deserve more money;  they have millions of fans, but they think deserve more recognition.  Why can’t they just lighten up and realize how good they’ve got it?  Why can’t they just enjoy life?  Well, it’s because they’ve got TOTS disease–Taking Ourselves Too Seriously.

Now, bawl baby bawl players may be the most visible victims of TOTS, but they’re not the only ones.  We all struggle with Taking Ourselves Too Seriously.  All too often we go through life with a scowl and a growl.  Life is serious.  Oh, is it serious!  As one author puts it, some of us are so uptight that we squeak when we walk and whine when we talk.  When we have TOTS disease, we’re too important to laugh, too busy to relax, too tired to have a good time, and too unfairly treated to be happy.  Why should we be happy, when we can find a perfectly good reason to be grouchy?

There are a number of reasons why we need to get rid of TOTS disease and learn to laugh instead.  One reason is that happiness is just plain good for us, while grouchiness is harmful.  In Proverbs 17:22 the Bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”  Joy and celebration and laughter can be good for our health, while placing ourselves under constant stress can damage the immune systems, it can cause ulcers and insomnia, and it can even cause hypertension and increase the risk of heart attack.  So although TOTS disease may seem funny, the fact is that it really can kill you.  The best antidote to this disease is joy.  “A cheerful heart is good medicine,” says the Bible.  There really is such a thing as a healthy laugh.

Laughter won’t just make you healthier, either;  it might even make you better looking!  Who’s more attractive, a person whose face is lit up in a smile, or somebody wearing the expression of a bloodhound?  A person with ordinary looks but a radiant expression can be more attractive than a person with good-looking features but a chronically sour expression.  So a smile just might do more for your looks than spending a fortune on makeup.  Proverbs 15:13 says, “A happy heart makes the face cheerful.”  Your attitude affects your face.  Martin Luther once said that every person is responsible for the way his or her face looks after age 30.  Luther may have been exaggerating a little, but an attitude of joy can indeed transform the way you look.

Another reason for healthy laughter is the impact it has on others.  Proverbs 15:30 says, “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones.”  In other words, a smile and an encouraging word can make someone else’s life happier and healthier.  Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”

Just think about it:  Doesn’t it make your day a lot brighter if the people you work with are courteous and cheerful?  If all you get are scowls and growls, it makes your working hours pretty bleak.  Oscar the Grouch may be funny on Sesame Street, but real life grouches…?  They’re enough to make you grouchy yourself.  Now, if that’s the impact others can have on you, don’t forget that you have exactly the same impact on them.  “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart.”

Your attitude can bring warm sunshine to others, or it can drench them with cold rain.  When you’re in a restaurant enjoying a good meal, it always tastes a little better when the person serving you is pleasant and cheerful.  A grouchy server, however, can almost ruin your meal–unless, of course, the grouchiness is so ludicrous you can’t help laughing.  At any rate, it’s important to remember that a cheerful spirit brings health not only to ourselves but also to others.

Christians, of all people, need to realize the impact that their attitude can have on others.  Those who aren’t Christians get their impressions about Jesus Christ from watching those who claim to be his followers.  They aren’t going to be very interested in the Savior if every Christian they meet is a grouch.  They’re not going to be very impressed when they hear a preacher talking about the joy of the Lord.  It’s when Jesus’ followers are vibrant and aglow with the joy of the Lord that other people are drawn to Christ.

Unfortunately, though, Christians aren’t always immune to TOTS disease.  We sometimes Take Ourselves Too Seriously, and we forget how to celebrate and laugh and enjoy life.  Chuck Swindoll says that some Christians are so sour you’d think they’d been baptized in lemon juice.  Their faces are so long they could eat corn out of a pop bottle.

We Christians claim to believe the good news–the word “gospel” means good news!–but all too often we act like we’ve got nothing but bad news.  We say that Jesus died and rose again so that we could enjoy all the riches of God for all eternity, but how do we act?  Like someone who just found out that a rich aunt died and left everything to her pregnant hamster (to borrow an expression from Erma Bombeck).  If it’s ridiculous for a “bawl player” to complain that $3 million isn’t enough, isn’t it even more silly for someone who’s been given eternal riches to wear a chronic frown?

If we’re saved, we’d better celebrate like we’re saved:  for our own good, for the good of others, and above all, for the glory of God.  Ultimately, the main reason for the Christian to be cheerful is that it’s simply the most appropriate response to what God has done for us.  Psalm 126 puts it well:

When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.  Our mouths were full of laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.  Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”  The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

When God does great things for us, it’s time to laugh and rejoice.  We dishonor God when we never rejoice over what he’s done for us.  I’m not saying that to be a Christian, you have to have a silly grin plastered on your face 24 hours a day.  There really are times of hardship and grief, and in situations like that, it’s okay to cry.  We need to express our sorrow and loss.  The Bible itself tells us that there’s a time to weep.

But don’t forget that the Bible says in the very same verse that there’s also a time to laugh.  Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:4).  So if it’s a time to weep, then by all means weep.  But if it’s a time to laugh, then stop taking yourself so seriously and laugh!  When you’ve got it good, enjoy it!  Don’t complain about how things could be even better.

When a bawl player is getting $3 million, it’s not a time to weep.  He should be laughing all the way to the bank.  And if you’ve been guaranteed the riches of eternal life and you’ve been showered with many other good things as well, you ought to be laughing with delight.

The Bible expresses the joy of salvation in Isaiah 12, where it says:

“The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song;  he has become my salvation.”  With joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  In that day you will say:  “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;  make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.  Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;  let this be known to all the world.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you. (v. 3-6)

“With joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  God’s salvation is like a well, a cool, refreshing spring.  If you want that kind of happiness and vitality flowing in your life, you obviously need to go to the right well.  Jesus Christ is the source and the fountain of joy;  he’s the well of salvation.  He can change sorrow to laughter, drudgery to excitement, guilt to forgiveness, anxiety to peace.  If you’re not already a Christian and you’re looking for joy, you need to come to the Source.  You need to come to the well of salvation, Jesus Christ.  You need to put your faith in him and receive his Holy Spirit.

And if you already belong to Jesus, then delight in the joy that flows from him.  Let your life be a celebration of his goodness.  “Rejoice in the Lord always!  I will say it again:  Rejoice!”  Sometimes, if you’re not paying attention, the springs of joy can be clogged up.  Don’t let that happen.  Make sure that your God-given joy is allowed to bubble freely and to flood your life with holy happiness and healthy laughter.  The Bible not only introduces us to heavenly joy, but it also gives some down-to-earth guidelines that will help us keep the streams of joy flowing freely instead of being blocked up by some pretty mundane and silly things.  We could talk about many such things, but in the time we have left, let’s focus on three principles.

The first is this:  Leave the rat race to the rats.  A sure way to stifle your joy and make yourself miserable is to forever be trying to match what someone else has, rather than enjoying what God has given you.  Why can’t a “bawl player” enjoy his $3 million?  Why does he think he’s so underpaid?  Because he knows that other players are making even more.  He wants to come out first in the rat race, and so he can’t simply enjoy how good he already has it.  Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”  In the rat race, envy is the name of the game, and it will ruin your joy if you let it.

Another problem with the rat race is that you get in a rut.  You see life as all work and no play.  You see fun time and family time as wasted time, when you should be accomplishing something.  You not only work hard all day, but you find yourself still working after you get home.  And if you actually do take a vacation, you treat it the same way you treat work.  You ask all the same questions:  “What did we plan for today?  What time is it?  How much does it cost?”  You don’t see vacation as a time to rest and be refreshed;  it’s a time to accomplish as you can.  You’ve got to visit as many places as possible, do as many things as possible–don’t waste a minute!–and when you get home, you feel like you need a break just to recover from your vacation.

You can become obsessed with money and success, and you can work night and day to reach your goals, but it will be useless if you’re too busy to relax, too busy to laugh, too busy to spend time with family and friends, too busy to enjoy time with God in worship and prayer.  In Ecclesiastes 2 the Bible says,  “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief;  even at night his mind does not rest.”  In other words, the grand prizes in the rat race are ulcers and insomnia.  As the old country-and-western song put it, “Work your fingers to the bone–what do you get?  Boney fingers.”

If you want to be happy, learn to relax a little.  Learn to trust God.  Learn to recognize when enough is enough, to start enjoying what God has already given you.  Before you try to keep up with the Jones, better ask whether the Joneses are really happy.  Before you join the rat race, better ask yourself whether it’s all that much fun being a rat.  Leave the rat race to the rats!

Here’s a second principle to help keep the joy flowing in your life:  Let off steam;  don’t blow your stack.  Or, to put it another way, watch your temper.  Proverbs 14:29 says, “A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly” (Proverbs 14:29).  When something goes wrong for you, it’s tempting to lose your temper and blow your stack, but sometimes it’s better just to look for the humor in the situation and have a good laugh to let off some steam.

A young mother had a softball game to play one evening.  She had just finished baking a batch of cookies before she had to leave, so she left them out on the table to cool.  She grabbed her bat and glove, and left husband in charge of their 15-month-old son.  When she got home, she discovered that somebody had been in the cookies.  And he hadn’t just eaten a few.  Instead, the little rascal had taken exactly one bite out of every cookie on the table.  And where was her husband, who was supposed to be in charge?  Fast asleep in his reclining rocker.  When this mom surveyed the situation and looked at the bat in her hand, she probably couldn’t decide whether to clobber the overstuffed kid or the snoring husband.

Now, when you’re in a situation like that, you’ve got a choice:  You can either blow your stack and start yelling and screaming, or you can just throw up your hands and laugh at how hopelessly hilarious it all is.  Isn’t it true that many of the situations that make us the angriest are also the funniest–if only we had the perspective to see it?  Sometimes a healthy laugh is the best way to cool a hot temper.

So don’t be too quick to lose your temper.  Most of the time it just isn’t very smart. When you’re angry, you say and do things that you regret later, and that may cause more harm than the actual thing that made you mad.  More often than not, losing your temper is just plain stupid.  The Bible says, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9), and it also says, “A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil, but a fool is hotheaded and reckless” (Proverbs 14:16).

Okay, okay–I know there really are serious matters that we simply can’t laugh off.  There are wrongs that really deserve righteous indignation, and there are tragedies that really do shatter our lives.  Not everything in life is a laughing matter. On the other hand, much of life is a laughing matter, if only we’re willing to see the humor.  There is such a thing as real tragedy, but many of our predicaments are more like a comedy.  If we could dismiss most of our minor irritations and frustrations with a healthy laugh, we’d be able to save our energy for situations that truly are serious.

So don’t blow your stack at every little problem like it’s a tragedy;  instead, see it as a comedy and enjoy a good laugh.  If you run into a situation where you’re absolutely furious and you can’t find anything whatsoever to laugh at, then go look in a mirror.  The red face, the swollen veins, and the bulging eyes you see in that mirror ought to be good for a laugh.

A third principle, and a very important one, for keeping the joy of the Lord flowing in your life:  Listen to the Judge, not to your judges.  If you want to be gloomy, there’s no better way than to focus on what other people think of you, to worry constantly about criticism, to be obsessed with meeting everybody else’s expectations.  Don’t let a bunch of self-appointed critics destroy your freedom and spoil your joy.  Don’t listen to your judges;  listen to the judge.

In 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, the apostle Paul writes:  “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court;  indeed, I do not even judge myself.  My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.  It is the Lord who judges me.”  Paul wouldn’t allow his joy and freedom to be poisoned by the criticisms of his judges, or by his own misgivings.  He cared only what God thought.

This doesn’t mean we should so stubborn we never listen to constructive criticism, or so insensitive that we don’t care about the feelings of others.  It does mean that once you’re focused on pleasing God, you’re not obsessed with winning the approval of others or proving something to yourself.  You don’t have to prove anything.  You know that God is your judge, and if you’re a Christian, you know that he already loves you and accepts you.  You’ll seek to please him, to live according to the teaching of the Bible, to enjoy being his child.

So before you get gloomy about criticism and start feeling like an underachiever, better first check whether you’re surrounded by over-expecters.  They don’t think you measure up?  So what?  That’s their problem, not yours.  You’re living to please God, not your critics.  You take God seriously, and so you can take other people less seriously, and you can take yourself a little less seriously.  You can dismiss unfair criticism with a healthy laugh.  So if you want the joy to keep flowing, listen to the Judge, not to your judges.

Experiencing the joy of the Lord begins with a spiritual relationship to Jesus Christ.  But it doesn’t end there.  We shouldn’t ignore the practical teaching of the Bible if we want the joy to flow freely without being blocked by some of the junk of everyday living.  We shouldn’t ignore the tendencies in our own personalities that block us from the joy and delight of being God’s children.   So if you’re a workaholic worry wart: leave the rat race to the rats.  If you’re a hothead: let off some steam, don’t blow your stack.  And if you’re obsessed with being a people pleaser: listen to the Judge, not to your judges.

A cheerful heart is good medicine, says the Bible, and this obviously means that it’s good for you to laugh and enjoy yourself.  Don’t misunderstand me, though,  A sense of humor is no substitute for the joy of the Lord.  Only Christ can provide the deep joy and profound meaning that flows from being in touch with the eternal God, and without him, you’re going to be lacking genuine joy, no matter how many laughs you have.  You need a relationship with Jesus.  The laughter of a comedian is not the joy of a Christian.  However, this holy joy certainly doesn’t exclude a healthy laugh.  A holy joy and a healthy laugh belong together.  So rejoice in the Lord, and don’t forget to laugh once in a while.  A cheerful heart is indeed good medicine; it’s a gift from the Great Physician.


Lord God, thank you for the inexpressible and glorious joy of salvation.  I pray, Lord, that by your Holy Spirit, you will awaken many who don’t yet know you to the wonder and delight of being your children.  Don’t let them go another day without you.

I pray, too, Father, for those of us who are already Christians.  Forgive us when we’re ungrateful and sour.  Help us to again radiate your joy.  Teach us to count our blessings, to enjoy your love, to have the poise and humor to deal with everyday problems, and to rejoice in the Lord always.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.