If you are a millennial or a member of Generation Z, you are likely fluent in sarcasm. Sarcasm, often in the form of memes and one-liners on social media, has become the lingua franca of twenty and thirty-somethings for expressing frustration or disillusionment. As we scroll through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, we snicker when we see a meme that packages our disappointment in a witty barb. Many Christian influencers are especially adept at melding Scripture and cynicism, with lines like “Paul was right when He said God would give me more than I asked or imagined, cause I certainly didn’t ask for $50,000 in debt or imagine I’d be sleeping beside 3 cats in my thirties.”
Sarcasm may seem like an innocent way to express frustration or disappointment. Yet as I scroll through Instagram, as I repost another meme that reinforces my cynicism, the humor that I consume sits heavy in my stomach. What was meant to be the balm of collective laughter now leaves me feeling more isolated and wounded than ever.
The literal meaning of sarcasm is “to cut flesh.” Embedded in the word for our go-to brand of humor is something that denotes physical harm. Perhaps this is why my heart feels like it’s bleeding when I couch my suffering in a scoffing quip; perhaps this is why my skin grows cold as my friends and I poke fun at our deep disappointments.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man calls sarcasm “the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their souls is coarsely and intrusively invaded.” The use of the word “refuge” is an apt description of how sarcasm manifests in our lives. The original Russian gives even more insight into its function. The Russian word, ulovka, means “trick,” evoking the image of a cornered animal employing a defense mechanism: a skunk spraying, a porcupine bristling its quills. We, too, run to sarcasm as a refuge from our heartache as a last-ditch attempt to protect ourselves from further disappointment.
But as a follower of Christ, what does this do to our souls? How does this affect our relationship with God? The book of Malachi paints a striking picture of how responding to God with sarcasm rather than vulnerability builds a barrier between us and Him. The Jews to whom the prophet Malachi spoke had a lot in common with today’s twenty and thirty-somethings. They had received beautiful prophecies about a coming Messiah, but none of them had come to pass. Although they had been freed from exile and been able to rebuild the temple, they doubted God’s goodness because their lives were playing out differently than they had imagined.
God’s first message through Malachi is, “I have loved you.”
But instead of basking in that love, Malachi voices the people’s collective consciousness, a sarcastic barb: “How have you loved us?”
Disillusioned and disappointed, the Israelites accused God of not fulfilling his promises. Similarly, many of us have mistaken a cultural paradigm as a Scriptural one. We believed our lives would follow the script of the American dream—go to college, get a stable job, marry our “soulmate” before 25, all while getting to pursue our passion and reach the self-actualization pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy. But for many of us, our lives have not followed this script. Instead of a career, we may be working odd jobs to make ends meet. We may not have met our “soulmate,” and instead have a string of heartbreaks and missed connections. We may be so saddled with responsibility that we have no time or energy to pursue our passions. Life has not turned out as we expected, and as Christians steeped in a culture of cynicism, our first response is to speak to God sarcastically rather than to pour our hearts out to Him.
In Malachi, God was reaching out in love, but His people rejected Him for fear of being disappointed. Rather than rejoicing in God’s faithfulness, they counted His gifts as more important than His love for them. God never removed his covenant love from the people; it was the people who pushed him away. In the same way, when we feel distant from God in our disappointment, could it be that we are rejecting the very love that will sustain and strengthen us? When the primary language we talk and pray in is sarcasm, we may find temporary refuge, but might we miss out on the joys of intimacy with a God who longs be with us?
So what do we do in a culture that is steeped in sarcasm? What do we do when disappointments continue to layer? Praying the Psalms is a great place to start. In the Psalms, a pattern emerges of pouring out one’s heart before God, even to the point of despair, but keeping His promises in view. In Psalm 42:3, the Psalmist cries, “my tears have been my food day and night,” yet he ends the song with the words, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” This Psalmist is unafraid of voicing the intensity of his anguish with the Lord because He trusts in God’s character and knows He is worthy of his hope and praise.
I’m convinced that two antidotes to the destructive poison of sarcasm are vulnerability and praise. In my own life, as I’ve unfollowed cynical social media accounts or bit my tongue when I’m itching to fill the air with caustic wit, my soul has begun to find rest. My world has broadened, and my steps have become lighter. And truly, my eyes are finally opening to the truth that all my disappointments pale in comparison with the wonder and glory of knowing Him.