I mentioned in an article not long ago that I consider humor to be essential to survival, but that it should always be employed in a tasteful fashion and at the appropriate time. Sarcasm however, is one aspect of humor that can be less than tasteful and is often inappropriate. Sarcasm could be defined as sharp, sneering or cutting remarks, intended to wound, or to make someone a victim or target of contempt and ridicule.
The problem with sarcasm is that it is seldom necessary, often hurtful, and usually unprofitable. It tends to be deliberately cutting and personal in nature, making it the cheapest and most harmful form of humor. It is not uncommon for those who habitually use biting sarcasm, to notice some of their acquaintances withdrawing from them.
Kondraty Ryleyev discovered first hand the high cost of sarcasm. He was sentenced to be hanged for his part in an unsuccessful uprising against the Russian czar Nicholas I in 1825. However, the rope around his neck broke and Ryleyev fell to the ground. Getting up bruised and battered he exclaimed, “In Russia they do not know how to do anything properly! Not even how to make a rope!” Incidents of this nature usually resulted in a pardon, so a messenger was sent to the czar to see what he would decide. Nicholas asked, “What did he say?” “Sire, he said that in Russia they do not even know how to make a rope properly.” “Well, let the contrary be proved!” commanded Nicholas.
It is not that sarcasm is always wrong. Some verbal banter and teasing for example is harmless and enjoyable among friends. Sarcasm can even serve a practical purpose in the production of effective communication.
A pastor friend of mine once had several families exit the church where he ministered. An individual said sarcastically, “I hear everyone is leaving your church!” My friend replied, “Yes. Just my wife and I are left.” I felt that he’d appropriately used sarcasm to deflect the injurious statement, rather than becoming either defensive or offensive with the other man.
Jesus certainly employed sarcasm (and every other legitimate literary device). One example is where He said in exaggerated sarcasm, “You blind guides, which strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24). But His use of sarcasm was always to get His point across; not to insult or injure His listeners.
Let me close with two verses presenting creative and positive alternatives to sarcasm. “Let your conversation be gracious as well as sensible…” (Colossians 4:6) and “Say only what is good and helpful to those you are talking to and what will give them a blessing” (Ephesians 4:29).
— Pastor Ross Helgeton is senior pastor at Erskine Evangelical Free Church