Guest Article by Michael Foster and Bnonn Tennant
Do you want to be taken seriously as a man? Most men do, but most men equally find it difficult to be the sort of man that others take seriously. A man with gravitas.
Men need gravitas like women need beauty. The term is Latin—a Roman virtue referring to something like seriousness. If we were to translate it, however, better words might be dignity or weight.
A good example of gravitas in Scripture is in Titus 2:2. Here, Paul tells Titus to instruct the older men to be “grave.” There should be “a becoming gravity,” as John Calvin comments, in the lives of aged men which compels “the young to modesty.” The spiritual weight of these men should be such that their “gravitational pull” draws younger men into a nearer orbit with God.
Because the visible reveals the invisible, gravity itself is a useful analogy. Gravity pulls things into their proper place. It brings and maintains order. If it were to cease, we would all start floating helplessly. Our solar system would be reduced to chaotic chunks of rock spinning wildly into the void. So it is with gravitas. It establishes order and regularity; without it, our cosmos falls into disorder and chaos.
There are typically two ditches to avoid falling into on each side of an issue. This is true of gravitas. On the one hand, the man who only jokes is never serious, so no one takes him seriously. But on the other side of the road, the man who never jokes is self-serious. He possesses faux-gravitas—which most people can sniff out. Therefore, no one takes him seriously either.
The problem with the joker is not humor, and the problem with the self-serious is not seriousness. The problem with both is the object of their humor and seriousness. We should find funny things funny, and we should take serious things seriously. Only in rightly discerning which is which, and in having the strength to obey reality—often against peer pressure—can gravitas be born and nurtured.
This is why Calvin says that gravitas is “procured by well-regulated morals.” To have the ability to discern between good and evil, between wisdom and foolishness, is to have the foundation of gravitas. The grave man is a man who has learned wisdom, and trained himself in rightly ordering both himself and his world. His very presence exerts force that orders those around him. He is a bulwark against chaos.
But the opposite is equally true. A society lacking in grave men is a society abundant in social disorder. Men without gravity are, consciously or not, agents of chaos. Calvin observes, “Nothing is more shameful than for an old man to indulge in youthful wantonness, and, by his countenance, to strengthen the impudence of the young.” If this statement brings the image of certain pastors and magistrates and celebrities unbidden into your mind, you are not alone. We are a culture awash in wantonness and impudence, and halfway through 2020, who can deny the destabilizing effect that a dearth of grave men has had?
How can you direct your path toward gravitas? The answer lies largely in knowing what kind of man to avoid being. As mentioned, there are two kinds.
Being a joker destroys gravitas
There is a helpful chapter on gravitas in C.R. Wiley’s Man of the House. In one passage, he traces out the direct relationship between gravitas and humor:
Antonyms can help you define something as well as synonyms—maybe better. Levity is the opposite of gravitas. Levity is humor; it lightens things up: it seems to make things levitate. When someone says, “lighten up” he’s encouraging this. Sometimes things do get too heavy and you really do need to lighten up… But sometimes things get too light. Our time is characterized by a retreat into irony. Everyone wants to remain aloof, to float away from the entangling commitments. We don’t want things to stir our emotions too much, or tie us down with unsought obligations.
Humor lessens gravity. This is not necessarily a bad thing; too much gravity is paralyzing. On Jupiter, a 200 lbs man would weigh nearly 500 lbs—unable to function. It is good to be able to “lighten up.”
The problem, as mentioned, is being light with what is truly weighty. This is not humor, but flippancy. Wiley is on point to note that we live an aloof and untethered age, but there is nothing new under the sun. C.S. Lewis’ saw the problem in his generation also. He divided the causes of human laughter into “Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy,” and he identified this last one as the most devilish. Screwtape explains:
(Humor) is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is ‘mean’; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer ‘mean’ but a comical fellow… Cruelty is shameful—unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a joke. (The Screwtape Letters)
Do you see the connection? Calvin said that a lack of gravity would encourage immodesty and youthful wantonness—what 1828 Webster’s describes as “sportiveness and negligence of restraint.” It is the same thing that Screwtape wants to see cultivated in Wormwood’s “patient.” He wants unrestrained sin to be excused as “just playing.” Everything becomes part of a game. There is no shame. Nothing is serious. There is nothing, as Wiley says, to “tie us down with unsought obligations.”
Since Lewis’ time, we have become a culture awash in immodesty and youthful wantonness—we are a cult of youth. “OK boomer,” we tell our elders. We are also a culture awash in frivolous entertainment—and especially comedy.
Comedy has a special place in the heart our polis. It has a special appeal to our guilty souls. We have developed flippancy from an excuse for sin into a kind of full-blown atonement ritual. The comedian is our modern priest. He stands on a high place before us, and in our stead he publicly confesses our terrible deeds, our guilty habits, our wicked thoughts—and then he removes the shame by turning it all into a joke. His vocation is to give us a moment to look honestly at the darkest parts of ourselves—and then to help us bust out in laughter about it. We pay him double honor for this service, since it means removing our sins from us without the obligation of repentance. We are happy to pay him to keep us floating along in life.
Funny enough, comedians tend to be depressed. There was only ever one man who could truly take on the sins of the world—and even He had to die to do it. Looking into the abyss of a darkened heart takes it toll. “My dad’s humor came from life, and I don’t think Dad had a choice,” Richard Pryor’s daughter, Rain, said in I Am Richard Pryor. “You either laugh your way through it, or you die through it.”
Everything is a joke to a joker—not because he finds everything funny, but because he finds everything overwhelming. The weight of fallen reality is unbearable. The pressure is so much that some comedians end their own lives in search of relief. By taking nothing seriously, a joker signals both that he lacks wisdom, and that he lacks strength. And so no one takes him seriously as a man. Neither should they.
Being self-serious destroys gravitas
The second kind of man who never attains gravitas is the one who cannot laugh at all. Two sides of a coin have more in common than the twelfth of an inch that separates them, and the self-serious man is not much different than the joker. Both are trying to deal with reality in their own power, and both lack the strength to do so. The joker, in his fear, makes everything light so he does not feel the weight; the self-serious man, in his pride, makes everything heavy so that he does.
In doing so, he appears to have a solemn manner—but it is really the grimace of bearing a crushing burden. He is an overloaded bridge creaking under the weight of too many cars; one ounce away from falling to pieces.
The self-serious man is fragile because, like the joker, he lacks discernment. He is unable to distinguish truly weighty matters from those deserving of humor—and the most fundamental point of his error is in his estimation of his own weight. He cannot separate making light of something from being perceived as a lightweight, and so he fears to laugh at all. By taking himself more seriously than is warranted, he signals that he is unreliable and untrustworthy—and thus ironically ensures that others cannot take him seriously. If you have ever met someone who is afraid to laugh or mock for fear of what others will think—”damaging the witness” in Christian parlance—you have a met a self-serious man who is trying to fake gravitas.
Such a man, like the joker, lacks the strength to face reality as it is. There is no coincidence in the fact that gravitas, in the Roman world, was part of *piety—*it was not merely a virtue, but a religious duty. The Romans certainly worshiped false gods, but they did understand that without deity, without worship, without faith, piety and virtue are impossible. A man who tries to take the place of God will be the most insecure, the most brittle, and ultimately the most absurd man imaginable. There is no gravitas without religion.
Gravitas through the gospel
Threading the needle of gravitas to avoid flippancy and self-seriousness is difficult. But it can be accomplished through the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is grace that begets gravitas. Jesus says:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
Jesus removes the crushing burden of sin that darkens the mind and drives us to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. It is because of His grace that we can face reality and take responsibility for our sin—without trying to make it light, or bear its weight. Like David before us, the Spirit convicts us to say, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight.” But guilt is only a pilot light. It sets repentance aflame and out of it we sing:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation And sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners will be converted to You. (Psalm 51)
Salvation is joyful. The great work of Christ on the cross causes our mouth to be filled with laughter (Psalm 126:2). This is not flippancy—it is a gift of the Spirit. It is truly humorous how God “has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Cor 1:27).
It is funny. So laugh. Cultivate discernment by responding as God would have you respond to what he is doing. Sometimes what he is doing is deadly serious. We should mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:5), and we should hate wickedness and all evildoers (Ps 26:5). But we should also rejoice with those who rejoice, and make a joyful noise to the Lord (Ps 98:4-6). David danced with abandon before the ark of God, and then with great gravitas right afterward rebuked his scornful wife for her contempt. He was not concerned as she was for his place before “lesser men,” but rather for his place before his greater God (1 Sam 6).
It is our joyous salvation which is “instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” ( Titus 2:12). It is by grace, in other words, that we procure Calvin’s well-regulated morals and have our orbits corrected, as God becomes the center of our universe. It is by grace that we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). It is by grace that God adds his own glory, his own weight, to our lives.
So do you want to be taken seriously? Then get gravitas. Order your life around God, and learn to reflect his glory. Do not make light of sin; take it very seriously. But do not carry its weight either; it is nailed to the cross. Laugh with God, not at Him.