Deliver us from Schadenfreude
By Steve Cornell
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the depth of human depravity. I am not referring to murder and other widely recognized evils. What I am thinking about is a deeper evil that appears in every culture and class of people. In fact, often it is more prevalent among the refined and so-called enlightened people. Even more disturbingly is how much it can be found in ostensibly religious people. My concern is captured well by the German term Schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude: (shäd’n-froi’də) a compound German word (lit. “damage-joy) that refers to malicious joy in the misfortunes of others. From “schaden”– damage, harm, injury + “freude”– joy.
Shadenfreude is marketable. What kind of news sells most? Bad news, right? And when bad things happen to people (or when they suffer the consequences of the bad things they do), there are plenty of others willing to gloat over them. When your life is public and you enjoy some measure of success or accolade, sadly there will always be people who want to see bad things happen to you. Sometimes they even slander you or spread rumors and lies to feed this desire to enjoy your downfall. Shadenfreude is everywhere and every heart must resist it.
Why are we tempted to find satisfaction in the misfortune of others? Does it make us feel better about ourselves? Does it redirect the light from our own sins?
This is one of the deepest evidences of how evil our hearts can be and it is more universal than most admit. It is found in the delight one takes in hearing bad news about another person. The pleasure one finds in hearing about the downfall of another is often subtle and sometimes covered with a hypocritical veneer of concern. If outright gloating over another is bad; it is far worse to appear publically sympathetic while privately gloating.
Some speak about the failures of others with sneering smugness; others act publically concerned while privately feeding a sense of moral superiority or even delight. Both responses come from deeply depraved hearts-no matter how much they feign religious or spiritual concern. Have you ever shared a misfortune with another person and felt like he took a little humor or pleasure from your circumstances?
This is what the Germans call schadenfreude (i. e. enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others). A close cousin to this is envy. People who find pleasure in the misfortune of others also tend to be inwardly displeased at the good fortune of others. Here we find two evils that feed off each other: Envy and Schadenfreude.
One writer suggested that these behaviors reflect, “human antagonism in one of its basest and most unheroic forms.” “Wherever we find envy,” he wrote, “we find the wreckage of human and Christian community. Envious people backbite. They deliver congratulations with a smile that, in another light, might be taken for a sneer” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be).
“The envier gossips. He saves up bad news about others and passes it around like an appetizer at happy hour. The envier grumbles. He murmurs. He complains that all the wrong people are getting ahead. Spite, bitterness, discord which undoes all friendships, accusation, malignity-all these things flow from envy and together turn friendship and good fellowship into a rancorous shambles” (Ibid., Plantinga).
Whatever the motive for gloating, we are told to resist it. “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17). Remember that, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Alternatively, true love, “…does not delight in evil” (I Corinthians 13:5-6).
Perhaps the person easiest to gloat over is an enemy. When those who hurt us suffer, it’s tempting to enjoy their pain. But Jesus taught his followers to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Is this easy to practice? No. But remember that God loved us when we were his enemies. “…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. When we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:8,10). Ask God to fill your heart with His love so that it will not be poisoned with schadenfreude and envy.
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA. 17551
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