The Dark Joy of Schadenfreude

by Wayne Greeson

The cartoon shows a man standing before a rack of greeting cards. A sign over the rack reads “Schadenfreude Greeting Cards”. The cards in the rack include “greetings” such as: “Glad you were fired”, “Glad your home was repossessed” and “Glad you got divorced.”

Schadenfreude (shaa-duhn-froy-duh) is a German word brought into common usage in English, which literally means “harm-joy”. It describes the pleasure or joy derived from the misfortune of others. It can also be defined as a malicious joy in the misfortunes of others. It is damage joy. It is synonymous with gloating or sadism. Those with schadenfreude lose empathy for others, they are either less able or less motivated to put themselves in the shoes of others.

Envy is a strong emotional pain from lacking something that someone else has. Jealousy is an emotional reaction to the threat of losing something to another. In the Bible, these two terms are closely related and often used interchangeably to describe a heated or agitated condition.

One writer described the pain of envy as “the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air.” Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., Old Money.

Envy is not the same as schadenfreude, but it is often the motivation for it. Psychologists say schadenfreude is a lessening of painful feelings of envy when someone perceived as enviable gets knocked down a peg. But the “joy” of schadenfreude comes at an awful price.

Schadenfreude is a dark emotion in the human heart. It is often related to the dark traits of sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “To savor schadenfreude is devilish.” Schadenfreude dehumanizes others by perceiving another as lacking that which it means to be human.

Sadly, the dark sadism of schadenfreude is prominently on display on social media. Crowing and gloating over the troubles of political opponents and real or perceived adversaries is heard frequently from celebrities, politicians and many others. Not even the death of an opponent stops many from ugly words of schadenfreude celebration.

“What a fearful thing is it that language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing.” [Richard C. Trench, “On The Study of Words” p. 29, 1852].

The Scriptures warn against engaging in the joy of schadenfreude. The essence of schadenfreude is enjoying when someone else fails, but Solomon tells us: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him” (Proverbs 24:17–18).

The Lord is displeased with schadenfreude. We are to leave the punishment of even our wicked enemies to the Lord. Paul tells us, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). The Lord is more than displeased with such sadistic joy. “He who mocks the poor reproaches his Maker; He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 17:5).

The Lord condemned the people of Edom for their schadenfreude over the sacking of Jerusalem and the resulting tragedy to the Jews. “In the day that you stood on the other side — In the day that strangers carried captive his forces, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem — even you were as one of them. But you should not have gazed on the day of your brother In the day of his captivity; nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah In the day of their destruction; nor should you have spoken proudly In the day of distress” (Obadiah 11-12).

What pulls people away from schadenfreude is the ability to feel empathy for others and to perceive them as fully human and to show empathy for them. And, this exactly the remedy Jesus gives to pull us back from schadenfreude.

Jesus told us to love our enemies, and if we do this, then, tragically we are proscribed from the satisfying practice of schadenfreude. “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45).

As we would not want others to take joy over our misfortune, so we should not take joy in the misfortune of others. Jesus said we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). Love towards others means we have sympathy not schadenfreude for others. We are to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:14-15).

Don’t allow schadenfreude to darken your life and damage your soul. Replace schadenfreude with the sympathy of love.

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