“Serves You Right!”

Our language has been enriched by many words borrowed from German. How poorer our speech would be without Poltergeist, or Uber, or Angst, or Zeitgeist. (Volkswagen tried to bring Fahrvergnugen—“driving enjoyment”—into our speech in a series of commercials, but it didn’t really stick.)

Of all the German loan-words, I think my favorite is Schadenfreude. This fuses two words that seem opposite—Schade (woe) and Freude (joy). What are such different ideas doing in the same word? Because Schadenfreude means being happy over other people’s problems—rejoicing at their woes.

What a terrible idea! The natural reaction to another person’s troubles is empathy, concern, even prayer! What kind of monster would celebrate someone else’s sorrows?

Well…we sinful human monsters would.

Let me give you some examples of Schadenfreude.

--Johnny is passed over for a promotion; the job he wanted is given to Simone. Simone cannot handle the new responsibility; she crashes and burns in the new job, and gets fired. Johnny relishes a few moments of Schadenfreude.

--The smart kid who lives next door to Bubba had been bragging for years about someday going to Yale. He doesn’t make the cut. Bubba privately snickers as he treasures a little Schadenfreude.

--The neighbor across street buys a brand new car. Minnie is jealous of the neighbor’s affluence. The neighbor then wrecks the brand new car. Minnie grins in her heart as she is filled with Schadenfreude.

As our politics have gotten uglier and uglier over the years, and as social media have become more of a “thing,” a very unpleasant kind of Schadenfreude has emerged: gloating over misfortunes that befall political foes. The first instance of this I noticed was when the political operative Lee Atwater became terminally ill. Suddenly, social media was filled with notes about how Atwater deserved it; it was good that he was going to die; the world would be a better place without him, etc. Ever since then, the illness or passing of political figures has usually occasioned a torrent of abusive Schadenfreude on social media. (To be honest, I didn’t notice much of this phenomenon at the recent deaths of Charles Krauthammer or John McCain—perhaps their heroic struggles against personal misfortune exempted them from such abuse).

Lutherans face a big Schadenfreude temptation even as we speak. The Roman Catholic Church is being consumed by a horrific sexual abuse scandal. Charges of covering up and shielding offenders have reached the Pope himself. I am not a Pope Francis fan (he lost me the day that he seemed to sympathize with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: “If you say something bad about my mother, you will get a punch”, implying “If you make fun of somebody’s religion, you can’t expect them not to kill you!”). However, should I gloat and snicker over the Roman Catholic Church’s current woes? This church is the spiritual home of more than a billion Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ! Their welfare is important to God, and thus important to us. So instead of delighting in the troubles of the Roman Catholic Church, we want to pray that the situation is handled appropriately and effectively dealt with. (Actually, one of our members with a law enforcement background once served on a commission convened by the Long Island diocese to deal with clergy sexual abuse—so St. Paul’s actually has made a positive contribution to the situation!)

Is Schadenfreude sinful? I would say that it falls under the Ninth and Tenth Commandments—the commandments against coveting. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his man-servant or maid-servant, or his animals, or anything else that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). Normally we define “coveting” as being jealous or resentful of our neighbor’s successes. But Schadenfreude is a kind of reverse-coveting: instead of being sorrowful over our neighbor’s joys, we are joyful over our neighbor’s sorrows. It still seems to fit under the same idea: The commandment tells us to wish our neighbor well and appreciate, not resent, the blessings God has given him or her.

The ultimate antidote to Schadenfreude is, as I implied earlier, prayer. Whenever the temptation to gloat at someone else’s woes comes upon me, I want to immediately enter into prayer. I want to ask God to bring them through this burdensome time in their lives, to give them the strength they need to cope, and to draw them forward into better times, times of healing and renewal.

Perhaps the greatest moment of Schadenfreude in history happened on Good Friday. Jesus had been betrayed and crucified; He was hanging on the cross in terrible physical and spiritual pain, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And who was gloating at Christ’s horrific sorrows? Satan and the powers of evil. A classic hymn from C. F. W. Walther, the father of our church body, captures this demonic Schadenfreude:

The foe was triumphant when on Calvary the Lord of creation

was nailed to the tree

In Satan’s domain his hosts shouted and jeered, for Jesus was slain,

whom the evil ones feared.

But of course the Schadenfreude in hell was short-lived—because Satan and his minions soon learned that Christ’s death was their defeat. On the cross, Jesus paid the price for every human sin…including our sins of coveting and reverse-coveting, also known as Schadenfreude!

So let’s be aware of this sin. When tempted to gloat and snicker, I want to pray instead!

            God loves you and so do I!