I love words that express precisely what I mean, no matter the language from which they originate. This one’s even rather fun to pronounce (it almost makes me want to learn the rest of the German language). Most of you may not know exactly what it means but probably have some idea. But I can say with certainty that nearly everyone has been on the receiving end of it. The word means “to take joy at another’s misfortune”.
I’ve experienced this a few times in my life. Thankfully, it wasn’t done in a malicious manner or without sympathy for my situation (so maybe it wasn’t truly schadenfreude). One of the more memorable times was during my first treatment for prostate cancer when I began to experience ‘hot flashes’ as a result of the treatments. At the time, I was working for a Home Health agency as a nurse, and was the only male. Needless to say, I heard, “now you know how it feels” frequently (one particular wiseacre even told me that “if you ever get the urge to shop for shoes, call me”). It was all offered in fun, and was taken in the same spirit. But often, even when offered in a teasing manner, schadenfreude can cut deeply and hurt badly.
What brings this to mind is our current state of weather disaster in the United States right now. Most of the country, particularly the South, and most specifically Texas, is caught in a very dangerous situation. They have no power, no heat, and limited resources to deal with the situation. We in the North are prone to fall into an attitude of schadenfreude, even subconsciously at times. After all, we deal with this every year, and we don’t make a big deal of it. They should have known it was coming and done something to be ready for it.
I’ve lived in both North and South. I grew up in Michigan, but lived in Arkansas for almost 30 years on and off (with a short stay in Florida, but that’s a whole other story). I can tell you that even a few inches of snow (or worse yet, ice, which happens more frequently) is a VERY big deal. Their houses are built for the prevailing climate, which is usually very HOT and HUMID. To tell them they should build for blizzard conditions would be akin to telling northerners they need to build for hurricanes. It’s nuts, not to mention unnecessary and a total waste of resources. I’ve experienced power outages during an ice storm while living in Arkansas, and it’s much more than unpleasant; it’s life threatening without the benefit of a heat and cooking source.
But we are all prone to take joy at other’s misfortune. It makes us feel a little better about our own miserable life. It’s a product of our sin nature. It becomes much easier to compare ourselves with others rather than against the true standard which God has established. It’s not sympathetic in nature, a realization that as bad as your situation might be there are others in much worse straits. Rather, this is an experience of glee that stems from an attitude that they deserved what they got. It’s a perverted and very twisted sense of justice.
If we consider ourselves Christians and yet maintain such an attitude, we need to engage in some serious soul-searching and repentance, asking God’s forgiveness and begging him to create in us a new heart and new mind. We must never rejoice over other’s misfortunes, and we must always leave “justice” to God. Our harsh attitude has an unpleasant way of backfiring upon us. But if our minds and hearts are set on Christ, compassion will be our identifying characteristic. Jesus told his disciples, “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) Paul tells us, “Love is patient, love is kind, Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked,” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). There is a danger even in engaging in teasing about misfortune, because there is always a kernel of truth behind the jest.
Brothers and sisters, we need to jealously guard our minds, hearts, and lips against any thoughts, actions, or words which betray our confession of discipleship to Christ. We need to be known as the most loving and caring people in the world. And rejoicing at the misfortunes of others, even those we consider “evil”, shows us to be hypocrites. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, and care for those in need. If our “enemy” falls, we should mourn at that as well; it is a horrible thing to be lost and separated from God. Let us not consider it lightly.