The word Schadenfreude first caught my attention during the mid-1980s, well before it was popularized by Lisa Simpson. The term designates the satisfaction or joy that comes from considering the troubles of other people—especially the misfortunes of one’s opponents. Schadenfreude may be one of the most universal human vices. Expressions of Shadenfreude can even be heard among those who have dedicated themselves to Christian work. These expressions are not limited to rejoicing over the misfortunes of the Lord’s enemies. Very often, Christians seem to take a kind of perverse delight in the downfall of other Christians.
Not that we would be so crass as to express happiness that a Christian brother has fallen into sin—no, we are careful to cluck out our disapprobation. But our disapproval rings a bit hollow when the time we spend expressing it far outstrips any time that we ever spent on expressions of encouragement or approval. Is it possible that this imbalance might indicate what we treasure in our hearts?
We can attempt to justify our Schadenfreude as a matter of biblical discernment and as the outcome of a necessary ministry of exposure. To be sure, the Scriptures require both discernment and exposure. We are supposed to mark and avoid certain categories of people (Rom. 16:17). True as that is, however, we are also commanded to mark those who display apostolic character (Phil. 3:17). A genuine ministry of discernment will notice both kinds of people. It will express joy in those whose lives exemplify biblical obedience, just as it expresses true sorrow over those who position themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18-19). A choice to focus primarily upon disobedience and to communicate primarily censure is almost certainly an unbiblical Schadenfreude.
What of those who are not enemies of the cross of Christ? What of those who, for reason with which we may not agree, have simply chosen to implement their Christian principles differently than we have? For example, what about a Christian institution that alters its direction in ways that we believe to be unfaithful to its declared principles?
Some seem to believe that the only appropriate response is to hope for the death of the institution. This fierce hope—this Schadenhoffnung—gives rise to a pursuit of bad news and results in expressions of Schadenfreude at every institutional setback. In the long run, it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, producing the collapse of the institution in whose demise it rejoices. At least some “discernment ministries” (that expression is often ironic) understand the power of public Schadenfreude and employ it as a weapon. They actually aim to destroy Christian leaders and organizations by rejoicing in their misfortunes.
To delight in the downfall of people and institutions that oppose the true and living God is one thing. The collapse of pseudo-Christian cults, liberal denominations, or grace-stifling systems of self merit can properly be met, not with Schadenfreude, but with Rechtfreude—an ordinate rejoicing that right is being served and justice is being done. To delight in the downfall of persons or institutions that are committed to the proclamation of the gospel and that are attempting to walk in obedience to the Lord is, however, a different matter. We might long for their more perfect obedience. We might give reasons for disagreeing with the points at which we believe them to be wrong. We may even withhold our support where the differences are important enough. But to rejoice in their collapse? One searches in vain for a New Testament example of this response.
I am engaging in these musings because I have had to wrestle with this question over the past couple of years. Over that time I have seen certain leaders and institutions abandon what I believed were important commitments. They did not leave the faith. They were not unfaithful to the gospel. But they rejected certain aspects of the system of faith and obedience—aspects to which they had once pledged allegiance.
In one case, a key leader gave private reassurances that his institution was not deviating at all. Those promises, bound as they were to personal trust, kept my support for some time. When the promises turned out to be hollow, my disapproval of the institution’s direction was compounded by disenchantment with the ethics of its leadership. I believed that a dishonest leader had used my credulous support to further goals to which he knew that I would object. I not only disagreed with the direction that the institution took, but also felt betrayed by his duplicity. For a moment, I found myself delighting in the prospect that this institution would not survive the abandonment of its former commitments. I found myself watching hopefully for signs of its collapse. That reaction was almost instinctive. It was also quite wrong.
I really do disagree rather frequently with other Christians, and I suspect that I am not alone. Sometimes those disagreements are larger, sometimes smaller. Whether large or small, they occur regularly. As I have considered this phenomenon, I have realized something. If I were able to cause the downfall of all those Christians with whom I have some sort of substantial disagreement, only a very small handful would be left standing. The decimation of pastors, missionaries, churches, schools, missions, publishing enterprises, and other ministries would be appalling. Who could believe that the Lord’s work in this time and place would be made better by that kind of destruction?
If it would be wrong for me to destroy those who disagree with me, then it must be wrong to hope for, pray for, or delight in their downfall. There has to be a way for me to limit my fellowship with them while still wishing for their wellbeing. There has to be a way for me to object to their direction while praying for the Lord’s blessing upon their work insofar as they are faithful to Him. There has to be room for me to debate our differences while expressing heartfelt affection and gratitude for the work that God can still do through them.
What I am suggesting is that, no matter how we try to justify it, Schadenfreude is not a Christian virtue. It is least virtuous when it is directed against those who serve the same Jesus, uphold the same gospel, and preach the same cross that the Scriptures reveal. Such individuals may be wrong about a good many things—in fact, I think that many of them are. But I do not think that Christianity will be strengthened by wishing them out of existence or by rejoicing in their downfall.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Lord, Thou Hast Won
John Newton (1725–1807)
Lord, Thou hast won, at length I yield;
My heart by mighty grace compelled
Surrenders all to Thee;
Against Thy terrors long I strove,
But who can stand against Thy love?
Love conquers even me.
If Thou hadst bid Thy thunders roll,
And light’nings flash, to blast my soul,
I still had stubborn been;
But mercy has my heart subdued,
A bleeding Savior I have viewed,
And now I hate my sin.
Now, Lord, I would be Thine alone,
Come, take possession of Thine own,
For Thou hast set me free;
Released from Satan’s hard command,
See all my powers waiting stand,
To be employed by Thee.