Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.
Q: Is schadenfreude a sin?
Schadenfreude is a (very useful!) German word – a combination of schaden, meaning “harm,” and freude, meaning “joy” – that refers to the pleasure derived from the misfortune of another.
Schadenfreude is certainly the basis of much humor and comedy from ancient times (the Greek equivalent word was epikhairekakía) until now. In its more extreme expression, it can be a motivation to revenge, or a mark of cruelty and psychosis. In balance, we could suppose that the misfortune of one who has harmed us directly is perhaps in some way deserved, and we might feel satisfaction in seeing some measure of justice done, whereas taking pleasure in the suffering of someone who is remote from us, or is objectively innocent of wrongdoing, should be a cause for guilt or shame.
It’s clear that Jesus took human emotion very seriously, and that he did not consider sin to be a matter only of wrong action but of evil motivation. Given his ethic, that we are to love our enemies and do good even to those who persecute us, it’s likely that he would have considered taking joy in the suffering of another to be a sin. In Matthew 5:22, for example, he says: “[If] you are angry with a brother, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Schadenfreude can be either a form of self-righteousness or an expression of relief. I doubt that there is an adult human being on the planet who has never experienced the emotion (God knows I have!), and few who have never felt guilty about it. Guilt and denial are often more harmful than the underlying emotion. It’s better to be honest with ourselves.
Any time we find ourselves experiencing the deliciousness of someone else’s just deserts is a good time to consider the ways in which we ourselves wrong and harm others. Working to overcome our own ego and anxiety with as much compassion as we can muster will lead us toward spiritual depth and growth.
The Rev. Reid Hamilton
St Vincent’s Church