Few things in life are as ubiquitous as schadenfreude. It surrounds us wherever we go. We cannot turn on the television, browse the Internet, read the newspapers, or converse with family or friends without seeing first-hand examples of schadenfreude. It is as old as mankind, yet most people today have probably never heard the term and have no idea what it is.
So what exactly is “schadenfreude” (pronounced, “shad-en-froyd-uh”).
Schadenfreude is a word first used in the late nineteenth century which comes from the German schaden meaning “damage” and freude meaning “joy.” Combine these two and you have a word that refers to the feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.
Put in those terms, we all have experienced schadenfreude, and each one of us are guilty of it ourselves.
For instance, do we not revel in the misfortune when opposing politicians make public gaffes or embarrass themselves?
Do we not revel in the misfortune of co-workers who fail so we ourselves have the advantage to get ahead?
Do we not revel in the misfortune of rival sports figures or sports teams?
Do we not revel in the misfortune of the successful?
Does not even our own government foster an attitude in the hearts of most Americans toward the misfortunes of the so-called “1 Per centers”?
The answer to every above question is a resounding “Yes!”
What’s more, even children—yes, our little darling angels—provide examples of schadenfreude. If you are a parent, you have probably encountered a time when one of your children desired to see the other(s) punished for some peccadillo, or simply . . . just because. How often has one of your children asked you to spank a brother or sister? How often have you witnessed a devious smirk of one child when he or she observed another experiencing pain, punishment, or misfortune?
(At least once, I’m sure.)
Well, the Bible says a thing or two about this very thing, about schadenfreude and the envy and jealously that lies at the heart of schadenfreude. Long before the word came into usage, the biblical writers were condemning this very thing whole-heartedly. In fact, schadenfreude is what the book of Obadiah (the shortest book in the Old Testament) is all about, schadenfreude among “brothers.”
The personal rivalry between the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, began before the two were even born. The two “struggled together within her” (Gen. 25:22) so greatly that she inquired of YAHWEH, who said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).
In time, the nation of Edom descended from Esau and Israel from Jacob, which developed into a long-standing rivalry and national conflict (Exod. 15:13-15; Num. 20:14-21; 1 Sam. 14:47; 2 Sam. 8:13-14; 1 Kgs. 11:14-15; 2 Kgs. 8:20-22; 14:7). During the time of Obadiah, Edom, in the southern part of the kingdom, prospered, while the “brother” to the North, Judah, lay defeated from invading forces. Judah, the promised people of God, had been overrun by her enemies—and Edom, in a bitter case of sibling rivalry—gleefully took part in and reveled in the destruction of Judah. They broke the law of brotherly compassion by joining in the forces destroying Judah.
“Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress . . . As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head . . . and it shall be as though they [Edom] had never been” (Oba. 1:10-16).
Here we see a picture of how God responds to acts of schadenfreude, how utterly God despises when we unjustly, cruelly, maliciously, enviously, and jealously revel in the downfall of others. Edom’s loyalty was not in the well-being of their brother, it was in a self-serving interest that resulted in the their standing “aloof” when the nation was felled, gloating in the day of Judah’s misfortune.
Schadenfreude is all around us in every aspect of our daily lives. But God despises the attitude behind the schadenfreude and exercises little patience for it. Perhaps we would all do well to remember Obadiah the next time we see another who stumbles and revels in his or her misfortune. God despises schadenfreude and so should we.