Every Christian who reads the Psalms devotionally is confronted with a dilemma. The Psalms are a book of prayers, of the recorded prayers of the people of God as they recount the various and diverse experiences of their humanity in relationship with God. Thus, recording this intimate conversation between God and His people, the Psalms are heartfelt, and rich, and occasionally quite raw. The raw quality is most evident in what are called the imprecatory Psalms, those prayers that cry out for vengeance. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the language, such as in Psalm 58:6 where David cries out, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God!” Or consider his ironic request from Psalm 109:17, “He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him.” Or maybe you’ve read the stunning, astonishing prayer of Psalm 137:9, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” If the Psalms are a book of prayer for God’s people—a book that shapes and forms our emotions for God—then how are we supposed to pray such prayers?
When I was young and didn’t really have enemies, this was merely an academic question. But as I’ve gotten older and gathered opponents, this question has become more pressing. Just the other day an enemy of mine was brought low. This is not a person you know, and, as a matter of fact, it is not someone that I know, either. As is often the case in our world today, this is a person I’ve observed online, and this person had been belligerent, unkind, unwilling to listen to reason, and in the process had actively and publicly deceived the people of God by means of what that person believed to be ministry. When I learned that this person had been brought low, I could not contain a kind of pleasure; it was an emotion the Germans describe as schadenfreude. You’ve probably felt it too at some point, because it describes the pleasure we take at another person’s misfortune.
I take it as axiomatic that a significant part of growth into Christian holiness and maturity is growth into Godly emotions, what Jonathan Edwards termed our affections. I am increasing in holiness not so much when my conduct appears holy (although this is important), but when my inner man loves the things God loves, and hates the things God hates. In this, the Scriptures are to be seen as a book which shape our affections, molding our inner persons to love rightly those things that are most worthy of love. It seems clear to me that the Psalms, perhaps more than any other book, expose us to these primal, ordered, loves and hates after which we must pattern our own affections. With this in mind we might consider Psalm 139—that marvelous poem about God’s loving and creative hand. In God’s hands we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and in the record of God’s plan are written “the days that were ordained for me.” Rising in praise, David cries out, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!” Indeed, how precious—and many people, I suspect, would prefer it if the Psalm ended there, but the following verses mark a startling turn, because right after this David cries, “O that you would slay the wicked, O God,” and then, “I hate them with the utmost hatred.” Such a reversal of mood might cause a modern reader to wonder if perhaps David were not bipolar. However, when we consider that the Psalms are training our affections, then possibly we can see that the journey from understanding the intensity of God’s loving provision for us, to understanding the intensity of hatred for those things which draw us from that provision of God, is not so distant after all. The more I come to love the things of God, the more I ought, quite naturally, to come to hate the things that He hates as well. This is an essential component of what it means to train our hearts for holiness.
Let’s return now to schadenfreude—the pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. If this is indeed an emotion I experience, then it is one of the emotions which requires shaping by the Scriptures. Do I find warrant for the experience of schadenfreude in the Scriptures? The answer is, in some ways, yes. When Moses composes his song after the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in Exodus 15, the lyrics open with the words, “I will sing to the Lord for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea,” and a few lines later Moses cries out, “The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is His name.” This is a song of clear exultation at the demise of Pharaoh and his army. The Israelites are singing a song of pleasure at the demise of their enemies. It is an anthem of schadenfreude. This is not the only example. Malachi 4:2-3, exulting in the coming day of the Lord’s judgment, says, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” A nice enough image, is it not? But the following verse turns it somewhat grim, “‘You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,’ says the Lord of hosts.” The calf is leaping for joy because it is leaping upon the ashes of its enemies!
Does this mean, then, that schadenfreude is one of the emotions I can cultivate on my journey towards Christian holiness? Consider for a moment the curious warning offered in Proverbs 24:17-18, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; 18 Or the Lord will see it and be displeased, and turn His anger away from him.” This appears to be a straightforward warning but gets odder the more you consider it. We are commanded not to rejoice when our enemies fall, and not to let our hearts be glad when he stumbles, and this appears at first like a clear warning against schadenfreude. And yet, look closely at the second clause: the reason the Proverb urges us to restrain from rejoicing is because if we rejoice, God might lay off His punishment of the wicked person. In other words, if my rejoicing will shorten your suffering, then I better keep a straight face so that your suffering will continue longer!
Does this imply that pleasure at another’s misfortune an unqualified good in the Christian life? Not quite. One of the things that is not immediately clear in the Psalms is the way that the experience of exultation—that unique joy at the vindication and revelation of God’s perfect justice—is placed squarely on God’s justice more than on the persons of the wicked. The Psalmist who praises God’s justice has in view God’s justice, not the wicked. The pleasure he experiences is the pleasure of vindication, the pleasure of things being made right. And while there is a piece of that pleasure which, yes, is found in the fittingness of a wicked person receiving his or her comeuppance, I don’t think that this is the primary pleasure we ought to exult in. This is an important distinction. The more I seek the pleasure of witnessing the wicked be brought low, the less I am looking at God’s perfection—in fact, my sight becomes distorted by my undue focus on the wicked themselves (and you should look to Psalm 73 for when this happens). It is David’s focus on God’s goodness that makes him despise the wicked in Psalm 139, not David’s hatred of the wicked that makes him love God more. And it is here, I suspect, that schadenfreude requires Scriptural shaping, shifting its focus from the pleasure at the individual’s misfortune, to pure pleasure at God’s vindication and His revealed, eternal justice.
I don’t know that any of this gets us closer to understanding quite how we are supposed to navigate the complex feelings we have when our enemies receive comeuppance. I can only offer an autobiographical answer. When, the other day, my enemy received a comeuppance, I did experience a moment of vindication, and furthermore, intermingled with that vindication was a feeling of distinct pleasure. I think that, rightly understood, this is merely the reflection of my heart’s inward desire for justice being fulfilled. There is a kind of universal fittingness whenever bad things happen to bad people—it’s the way we are imprinted to believe that the universe works, because we are creatures made with a longing for justice. However, my pleasure was rapidly tempered by a few thoughts. First, I wondered to myself who might feel such pleasure at my downfall? And furthermore, am I certain that I am in the right? And in turn these thoughts gave way to prayer, because I did not wish for the destruction of this person more than I wished for repentance and change on their part. I hoped that the experience would bring about an adjustment in thinking, in attitude, and in public discourse. Critical to recognize for the Christian who wishes to grow in holiness is that it will be difficult to experience full-blown schadenfreude when you are praying for your enemies and blessing those who persecute you. Heartfelt prayer means that my intentions toward all the individuals in my life, those with whom I agree as well as those with whom I disagree, means that I am eager for all of their difficult experiences to bear fruit in greater repentance, more Christlikeness, and real, lasting change.
In the end, it seems to me that the right ordering of the experience of schadenfreude is to ensure that my exultation and rejoicing are situated more upon the inevitability of God’s justice than it is on the suffering of the person. Should I look to rejoice in the visible displays of God’s justice? Most certainly, and rightly, and it is good and meet so to do. And yet we must be ever cautious to ensure that our pleasure gives way to compassion, concern, personal reflection, and deeper prayer.