Forgiveness: Rooting Out Schadenfreude

“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. (Rule 2)

There are a trillion things to pay attention to. Almost all of them are irrelevant.

I would argue there’s no better use of time than understanding your own personality and the personalities of those around you”

(promo for Jordan B. Peterson’s Discovering Personality course)

The Lord has been working on me the last few weeks, in terms of showing me some things about me… once in a while He seems to shake things up and carry me through a time of introspection. Not morbidly so, not necessarily with regrets….. just calling me to deeper work, refining work.

Woodlawn Church’s Celebrate Recovery is just down the street from me and I felt led to go last fall, and what God was doing got sort of fast tracked…. between that and the new season of Being Known podcasts by Dr. Curt Thompson…… Refining is always welcome.

In season 8, episode 3 of his Being Known podcast on Youtube, Dr. Thompson talks about how our narrative about our lives impacts our physical bodies. He observed that our traumas fracture our sense of purpose.  To address what he recognized as his own residual impact of traumas, he realized he needed to do some forgiveness work. He created a list of people he had not fully forgiven.  He talked about how he came to that realization.  As I listened to him, I realized there are some I, too, had not fully forgiven.

Dr. Thompson imagined himself sitting down at the kitchen table with each individual and Jesus. In this exercise one is invited to share his version of events that have become his narrative.  Then Jesus asks, “How does your version of events as they happened to you compare to my own perspective of how I see you?”

Thompson observed how often we actually envision revenge against those who have harmed us and that there is positive reinforcement or pleasure that occurs as we hold on to grudges. Over time such traumas can become located in the part of our body where we feel the pain.Thompson says forgiveness isn’t a thing we do.  It is a thing we become…. a virtue, a place of being so that we don’t return to the experience of anger, humiliation, betrayal, or other feelings.

There’s great relief in turning loose of the emotions and the physical retention of those emotions, allowing holistic reintegration of spirit, soul, and body

God created us with mud, THEN breathed life into it.  We can sense and embody beauty in the physical body. Trauma shatters my ability to even be aware of the body clearly.  It becomes something “other” to me as I try to deny the truth of my pain.

Our ability to exercise imagination helps reconnect spirit, soul, and body and incarnate the character of Christ, conferring his beauty on us. Spirit and soul direct the body and release it from the tyranny of emotional tension stored in the body.

He said there are 10 people on his list he is working though.  Listening to this, I began to  enumerate the persons in my life, too, who’ve been responsible for trauma to me that I’ve held on to, consciously or  in my body. A quick list resulted of those who had wounded me with lies, stolen valued treasures, or betrayed trust and one who had physically and violently attacked me. All of them are out of my life now. There were several more that I had fully forgiven who continued as part of my life.  That in itself is telling, it seems.

In my third week of attending the confidential women’s open share group at Celebrate Recovery, I shared with them what I had been dealing with in relationship to reformulating what forgiveness actually looks and feels like.  As I was listening to others share,  God brought three things to my mind…. seeming to come by way of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in a way I have experienced many times,

1.)  First was the word  “schadenfreude”

Ahhhh, schadenfreude … a topic God had intimately and thoroughly addressed with me in a moment. It happened as a result of several factors.. One being a question God asked me in prayer after I had heard news that someone whom I perceived had harmed me over 50 years ago was in the last stage of life due to cancer. I realized my emotions in light of that news were not as compassionate as I would have expected. I believed I had forgiven. I believed the pain was behind me. But my conflicted emotions in the moment of hearing that news belied the truth. God asked me straight up, “How are you going to feel when you see him in heaven?” Somehow that had never occurred to me…. When I had to face that question, I knew my forgiveness was incomplete. The squirming discomfort in my soul revealed a kernel of “harm-joy”….. just desserts, delighting in the whim of “karma”….. “justice.” But it was not God’s justice for him. It was God’s simple revelation that justice cuts both ways. It is His to determine, not mine. Mine would come in time if I continued to withhold full forgiveness. 

When I am working Steps 8&9 with life recovery students and we are talking about real forgiveness and release from the emotional wounds of life, I share with them a simple test….”the unexpected mall encounter.”  If you are walking in the mall and see someone you have hurt or someone you perceive has hurt you, how will you feel? Will you want to dart in a store or run to the restroom? Hide behind a tree trunk? Turn the other way and avoid the risk of eye contact?  If you can’t make eye contact, smile and nod without wincing, and move on forward with a prayer for their wellbeing, you’re not done forgiving. Whether it takes 7 times, 70 times, 70X7 times, or the rest of your life, you need to accept the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and give that hurt to God again in confession and repentance for your lack of forgiveness. I had already pictured my “unexpected mall encounter” and believed I was healed. When God put it in the context of an unexpected heavenly encounter, that caused a pain in terms of God’s view of my heart that I had not previously known. 

2.)  Then, as I sat there feeling the conviction about recognizing schadenfreude on my life, 1 Corinthians 13 (specifically “love does not delight in evil),  was present on my mind , followed quickly by…

3.)  Micah 6:8 (“Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”)

Later, in a quick check online, Wikipedia shed some light of the emotional  discomfort I had in learning of another’s suffering….

“Schadenfreude, a German word, as alluded to above, is literally translated as‘harm-joy’.  It is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another. Schadenfreude has been detected in children as young as 24 months and may be an important social emotion establishing “inequity aversion“.  

Researchers have found that there are three driving forces behind schadenfreude – aggressionrivalry, and justice.

Self-esteem has a negative relationship with the frequency and intensity of schadenfreude experienced by an individual; individuals with lower self-esteem tend to experience schadenfreude more frequently and intensely. It is hypothesized that this inverse relationship is mediated through the human psychological inclination to define and protect their self- and in-group– identity or self-conception. Specifically, for someone with high self-esteem, seeing another person fail may still bring them a small (but effectively negligible) surge of confidence because the observer’s high self-esteem significantly lowers the threat they believe the visibly-failing human poses to their status or identity. Since this confident individual perceives that, regardless of circumstances, the successes and failures of the other person will have little impact on their own status or well-being, they have very little emotional investment in how the other person fares, be it positive or negative.  (Since this is a rare event for me, it seems I would fall into this group. And it may also be why it has taken me so long to recognize it and why, only after hearing Dr. Thompson describe his own struggle with forgiveness in such cases, did I even relate to the experience in myself!)

Conversely, for someone with low self-esteem, someone who is more successful poses a threat to their sense of self, and seeing this person fall can be a source of comfort because they perceive a relative improvement in their internal or in-group standing.

  • Aggression-based schadenfreude primarily involves group identity. The joy of observing the suffering of others comes from the observer’s feeling that the other’s failure represents an improvement or validation of their own group’s (in-group) status in relation to external (out-group) groups. This is, essentially, schadenfreude based on group versus group status.
  • Rivalry-based schadenfreude is individualistic and related to interpersonal competition. It arises from a desire to stand out from and out-perform one’s peers. This is schadenfreude based on another person’s misfortune eliciting pleasure because the observer now feels better about their personal identity and self-worth, instead of their group identity.
  • Justice-based schadenfreude comes from seeing that behavior seen as immoral or “bad” is punished. It is the pleasure associated with seeing a “bad” person being harmed or receiving retribution. Schadenfreude is experienced here because it makes people feel that fairness has been restored for a previously un-punished wrong, and is a type of moral emotion.”

Because Micah 6:8 came to mind concurrently with the word schadenfreude and the character of love from 1 Corinthians 13, I realized immediately that God was pointing me to my own failing in the third category of the source of this emotion and its relationship to forgiveness.  My sense of schadenfreude is rooted in moral judgementalism.

There is some sense of satisfaction in seeing someone that one feels has acted unjustly getting punished. But judging another in such a way is outside of one’s own righteous prerogative, as that is God’s job alone. By judging another based on my opinion of their moral imperative and finding pleasure or comfort in their failure, I am acting out of an evil motivation. That is not loving in the context of 1 Corinthians.

In relation to Micah 6:8,  The obligation to do justice is on me, to the extent I understand the circumstances and understand God’s principles.  I am only to do justice according to my conscience under the direction of the Holy Spirit, not judge someone else’s just conduct.  Secondly, if I am to love mercy, I must recognize that God is the source of mercy. And, if I love God, I am to embrace His mercy and come into agreement with Him, realizing that since God has been merciful to me, I am to be merciful toward others…. as well as take joy in God’s mercy toward others, not delighting in their pain.

Dr Thompson ended episode three with the observation that after God created Adam, it was a wound in Adam’s side that resulted in Eve.  Does that say anything to us about the cost to the body of having the joy of personal emotionally and spiritually intimate relationships with other people, in spite of the pain we may have experienced because of them?

Christ’s wounds brought healing and reconciliation with God for us. His resurrection and ascension and sending his Holy Spirit bring a narrative of beauty that changes our own narrative of pain. It’s hard to be in the presence of beauty, and striving to see that beauty in others, mediated by Christ and continue holding a grudge or delighting in another’s trouble.

Perhaps loving one’s enemies begins with not gloating or delighting in their pain or failure, and instead in praying for God to have mercy on them…. and on having mercy on them ourselves….as we desire that His mercy would be available to us, as well.

Even now, as I write this, I suddenly am reminded of a letter I sent to the author of an online article about enemies at a banquet feast and forced to watch those who were enjoying the feast……Thinking about that letter, I believe God was been preparing me to deal with schadenfreude and to recognize its hidden latency in my own heart for years.

Excerpts from that 2019 letter are shown below:

“….,When you wrote about grief and mentioned Psalm 23 and the imagery of a feast prepared for us in the presence of our enemies with them forced to watch, I was reminded of something I had written a few years ago.  Your perspective on the Psalm 23 verse is a more protective and comforting view and I like it!  I just hadn’t seen that in that psalm before.

The whole context for tables and enemies had gone in an entirely different direction for me.  I think that is somewhat due to my having realized that Christ himself remained “at the table” with one who could rightfully be called his “enemy” (Judas) and was not tempted to partake of the “dainty” that had been being put before him again and again since satan first tempted him in the wilderness 3 years before –  (to deny, dodge, or yield to others’ attempts to thwart the purpose for which he had been sent by the Father.)

 “Staying at the table” has come to mean for me steadfast faithfulness to God in the midst of circumstances that are more than a little uncomfortable, testing, or even downright tempting.   In doing so, one may be even more greatly blessed and avoid the tempting risk of gloating triumphantly before one’s enemies.  If we are to love our enemies, there must be a way found to make peace with them.  

The whole UMC “Connectional Table” ethic had always offered me hope that we, as diverse UMC folk, would find a way through our disagreements and come to unity IN CHRIST.   As a traditionalist, I am not unhappy with the way things have unexpectedly veered since February’s Special General Conference 2019.  But there is, I expect, a great deal more pain and indulging in “enemies’ dainties” that is likely to be done by parties on all sides before we get to the end of the decades-long drama, however God has been envisioning and directing it.  I’ve done a lot of personal grief work over the last five years.  I have seldom found more than the briefest of comfort and little joy when my feasting was carried out while enemies were forced to watch.   As you can see, I am struggling a bit with this imagery.  Perhaps you can give me more insight into the reading of Psalm 23 and how it frees us from having our enemies at the table with us and allows us to feel safe and comforted, only yet with them forced to watch from a distance. That may indeed be the case when we’re all dining at a heavenly kingdom feast and our enemies have been relegated to hell.  But as long we live on this earth, only the supernatural presence and peace of Christ can help us, as we will likely never know when, who, or even whether enemies and the dainty snares they bring are present among us or not.  We will always be subject to being ambushed or caught off-guard, especially by emotions that play by no rules.”

Included also below are the words of another weblog post from nearly twenty years ago. (First published 7/29/2005 CBB)

“To call individuals ‘enemies’ may be too strong a word, but there are certain people with whom one fails to connect and with whom conflict, outright or beneath the surface, exists. I have had an interesting experience lately. For some reason, I have had information become known to me in unexpected ways and from unexpected sources about some people with whom I have found myself in conflict at times. Yesterday I realized somewhat suddenly that having useful information about one’s enemies presents an interesting dilemma. What does one do when one comes to have information that could be useful in turning back some of what she has perceived as antagonism, aggression, or lack of regard by another?

There have been times in my life when having such information would have been a source of delight, a “one up on you” kind of feeling, an “I’ve got you now” advantage to be played. But yesterday the Lord spoke to my heart about misuse of such information by recalling to my mind this phrase from the 23rd Psalm, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…..” The “I’ve got you now” feeling was a little like sitting before a banquet table in front of this enemy with “choice dainties”, or delicacies, awaiting my consumption and having the security of knowing they couldn’t snatch them from me or keep me from indulging my appetite.

Psalm 141:3-4 says “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips! Incline not my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company of men who work iniquity; and let me not eat of their dainties.”

Proverbs 23:1-3 says, “When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you; and put a knife to your throat if you are a man given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food.”

I realized that the Lord may, indeed, have set a table for me with tempting morsels that could feed my fleshly appetite to exact revenge and turn the table on those who have sought to undermine or hurt me, who might have cast aspersions or attributed ill intent to me when in fact it was in their own hearts. But at the same time He has as told me to exercise self control, to “fast”. To let the tasty morsels lie untouched.

I recall times in the past when I have failed in this. I have used “dainty morsels” against those whom I perceived as ‘enemies’ and felt little or no remorse when busying myself with such deeds. I may have even delighted in it, subconsciously or consciously thinking, “He’s getting what he deserves”, in other words, putting myself in God’s role as judge, jury, and executioner. Having seen the correlation to that and the Lord’s challenge before me to sit at the table without doing so, I don’t think I’ll have the ease of conscience to indulge that appetite again.

Fasting has a new meaning for me. Spiritual fasting is refraining from indulging an appetite for gossip, revenge, or attempting to build alliances by running down someone else, etc. I trust that, with Christ’s help, I will have learned to resist such temptation. It may not be exactly “loving my enemies”, but it’s a start. It does give me another glimpse into the character of Christ to realize that He knew what was at work in the hearts of those around Him and yet He stayed at the table and did not indulge a fleshly appetite to protect Himself, coerce them to change, or avoid the consequences that were set in place by their evil. He knew the real source of what was occurring in their hearts. Knowing that these individuals were being used by satan removed the personal nature of their attacks on Him and he was able to say, with the greatest of magnanimity, “Forgive, them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Now that’s an appetite to pursue.”