We live in a culture of gaslighting. That is, we live in a culture where people are adept at manipulating the truth to serve their own ego. It cuts across political parties, media, and even faith communities. It might have permeated your family. In today’s blog post, I will help you understand gaslighting, how it can show up in faith communities, and the importance of developing a good B.S. detector to withstand it.
The impact of gaslighting is that you start to doubt yourself, question your own experience, and ultimately question your own sanity. You start to feel any of these ways:
- Can I trust myself?
- What is true, anyway?
- Am I crazy? Or, is everyone around me going nuts?
It’s a psychological pandemic. And, it’s infecting faith communities.
What is spiritual gaslighting?
Spiritual gaslighting is when a person or faith community uses spiritual tools, such as God-language or the Bible, to cause you to question your own reality in order to retain power over you. This is spiritual abuse.
Here are some examples based on actual stories I have heard over the years:
You share with a church leader that you feel uncomfortable with the way a pastor talks about women. The response that you hear in return is: “You have an issue with authority. I’d encourage you to pray and ask God to change your heart.”
You confide in the members of your small group that you are struggling with feeling lonely. The response that you hear in return is: “You aren’t really lonely. You’re simply not trusting God enough.”
You share about feeling afraid of your spouse’s temper with your Christian counselor. The response that you hear in return is: “You must not be showing him enough respect.”
In each of these cases, you are sharing something vulnerable, and in response you are being told that your experience is invalid. You leave questioning yourself and wondering if YOU are the one with the problem.
The examples above are more overt. The truth is spiritual gaslighting happens in more subtle ways all the time. Whenever ego gets involved, we are at risk of gaslighting someone. It starts when someone uses white lies to cover their tracks—and—to put you on the defensive. Here are some examples:
- I didn’t borrow your phone—why are you always blaming me? (In fact, you did borrow the phone.)
- I’m not drinking! You have trust issues. (In fact, you have started drinking again.)
- I never said those things. You must have misheard me. (In fact, you did say those things.)
It’s bad enough as a form of manipulation. But, imagine adding spiritual language into it, like this:
- I didn’t borrow your phone—you need to address your meddlesome spirit! (In fact, you did borrow the phone.)
- I’m not drinking! Take the log out of your own eye. (In fact, you have started drinking again.)
- I never said those things. You need to ask God to help you listen better. (In fact, you did say those things.)
It’s soul-crushing for the person on the receiving end.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that moves beyond deception. It often starts with a lie, but it takes it one step further. It flips the narrative to put you on the defense. It’s a tactic used to gain or keep power.
The Antidote to Gaslighting
There are two key antidotes to any from of gaslighting, including spiritual gaslighting:
1.) Become a truth-teller.
This first one might sound simple, but unfortunately it’s hard to find truth-tellers in our image-driven world. Everything is “spun” from our news, to our advertisements, to our social media feeds. It’s hard to know what’s true, when everything is manipulated for an agenda. One of the best ways to protect yourself against gaslighting in the air around you is to become a truth-teller yourself. Work on being as honest as you can with yourself, with God, and with others. Honesty helps build up your own psychological immune system—it primes you to detect deceit and manipulation. Here are some things to work on to build up your own immune system:
- When you make a mistake, own it. “I did take your phone! I’m sorry I lied. I felt trapped in the moment, and I didn’t want you to be mad. It’s my fault for borrowing it without asking you.”
- If you don’t understand what someone is going through, get curious about their experience, instead of invalidating it. “I’m sorry you feel lonely. I’d love to understand your experience better. Could you tell me more about what that is like for you?”
- If you are struggling, find a safe place to be as honest as you can about it. “I’ve started drinking/worrying/ lashing out again. I don’t know how to stop, and I need help.”
- If you change your mind, acknowledge it. “I did say those things. I can see how that was confusing to you. I changed my mind for these reasons.”
Can you imagine if we lived in a world where our leaders were honest in these ways? How much more healing could occur? How much more whole would we be in our families, our churches, our world?
2.) Develop a good B.S. detector with the help of God’s Spirit.
Unfortunately, since we live in the midst of so much gaslighting, it’s important to develop a strong B.S. detector. When you learn to do this with God’s help, it’s what the Bible calls discernment, or the beginning of wisdom. Here are some ways to start developing your own Holy Spirit infused B.S. Detector:
- Learn to listen to your body. Your body is wired with a danger mechanism called the fight-flight response. It often gets out of balance as a result of trauma. However, its purpose is to help you detect danger. Notice things like a pit in your stomach, a tightness in your chest, or a racing heart. These physical sensations are signs that something has triggered your nervous system. Pay attention and take some deep breaths. Don’t immediately discount those responses. They might be important signals to heed.
- Develop a healthy relationship with your emotions. God gave you emotions like anger and fear for a reason. They help alert you to dangers in your environment. As you develop a healthy relationship to these important emotions, you can start to trust yourself with God’s help.
- Get help from people who are outside of your system. When you are swimming in water that’s toxic, so is everyone else in that same pond. Look for a lifeline outside of that water and start letting them know what’s going on in your family, work environment, or faith community.
- Test what you are being told against concrete data points. Get clear about your facts. Write them down and talk them through with a friend. Reality test your perspective against the Scriptures, science, and trusted advisers. Anchor yourself in the truth. For example, if you are feeling queasy with what is being taught in your faith community, ask yourself these questions:
- Is what you are being told practical?
- Does it help you or harm you?
- How would this approach impact the most vulnerable person you can think of?
Use your head. There is more in the Bible about wisdom vs. foolishness than any other topic. Don’t get caught in the snare of the fool.
Lastly, if you are experiencing gaslighting in your home or faith community, verbal engagement is rarely the solution. Proverbs 14:7 says, “Escape quickly from the company of fools; they’re a waste of your time, a waste of your words.” If someone is gaslighting you, create distance from them as best you can. Your words are a waste. They will go into their web, only to be spun out against you.
The good news is this: while the Enemy of our souls is the Father of Lies (John 8:44), we have access to the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Armour up with the help of friends, God, the Bible, and possibly a good therapist. Anchor yourself in your body and pay attention to the cues.
Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life.
—Ephesians 6:13-18, The MSG