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The process of manipulating others is as old as Satan convincing Adam and Eve of a lie (Genesis 3:6). Many synonyms convey the idea of mental manipulation. One of the first uses of the word comes from the 1944 movie with the same name, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. The husband in this story is trying to convince his wife that she is insane. (The term originated from the 1938 play by the British dramatist Patrick Hamilton.)
The psychological community has participated in gaslighting experiments for years. You can think of it as a way to drive a person crazy. Many of these experiments proved disastrous, as you might expect. Anytime you coerce a person to believe something that their inner being is saying is not valid, there will be an adverse psychological impact on the victimized soul.
The most common, modern word for gaslighting is abuse, though abuse is a much broader term that encompasses many sins, i.e., verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, violence, anger, etc. A gaslighting abuser will use this technique because of the premeditated goal to make the person believe his agenda. In a sense, it is a war of attrition: the victim of gaslighting may give up after a while and accept whatever the person is telling them to believe.
There has been a surge in this manipulative technique in our current culture. The race-baiters, for example, have made global and sweeping accusations toward every white person in America, saying all white people are racist. Whenever you make universal accusations against any demographic, organization, or group, there are immoral motivations involved.
Though it would be ignorant to say that racism does not exist today, it’s just as wrongheaded to suggest that every white person is a racist. Whatever truth claims are accurate, they lose their persuasive power when they blanket their accusations over everyone. This problem worsens when the only two acceptable people groups are those who make the accusation (gaslighters) and those who accept it (victims).
If you refuse to accept that you’re a racist, the louder, more manipulative, and determined they become to convince you that you are, and the only way they will stop is when you believe what they believe. Forcing someone to think what you think either creates mindless adherence or volatile reactions.
On a less global level, marriage is the most common place where you will see gaslighting. Most of the time, it’s the husband manipulating the wife to believe his perspective. The two personality types—regardless of gender—are the forceful, persuasive person and the passive peacemaker. The gaslighter is the person who is willing to overpower the inhibited with his or her words.
The gaslit victims typically want peace and will take the path of least resistance. In many cases, they don’t have the ability or desire to live in an ongoing conflict. Because divorce is a last resort, there is a good chance the victims will give in to their spouse’s demands before they give up and leave the marriage.
These marriages never realize all the Lord could do if the couple were genuinely one flesh. The gaslighter becomes larger in every way while the victim continues to adjust to life in his or her ever-shrinking soul. The worst version of this person is a mindless shell of a person who is more robotic than animated and alive.
Gaslighting does not happen by accident. It’s an addictive behavior. Here are a few labels and descriptions that bring clarity to this popularized cultural term. (When helping anyone, it’s always wise to move your language from the world’s way of thinking and labeling things to a biblical framework.) I will use our old friends Biff and Mable from this point forward.
Anger – Gaslighting is a form of anger. To put it mildly, Biff does not like Mable. The harsher, though the more accurate word, is hate. You do not do this kind of thing to someone you love. Biff’s lack of love for his wife opens the door for him to use her for selfish reasons.
Self-righteous – All anger is motivated by an elevated heart. You cannot be angry with anyone without elevating yourself above them. Biff is “looking down” on Mable, not just by his actions but with his self-righteous heart attitude. The arrogance of his superiority can be stifling.
Sinful Gift – With an attitude that elevates him over Mable and a lack of love in his heart, Biff will not use his God-given gifts in such a way to help Mable or his marriage. He will use his strengths and abilities for self-loving purposes.
Sinful Craving – Like an addict, which is what he is, Biff will use his abilities to bend the will of his wife so that he can control her. It’s a “game of strategy” designed to wear her down until he has what he wants, which is a brainless, fully cooperative wife.
Manipulation – The closest term that describes gaslighting is mental manipulation. Biff is attempting to bend the will of his wife by placing thoughts in her head that are contrary to what she is thinking. If he persists, he will slowly erode her thoughts down to nothing while simultaneously replacing them with how he wants her to believe, think, and respond.
There are two common ways to know if a person is gaslighting you. The first is if they tell you what you are thinking without adequately understanding your position on a matter. They ignore what you think and tell you what you are actually thinking. The second tactic is someone wearing you down until you give in to their perspective. In this latter case, you sign off on it because you don’t want to argue any longer.
The first situation is the statement-maker, not the question-asker. The statement-maker tells you what is going on in your head without trying to assess with thoughtful questions what you believe. It’s a brazen manipulative tactic that does not value your opinion. It’s more critical for them to get you to toe the line than do the hard work of conflict resolution. Many authoritative pastors are like this.
The second technique is the “war of attrition method;” they wear you down with their repetitive drumbeats until you wave the white flag. Even after you surrender, you may not believe what they are saying, but you tacitly accept it because it’s the path of least resistance. After a while, it becomes part of who you are and how you think. The Overton Window fits within this concept, which is a sliding scale that reclassifies what is acceptable. An example of this is our acceptance of gay marriage: it used to be wrong, but not any longer.
When a person senses gaslighting is happening to them, they should make their appeals to the gaslighter. The proper response for Mable is to appeal to Biff to repent. This approach is the template the Lord gave us in Matthew 18:15-17. In many of these cases, this biblical approach will not work, especially if Biff is a gaslighter.
He has a plan, and if he perceives the person as being weaker and manipulatable, he won’t let up without more substantial outside pressure to change him. Habitualized, overbearing people do not let up. It’s probably a life-dominating sin that found its origins in the gaslighter’s personal drama, demons, and dysfunction. It’s not a technique they stumbled onto by watching a movie.
Before Mable gets farther along the “soul-shrinking continuum,” she needs to reach out to her biblical authorities. Someone, which may mean several folks, needs to step up and intervene for her. Too often, a person like Mable won’t do this for several reasons.
Too many Christian wives do not know that submitting well includes a call to disciple their husbands. Submission to someone is not a brain-dead activity for a passive partner. It’s in part a call to action to serve those you’re submitting to so that they will be better leaders. To submit well takes courage, competence, and other leadership qualities.
Being the authority does not mean you’re omnicompetent in every area. Each person has strengths and weaknesses. There are areas where Biff is weak, and the ideal is for Mable to step up and fill in those areas, bringing her strengths and gifts into the marriage to make them better people.
If a dominating personality type is taking the marriage to the wrong places, the wife needs to make a move earlier than later to steer the union out of harm’s way. Once it goes so far down the path of dominance, it will be virtually impossible to reroute and recover. You want to rescue potentially harmful conditions as soon as you can—assuming you can. Too often, reacting to the problem later is too late.
I talk a lot about walking in the Spirit, which means several things. In the context of gaslighting, the aspect you want to key in on is your sensitivity to the illuminations of the Spirit of God. Christians have an “internal clarity checker,” and I’m not talking about your conscience, though that is part of the answer. I’m speaking of the Spirit of God Himself.
Nobody can manipulate the Spirit, which makes sensing Him vital. The question then becomes, how do you know if you’re hearing God or something else? You find the answer in the four-fold check and balance system that the Lord gave us.
If you hang out on any of these four corners independent of the other three, you could make an error in judgment. You can misread the Word of God, “mishear” the Spirit of God, not have a competent friend to help you, or tie yourself up mentally. When all four of these means of grace are operational in your life, you’ll be as centered as you can be, which will keep your thought life on what is pure, lovely, and commendable (Philippians 4:8).
Biff and Mable have friends. There has to be at least one person who senses what could be happening in their marriage. Some Christians take “biblical propriety” too far. They don’t want to butt into their friends’ business, which is a viewpoint entirely unsubstantiated by God’s Word. Jesus is asking the question, who is your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37)? It’s the caring person, not the pseudo-religious one, who is willing to enter into potential conflict.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
The Hebrew writer had another perspective, even suggesting that we should become “biblical irritants” when it comes to getting into each other’s lives. I’m not speaking of being mean-spirited or inappropriate. I’m talking about being biblical. The idea of “stirring up” another person has a sense of agitation. We should be biblically agitating each other for God’s fame and each other’s benefit.
Advocating for the abused is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus came for folks who had succumbed to sin. We had gone so far that we could not rescue ourselves. We needed outside intervention, which is one of the primary ways of thinking about the gospel. We want to imitate Christ this way as we reach out to those who are free-falling and shrinking fast.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).