What does gaslighting mean? Is the 2022 word of the year in the Bible?

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What does gaslighting mean? Is the 2022 word of the year in the Bible?

December 6, 2022 - Mark Legg

Three phrases denoting gaslighting—"I was just joking! You are too sensitive. Don't be so negative."—are written on three separate strips of white paper set on a blue background. © By ariya j/stock.adobe.com

Three phrases denoting gaslighting—"I was just joking! You are too sensitive. Don't be so negative."—are written on three separate strips of white paper set on a blue background.

Three phrases denoting gaslighting—"I was just joking! You are too sensitive. Don't be so negative."—are written on three separate strips of white paper set on a blue background. © By ariya j/stock.adobe.com

A frazzled woman lies in a nineteenth-century bed alone. The ceiling above creaks and an incandescent gas light dims—an indication that another lamp is lit in the house, decreasing the pressure of gas in the pipes.

But no one else is supposed to be there.

Is she going crazy?

According to her husband, she certainly is.

Where did gaslight come from?

Gaslight, the popular 1938 drama, inspired the 1940 and 1944 films by the same name. The thriller follows a husband playing tricks on his wife to make her believe she is going insane. The tortured woman’s husband needs to search their home without her suspecting his criminality, so he manipulates her into believing she is crazy.

Eighty-four years after Gaslight’s release, Merriam-Webster named gaslighting the word of the year for 2022.

What does gaslighting mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, gaslighting is the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Basically, gaslighting refers to manipulating others with blatant lies or disbelief so that it forces someone to second-guess basic perceptions, making them feel insane. The manipulator usually calls them crazy as well, reinforcing self-doubt.

However, as the usage spread, so did the umbrella of its colloquial meaning. Merriam-Webster includes this definition as well: “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”

Broad use of the term gaslighting may refer to politicians when they say something blatantly false, like, “I never said that,” when they obviously did, or to a friend making you feel loony for liking a popular TV show.

But, when I tell my wife that we didn’t buy orange juice at the store, even though we did, it doesn’t count because I’m not intentionally misleading her. (I’m just mixing distractedness with a notoriously poor memory).

So, with seasoned New York Times journalists and teenage TikTok influencers alike proliferating the term, let’s consider why gaslighting exploded in popularity.

Why was gaslighting the word of the year?

In 2022, Merriam-Webster “saw a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting, with high interest throughout the year.”

When AI can fabricate photorealistic images of human faces, the capacity for misusing technology to gaslight millions accelerates every year. We know Russia used this technology to “deepfake” videos of Vladimir Zelensky “surrendering” early on in the Ukraine war.

But in this world, where spreading misleading conspiracies and faking something as tangible as video evidence becomes easier every day, it’s no wonder that “gaslighting” skyrocketed in use.

Usage of the word may also come with a wave of valuing subjective truth, a confidence that “there’s no way my perception or feelings could be wrong.” Of course, true gaslighting, psychological torture, is a terrible evil.

So what does the Bible say about gaslighting?

Is gaslighting in the Bible?

The clearest instance of gaslighting jumps to my mind from Genesis 3, the first page of the Bible. When the talking snake, later named Satan (the “accuser”), approaches Eve, he asks, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:2).

That strikes me as a classic example of gaslighting. Eve responds with what God presumably told her in verses 2–3.

Curiously, earlier in the story, God only tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16–17). So maybe Adam told Eve about God’s command. This may account for a small discrepancy: when Eve tells the snake what God said, she says, “Neither shall you touch it, lest you die,” which God did not say to Adam. It’s a curious detail.

Regardless, the snake rejoins, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4–5).

In other words, presumably knowing very well what God said to Eve, the snake deceives Eve. Eve ate and gave some of the fruit to Adam, and we know how the rest went down. We see that story, choosing to snatch wisdom on our own terms in opposition to God, repeat daily when we sin.

A talking snake’s temptation is one thing, but more typical gaslighting behavior also exists in the Bible. The majority of Job consists of his friends explaining to him how he must have done something horribly sinful to deserve punishment. In the end, God vindicates Job and rebukes his friends, calling him a “blameless and upright man” (Job 1:8).

It would be criminal to simplify Job, a dense, forty-two-chapter, ancient Hebraic poem, to a representation of gaslighting, but you get the picture. The lessons in Job abound, but we can at least take this with us: we should not presume to know the inner workings of God’s motivation until he reveals it.

Feelings don’t define reality

The Bible touches on the most profound goodness while staying grounded in realistic portrayals of humanity. It also presents hard-hitting truth that shakes reality while gently showing compassion to the confused and lost.

Jesus prophesied harsh judgment against Israel, yet the way he describes his own character comes in two words: “gentle and lowly” (Matthew 11:29, and see Dane Ortlund’s book Gentle and Lowly).

We too should deepen our humility and gentleness. The Bible often draws us to empathy; we should “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” “[bear] with one another,” and grow in compassion like Jesus, who “sympathizes” with us to this day (Romans 12:15; Colossians 3:13; Hebrews 4:15). Read the emotions in the celebratory psalters, the despair of Job, the depression of Elijah, the anger of Paul, the romance in Song of Solomon, etc.

The Bible, in other words, does not neglect feelings. Not by a long shot.

But God sets the boundaries of reality; our feelings do not (John 14:6). In our culture, we idolize feelings and let them lead us, often to our own destruction.

As Christians, we should not gaslight others by saying their feelings aren’t real. Nor should we speak harshly or pretend that we can judge others like God.

But that doesn’t mean we should not point them to the truth—the ultimate truth that exists whether they feel it or not. Some may write off objections to their feelings as “gaslighting” since many believe their own personal, subjective feelings define truth. Ironically, however, without objective truth, gaslighting cannot exist.

In a culture where subjective, personal truth seems more enticing than reality itself, we must cling to the ultimate truth from God.

And our God not only set the boundaries of truth, he cares about our emotions as well.

For more on truth, AI, and cultural terms:

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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