Psalm 120 – Gaslighting Trouble

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the 1944 film, “Gaslight”

I’m in trouble. I cry to God,
    desperate for an answer:
“Deliver me from the liars, God!
    They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.”

Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming,
    all you bold-faced liars?
Pointed arrows and burning coals
    will be your reward.

I’m doomed to live in Meshech,
    cursed with a home in Kedar,
My whole life lived camping
    among quarreling neighbors.
I’m all for peace, but the minute
    I tell them so, they go to war! (The Message)

I wish we lived in a world where people always speak and live the truth in love, without lying, pretense, or posturing. But we don’t. Not everyone embraces a life of encouraging others through truthful affirmation and selfless acts of service.

In reading today’s psalm, I immediately think of all the patients I’ve seen as a chaplain on my behavioral health unit who have been gaslighted.

“Gaslighting” is a recent term, yet the concept is as old as Satan’s interaction with Adam and Eve in the Garden. The word comes from the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the attempt to drive his wife insane, the husband rigs the gaslights of the house so they will flicker at night. Whenever his wife comments on it, her husband flat-out lies and says the lights are not flickering at all. I’ll let you watch the film yourself to see what happens.

A person who “gaslights” uses psychological manipulation to gain and assert control over someone or some group. Gaslighters actively undermine others, using their words against them, plotting nefarious plans for them behind their backs, lying without so much of a blink of an eye, and turning family or friends against someone – all with the insidious agenda of increasing their power over that person and solidifying their dependence from the victim.

All of this gaslighting behavior is done with a smile, said with syrupy words to hook you, rather than help you. That, of course, makes it hard to spot – which is why it is so devilish. If the gaslighter can get you to doubt yourself, your abilities, or your perception of reality, then they can worm themselves into your life and plant their thoughts inside you.

Gaslighters don’t want peace. They want conflict. People at war give them an opportunity to gain more influence and power. Plus, they just plain like to watch others fight amongst themselves. It gives them a sense of control.

Today’s psalm is part of the psalms of ascent – songs used by the community as they walk their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and up the temple mount. The people collectively lament the gaslighting activity of those who oppose and hate them. And they turn to God, who abhors gaslighters, seeking solace and safety from their evil ways.

The gaslighter’s end is certain. They will have to contend with the God who will not be manipulated by anyone. Although it is not our job to punish sinners, it very much is our responsibility to see and avoid gaslighting as much as possible, as well as, God forbid, becoming a gaslighter ourselves. To that end, take note of some of the manipulative marks of gaslighters and patterns of gaslighting:

  • Pitting people against one another. This is done a variety of ways through gossip masked as trying to help, subtle slander, and carefully placed lies.
  • Avoiding responsibility. The gaslighter never owns their words and actions but are experts at blaming others for whatever goes awry.
  • Creating fights and conflicts. Gaslighters chronically avoid the dirty work. They get others riled-up at each other, then sit back and look for an opportunity to seize control over the warring parties.
  • Sucking-up to others. Flattery is a well-worn tool of gaslighters. They are masters at buttering-up people to get what they want.
  • Comparing people. This is just another way of driving a wedge between people. “Why can’t you be like ___?”
  • Mistreating the weak and powerless. The weak have no value for the gaslighter because the powerless have nothing to offer them. So, oppression becomes a means of getting the weak out of the way, like they’re some pesky insect to get rid of.
  • Bragging about accomplishments and stealing other’s. Gaslighters will always take the credit for an accomplishment and then boast about it, all the while badgering the victim.
  • Not keeping promises. Usually there’s a bait and switch where the gaslighter will promise something, then switch the rules or tell a bold-faced lie that they never promised that.

There is much more gaslighting behavior, but you get the drift. The best way to deal with a gaslighter? Get as far away from them as you can, find genuine supportive relationships, and leave them to God.

Today’s psalm can be your prayer to the Lord, offering a heartfelt plea to the Divine Being who does the opposite of gaslighting: strengthening you, giving you power, listening to your voice, and loving you with complete altruistic motives.

Eternal Father, you created us in your own image and likeness, but sin has warped the minds of humanity so that there is much injustice and much carelessness of the rights of other people in this fallen world. I pray you will right every wrong and vindicate those being treated unjustly. Keep us, your people, from trying to take matters into our own hands for vengeance. Give justice and peace to all those who have been cruelly and unfairly treated. May the injustice they have endured be the means to draw them into the saving arms of your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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