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.

Matthew 18:6-9 – Say “No” to Temptation

“If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

What sorrow awaits the world because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (New Living Translation)

It’s probably a good idea not to get on the wrong side of Jesus.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus utilized a variety of teaching methods to communicate his message. In today’s Gospel lesson, Christ used the language of hyperbole to arrest attention and get his point across.

A universal truism of this world is that sin exists. In Holy Scripture, sin is anything people do or say – or fail to do and say – which damages or destroys another’s or one self’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.

Greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, anger, lust, and pride abound no matter where one goes on this planet. Sin is downright awful. It causes people to stumble, and, when unchecked, leads to personal and corporate chaos, unrest, and destruction. 

Whenever sin is viewed merely as a character flaw, or simply part of the fabric of organizations and institutions, then hellfire is not far off. Hell exists because of sin. 

We get the flavor that Jesus took sin quite serious. Christ considers sin so terrible and heinous that he deliberately used the height of hyperbole to communicate that radical, drastic, and decisive action must unequivocally be taken to get rid of it. 

The Lord Jesus wanted there to be no mistake in his communication: Sin is not something to dabble in or take a shallow approach; rather, sin must be eradicated, at all costs. The language is severe: If your hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter life crippled or blind rather than be thrown into a suffering hell.

Temptations will inevitably come. Yet, how we handle those temptations and what we do with them is of eternal significance. 

We must get to the root of the sin – which happens through succumbing to temptation – and re-arrange our lives, alter our schedules, and change our lives in a radical way to remove putting ourselves in a position to sin. 

Solid daily spiritual habits of Scripture reading and prayer; time for sleep and rest; attention to Sabbath; and a regular exercise regimen are all ways to help ensure that temptation will not win the day.

And God forbid that we cause another to sin because we are hangry, tired, and out of shape because we’ve neglected ourselves for far too long. Self-care isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Other people get hurt when we hurt ourselves.

Your self-care is always a valid excuse to say “no.”

If we take the words of Jesus to heart, perhaps we will gain awareness of the ways we need to metaphorically cut off a hand or gouge out an eye. For many people, this means learning to say “no.”

There doesn’t always need to be an explanation for assertively and courteously saying the word “no.” If an explanation is warranted, it should be brief. The word “no” doesn’t mean we are selfish pricks trying to wriggle out of responsibility. “No” simply realizes we are finite creatures with limited time, energy, and resources. Unlike God, we cannot do it all.

Setting personal boundaries is both wise and necessary. Without them, we let others chain us in bondage to their agendas. A lack of personal boundaries also typically means that the boundary-less person continually violates others’ boundaries. Since there are no fences in their own lives, they feel they can hop anybody else’s fence in front of them.

Violating someone’s space through mental or emotional manipulation, spiritual abuse, or bodily harm is sin. Jesus wants radical action to deal with such offense of others.

For the Christian, priority must be given to saying “yes” to Jesus, which then allows a “no” to come when there are competing priorities. A person unclear on their values and priorities will chronically violate others. If you have a specific plan of doing the will of God before being confronted with another person’s request, you’re more likely to stick to your original plan.

Jesus continually said “yes” to the Father. This framed and formed his earthly life so that he crossed social boundaries to speak to a Samaritan woman, a tax collector, and a leper – while maintaining the respect of another’s personal boundary by asking if they want to be helped and healed.

Sin is horrible – which is why Jesus went to the ultimate length to deal with it. He sacrificed himself and suffered an ignominious death so that sin’s power would be crushed, so that you and I could say “no” to temptation.

Holy God, you sent your Son to this earth to deal decisively with the world’s sin.  I choose today to walk in the forgiveness you offer through Jesus, and to avail myself of the Spirit’s power to forsake temptation in all its forms.  Amen.