By Kathryn Wright
According to the American Psychological Association, to gaslight someone means:
“To manipulate another person into doubting their own perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.”
This form of psychological manipulation is a common tactic of abusers who make their victims feel unstable or irrational by claiming that their legitimate concerns are minor or simply untrue. The term gaslight comes from a 1944 film about a husband (Charles Boyer) and wife (Ingrid Bergman). The husband moves objects around the house and turns the gas lights on and off. When his wife brings it up, he convinces her that she is imagining things. Eventually, the husband persuades his wife that she is to blame for the confusion and that she has gone insane. In short, to be “gaslit” is to be psychologically manipulated into thinking you are the problem, and that objective truth is wrong.
The same tactic occurs in the spiritual world. Following the Lord and doing good is often redefined as evil (Isa 5:20). Sadly, many well-meaning Christians have been gaslit into believing false doctrines due to subtle manipulation like that in the movie Gaslight. For example, many people within Christendom reject the message that eternal life is a gift, and that it is not by works (John 3:16; Eph 2:8-9). Catholics, Mormons, and many more say the message of grace is easy believism or antinomianism.
Others reject the doctrine of rewards, claiming believers should follow the Lord solely out of love and that rewards are a selfish motivation. The fact that believers cannot please the Lord unless they believe He is a rewarder is practically ignored by Christendom today (Heb 11:6).
A more obvious example of how even well-meaning Christians are being gaslit into false doctrine is the current pressure to support the LGBTQ community in the United States. Many churches have been gaslit into thinking that they should support the community because doing so shows the love of Christ.
In all these examples, people are caused to doubt the truth by being made to question reality. Notice that those who follow the Word of God are described as doing something evil or being selfish, un-Christlike, or lawless. People are manipulated into believing heresy and seeking emotional validation rather than looking to the source of truth in Christ and His Word. The result is that people doubt and question their spiritual sanity.
Here are a few common signs of gaslighting:
» refusing to talk about an important topic.
» shaming you for bringing attention to an issue.
» accusing you of being in the wrong.
» persuading you that a problem is not a problem.
» minimizing your concerns while accusing you of being too sensitive or picky.
» using loving words as a weapon.
One of the biggest indicators of gaslighting is that victims are encouraged to doubt themselves. Their motives or sense of reality are questioned, causing them to become unstable and confused. The objective of gaslighting is doubt.
It’s this latter point that is of particular interest. While there are arguably countless examples of spiritual gaslighting in the church today, the attack on the assurance of salvation is one of the most common. Doubt has become commendable, while assurance is often demonized. Gaslighting distorts even the grace of God and redefines it as evil. The objective truth of the Bible is that eternal life is a gift freely given to those who have believed in Jesus alone for that gift (John 3:16; 4:10, 14; 10:28-30; Eph 2:8-9). To believe in Jesus for eternal life is to be assured of one’s salvation. The gift is eternal and thus cannot be lost. John tells us that–through the witness of the Father–we can and should be assured of our salvation (1 John 5:9-12). The Lord taught assurance, desires that unbelievers be assured of His promise of eternal life, and wants His children to remain confident in the knowledge that they possess eternal life, which can never be lost. The sure light of the Word of God is far preferable to the distorted gaslighting the masses offer.
Sadly, many have been gaslit into thinking assurance is unattainable, unnecessary, or even outright sinful. Let’s now consider three ways the church has been gaslit into either minimizing this doctrine or forsaking it altogether.
Three Ways Assurance Is Gaslit Today
SAYING THAT ASSURANCE IS IRRATIONAL
One of the more common examples of gaslighting concerning assurance is found in the popular teaching known as Lordship Salvation. Proponents of this view argue that assurance is found in our works and that falling into sin indicates you are not saved. They call for people to look at their lifestyles for assurance.
On his website, Grace to You, John MacArthur says this about assurance:
You’ve got to be able to look at your life, and if you ever are to know assurance, you must see a pattern of holy living in your life. You don’t see that, there’s no way that you can conclude that you’re saved, logically.1
In the same sermon, MacArthur says that assurance is a blessing given to believers who have good works. He argues that if a person is suffering from doubts, this is a sign that they are not truly saved.
This quote contains at least two indications of spiritual gaslighting. First, the listener is encouraged to doubt his salvation based on subjective evidence. Lordship teachers place their assurance on the ever-changing basis of our works.
A key component of gaslighting is psychologically manipulating the victim into feeling unstable and irrational due to subjective evidence. Doubt is one of the biggest indicators that gaslighting is going on. Part of the goal is to make the victim dependent upon the abuser so that they find stability in them rather than in objective truth. Instead of looking to Christ and His promise of eternal life to those who believe in Him, MacArthur encourages his listeners to look at their works for stability. Since no believer lives perfectly, this will inevitably cause the Christian to suffer from instability and fear. In addition, church leaders have historically used their positions of authority to make their congregations seek comfort and certainty through them rather than Christ. This, too, is an indication of gaslighting.
Second, this quote is especially noteworthy due to MacArthur’s inclusion of the word logically. As mentioned above, gaslighting often causes the victim to question his sanity. Arguably, MacArthur is doing that in this quote. For him and other Lordship teachers, assurance of salvation is accessible only to those living righteously. The implication is that those who have assurance even when they fail are spiritually illogical. The believer is therefore made to doubt his salvation by looking at subjective evidence and then, while in a vulnerable position, to question his spiritual sanity.
ASSERTING THAT CLAIMING ASSURANCE IS ARROGANT
Another example of spiritual gaslighting can be found in another of MacArthur’s sermons. In response to a young woman struggling with assurance, MacArthur argues that her struggle is evidence of her salvation. The young woman’s lack of assurance is redefined as a good thing. Please note that while MacArthur has argued that the lack of assurance is an indication of an unbeliever, in this example, he claims it is evidence of salvation! The fact that these are contradictory statements seems lost on MacArthur.
Other Lordship proponents claim that the lack of assurance indicates humility and that if someone claims to be sure of his salvation, this is prideful and sinful. Once again, gaslighting techniques are evident. One of the indicators of gaslighting is convincing victims that their real problems are not an issue. The young girl asking MacArthur about assurance is struggling and seeking truth. MacArthur’s response is to convince her that her very real concerns aren’t a problem at all. In addition, assurance is vilified and redefined as arrogant.
Even people with assurance are being told to question themselves and their motives. Uncertainty is proclaimed to be more righteous than assurance.
CLAIMING THAT ASSURANCE IS NOT ESSENTIAL
The previous examples of spiritual gaslighting are well-known. They are also easier to spot because they have been around for a while. Fortunately, they have been debunked by faithful teachers. However, there is a third form of gaslighting that has begun to creep into the theological landscape.
In the age of inclusivity, objective truth is now labeled as closed-minded and arrogant, while open-mindedness is heralded as the supreme virtue. The unbelieving world claims that nothing should be held too tightly. To believe anything with certainty is perceived as prideful or legalistic. Sadly, this postmodern thinking has also infiltrated the church. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of assurance.
For example, Focused Free Grace proponents uphold the importance of assurance and stress that for people to be saved, they must understand that they have a life that can never end. Sadly, this is often explained as adding an unbiblical condition to everlasting life. Focused Free Grace is attacked for making the narrow way too narrow. The fact that the saving message is inherently exclusive (Matt 7:13-14) is offensive to many. In addition, assurance of salvation has been increasingly labeled a peripheral issue, even among those who believe in the doctrine. Flexible Free Grace advocates argue that assurance is not an essential element of the saving message. Those who take this view desire inclusivity over certainty.
As stated above, another indication of gaslighting is the minimalization and deflection of issues. In this subtle form of manipulation, when an important concern needs to be addressed, the victims will be told they are too sensitive and that their worries are not worthy of discussion. Such attacks have been made on those who hold that assurance is of the essence of saving faith. In this form of spiritual gaslighting, unity is said to be the most important doctrine, while assurance is diminished and deemed divisive.
Once again, gaslighting techniques creep into the discussion. Seemingly loving language is used. Words like unity and peacemaking are elevated, while division over sound doctrine becomes increasingly demonized. Despite the fact that division is often necessary, taught, and even praised in the NT (2 John 7-11; Rev 2:2, 6), Focused Free Grace is labeled as legalistic and an overreaction when it stresses the importance of assurance. As in the previous examples, the victims are called to doubt themselves and question their motives. They are even defamed as evil. Objective truth is redefined.
It should be noted that even well-meaning Christians can be gaslit into this way of thinking. Like a wife who defends her abusive husband, believers can be manipulated into becoming some of the biggest defenders of heresy.
In all of this, the father of lies can be found. Satan is the author of confusion and doubt. He is the master of spiritual gaslighting. In comparison, the Apostle Paul tells us that God is not the author of confusion but of peace (1 Cor 14:33). Satan desires that people lack assurance and be “tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14; cf. Luke 8:12). Therefore, it is unsurprising that when sound doctrine is proclaimed, it is hated by the world and redefined as evil. In light of these issues, those who strive to walk in the truth should cling to Paul’s instruction to Timothy:
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
Kathryn Wright and her husband, Dewey, live in Columbia, SC. She is the GES missions coordinator, women’s conference speaker, writer, and Zoom teacher.
1 www.gty.org. The Doctrine of Assurance. Accessed 10/25/2023.