Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where the abuser makes the victim question their reality, memories, and sanity.
Gaslighting is abuse. Unfortunately, it’s not limited to romantic relationships or friendships; it can also happen within religious communities, including the Christian church.
Gaslighting within toxic religion takes the form of blaming the victim’s struggles or pain on God. When Christians gaslight, they may say things like, “God is testing you,” “God is punishing you,” or “God has a plan for your suffering.” These statements can incredibly damage the victim’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Taking these phrases to heart can mean you look at a bad incident and consider yourself at fault because you are ‘bad,’ or perhaps, you don’t stand up for yourself because you think ‘you deserve it.’
There’s a common thread in Christianity that God tests those He loves, which can leave people stuck in cycles of feeling either like they need to be wary of any goodness that comes their way because they aren’t ‘good enough’ to be tested right now, and might be veering off course, or that your suffering is noble and you should withstand it well. Either way it isolates the person and leaves them second-guessing any good thing coming their way.
By blaming the victim’s abuse on God, Christians who gaslight effectively absolve themselves of any responsibility for the harm they have done.
Instead of acknowledging the victim’s pain and working to address it, they use God as a shield to deflect blame. Side-stepping responsibility can leave the victim feeling isolated, confused, and invalidated. If you are new to deconstructing your faith, this can lead to additional confusion because you want answers within your community and are asking good questions. Don’t be dismayed at your journey ahead by people’s answers. If you need help figuring out your next steps, I have a Faith Deconstruction Quiz to help you figure that out. In the meantime, being aware of when people are trying to be helpful but missing the mark, versus gaslighting in a harmful way is important for your mental safety, and energy.
Christians gaslight when they use their faith to dismiss or belittle the victim’s experiences.
Within marriage, a Christian husband might tell their spouse he’s struggling in their relationship because the wife isn’t “submitting to God’s will.” He might use this language to manipulate their partner into believing she’s the problem rather than acknowledging their issues in the relationship.
In the mental health sphere, if someone is struggling with depression, a Christian may say, “Just pray about it,” or “You’re not trusting God enough.” While prayer and faith can be powerful tools for healing, they are not a substitute for professional help or support. In a flourishing, healthy life, there’s room for both. Remember that our world is hard, and filled with news outlets constantly telling us the worst thing happening in this moment.
Taking care of your mental health by going to a doctor, or taking meds, doesn’t mean you aren’t trusting God enough, it means you are taking care of the body and mind you were given so you can show up well in your own life.
The system is rigged for anxiety, fear, and worry, and being told there’s nothing to worry about can be spiritual bypassing and turning a blind eye to people in need, or ignoring very real issues in our world.
So, how can we recognize gaslighting within the Christian community, and what can we do about it?
Gaslighting can take many forms, including denying the victim’s reality, trivializing their experiences, and blaming them for their struggles. If you feel like you’re being gaslit, trust your instincts and seek support from a trusted friend or professional.
It’s essential to hold Christians accountable for their actions. If someone uses their faith to gaslight you or others, call them out, and then walk away. It may be uncomfortable, but standing up for yourself and others struggling makes a difference.
Sadly, Christians commonly claim that God is using them as an instrument of correction or that their words may hurt, but they follow God’s will. They may use scripture to manipulate and control others because “the Bible is clear.”
This bypassing can be a dangerous way of thinking because it encourages people to keep doing harm.
Gaslighty Christians have been conditioned to believe in the depths of their soul that they are doing what is best for your soul’s future safety. But it’s not actually helping people. Instead, it’s just protecting the toxic system that shaped them. Aligning with (and defending) strict dogma feels safe for some people, and stepping outside those lines by deconstructing or having questions can be too much for them to handle. This may be a sign for you to set some boundaries and remember that not everyone is right for you to share your heart with in this season of deconstructing.
They may not have the capacity to hold space for you. and turn to gaslight in an attempt to pressure you back into compliance. Not all comments made that are hurtful are gaslighting on purpose, and that’s also important to remember as you heal and process.
When you return again and again to a myopic community and hold space for all of you, it’s a recipe for heartache.
Finally, it’s essential to prioritize your own mental health and well-being. If Christians gaslight you in your community, seeking support from a therapist or support group may be helpful, I have a variety of resources as well from Private Coaching to a community with others who are also deconstructing their faith. If you aren’t ready to reach out to anyone yet and are trying to get your bearings, here’s a list of books on deconstructing that I recommend. Remember, you are not alone; your experiences and feelings are valid. It is possible to learn to trust yourself again after leaving toxic religion, but it takes time and effort, and giving yourself grace.
Deconstructing doesn’t happen overnight, and changing your community or becoming more aware of the harmful behaviors around you can take a while. This doesn’t mean you aren’t serious about deconstructing. If you grew up with apologetics, you may feel you need to be firm in what you believe at any given point in time, but not knowing and staying open-handed is a gift, and shows an open heart to learning. When you are raised to have a closed fist around Christian beliefs, deconstructing can be severely jarring for those around you, but trust your process and your nudge.
Spirit won’t lead you astray.
Gaslighting within the Christian community is a severe issue that can have long-lasting effects on a victim’s mental health and faith. If you notice someone in your community using these tactics, set some healthy boundaries, and speak up. When you do so it reminds others that it’s not okay, and signals to others who may still be deconstructing in secret that you are a safe person to come to with their own questions.
By recognizing the signs of gaslighting and choosing to hold Christians accountable and setting healthy boundaries, you can put some distance between yourself and them when Christians gaslight and blame it on God.
Angela is a Faith Deconstruction Coach and host of The Deconstructing Faith Summit who helps people break free from toxic religious culture & empowers them to recover from #churchhurt. She has led online ministries for a decade, enjoys working with clients 1:1, in groups, and is a dynamic conference speaker. She’s a Lark’s Song Certified Life Coach who reaches thousands of people in 40+ countries each month on Facebook, IG, Twitter, Pinterest, and her blog.
She’s a firstborn, Enneagram 8, Gen Xer who loves to question everything. She holds a BA from Indiana Wesleyan and a Masters in Leadership from Wesley Seminary. Her graduate research project focused on leadership development and opportunities for Gen X women in the US church.
Angela and her unique online ministry are featured in Lyz Lenz’s 2019 book God Land: Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America. She has published articles in Hope for Women and HOPE is Now magazines. She has been featured in The New Republic, Publisher’s Today, and Religion News Service.
Her first book, Deconstructing Your Faith Without Losing Yourself, Will be published by Eerdmans in February 2023.
Angela is also a wife, mom to 5, and a proud resident of Marion, Indiana with her family when they’re not traveling the US in their RV.