At the start of the pandemic in America during March 2020, a friend and I emailed several large churches in our town encouraging them to take their services online as the pandemic began to spread in our town.
This was during the early days of COVID-19 when we didn’t know much about how it spread other than the fact that it was airborne. We politely urged them to consider that limited time in enclosed public spaces was the best way to prevent it from spreading and mutating into more virulent forms.
As many states announced quarantines and lock downs in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19, churches were a vital piece of the puzzle. Although the president at that time and his administration downplayed COVID-19 and politicized safety measures such as indoor masking, we saw that many churches in our region were meeting to discuss safety measures.
Some of the largest Baptist churches in our town did take their services online in response to the pleas of public health officials and doctors, despite some higher level leaders in the SBC saying that they should still meet in person and “preach the Gospel.” It felt like public health or preaching the Gospel were mutually exclusive.
Yet, the most disturbing response of a local church in our area, a nondenominational church just outside of town, came on its Facebook page.
The church posted an image of a man’s silhouette standing with his arms spread open in front of a blinding light. The bold lettered caption read, “Freedom from fear.”
The post announced that they would continue to meet despite the fears of the pandemic. They would meet this pandemic with FAITH, not fear.
I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff on Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff posted by Christians on Facebook. But this post was damaging on many levels.
It was bad enough for a church to ignore a public health emergency that threatened thousands of lives. Yet, the entire premise of the post pitted medical caution against Christian faith.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Christians resist the advice of medical experts or avoid the benefits of preventative medicine like a vaccine. Yet, it was the first time that I saw scientific and medical ignorance paraded as a greater act of faith.
I could understand that some may not be as cautious about masking as I am. And since then, I can understand that some may want to wait for a larger sample size of vaccination before getting a COVID vaccine. Yet, framing a reckless decision that defies medical advice as an act of faith is on par with a guy suffering from high cholesterol and chest pains downing steak dinners every night and boasting of his faith in God’s protection.
Ignoring sound medical advice isn’t an act of faith, just as heeding sound medical advice isn’t an act of fear. If that guy with high cholesterol dramatically changes his diet because of his doctor’s advice, would we chide him for not “trusting his heart with Jesus”?
Of course not. That would be absurd and actually quite cruel to a man who is trying to care for his body. In fact, it would be an attack on reality itself, which is exactly where too many Christians have ended up today.
When that church posted their “Faith over fear” announcement, they were, in effect, spiritually gaslighting people in our community.
Gaslighting attacks someone’s judgment or perception of reality. It’s manipulative and advances a false version of reality that aims to sow doubt and may even cause someone to doubt his/her own sanity. Adding a spiritual twist to gaslighting can make it even harder to pin down.
It can be especially disorienting when pastors, who are assumed to be spiritual caregivers, spiritually gaslight the Christians they are supposed to care for.
When someone takes a precaution for the sake of their own safety or the safety of their family based on sound medical advice that is widely accepted and proven, there is no reason to call that person fearful or to doubt that person’s faith.
We all know that a healthy dose of fear can help us make good choices. Faithful people engage with “fear” all of the time.
We don’t let our 3-year-old daughter out front of our house without us outside as well. You could say that we fear for her safety, but the reality is that we are taking reasonable cautions based on how close our home is to the road.
Christians also hardly bat an eye at the concept of fearing God. In fact, if you have faith in God, then you also likely fear God, for you recognize that God is merciful AND powerful. There is respect and awe for God’s power, even if you find comfort in God’s patience and love. We obey because we take God’s mercy and power seriously.
All of this brings us back to why a church would spiritually gaslight people in the first place. Why would a church challenge the very foundations of reality during a national health crisis and twist the knife with a spiritual challenge?
We can’t underestimate the impact that manipulative and false information has had on our society. A small group of doctors and “experts” continue to push false information about masks, vaccines, and other safety measures during the pandemic.
Manipulative, agenda-driven news stations, social media personalities, radio hosts, and podcasters continue to agitate their listeners with false medical advice and agitating conflict. They’ve effectively created an “us vs. them” mentality where their fans are the truth seekers and the rest of society is just “sheeple” at the mercy of “agenda driven” doctors and scientists.
It’s hard to believe how effective and widespread these false narratives have become, and it’s quite challenging to respond to this gaslighting with patience and empathy. The place where I need to begin is clarity, because spiritual gaslighting, like any kind of gaslighting, can be upsetting, angering, and disorienting.
We can only respond with prayerful charity when we understand the full nature of the offense against us. If an absurd attack on reality is being spiritualized, we must say that it is such regardless of the person’s motives.
Without some clarity and a firm grounding in the reality of the situation, gaslighting will continue to frustrate and enrage us. Spiritual gaslighting can lead to guilt, uncertainty, and a deep unsettling of one’s faith.
Since that church’s poorly conceived post on social media, I’ve made two significant changes to the way I interact with information online.
First, I pay attention really well to stories I read in the news. I look at what experts say and try to evaluate how unanimous they are in their opinions so that I won’t be unsettled by gaslighting and false narratives.
Second, I try to avoid reacting outright to gaslighting or false narratives. If something unsettles me, I try to sit with it, pray about it, and dig down into what exactly is weighing on my mind.
Oftentimes, there’s nothing I can do to change a gaslighting situation. But I think it counts for something if I avoid responding with anger or letting gaslighting seriously disrupt my thoughts.
There aren’t easy times, but I believe we can find a bit of peace and hope by guarding our own hearts, examining what’s on our minds, and entrusting ourselves to God, even as we also trust in the proven advice of medical professionals.
Read more about the way Thomas Merton responded to the absurd challenges of his time in my eBook The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton.