Christian Prayer and Spiritual Gaslighting During a Crisis

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.

Image credit.

Pride Isn’t Just a Fall. Sometimes It Kills

One of the strangest experiences in my career as a writer has been writing for a welding company for about ten years.

I learned a lot about welding helmets, the latest welding machines, and the biggest trends in welding supplies and accessories. I logged untold hours on YouTube welding channels, analyzed the benefits of several different welding processes, and got to intimately know the websites of many leading brands in the industry.

In short, I was experienced in “talking shop” about welding without ever actually stepping into a welding shop. For all of the research I’d done into the processes and products that helped customers buy products, you really didn’t want me setting foot in a welding shop, striking an arc, and then afflicting two pieces of metal with it.

Since welding uses a lot of electricity and gives off plenty of sparks, it would have been a huge mistake for me to assume I had anything to offer in a welding shop.

For me to confuse hours of online research with the hard-earned dues paid by welders would have been misguided at best and probably quite prideful. In fact, any kind of online researcher who claims to be equal to, or superior to, an actual hands-on expert is most certainly quite prideful.

Yet, pride is hard to nail down. I wonder if we overlook it because we try to give someone the benefit of a doubt. “Well, he was wrong, but at least he meant well.” Or we may say, “He was just trying his best to be responsible by learning something new.”

But isn’t rejecting expertise inherently irresponsible and prideful?

In addition, perhaps we are so inundated with pride as a society that it’s almost impossible to spot. It’s just becoming the de facto way of living.

I can’t say for sure, but I do feel like I’m just swimming in an ocean of unidentified pride each time I walk into a store or coffee shop throughout the pandemic where people have refused to wear masks during a highly contagious airborne pandemic.

We could surely mention how science has been politicized and people are inundated by so much misinformation, but does any of that excuse the pride of thinking we know better than a doctor or researcher with decades of hands-on experience?

The past year or more have been especially galling for me because I’m surrounded each day by pastors, church volunteers, and devout Christians. They are eager to go out with their Bibles, but I have rarely seen any of them inside with masks on during some of the most highly contagious and highest rates of infection during the pandemic.

I surely understand the hesitancy to wear a mask when vaccination rates are high and local infection rates are low. I’m talking about resistance to masks, to say nothing of safe vaccines, during the most dire moments of emergency during the pandemic.

Would the prideful flaunting of a public health crisis count as a sin to these Christians? I doubt it, but why wouldn’t it? Isn’t it the very definition of pride to believe you know better than the experts in the medical field?

I can imagine the mask-resistant Baptists in my town would take a different view of things if I stepped into a biblical Hebrew class and told the professor that I had a better idea of how to translate a Psalm based on my year of biblical Hebrew twenty years ago.

How is that imagined pride of my Hebrew “prowess” any different from Christians imagining they know better than doctors and researchers giving the recommendations to wear a mask in an indoor space?

We are familiar with the teaching that pride comes before a fall, but in America today, pride also comes before sickness and even death if we continue to reject the guidance of experts who continue to be ignored by far too many.

I know first-hand that it’s unpleasant to face pride. Yet, considering the consequences of pride and believing anyone who has done some “online research” over an actual medical expert, the discomfort of confessing pride is way better than someone slowly suffocating to death while on a ventilator.

From that standpoint, wearing a mask indoors doesn’t seem like a huge risk or inconvenience for the sake of others.

With a constantly evolving pandemic, the guidance of medical experts may change over time. New information may be discovered, and our guidance will change.

If I change anything that I do, it will surely be done based on the consensus recommendations of doctors and medical researchers.

The thought of an internet-researching novice like me in the welding shop is bad enough for my own safety. I can’t imagine an internet-researching novice can do much better when it comes to public health recommendations during a pandemic.

Photo by Marvin Esteve on Unsplash

Jesus Won’t Give Up on Doubting Disciples

I preached the following sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the passage Luke 24:36-48.

When we moved to our new house, one of our boys suddenly forgot how to close the front door. With a two-year-old constantly on the hunt for new adventures, this became a major safety concern. The two-year-old charged out that open door plenty, and it seemed that nothing we said could help our son remember to close the door.

We didn’t tell him once. We didn’t tell him twice. We didn’t tell him three times. We frankly lost count.

Out of desperation, I finally turned to a right brain activity that I should have tried right from the start. I told him that this isn’t a punishment. It was only a reminder. I simply asked him to draw a picture of a closed door.

He then drew a bright, gleaming, happy closed door with rays of sunshine shooting out of it.

After that, he finally remembered to close the door.

But adults are also pretty good at forgetting what other people have told us. When I lined up for my second dose of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19, my mom warned me that she felt bad the next day. My dad was wiped out for days. One of my sisters had a rough time as well.

After the shot, I braced myself and eventually took some Tylenol in the evening as a slight headache showed up. In the morning the slight headache retreated once again with some Tylenol, and I medically cleared myself for a family outing to Paris Landing State Park. I triumphantly texted a friend who was getting her second shot that morning, “Just a headache! All good!”

I wanted her to know that some people could beat the odds. Maybe she would too.

While our kids braved the icy water of Kentucky Lake by submerging themselves one centimeter at a time, I took it easy on a camp chair. The sun shone bright, but there was no way I was diving into that freezing lake. I felt worse and worse as the afternoon drew on, tired and sluggish. I reasoned that it must be the heat as we drove home–perhaps dehydration.

Yet, even in the comfort of our home, I still felt like I’d been hit by a truck well into the evening. Finally, I remembered that I’d been warned by nearly everyone in my family that I will feel bad after my vaccine shot. I should have known better, but I had developed a narrative in my mind that I only had a headache. It turned out that I stayed off my feet for the following day as well.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus was trying to get a message across to his disciples that they just weren’t grasping.

The gist of it is this: Jesus knew that he would be handed over to his enemies, his enemies would kill him, and he would triumph by rising from the dead.

In fact, Luke records three separate occasions when Jesus told his disciples precisely what would happen, and Luke carefully notes that they did not grasp what he meant.

The disciples were thinking of thrones for themselves, Jesus rising as the new King of Israel, and the Romans being defeated. They had a picture in their minds of God’s intervention in their lives and in their nation that prevented them from grasping the events that Jesus had precisely predicted.

The disciples could not understand how Jesus could be the king who is starting the rule of God’s Kingdom on earth and yet his most decisive actions would involve his death and resurrection.

They didn’t see how these pieces could fit together with God’s all-powerful Kingdom, and so they selectively listened to Jesus–eager to learn how to perform miracles but less eager to learn about Jesus bearing suffering and death in order to literally rise above both.

Jesus’ victory came through Jesus joining himself with the worst that this world has to offer, defeating it, and then joining himself to his people so that they can experience that victory. It’s hard enough to understand that today, and with so many other hopes and dreams tied to Jesus, the disciples sure didn’t get it.

And so, when the disciples saw Jesus die, most hid in an upper room.

When some women from their group of disciples reported that Jesus had appeared to them and angels had explained his resurrection to them, the disciples still doubted.

Peter ran off to the tomb and checked it out. It seemed that the women were on to something, but a Resurrection? Even though the Jews believed in the Resurrection, which was quite unlike the Greek and Roman religions, something still didn’t click.

Some even set off for Emmaus. They were done, even if the women and Peter spoke of some hopeful developments.

Did anyone speak up and say, “Wait a minute… Maybe you guys should stick around for a day. I think Jesus predicted this would happen.”

Probably not. It sounds like most of them just doubted.

And so the disciples stayed put, waiting around until a knock on the door. The two disciples who had left for Emmaus rushed in to report that Jesus had appeared to them on the road. They hadn’t recognized him at first, but they finally figured it out when he broke bread with them.

We don’t know what the disciples made of this report because it seems that they were then joined by another guest. This time, he didn’t knock.

Jesus just appeared.

Now, remember, the disciples were told by Jesus three times that he would rise from the dead. The women reported seeing Jesus and an angel. Peter confirmed that the tomb was open and empty. The men traveling to Emmaus saw Jesus.

They had all of these predictions and reports. They had a bounty of scriptures in the Old Testament about God’s suffering servant. And yet, their first reaction to Jesus… was to completely freak out.

They thought that Jesus was a ghost.

On the one hand, can we blame them for thinking Jesus was a ghost if he was cutting corners by skipping the door?

And in fairness, it sounds like Resurrected Jesus looked a little different from the Jesus they knew. In fact, the words used to describe their reactions are also used in passages where angels appeared. So he likely appeared in a more magnificent glorified state that threw them for a loop.

Still, they had a mountain of evidence all pointing to a resurrection, and they still hung back in fear. What would it take for them to believe that this was Jesus?

It turned out that Jesus had to use the break glass option, the emergency backup plan of absolute last resort, the one thing that would prove he is the resurrected Jesus in bodily form and not a ghost. Jesus… had… to… eat… broiled… fish.

Now, I’m no stranger to broiled fish. It’s gross. My family used to go fishing all of the time, so family gatherings often included various kinds of fish. We frequented seafood restaurants near the Jersey shore while growing up. I’ve had warm, heavily seasoned broiled fish, and it still tastes gross.

Jesus offered to eat broiled fish, but it was also likely cold. And it was also likely unseasoned or poorly seasoned. Yet, once he scarfed down some bland, cold, gross broiled fish, and the disciples touched his body, they finally relaxed.

It’s as if they just needed to see someone with a stomach of steel before they could believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

*****

Just the fact that Jesus had to eat broiled fish reminds us that the disciples’ joy over the resurrection was mixed with doubt and uncertainty about the future. They were still hiding in an upper room, trying to piece together different accounts from individuals who had seen Jesus.

In a state of doubt, wonder, and confusion, the disciples then just about jumped out of their skin when Jesus showed up among them. And even when they finally received the good news of the resurrection, they had a long way to go before the life-changing moment of Pentecost.

Between Good Friday and Pentecost, there were quite a lot of doubts, misunderstandings of Jesus’ message, and confusion over what Jesus had said. The disciples were in bad shape. If you were going to figure out which movement, the Jesus movement or the Roman Empire, would have a longer lasting impact in human history, Rome would have been the easy choice on Easter morning–even if an empty tomb hinted that things were about to change in a really big way.

None of the disciples lost their spot due to doubts and confusion, but Jesus also didn’t accept their doubt as a static state. He invited his disciples to return to the scriptures, to revisit their past conversations, to consider what they see before them, and to wait patiently for the illuminating Spirit.

Jesus even steeled himself and said, “Hey y’all, watch THIS!” as he gamely scarfed down a hunk of broiled fish.

Doubt isn’t a dead end, and Jesus offered several paths to take after one vision for the future fell apart. Doubt can be a very real and very honest starting point for the journey of faith. It can also be a detour of sorts along the way. Yet I don’t see Jesus abandoning us to our doubts or settling for people who are doubting and confused.

I wonder if this speaks to our own pendulum swings today between prideful certainty and a doubt fest of endless deconstruction. At a certain point we have to ask if perhaps we’ve missed something or perhaps God can reveal something to us in the people around us, whether we can  find fresh insight through another look at scripture, whether we may find Jesus when we take a walk, or whether our faith can be rekindled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe the academic calendar is just burned into our family’s routines right now, but this upper room moment in today’s Gospel sure feels like a final exam where the disciples are still drawing stick figures in the margins because they just aren’t sure about the answers.

Some are likely still clinging to the hope that Jesus will restore the Kingdom to Israel and that he’ll finally be an earthly king with the spiritual stuff out of the way.

All are confused about Jesus showing up like a ghost that can walk through walls but still eats fish. Jesus is unfamiliar enough that two disciples on the road to Emmaus can miss him, yet they can finally figure things out in the right context.

*****

Perhaps this story reminds us that Jesus himself will say things that sound pretty darn explicit and clear, and yet we’ll just completely miss the message. Even when he spelled out the details of his death and resurrection, his disciples just couldn’t process something so terrible happening. When Jesus fulfilled his own prophecy, doubts remained.

We’re going to miss stuff. We’re going to be confused. We will be wrong about things. That doesn’t disqualify us, but if we aren’t humble and receptive, we may miss out on intimacy with God and the deeply fulfilling call that Jesus has for us.

There isn’t a one-size fits all response to our doubts and confusioin. Jesus offers his disciples multiple paths to find him. Jesus appeared to his followers in the garden, on the road, and even in the upper room. Jesus walked on roads and walked through walls.

Jesus knew his disciples feared the future. They weren’t going to get the future for Israel that they wanted and that they read about in scripture. They had to completely rethink the story of their faith and of their lives around a Messiah who conquers and rebuilds the nation of Israel through his death and Resurrection.

This is mystical and mysterious and confusing. It’s a message that they need God’s help in sharing. That, in fact, is why Jesus told them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

If they can’t figure out the Resurrection even after Jesus spelled it out for them, you better believe they were going to need divine intervention.

And here is the crazy thing, even though things appeared hopeless, confusing, and on the fast track to NoWheresville, Pentecost changed everything.

With the wisdom of the Spirit on their side, the disciples staged a dramatic rally. They went from doubting, confused, and fearful to wise, clear-headed, and courageous. They wanted the rest of the world to know that Jesus is present, that Jesus has conquered the darkness, and that the first step is a change of direction toward his illuminating light.

The disciples had light to share with the world, and that same calling remains for us today. That promise of Jesus’ light and illuminating wisdom is ours to claim, to patiently wait on, and to experience. This gift of God’s light is meant to be shared for the benefit of others even as it shapes us from within.

As we wait for Pentecost, perhaps we can examine our hearts, asking which doubts linger, what confuses us, and what we just can’t sort out about Jesus and our faith. Jesus will stick with us whether we’re feeling stuck at a dead end, whether we’re worn down, or whether we’re not even sure where to begin.

Doubt or confusion does not disqualify you. Even the disciples started there.

Jesus loves you so deeply that he has sent his Holy Spirit among you. He is present with you even now no matter what’s on your mind. And Jesus cares so deeply for you and for his people that he even once ate an entire piece of cold, bland broiled fish. Amen.

A Guest Post for Rachel Held Evans: How God Handles Our Doubts

A Christian Survival Guide

I’m guest posting today for Rachel Held Evans today, which is both an honor and quite intimidating. Rachel wrote one of the best books about facing our doubts when she shared her personal faith journey in Faith Unraveled. It’s one of the books I recommend in A Christian Survival Guide because of its bracing honesty and commitment to exploring the scriptures. It’s also really well written–which is why it’s intimidating to guest post for Rachel. Thankfully, Rachel has been one of the most generous authors I know, sharing her place with anyone who may have something helpful to share with her readers.

In today’s guest post is adapted from A Christian Survival Guide and addresses the way God deals with Christians who doubt… which is the exact opposite of what I expected for most of my Christian life…

 

A few years ago I felt like prayer had stopped working. In fact, I began to doubt whether it had ever worked at all.

I was just talking to myself in an empty room. Quieting myself to “hear” God really didn’t work either. In fact, that just made things worse. The longer I waited with nothing happening, the more my anxiety kicked into gear, worrying that God really wasn’t going to respond.

I know that some Christians go through a season of doubt like this and can’t survive. They can’t find God and have to give up. In my own case, I held on. I can’t make it sound like I did something better. I just ended up in a different place after seeking prayer and counsel from trusted friends and family who walked with me through that season.

However, I know that many Christians and former Christians haven’t found the same resolution for their doubts. In fact, admitting your doubt feels like admitting failure, if not giving fellow Christians a reason to condemn and judge us for unbelief.

I’ve been on both sides of doubt, playing the part of judge at one point and doubter at another.

It’s easy to be dismissive toward those who have doubts because we really, really don’t want to have the same problems. It’s disturbing to hear that someone who grew up in the same church as you and attended all of the same Bible studies and prayed all of the same prayers is either doubting God or thinking of leaving the faith altogether. Let’s be honest about the problem here: If this person is about to leave the faith or has already left the faith, why can’t the same thing happen to you as well?

What should we do about doubts?

We don’t want doubts to linger, but we need to address them patiently and honestly. Where do we begin?

Read the rest of today’s post at Rachel’s blog.