The word of the year: Gaslighting

Merriam-Webster has a formula for choosing their word of the year. It involves the number of times a word is searched on their site throughout the year, eliminating words that are frequently searched for spelling or punctuation. 

The word gaslighting was chosen as the 2022 word of the year because it was a term most searched for its meaning. 

What does the word mean, and why should that be a subject for this week’s blog post?

What does gaslighting mean?

Merriam-Webster’s broad definition of gaslighting is: “The act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” 

Interestingly, the definition read most often was this: “the psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.” 

What caused gaslighting to be the word of the year?

A HuffPost article reported that the word gaslighting had a 1740 percent increase in lookups for the term throughout the year. Why was that? 

Usually, a specific event sparks a search, but, in the case of gaslighting, the increase happened each month throughout the year. Gaslighting isn’t a new word. It is actually traced back to a play written in the 1940s. (For more on the history of gaslighting, see “What does gaslighting mean? Is gaslighting in the Bible?”

Why then has the word made a comeback, and why should Christians pay attention? 

The HuffPost article explained the rise in interest saying, “During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and then during his time in the White House, the media frequently used the term ‘gaslighting’ to describe his habit of making claims that were patently not true. The United States government also used the word this year to characterize Russia’s propaganda and misinformation strategy during its invasion of Ukraine.” 

Could it be that people are interested in the word gaslighting because our various forms of media and communication have become less trustworthy? 

People are feeling “misled” by the television news and by their political leaders. People feel like they can no longer trust what they hear and question what they have grown up believing. 

Why should the church pay attention?

The church should pay attention because there is great news to consider. Barna has been studying the church and cultural trends for more than four decades now. They have discovered a surprising trend. 

Millennials and the next generation, called Gen Z, are returning to church. The Barna article reported, “Although Millennials (and, emerging behind them, Gen Z) are known for declines in religiosity, data show that, since 2019, the percentage of Millennials reporting weekly church attendance has increased from 21 percent to 39 percent.” 

Churches have a reputation for telling the truth that our culture can be drawn toward these days, especially the younger generations. People want to trust those who lead. The church plays an important role in the trends and values of our culture. 

We should be wise about the influence of our witness. 

Wisdom is timeless truth

King Solomon was blessed by God with the gift of wisdom. He had great wisdom because that blessing is what Solomon most wanted (1 Kings 3:1–15). I’ve always been a fan of the book of Ecclesiastes because it was likely written by King Solomon at the end of his very fascinating, amazing life. During his reign, the nation of Israel rose to be the world power. 

Ecclesiastes 7 is one of the most practical chapters in the Bible (although I’m not a huge fan of Solomon’s take on women!). Ecclesiastes 7 discusses the difference between living wisely and living with folly. Verse 12 of that chapter says, “For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.” 

I love the phrase “the protection of wisdom.” Sometimes we forget that God wants to be our protector. We look for protection in so many ways these days. We think we are “okay” if our bank accounts, our doctors, or our politicians say we are. We feel safer when we set our alarms or live in a safe neighborhood. Yet, we also know those protections are temporary and not guaranteed. Solomon understood that and said, “Wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.” God’s wisdom is our best protection. 

Wisdom is the opposite of gaslighting. Gaslighting misleads and deceives while God’s wisdom is a guide to pure, certain truth.  

Social media has contributed to gaslighting in our world. How many pictures on Facebook showed the tantrums, spills, or burnt food that happened on Thanksgiving Day? We view pictures of happy faces knowing there are some “real” stories behind those smiles. 

Gaslighting is about misleading people, and there is a lot of that in our culture today. I considered making a list, but you are able to make your own. Consider the many ways our culture has been “mis-led” by using words to rephrase and misrepresent the truth. Consider the various forms of social media and how people who consume “pictures” can be abused or misled. 

Solomon, on the other hand, speaks proverbs that give wisdom, not misdirection. Gaslighting has been around for a long time; Solomon just used the word folly to describe the bad behaviors. In the last verse of Ecclesiastes 7 he writes, “See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (v. 29). 

God created us to live wisely, with his truth. God created us to be people of value and godly character. He wanted us to have a culture of truth and integrity rather than schemes like gaslighting.  

Our daily choice

I think Jesus would like the opportunity to “manipulate” our thoughts for a godly advantage. Truthfully, when we made Jesus our Lord, we gave him the right to influence our thoughts and actions. We should want to think of ourselves like the Lord would “cause us” to think about ourselves. The thoughts Jesus would convince us to think would be authored by our Creator, who absolutely knows what is best for our lives. Jesus taught us to make one decision that will dramatically change our lives and witness.  

Jesus told his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount how to live each day with a godly perspective. He said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21). 

We live in a culture that searched for the term gaslighting most often. What does that tell us about the way many people are feeling today? 

People want to find truth they can trust.  

How does the influence of Jesus’ message to his disciples provide an answer for the angst in our culture? 

Jesus said our hearts will be drawn to whatever we treasure. That is the wisdom of Christ, and it will always be truth for our lives and our choices.  

Godliness is the opposite of gaslighting. 

Just imagine if godliness became Merriam-Webster’s word someday! 

That’s a hope-filled goal for God’s people.