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Helping Suspicious People

Truth in Love 194

When we’re suspicious, we believe the worst about people rather than the best.

Feb 18, 2019

Dale Johnson: I’m thrilled to have Lou Priolo join us on the podcast today. He’s the Director of Counseling at Valley Dale Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s the president of Competent to Counsel International. Lou, most people are familiar with you and much of your work in the biblical counseling movement. I know personally that I’ve benefited from your work and it’s so good to have you here with us today. 

Lou Priolo: Well, thank you brother. It’s really good to be here. 

Dale Johnson: Now, what we’re talking about today is a resource that you’ve now put into print that I’m very excited about. It’s entitled Suspicion: How to Overcome Paranoid Thinking. It’s always intriguing to me to hear how an author got to the process of writing. Why did you write this particular work? 

Lou Priolo: Well, like with most of the things I write, I try to look for a topic that people struggle with, about which there is nothing or very little written from a biblical perspective. I found myself counseling lots and lots of people, some of whom were worriers, some of whom were jealous, some of whom struggled with other things, but they were also suspicious. There was nothing available that I knew of, from the biblical perspective, to help people identify suspicious thinking and to help them go back to the Scriptures to find biblical remedies for what is actually a very common problem.

There’s a term that’s floating in the culture right now called, “everyday paranoia.” I mean, we are bombarded with all kinds of scary news, things we read in the paper, things we see on television, “We know the government has been keeping track of us. Who knows what other governments are doing?” It’s this idea of, “everyone is watching,” and it does tend to make us more suspicious of other people. This is a bit of a problem because, as Christians, the Bible says our default position, unless we have reason to suspect people, is to believe the best about them. 

Dale Johnson: You mentioned earlier that this is a common theme throughout the Scriptures. Part of it is a natural part of our disposition as sinful people, to always be cautious and trying to be self-protective over ourselves when things happen. Who were some of the people in the Bible that you’re referring to that were suspicious?

Lou Priolo: I think the most notable one is King Saul. “It happened as they were coming, when David returned from killing the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel singing and dancing to meet King Saul with tambourines, with joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang as they played and said, ‘Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.’” Now listen to this, “Then Saul became very angry, for the saying displeased him, and he said, ‘They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they’ve ascribe thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?’” And then it says this, “Saul looked at David with suspicion from that day on” (1 Samuel 18:6).

In the booklet, I actually track the progression of Saul’s suspicion from anger and jealousy, through ranting and attempted murder, fear and dread, and more fear and enmity. It really got a hold of his life. The Hebrew text in verse 9 simply says that, “Saul eyed David from that day on,” that is, he assiduously watched and observed everything that David did and said to determine where his loyalties really lay. He probably asked himself questions like, “Whose side is he on? Is he after my job? Is he stealing the affection of the people? Is he trying to take over my kingdom?” When we’re suspicious, we believe the worst about people rather than the best, and it all started because of jealousy and anger.

Dale Johnson: He’s certainly one of those men where we see suspicion reigning in his heart, and he’s not the only one, there are several others. You mention the idea of attending sins of suspicion; characteristics that we see in people who struggle with consistent suspicion. What does that idea of “attending sins of suspicion” actually mean, and what might some of those be?

Lou Priolo: Often, there are sins that show up in our life, but they don’t show up by themselves. Maybe for a short period of time they do, but as we continue to allow them to control us, other accompanying sins join them. Other similar sins, related sins, lock arms with them and trump into our hearts at the same time or in rapid-fire succession. So, when you’re dealing with a person who’s suspicious, there are other things to look for, because depending on how long the person has been suspicious, these other sins may be in his heart as well. In fact, it may be that suspicion is not the biggest problem that you’re called to help him with as a counselor.

For example, anxiety, or worry, is probably the core of sinful suspicion. Both anxiety and suspicion involve anticipation of some kind of threat, and at the very least, worry tends to intensify the distress of suspicious thinking. In the booklet, I talk about different elements of worry and try to help people learn how to bring their worry under control.

Another thing that goes along with it is evil suspicion. In 1 Timothy 6:4, these two Greek words are used, and they express the idea of “secretly thinking,” conjecturing wicked or malicious thoughts about others, especially pertaining to their motives. That’s another thing that’s sort of a synonym to what we’re talking about, but I think it deserves special mention because the word “evil” is attached to it.

Another thing you see in suspicious people is a lack of faith or an inability or unwillingness to trust God. One of the things we see very often is jealousy, sinful jealousy. Not all jealousy is wrong, God is a jealous God, and Paul was jealous for the Corinthians, but there is a sinful kind of jealousy. Often when you deal with someone who is suspicious, you are also dealing with someone who is struggling with jealousy.

If you could zoom out and categorize suspicion under another name, it’s a form of making a rash judgment; jumping to hasty and unfounded conclusions, especially about other people, based on insufficient evidence. Then another part of that subcategory of rash judgment is judging people’s motives. As Christians, we may judge people’s actions and words and maybe even their attitudes, but one thing the Bible expressly forbids us from judging is their motives. We are not allowed to judge people’s motives. “Therefore, wait until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the motives of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

Another thing is making unjust judgments, slamming the gavel down in our mind or with our mouths and declaring someone guilty on insufficient evidence. As biblical counselors, a lot of times we are called to adjudicate things, and there is so much in the Old Testament and even in the New about the importance of hearing both sides of the story. We have to apply biblical principles of justice and one of the most foundational principles is, if at all possible, you have to hear both sides of the story; you have to look at corroborating evidence. That’s what the Bible teaches about justice.

Some other things include making false accusations when we’re suspicious. It’s really easy to take those suspicious thoughts and verbalize them, and then we’ve committed two sins. We’re not believing the best about the other person in our hearts, but we’re also now falsely accusing other people.

Now, I should say at this point, not all suspicion is wrong. There are times that it’s right and healthy and just to be suspicious of people. We’re not saying that all suspicion is wrong, we’re saying that if you have suspicions about certain things and certain people, it’s one thing to hold them in your heart, trying to believe the best, but we can’t jump to hasty unfounded conclusions without corroborating evidence. It’s important that we say that not all suspicion is wrong. The book was not designed to help people deal with normal, understandable, rational, suspicions. It’s for people who have a pattern of unjustly, unbiblically suspecting other people that this booklet was designed to help. 

Dale Johnson: As you described that, I’m thinking through all the symptoms that you provide there that are common, and for a counselor that’s really helpful for us to be able to see and notice as we discern when somebody’s struggling with these types of sinful patterns of suspicion. Now, it’s one thing for us as the counselor to recognize and discern these things, it’s another thing altogether when we start to talk about causes and things that contribute to this type of sinful suspicion. We know that, unless we can understand a little bit about the causes, we won’t be able to find the remedy very well. It’s important as we think through causes and contributions of sinful suspicion, that we start to identify some of those. What are some of the causes and contributions of this suspicion? 

Lou Priolo: A lot of it is learned behavior. Some people, for reasons they don’t really understand or have long forgotten, have trained themselves to be suspicious. It’s often the result of being influenced by close family members. I love 1 Peter 1:18 in this regard. Maybe you’ve never thought of this verse in the context that we’re speaking of. He says, “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from the futile ways of life,” listen to this, “handed down from your father and forefathers.” We pick up things living, even in a Christian home, that our parents did not intend to teach us, but as the Bible says, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” If you grew up in a family where Mom or Dad worries all the time, though they did not end up saying, “Son, this is how you worry,” but you could just hear the thought patterns and you learn to not trust God, or you learn to be suspicious, or you learn to worry, or you learn to be angry. 

Another cause is an unclear conscience. Sometimes, the reason Christians have doubts about God’s goodness is because they’re unwilling to repent of certain sins. Again, Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” With a lack of trust in God or lack of love for God, much suspicion may be classified as a form of worry, and the opposite of worry, the antidote for worry, is being able to trust God. 

Another one is interpreting life according to one’s feelings, according to sight or appearances rather than through the lens of Scripture. We must learn how to think biblically. God doesn’t want us to make superficial judgments. He says, “Don’t judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” What does that mean? He wants us to get under the surface and look at all the facts and make judgments based on real, hard evidence, on data, not based on our feelings or fears, or suspicions, or anxieties. He wants us to get to look at the evidence and make wise, biblical decisions.

I love that verse in Philippians 4:10. It says, “Whatever things are true, honest, just, and pure.” The Greek word there for “true” is “aletheia,” and it doesn’t just mean true as held over against that which is false, it means true, as in that which conforms to reality, versus false, as in that which is a fantasy, that which doesn’t conform to reality. When we have sinfully suspicious thoughts, we’re really not thinking things that conform to reality. The likelihood of danger is typically much greater than we are telling ourselves it is, because we are not believing the truth. We are not analyzing the data according to biblical standards.

Another one probably worth mentioning is sleep deprivation. The last three or four times I’ve had to visit people in mental institutions who had sort of “flipped out,” it was largely due to their sleep deprivation. Our brain needs to dream, and when we don’t get enough sleep, it affects our ability to think clearly. Most of us can realize this. You go to bed and you’re anxious and you’re worried, but you get a good night sleep and when you wake up, the problem is still there in the next day, but it’s not as severe as it was the night before. So, this is another reason why people, especially who go through bouts of sleep deprivation, struggle with this.

Another reason is inferiority judgments, or what the world calls self-image. When we judge ourselves to be inferior in areas that the Bible says we shouldn’t be inferior in, or as Christians, when we feel guilty about things that are inferior in our lives that the Bible says as Christians, we shouldn’t be inferior, then yes, that guilt is going to affect our suspiciousness. Drugs and alcohol, stress, and lots of different physical illnesses can contribute to people being suspicious as well.

Dale Johnson: Those things are helpful, and it’s amazing as we hear that, how much the Bible describes not just the symptoms that we have in humanity because of our depravity, but also, God teaches us how we as humanity fall into those problems and the things that contribute to these issues of suspicions. 

Lou Priolo: We are born sinners, and like I said, we learn a lot from people around us.

Dale Johnson: That’s right. You conclude at the very end of this booklet with a very helpful and practical worksheet, you call it The Suspicious Thought worksheet. What is that worksheet and how is it helpful to people?

Lou Priolo: I designed this to help people identify and evaluate their suspicious thoughts. The first question is, “What were the circumstances that surrounded my suspicious thinking?” In other words, what seemed to trigger my suspicious thoughts? Some other questions, “Upon what evidence were these suspicions based? Was the evidence biblically solid? Is there any evidence that my suspicions were unfounded? If so, what is it? Is there another way to interpret the data, the evidence, using righteous judgment differently than the way I initially did?”

Then there’s a cool section in here where you get to check off, in biblical terms, the nature of your suspicions. “Evaluate in biblical terms how you believe God views those thoughts, check all the appropriate boxes: anxiety, worry, distrusting God, judging, sinful fear, false accusations, rash judgment, pride, false reasoning, exaggerating the threat of actual danger, evil suspicion, sinful jealousy, unrighteous judgments, not believing the best, selfishness, or hopelessness.”

A lot of times, as we see in black and white the exact nature of what we are doing, it makes it easier for us to repent, because none of us can really be repentant unless we are first convicted. This teaches us how to evaluate our judgments and thoughts and to bring our thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Then it asks a question about idolatrous desires. “Is there any idolatrous desire driving the thought?” Then probably the most important part of the journal is the last question where you get to unpack and repack your thoughts and infuse them with biblical truth and hope and logic. “What biblical truths should I have spoken to myself in these circumstances instead of what I did think? What shall I think the next time I’m tempted to be suspicious about this?” It really goes through identifying, categorizing, evaluating, and then correcting thoughts that don’t conform to biblical reality.

Dale Johnson: Which is the process of how we help somebody change biblically.