knew it spelled trouble. Her voice trembled and
was clearly stressed. Her message on my answering tape was
abrupt: “Please call me back as soon as possible.” She left her
name and number, but no explanation why she called.
I didn’t recognize her name. But the 253- prefix on her phone
number meant she lived near us in Damascus. She didn’t know Evie
or me personally, it appeared, since she didn’t ask for either
of us by name. This can only mean one thing, I concluded. One of
our boys has gotten into trouble, and she wants to give me an
earful. They’ve damaged her property, and she wants me to pay.
Wanting to defuse the problem as quickly as possible, I called
her back immediately, even though it was now 10:00 p.m. This
time I got her answering machine. Disappointed, I left my name
and number, and told her to call me anytime.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt like a dark cloud was
hanging over the day. I’m going to have to engage in a difficult
conversation with this woman, I mused. That thought nagged me
all morning and afternoon, as I anxiously awaited her call. Why
was she taking so long to call back?
Finally, around 5:00 p.m., she phoned. I recognized her voice
immediately and braced for a confrontation. To my surprise, she
asked why I had phoned her. “I was returning your
message,” I explained, “which I assume concerns one of my boys,”
and I mentioned their names. “I don’t know either of your sons
or you,” she replied. “I must have dialed your number by
Curious how this could have happened, I asked if she had been
looking for a pastor in the phone directory, and picked my name
at random. “No,” she answered, “but I could sure use a pastor
right now--my life is a mess!”
In just several minutes, my perception of this woman and why she
had phoned turned completely around. Not only wasn’t she angry
with me or anyone in my family--she hadn’t been thinking about
us at all! And far from wanting to scold me, she was immersed in
her own problems and wanted encouragement. I had misread the
cues at every point.
Although the incident took place some years ago, I well remember
how I let an imaginary problem ruin my day. I could cite so many
examples like it, where I found that my suspicions of what
someone was thinking contrasted strongly with reality. My guess
is that you can supply plenty of examples of your own. We so
easily misinterpret others’ negative feelings, and make
ourselves miserable in the process.
A Common Mistake
We’ve all had the experience, probably more often than we like
to admit. We’ve sensed that someone was angry or hurt, then
worried ourselves sick about what they were thinking. We assumed
they were angry at us, intent on confronting or hurting
us. In time, we found that we hadn’t a clue about what they were
really thinking. Their anguish wasn’t directed at us at all, but
toward their own pressing problems. They may even have welcomed
our encouragement and listening ear.
When it comes to imagining what others think of us, it’s easy to
fall into a pattern of expecting the worst. Paranoia is
what we often call it lightheartedly today. This is our popular
adaptation of the psychiatric term, of course. Clinical paranoia
is a serious psychological problem. True paranoids are
pathologically suspicious of others’ motives. Many suffer
psychotic delusions about being watched or persecuted.
Most of us are not about to join a local militia to defend
ourselves against “encroaching evil forces of government.” Nor
do we imagine that aliens have implanted listening devices in
our ears. Yet we do spend considerable energy worrying about
what others think of us. We may instinctively assume that others
don’t like us, even when no evidence suggests that this is true.
Harboring such suspicions is a serious enough problem for many
of us, that it helps us to have a word for it--even if we use it
The tragedy is that even this “normal” paranoia can hinder us
from realizing our potential for Christ and experiencing his
abundant life. Our negative assumptions about what others think
can cause us to expect failure at points where God intends us to
succeed. We may fail to recognize golden opportunities he’s
presenting to us, in relationships, career and other areas. We
need to recognize this mentality for what it is. And we need to
take steps to ensure that it doesn’t become a controlling factor
in our life.
Paranoia in Scripture
We don’t find the word “paranoia” or any equivalent in
Scripture. Yet there are plenty of examples, both of the extreme
problem and of the more common apprehensions we all experience.
We see true paranoids: Laban, the father of Rebecca; Pharaoh,
king of Egypt during the Exodus; Saul, Ahab, and other Old
Testament kings; Haman, the king’s friend in the book of Esther;
and Herod, king of Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. Each of
these men worried pathologically about others’ motives and
intentions. Paranoiac obsession led some of them to commit
heinous acts. Fear that Jesus would dethrone him, for example,
impelled Herod to order all babies in Bethlehem murdered, in a
frantic effort to find and kill the newborn Jesus.
Yet we also see many examples in the Bible of godly individuals
worrying unnecessarily about being hurt or rejected by others.
Moses is a prime example. When he was forty, he killed an
Egyptian whom he caught abusing a Jew. Fear of retaliation from
the incident led Moses to seek refuge in the desert of Midian.
While his fear was justified at first, he remained in seclusion
there for forty years--long beyond the point when he
likely faced any real danger in Egypt.
Throughout his time in Midian, Moses lived greatly beneath his
potential, and the Israelites in Egypt were deprived of his gift
of passionate leadership. He developed such deep inferiority
that when God finally appeared to him in a burning bush, and
told him explicitly to deliver Israel, Moses could only imagine
failure and rejection. Even though God assured him emphatically
that he would succeed, Moses declared, “But behold, they will
not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD
did not appear to you’” (Ex 4:1 RSV).
In addition to his dread of being killed if he returned to
Egypt, Moses feared that others would be repelled by his
speaking style, which he perceived to be hesitant and
stuttering. He was certain also that the Jews would regard him
as an impostor, and not find his account of God’s appearing to
him credible. These assumptions would have kept him locked in
place, were it not for God’s going to exceptional lengths to
prod him forward.
When Moses did venture forth and speak to the Israelites, of
course, their response was radically different than he
anticipated. His negative expectations were shattered. It’s
expressed in one of the most beautifully ironic statements in
Scripture: “And the people believed; and when they heard that
the LORD had visited the people of Israel
and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads
and worshiped” (Ex 4:31, RSV).
It is to Moses’ credit that he found the resolve to respond to
God’s call and return to Egypt, in spite of his extreme
inhibitions. Yet if God hadn’t confronted him so dramatically,
he never would have broken the inertia. We’re reminded how
easily paranoid thinking can blind us to good opportunities, and
keep us from the best God desires for us.
Letting Go of Paranoia
Fortunately, there is much we can do to address the problem.
Clinical paranoia, to be sure, is a debilitating condition that
always requires professional help. Yet the normal fears we all
experience, about others not liking us or wanting to harm us,
are a different story. They can often be dealt with through
certain practical steps to change our outlook. Here are some
suggestions that can help.
Face your concerns honestly in prayer, and reaffirm your faith
in Christ. The impact of paranoid feelings can be
reduced greatly through prayer. This is one of the most
important lessons of the psalms.
Our worries about others not liking or rejecting us are mild
compared to the apprehensions David expresses in many of his
psalms. He fills them with ruminations about the evil designs of
his enemies--sometimes even of his friends. As Israel’s chief
political leader, of course, David had many real enemies and
faced plenty of legitimate threats from them. Yet in spite of
his spiritual maturity, he was anything but unruffled by their
plans. The psalms depict a deeply human side of David, and show
that he spent considerable time and energy brooding about the
malicious intentions of others. For instance:
My enemies say of me in malice,
“When will he die and his name perish?”
Whenever one comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers
then he goes out and spreads it abroad.
All my enemies whisper together against me;
they imagine the worst for me, saying,
“A vile disease has beset him;
he will never get up from the place where he
Even my close friend, whom I trusted,
he who shared my bread,
has lifted up his heel against me.
It is comforting to find this psalm revealing David’s humanity
so graphically. We can take heart from his example that we’re
not psychologically imbalanced just because we’re preoccupied
with what others think about us. David often was, even though
his relationship with God was strong, and he is one of
Scripture’s most impressive role models. The apprehensions he
expresses in this psalm are also more intense than those we
often experience. We may rest assured that our typical fears
about others mistreating us are normal and human.
David’s example is equally encouraging in showing us the freedom
we should feel to express our concerns to God honestly in
prayer. David states his frustrations pointedly to God in this
psalm, clearly feeling comfortable in doing so. He shows that we
don’t have to mince words in voicing our anxieties to God. If we
fear animosity from someone, we can tell God so and tell him
explicitly, no matter how far-fetched our apprehensions may be.
Yet David did more than simply ventilate by praying in this
fashion. He went a vital step further, affirming that he trusted
God in spite of his fears. He concludes his psalm by declaring,
I know that you are pleased with me,
for my enemy does not triumph over me.
In my integrity you uphold me
and set me in your presence forever.
Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.
Here we discover the major benefit of prayer for David. Through
it he was able to regain his confidence in the Lord and put his
fears in right perspective. We find David following this pattern
of expressing aggravation, then reaffirming his faith, in psalm
Prayer can help us similarly when we fall into paranoid
thinking. Following David’s example, we should begin by
detailing our concerns frankly to God. Yet we shouldn’t stop
there. We should then call to mind those facts about God and his
care for us that bring us greatest comfort. We should remind
ourselves of his promises--to protect us, to provide for us
abundantly, and to work out an ideal plan for our life. We
should dwell on assurances like these, and then in prayer,
reaffirm our convictions about them. Following this approach
gives God the best opportunity to strengthen our faith, calm our
fears, and help us understand where our anxieties are misplaced.
Christ extends far more grace and healing to us through this
process of prayer than we normally imagine. Its therapeutic
value in helping us break the grip of fear is immense.
Check your thinking. Whenever we catch
ourselves worrying about others being against us, we should stop
and check our thinking. Is there really any reasonable basis for
our fear? Or is it more likely that we’re giving way to paranoid
thinking out of habit? It can help us to recall similar
situations in the past when our suspicions proved mistaken. The
lesson of that phone call is one I’ll not soon forget.
We will benefit greatly by making a habit of examining our
thinking and questioning our negative assumptions. If we tend to
be pessimistic in general, it’s a good rule of thumb that our
conclusions are too gloomy--and we can take encouragement from
knowing that! With practice, we can learn to stay more tentative
in what we assume others are thinking about us, and not to
instinctively expect the worst.
Practice optimism. It’s been said that Ronald Reagan’s
remarkable success with people was due to his personal
expectations. He always assumed that everyone he encountered
would like him. As president, Reagan maintained surprisingly
good relationships with many political enemies.
Should we strive for such unshakable confidence personally? Well
. . . if I had to choose between the extremes--between assuming
everyone likes me or everyone hates me--I’d choose the former.
It’s closer to a healthy attitude about relationships, and our
expectations so often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Most of us, though, simply aren’t capable of such extreme
positive thinking. Besides, it’s a denial of reality. None of
us, no matter how likable, will succeed in every effort we make
to relate to others. We’ll experience rejection and difficult
encounters from time to time. Still, there is an outlook of
optimism that’s appropriate for us as Christians, and that will
contribute to our success with people.
We may be confident that God desires the very best for us, and
is working for our good in countless ways “behind the scenes.”
We may also be assured that he desires us to enjoy significant
success with people, and that he is extending his help and
healing to us in this area. To worry incessantly that others are
against us is a denial both of God’s love for us and of his
redemptive influence in others’ lives. We’re on better ground to
assume that he is bringing about encouraging developments in the
situations that concern us, and to stay hopeful for happy
We may be certain, too, that if we do have a difficult encounter
with someone, God will provide us the grace to handle it. Since
we can never predict exactly how God will extend grace
before it happens, it’s pointless to worry ourselves sick about
the specifics. We can simply trust that he will help us at the
moment we need it, and help us substantially.
Another important principle of optimism is to strive to view bad
experiences as aberrations rather than the norm. Too often we do
the opposite. In our discouragement over someone’s
insensitivity, we assume that others are equally upset with us
and will also be treating us unkindly. As our anxieties fester,
we begin imagining that God is angry with us, and punishing us
by arousing others against us. Such is the way our ruminations
grow, as we reason “from the specific to the general.”
If an unwelcome encounter with someone offers clear lessons, we
should learn and benefit from it. But we shouldn’t assume it
signifies a pattern of fallout in our other relationships. And
in no case should we conclude that God’s hand has turned against
us. To the contrary, we should call to mind promises of
Scripture which assure us that God gives special grace to us in
difficult times. “You are my fortress, my refuge in times of
trouble” (Ps 59:16; see also Ps 9:9, 27:5, 32:7, 41:1, 46:1,
50:15, 91:15, 107:6, 138:7).
With time and practice, we can learn to focus our thinking in
such optimistic directions. We should remind ourselves of these
principles often, and call them to mind whenever our worries
about others’ intentions get out of hand.
Sharpen your people skills. There is a further step that
helps greatly to reduce feelings of paranoia. We each have far
more ability to defuse negative feelings others have toward us
than we usually assume. What if we’re right?--someone is
angry or frustrated with us. This doesn’t mean that we’re
powerless to do anything to change the situation. This person
may be more open to talking things through than we think. A
sensitive, affirming response to them may do wonders to change
their feelings and resolve the problem.
Anything we do to improve our skills with people will reduce our
tendency to worry about what they think, for we’ll be confident
we can handle problems that arise. It’s the belief that we’re
helpless in dealing with people that makes us prone to obsess
about difficult encounters occurring. Taking a seminar or
reading a book on sharpening social skills can help; counseling
may benefit us as well. As our confidence with people increases,
our anxieties concerning them will diminish--in some cases
Move ahead in spite of your fears. In my work with
Nehemiah Ministries, I’ve often spoken to Christian groups whose
theological convictions differ from mine. In the early period of
this ministry, I dreaded these situations, fearing that
confrontations would occur. They seldom did. In fact, in
twenty-five years of conference speaking and lecturing, I’ve
usually found that those who disagree with me are gracious, not
mean-spirited. Time and again, I’ve also found that speaking
events which I’ve expected to be the most challenging have been
the ones where ministry most obviously seems to have taken
Through these events, I’ve grown comfortable speaking to diverse
groups, and now am inclined to expect the best and not the
worst. Yet it’s taken time and--especially--experience to
reach this point. No amount of study or reflection would have
changed my perspective, without my encountering these situations
that I feared would be difficult.
The most common fallacy people have about conquering fear,
phobia experts note, is that by changing our outlook it’s
possible to overcome our apprehensions in advance--before doing
what frightens us. It never works that way. We can make some
progress by working on our thinking. Yet facing the situation we
fear is essential to finally putting our anxieties to rest.
This principle applies not only to conquering phobias but to
overcoming any inhibitions. Paranoid assumptions that trouble us
are not likely to disappear fully until we step into the social
situations we fear, and discover first-hand that our concerns
We spend far too much energy imagining unpleasant encounters
that never occur. Too often our gloomy expectations keep us from
taking important steps of faith. Through prayer and careful
reflection, we can begin to change our patterns of thinking, and
reshape our expectations into more optimistic ones. God may
extend special healing to us as well. Yet we shouldn’t assume
that all apprehension must vanish before we do what is
challenging. Moving ahead in spite of our inhibitions will be
necessary, both to realize our potential for Christ and to
master our fears.
I’m speaking of such practical steps as:
Phoning for the date
Requesting the job interview
Seeking an improvement in our job
Asking for forgiveness
Sharing our faith with someone who needs to hear
Throwing the party at our home
Asking someone to help us with a special need
Visiting the church or Sunday school class.
Through the strength Christ gives us, we can find the courage to
stare fear down and take steps like these--and open ourselves to
the fullest blessings of God.