When you go through life-changing defeats in life, you will lose “friends”… a lot of them. You will start to realize the world can be an ugly place filled with self-serving and shortsighted people. If you don’t think so, it’s because you haven’t had enough bad things happening to you. There’s no doubt this world is ugly. If humans were not hopeless in their sinful natures, you wouldn’t need the likes of Jesus to die for us.
When going into a dark place in your life, or a big change in your life, you might notice a phenomenon. You notice the number of friends and the way they relate to you changing. This is especially true if you have been serving together in church, going to school together and the like, and then life takes you a different direction. At one time you guys were fighting wars together, and now, that synergy is gone. The enthusiasm to journey with you seems lackluster. When people you thought were close at one point go silent, or lack synergy with you, you wonder if it is your fault, or was it their fault? Perhaps it’s just the natural consequence of people drifting apart or together based on different seasons of life. We wonder which friendships we should make efforts to build up, be it existing or new friendships.
However, if you are presently going through an Abyss, you don’t have the time or resources to plug away with people who you might never have a quality relationship with. You might need a new plan, or a new mindset to develop or find true friendships. As big changes occurred in my life (both positive and negative), my number of friends changed and also the quality of our interaction. How much of it is our fault, and much of it is God narrowing the people we attract because of the journey of suffering and redemption we are going through? How then can we develop the best friendships that are truly beneficial? I give my take as a Modern-day Job below.
Users. Allies. Friends.
When I first announced I was going to write about why “friendship” landscapes change when bad things happen to us and how to navigate our way through it, a good friend of mine commented, “I shudder to consider the amount of pain it took to learn all these lessons…”
It did take a whole lot of pain and reality checks to say what I will say next.
When those “friends” leave, it’s natural. Don’t fight it.
Let me share those reasons why.
I’ve been high up in life, I’ve been to the pit. I’ve experienced euphoric victories and popularity, I’ve wrestled with rejection and hopelessness. Today I am somewhere in between.
When I have no inflammations, I could be perceived as the athletic, optimistic, altruistic, Ivy League church leader with a hard-working ethic and thus a high trajectory in life. When inflammation became uncontrollable, I became the overweight ugly guy with no career prospects that kept to himself… the world would perceive me differently in those seasons even as my soul was still the same.
There were girls that liked me, and then stopped liking me in a couple of months. There were strangers that wanted to know me because I was on a magazine spread showcasing me as the potential highflyer when I first graduated from an Ivy League. Years later, some medical specialists would deny me good service because they perceived that I was broke as hell. They wanted to keep conversations short, they didn’t bother to explain my eye problem in detail or recommend alternatives. They just said “no”, with no explanations. (I wore bloodstained shirts with holes. I looked 15-years older than my age. So they thought that I had no stature or money. This was of great irony because my Dad was a director in that hospital. But I didn’t look the part.)
Because of this, I’ve had the “privilege” of observing how the world, your perceived allies, and friends react when your external markers of perceived successful traits changed. I’ve seen hundreds of people go from allies to acquittances to practical strangers over the years, and seen some people emerge through the rumble as real friends.
When you are perceived as successful, the world treats you differently. The more successful you are, the harder to identify your friends. When I was a young church leader perceived to be destined for big things, I would write one letter a week to different people in my church. I would encourage them in the faith, with Bible verses and all. People would sing my praises. I could do no wrong. Those letters increased my reputation in the church. When I started a cell group, the majority of the youths wanted to join mine instead of the others. Years later, when I lost many things and looked like I had low prospects, I was still writing letters to people. It came from the same heart. This time, people thought I was weird and trying too hard. So, did the world think I was Christ-like or a desperate loser? My new status as a loser affected how people treated the same actions and intentions.
This is not too hard to imagine. Imagine a girl with a crush on Keanu Reeves. Keanu writes her a simple letter of encouragement. She gushes. Keanu is now elevated from an iconic crush to a god-like status who can do no wrong. Another unattractive boy, a perceived loser, writes her the exact same letter, the letter is thrown away.
So how can we identify who are real friends without having to go through some life-changing event that reveals them?
Here goes my humble observation.
A practical way of dividing people who are near you is as follows: 3 types of people, and there is nothing wrong if they are in those categories, because more often than not, they are reacting naturally to their inclinations, limited by their real-life experiences, ability to be self-reflective and established worldview.
1) Users: The people who want something from you.
People naturally go to what benefits them. These people want to receive something from you: it could as superficial as to share in your popularity (you’ve seen examples of ugly girls being sycophants of another girl who is Instagram worthy and popular with the boys even if she has a bad selfish self-absorbed character), or for more mature gains, like receiving career or social guidance. These people will leave you and stop singing your praises once you’re not useful to them.
Don’t take it personally. They can’t help it. They gravitate to you because they sense gain, but leave when there is none.
2) Allies. Brothers-in-arms seeking the same goals.
These people are better than users. They work closely with you because you share the same goals. For example, you and another might have the shared goal of building a successful church together and so you work hand in hand, propping each other up. But the moment your idea of the ideal church changes, or you disagree with his vision, or life takes you away to another country, then the partnership dries up. You might realize that you might have had different goals all along. You might have wanted to advance Christiandom at personal cost, he might have wanted to be a leader of a church first and foremost. The majority of your goals would be the same, but not the ultimate goal. You will only realize this when you cannot or won’t help his final goal. So the problem is these people are very easily confused with true friends, especially when you are healthy enough to pursue some of those shared goals together.
You then realize that true friends have more to do with values that determine your deepest of goals, and not the accomplishing of smaller goals.
3) True friends. People that would admire you from a distance even if they never had the privilege of meeting your acquaintances.
The Roman orator, Cicero, made very interesting observations on the idea of friendship.
He claimed that “the clear indication of virtue, to which a mind of like character is naturally attracted, is the beginning of friendship” and that evil people can very rarely enjoy true friendship. Cicero continues that the real limit to be observed in friendship is this: “the characters of two friends must be stainless. There must be complete harmony of interests, purpose, and aims, without exception.”
Note that nowhere does Cicero says that friendship is built on what good things or time invested you have done for each other, although this would be a natural extension of real friendship.
In other words, true friends are people you would have respected from a distance if he were never your friend. They won your respect, not by what they did personally for you, but what they stand for and who they are. If they helped you personally, it is a bonus. True friendship is borne out of people with high degrees of virtues that recognize each other.
This means that true friendship can never be forced, it naturally occurs when people perceive virtues in you that they admire. They admire your moral courage, your convictions, the way you handle adversity… which are linked to your religious worldviews that affect your commitment to seek truth and define what is for the betterment for everyone. They respect you because you are “everything they wish they could be”, or at least going towards that direction you deem worthy.
True friendship is built on a foundation of respect for who you are and the values you have inculcated.
You guys have the same values and that’s why they can easily respect your person and also your journey to get those values. Truly strong virtues never come easily. They come with testing, opportunity, adversity, a mind to process it all, and a heart that can resist the temptation to turn inward, or dark in the face of those adversaries. True friends who recognize those virtues will stay with you even if separated by distance because they know how rare it is for two of such people to meet. These people will always hope for you, know your dreams and want to help you get there because they can live vicariously through you. They look at you and see part of themselves in you. No matter you go through a high or low point, they can appreciate your struggle and know the potential you have. If you lose in life, they take it personally, because they realized it could have been them. If you win if life, it gives them hope because it might mean they are next in line. These people will trust the deep part of you and will be your friend dispute you changing jobs, Churches or living abroad. Because they have deep qualities, they can recognize those qualities in you even when you lost all your external markers of success.
Allies and friends are the hardest to differentiate, and it usually takes some adversity or fundamental changes in YOUR situation to reveal it. This is because values are deeper than goals, although goals come from your values. When fundamental shifts happen, you might no longer be able to pursue the same goals and thus your allies are revealed. Friends stay because they see your values working through the darkness and might admire you more when you have kept your values despite your external markers of success disappearing.
So fire is needed to burn hubris to reveal the precious metals and diamonds from plastic gems. But how can we know which are which without some massive calamity occurring to reveal who is who?
I offer three points, based on my experiences.
3 Points for Abyss journeyers on developing real friends.
1) If you cannot be brutally honest with them, they can never be in your inner circle of friends.
Honestly can be found in more than one way.
One way can be able to take critique about themselves and know you have no ill intentions for pointing it out.
Another can be being able to hear the deep parts of you, warts and all and still walk the darkness with you.
A sister-in-Christ used to speak highly of me. Once I tried to share how my eczema was not recovering and the bleak possibility that my life would be more and more painful and limited. I had an honest tension between what I knew in the Bible and bleakness looming. A tension between heaven and hell. A tension between how things should be and how things really are.
She could not take what she perceived as “negativity” and only wanted me to speak “positive”. I told her I wasn’t negative, I just didn’t want to walk my journey through the darkness alone. I am not fearing the worst but I was trying to share what was going in my life.
She perceived that I wasn’t the Christian leader she thought I was and soon ghosted me, spending her time on people who were more “positive”. (I might add something here. For those who are “positivity chasers”, by all means, chase it, but learn to differentiate the real deals and the fakes. The real deals are those who are truly positive because amidst great storms and healing battle scars they proceed in caution and courage, but they aren’t the biggest cheerleaders because they have tasted the horrors of the battlefield of life and so they don’t get overly emotional. The fakes have untested, “ignorant” positivity, they look at their unhindered success so far and can easily believe God can continue their streaks of victory. The real are like quarterbacks the fakes are like cheerleaders. Both look good, but only one of them takes all the hits with the game in his hands.)
She could not be my friend at that time point in time, and I don’t blame her, in retrospect, I think she could not manage negativity in people she looked up to validate her own idea of what victorious Christians should be like.
I became a walking question mark, a walking contradiction in her view, the more they clung on to their firm understanding of their theology, it left no room for me. To even allow my person the benefit of the doubt, it would impinge on the set of beliefs they held about God. To some, a leader isn’t supposed to openly question his faith. An anointed man of God cannot succumb to curse-like diseases that cover the body.
So, we couldn’t truly be friends at that time. I don’t blame them.
Today, I have external markers of success. I have a strong testimony of supernatural healing and financial breakthrough. If I of today met her of 10 years ago, she would have continued to partner with me. But we wouldn’t have always been allies and not friends. But, I would never have known unless the calamity revealed it.
2 Only criticize someone face-to-face if you are willing to help them in practical ways first… including opening your wallet.
True friends usually have large emotional bank accounts or friendship equity with each other. They can criticize each other and instead of cutting you off, be very reflective despite being temporarily hurt. If they know these judgments are coming from a good place and if they are wise with biblical values, they will respect you more, not less! If you think these come from a bad place, you will write them off.
“Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you;
rebuke the wise and they will love you.
Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;
teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”
However, sometimes we overestimate or underestimate how much friendship equity you really have with them, and don’t know when the next honest thing you say will finally turn them off.
If you have a risk of over or underestimating emotional bank accounts, those people might be in between the friends and allies category; or that your friendship hadn’t been cemented yet, because they cannot figure you out totally yet.
A wise person learns to accept all advice, even from enemies. A fool doesn’t. But everyone has a different degree of wisdom.
As such, so you don’t want to add misunderstanding to where there doesn’t need to be one.
Friendship is based on values, so you don’t want people to misunderstand your values.
What I recommend next is not only to see if the receiver can be your friend, but you are also signaling the correct deep virtues to other people so that you have a chance for the right people to recognize it. In order to prevent unnecessary misunderstandings, the fastest and most effective way of increasing this emotional bank account is to help in very practical ways which include opening up your wallet. When they see what you are willing to sacrifice that others won’t, they will not second guess your intentions. That’s why I follow Jesus’ teachings. Someone willing to die for me is not going to give me intentional bad advice. I know that if I get through the short term confusion, in the long term, I will be in a better place.
If you criticize someone, and also show you are willing to sacrifice to get them to the next level, and they still hold it against you, they aren’t able to be your friends.
I knew a person down on his luck. Other people would criticize that this guy made bad decisions in life and ruined his future- including other Christians. None of them wanted to help the guy. I spoke to the person, tried to identify his strength, told him his weaknesses and suggested ways he could break out to the next level. As a person used to condemnation, he could have taken my criticism badly, but I gave him hundreds of dollars go for courses to improve those weaknesses, and also to embark on a project to get him to the next level.
He did so and is starting to thrive.
He calls me his “real friend” that stood by him during tough times.
But also, when you do such things, word eventually gets around, and other likeminded people will find you.
But isn’t his the Golden rule? To treat others the way you want others to treat you?
If you really see fundamental flaws in an individual, and if you really feel you have to criticize it, make sure you are willing to help as well. Criticizing and then being willing to give what he needs is God-like… Jesus-like. Criticizing and not even bothering to help is the ministry of death. Be Jesus-like, not death-like. One reason why I follow Jesus’ teaching and accept some uncomfortable truths He had about myself and that I should change, is that He loved me enough to die for me. He opened his wallet and paid the maximum price, so I know his advice comes from good intentions for me.
This way, you are showcasing your real values, that you are willing to sacrifice just as you are sharing uncomfortable points of view. This is a hallmark of great virtue. It’s easy to be friends when you admire the other person, it’s difficult when you don’t respect somethings about the other and yet are willing to help.
If the other person cannot take your criticism despite your obvious willingness to help in tangible ways, this person cannot be your friend. His values are too immature or self-indulgent, and the ego too fragile, to be a real friend at this time.
3. True friendship cannot be forced. (Ally-ship and Use-ary can)
Because real friendship is a function of having deep virtues and meeting people who resonate with those same virtues, if you want to find more friends, you need to focus on working on yourself to develop your own identity, values, and convictions. Only then do you have a better chance to find people who can see it in you.
Deep calls to deep. (Psalm 42:7)
Those with similar experiences and depth can identify it in you very quickly. Those who do not have the same virtues and the appreciation of the journey to get those virtues might never be able to identify it. If you are in an Abyss, you’ve lost those markers. Those people have to rely on what society thinks of you instead of being able to appreciate those intrinsic virtues from first principles.
Don’t be discouraged if you know you have a deep maturity and yet no one seems to see it. Most people can only see the external markers.
How many people would think this random clerk with strange ideas called Einstein was a genius before he got worldly acclaim?
Only high-quality individuals who had a strong physics background, and the rarer ability to check their cogitative bias might have recognized Einstein before he made on the Times Magazine cover. E=mc2 would have been considered a crazy concept in a world dominated by Newtonian physics. The great majority with a decent understanding of physics and are too sure of themselves would have never recognized Einstein’s brilliance a priori to his celebrity.
Same for Jesus. He had wisdom and depth of character unmatched, and yet he was rejected by many. Many people would not recognize Jesus’ true identity because they don’t have the spiritual maturity or contemplative spirit of the scriptures. They only recognized obvious power, external markers or what the religious establishment endorsed. They stood with him when he commanded the winds and waves with sermons to thousands, they left when he was crucified as a criminal. But to those that recognized the deep part of Christ, like Mary Magdalene or John “the disciple Jesus loved”, they stood with him all the way to the graveyard and back.
True friends indeed.
If even Jesus lost many users and allies when “perceived failure” came and only had a handful of real friends, how about us?
You can meet people who might become real friends in a short amount of time.
A met a burgeoning Christian YouTuber for 4 hours over coffee. I suspected we should meet because of his spirit and virtues I saw in his videos. He agreed to meet me, a stranger. We hit it off. Today, even though we are worlds apart, he is the USA, I in Perth, every time I connect with him there is great life. He remembers my dreams and I know we are rooting for each other. I didn’t communicate with him for months due to my transition to a new country and preoccupation. In one of his recent live-streams, I logged in. Not only did he call me out to his hundreds of online audiences, he told his audience I had an amazingly crazy story to tell, a book I was writing and needs to catch up with me soon. He had respect for me and remembered my dream.
Please realize that you can serve for years in multiple Churches, be a part of cell groups and potentially not find real friends there. I have a group of friends that I can count on. The Christian YouTuber is one of them. Even if I speak to them once every 6 months, I feel more life than talking to some people that I see weekly. This is because we have mutual respect for our values, our experiences with God, our struggles. These people KNOW the dream you have, resonate with it, and are willing to help.
Suffering is a shakeout period. As you develop a deeper understanding of the life you are forced to through hard times, God narrows the people you will attract. You’ll attract fewer people, but the probability to attract game-changers is increased. Abyss journeymen usually look unattractive or have a poor trajectory in life on the outside, but inside they have very heightened self-awareness and in the process of developing deep convictions, character, and purpose. Game-changers are usually either so successful in life or have such a strong identity and purpose that they don’t need to be impressed by money or stature, they are looking for people with character and soul.
I had just recovered from my life-long fight with eczema, and in many ways starting fresh in my career.
I remember meeting a billionaire legendary investor for the first time. It was a gala dinner filled with many big shots and big shots wannabes. Everyone was dressed to the nines, with CEOs of companies on every table; but that billionaire was the “biggest” personality there. I am the lowest of the entire lot. At the time, I just recovered from my incurable eczema and had no real career, although while I was sick, I learned to trade the stock market and had an unusual view of the stock market. I also read that billionaire’s published book and was fascinated by his personal life and philosophies of life. When I met him, I met him as a fan and didn’t expect to talk much to him. But, we ended up spoking for over 45 minutes, 1-to-1. He invited me to sit at his table. We spoke about what’s important about life, how I recovered from eczema, the limitations of human institutions of knowledge, his family. He also asked me to tell him when I thought the silver market would bottom out as he gave me his contact.
I wouldn’t have had deep experiences in all those topics had I not gone through all my defeats.
Many people were just amazed how “a loser” like me could hold a billionaire’s attention for so long. On Facebook, strangers were trying to add me as friends. Some young ambitious quant analysts wanted to work with me, just based on that.
A year later, CEOs would give me opportunities to work with them. One of them hired me directly from Singapore to the US, as a senior business analyst although I had little professional experience, and one of the biggest reasons was that he loved my heart, the way I think and my testimony. 7 years back, I gave a talk about a stock market strategy I discovered (while in my 2-year abyss period) and my testimony. He loved it and we became friends. Years later, he prayed and insisted I work with him.
I remembered our working relationship. I was always welcomed to go into his office, and we would often talk about life, God and the mysteries of the stock market. He was my boss but also my friend. I still am happy to call him from time to time even when we are worlds apart now after finishing my 3-years stint there.
So while I lost a lot of “friends” before, I gained a few high-quality friends who appreciated my journey, and these friends happened to be game-changers. These people have plenty and are looking for potential, as opposed to people who live in scarcity and view you as competition or simply someone to be used. Users and allies tend to be the latter.
There are some people who are like that billionaire, or that Christian YouTuber who are more interested in the mysteries of life, character, purpose or God. If you temporarily cannot pursue a career, for whatever reason, sickness or otherwise, take that time to develop yourself and contemplate the deeper questions of life.
In your suffering, you might be forced to develop those things. In the process, you might lose allies and users, but you will attract high-quality people that appreciate your journey. Some of those high-quality people might be in positions to help you in tangible ways, that God had purposed for you to meet. Your job is to be ready when you meet him. This should incentivize you not to give in your Abyss, but to redouble your efforts to find God, find solutions and push yourself to our creative and physical limits to extract all the value the Abyss opportunity has for you.
Yes. I said it. To those who cannot eye, the Abyss is a dark place to be avoided. To those who can see, the Abyss holds great opportunity for your transformation of character, to realizing what goals you should be prioritizing, to attracting the best kinds of people to finally seeking out God in a way that was impossible to do so when in entitled comfort.
So take comfort in this, that as you are refining your character, God is narrowing your markers to attract a narrow band of people, those who are real game-changers. Although it is easy to get discouraged by the masses of intermediates with different goals and values who left, it could be a signal God is narrowing who you attract and not necessarily an indication that you are becoming less valuable.
But always be self-reflective that you are in the right track, pursuing God and allowing Him to make fundamental changes in your and you are growing in maturity, wisdom, ambition, and love; that why you know people are not leaving you because you are really becoming a self-indulgent ass that everybody is avoiding.
This post was called “losing friends”, but for those who have lost their “social equity” and external markers of success, the key point is that it is your friends that choose you.
You should have at least 1 or 2 high-quality winners as friends if you are on the right track. Having high-quality friends is not the goal, but just an indication you are on the right track.
Your goal is not to focus on looking for friends but to work on yourself, refine your character and values, discover the transcendence of God, and not let the darkness consume you. In these, you’ll learn to be a winner in the deepest of fights, learn the hard lessons while you are down, and reflect a grace you will have experienced in living color as God lifts you up.
When this happens, God will narrow the people who are attracted to you, but these people will have a better chance to be real friends, and likely, very high-quality individuals because they recognize the deeper things in life. Anyone these days can get a degree, but fewer are people that learned to react the correct way in the face of unjust suffering. It’s easy to learn new facts, difficult to tame the human heart. It is easy to belittle a lion from afar, difficult to defend yourself against one.
And, God can use these high-quality individuals to propel you ahead quicker than you expect.
PS: When I first saw my “friends” leaving (from literally 100 to 4) when I was no longer perceived to be of usefulness to them, I felt a revulsion to the world. I felt the world was so ugly that it was not worth saving. It gave me more reason to check out of this hopeless place. I would never have seen this had it not happen to me. (It’s easy to have a blase attitude to the evilness in the world when this evil is not at your doorstep.)
But when we change our lens with the lens of grace, we see things quite differently. The few friends that stuck with you after that big defeat is in itself a thing of beauty. Think about it. For those friends to stick with you, they would have to be at the right place and right time, to have grown up in a particular way that they could understand a deep part of you and what you believe. They would have to be able to see through the hubris of your changing life to see your soul and values deep within and love you even from a distance. In order to do that, they have to have a great maturity, depth of character and perception and a soul that is attracted to your core. They would have to see sincere heroism in your struggle while others see poverty of spirit. This is so rare to have this combination that God must have ordained it.
It’s easy to leave a person when he is labeled “a loser in life”. It’s an entirely different impossibility to see heroism in a struggle that others perceive as insignificant and subsequently is attracted to you to be a friend. It takes a touch of God and a spiritual maturity to see that.
The ugliness of the masses inclines us away from God, the rare gems that emerge in the darkness incline us to the beauty that can only come from God.
What do you see?
So when “friends” leave when you suffer a big defeat, let them. God is narrowing your world of friends to lose the superficial, and reveal the highest of quality.