Friends: Risks and Rewards

Why no man should go it alone

By Pat Morley

No one in their right mind would even dream of asking for the kind of help Robert offered. In fact, I found his proposition downright embarrassing.

Robert and I had been friends for a dozen years. We just clicked. Our mutual interest in business was a factor, but our personalities really meshed too.

So it was natural for me to stop by and visit with Robert when my business problems were bigger than my own ingenuity. He listened patiently for a couple of hours. It was good for me to be able to sort out my thinking.

Then Robert said a remarkable thing. Maybe I thought he would give me advice that would magically turn around the business. Perhaps I had been looking for some encouragement. But what he said floored me.

“I don’t have any answers, but if the worst comes to pass,” he said, “I’ve got enough money for the both of us to live on. Whatever I have is yours.”

There was something about the way Robert said it that made me realize he wasn’t just joking around. He really meant what he said. Of course, I could never take Robert up on his offer, but his act of true friendship reminded me of the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

Suddenly the problems seemed minuscule. I knew God would provide for me. By being my friend, Robert had shown me how much God loved me, and I knew I would be all right.

The problem
Do you have a close friend? I don’t just mean someone to call for lunch, but I mean a genuinely close friend, a friend like you had in college or high school? The kind of friend you talked to about anything and everything. The kind of friend who just laughed when you said something really dumb. The kind of friend you knew would be there if you needed someone to talk to, or if you were in real trouble, or if you were hurting.

After we tear out the calendar pages of school days gone by, we get down to the tasks of establishing a career, choosing a life mate, starting a family, building a life, and accumulating things. During this “building” stage of life, not much time for friends is available—and the perceived need isn’t that great. After all, a new wife and children meet many of our relationship needs.

But as time marches on, needs emerge that can only be met by other men—men who walk in the same shoes, men who share the same problems, men with similar life experiences—other Christian men. At some point, men realize they need genuine friends, but adult friendships are difficult to start and harder to keep.

The closest relationships most men end up with are those organized around their careers. All day long, men work on common tasks together, and those common goals create a level of fellowship and kindred spirit—whether that’s hanging drywall or selling real estate. But work relationships rarely develop into personal interest, especially at any depth.

Most men have a friendship “deficit.” Their balance sheets are empty when it comes to true friends. Most men don’t know how to go about developing a true friend, or how to be one.

We may be surrounded by many acquaintances but lonely for someone to really talk to. We don’t have someone to share our deepest dreams and fears with. We don’t have anyone who is willing to just listen, to simply be a friend and listen, and not always have a quick solution.

Friends bring risks—rejection, betrayal, embarrassment, hurt feelings. But friends are worth the risk, if we can learn how to find them.

Friends versus acquaintances
Once I boasted to an acquaintance, quite sincerely, that I had hundreds of friends. Without pause he said, “No, you don’t. You may have met hundreds of people, but there’s no way you can really know more than a handful of people. You’d be lucky if you had three real friends.”

At first I was offended that he thought he knew so much about my situation. But as I reflected on what he said, I realized that I had a thousand acquaintances but, at that moment in time, fewer than three genuine friends. I’ve worked on this area of my life, and today I believe I have five real friends, including my wife.

We all have a “circle of friends,” a group with whom we play golf, attend church, go to dinner, or share a common interest, like fishing or softball. Often, however, these are “well-patient” friends—that is, they are there for the good times.

What we are speaking about in this chapter is “sick-patient” friends—friends who will hang in there with us when we’ve lost our job, separated from our wife, found out our daughter is on drugs, or are just plain frustrated with our life.

Are the men you consider friends really friends? Are they the kind of friends you can go to when you are in trouble, when you have really blown it? Or are your friends only there for the party? I think most men could recruit six pallbearers, but hardly anyone has a friend he can call at 2 a.m.

Friends are hard to find
“Wealth attracts many friends, but even the closest friend of the poor person deserts them” (Proverbs 19:4). How do we know if our friend is true-blue, or if he will turn out to be a fair-weather friend if we really have problems? Unless we get past talking about news, sports, and weather, we won’t know until it may be too late.

Frankly, most men are ill-equipped to lead a discussion about the deeper part of life or feel awkward bringing it up for fear of offending someone. Let’s take a pop quiz to see what kind of friends you have.

Pop quiz
Perhaps you have several close friends, or maybe you have none. Or, more likely, you know many men, but you are not sure just how deep the waters run.

When things go sour and you really feel lousy, do you have a friend you can tell?

Do you have a friend you can express any honest thought to without fear of appearing foolish?

Do you have a friend who will let you talk through a problem without giving you advice? Someone who will just be a sounding board?

Will your friend risk your disapproval to suggest you may be getting off track in your priorities?

If you had a moral failure, do you know your friend would stand with you?

Is there a friend with whom you feel you are facing life together? A friend to talk over the struggles of life that are unique to men?

Do you have a friend you believe you can trust, that if you share confidential thoughts they will stay confidential?

When you are vulnerable and transparent with your friend, are you convinced he will not think less of you?

Do you meet with a friend weekly or biweekly for fellowship and prayer, and possibly for accountability?

Too close for comfort
Men live with a paradox. We sincerely want to have close friends, yet we fear letting someone get too close. We worry that if someone really got to know us, they wouldn’t like us. As someone starts to get too close, we find ourselves withdrawing—we change the subject, or figure out how to say goodbye.

We need approval, to be accepted by another person, but we fear the opposite—that we will be rejected. So we keep our distance. If we don’t become vulnerable with someone, then we safely avoid the risk of rejection.

Few men have friends who really know the inner man. By keeping things at a distance—on a surface level (news, sports, and weather)—they don’t have to feel the pressure of dealing with their weaknesses.

That is one of the problems with friendship. As we become closer to someone, we really do want to share our secrets with them. We want to be known, to have someone care about us and help when we are hurting. But we also find another force at work within us, urging us to keep our distance so we won’t get burned. How do we get burned?

Betrayed!
Few types of emotional pain cut as deeply or wound as savagely as that of betrayal by a friend.

The consequences may not be catastrophic, but the trust level may be difficult to repair. Everyone, it seems, has at least one confidant—one other person they feel comfortable telling your secret.

The trouble, you can see, is if everyone has one other person they can tell, then soon the whole world knows! And nowhere is this more prevalent than in Christian circles. Lower-natured gossip often disguises itself as Christian concern: “We need to pray for [so and so].” Benjamin Franklin captured the idea when he said, “Three people can keep a secret, as long as two of them are dead.”

Since everyone, and I do mean everyone, does have at least one other confidant, then the only way to avoid betrayal by a friend is to verbalize some ground rules. And if you learn that a friend has betrayed a confidence, you should try to save the friendship by a loving confrontation. If your friend is sorry (and he surely will be), then you have saved a friend. If not, it’s no big loss.

Trust, transparency, and vulnerability are the stuff of which true friendships are constructed. Often our fear of betrayal outweighs our willingness to risk trusting another man with our inner thoughts, so we choose to remain invulnerable. Like the song goes, “And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

Of course, we do cry, and we do feel pain. That’s why we need a friend.

Taking the risk
Personally, I have a propensity for close friends, and for many years I have taken the initiative to have several close friendships developing at the same time. But I must confess to more failures than successes.

It’s not that the friendships failed. On the contrary, I enjoy a great circle of friends. Yet many of these friendships didn’t reach their full potential. The veneer of personal vulnerability just couldn’t be pierced, or if it was pierced, the relationship became too close for comfort.

The price of friendship is personal vulnerability. If we stiff-arm our friend when he starts to get too close, he will understand the message and withdraw, unless he is particularly secure and committed to making the friendship work.

If our friend is committed, he will press us to be transparent. Then it’s our move—we can peel back the mask or continue the stiff-arm. Of course, someone can violate the process of building relationships and come on too strong too quickly. But to  work, transparency must eventually characterize a friendship. If someone gets too close for comfort, we have two choices: get real, or get too busy to meet.

This article was adapted from The Man in the Mirror, 25th Anniversary Edition, by Pat Morley (Zondervan, 2014).


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