If you were to die tonight, how many friends would come to your funeral? These are the opening words to Chapter Seven in Simplify by Bill Hybels, a chapter about friendships. So, how many would come to your funeral? Or mine? According to Hybels, a lot fewer than we think! The number of people we know does not equal the number of true friends we have.
Hybels defines friendship like this: to know and be known. He expands this definition of true friendship to include accepting and being accepted, serving and being served, celebrating and being celebrated. Then he advises us to evaluate our friendships regularly so we can prune or strengthen them.
Yup, he said prune. As in, lop off. Why? Simply put: stupid rubs off. Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm (Proverbs 13:20). Hybels describes seven warning lights to look for in friends who may need to be pruned:
- corner cutting
- integrity lapses
- spreading gossip or slander
Then he lists nine welcome signs to be on the lookout for because just as “stupid” rubs off, so does “smart.” The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5: 22, 23). Count ’em. That’s nine.
There are three levels of friends: Having a clear understanding of where each person fits in your life helps you clarify your expectations.
1. Circumstantial friends: these are people we share portions of our life with — we work together, work out at the same gym, live nearby, volunteer together, attend the same church — but if circumstances changed we wouldn’t see each other any more. Hybels says be radically loving and kind in every exchange you have with your circumstantial friends. But know this: they’re not coming to your funeral.
2. True friends — for a season: Occasionally, circumstantial friends become true friends. But we live in a highly mobile world. The first time a close friendship is interrupted by a move it can be painful to accept and you might expend much effort trying to maintain those ties. Eventually you learn that time and energy is precious and limited, and while you never forget those friends, you may need to let them go. Hybels doesn’t say this, but I imagine that these people aren’t coming to your funeral either.
3. Lifelong friends: Some friendships really do last a lifetime. I have some of those and you do too. Whether near or far, these relationships are worth protecting and developing. Be aware, lifelong friendships are a treasured blessing and you might have only a few. They will make the effort to be at your funeral!
Hybels recommends that you look at your existing friendships and decide which ones need some adjustment — remember, the overall goal is to unclutter your soul by simplifying every aspect of your life. There are some friends you invite to get more involved with you in new ways. If they are interested, bring them along. There are others who hold back and you might have to let them go. And some friendships are toxic or harmful to you. These “frenemies” beat you down, hold you back, and worse still, rub off on you. In this case, say goodbye.
Now that you have sorted out your friendships — as if it’s ever that easy! — Hybels suggests ways to deepen your inner circle:
1. take small steps — moving too fast alarms people and true friendship takes time.
2. invest time
3. create shared experiences
4. wait for the volley — if you have initiated and nothing is coming back at you, don’t just move on, first ask the person if they want to develop a friendship. If they say yes but still don’t reciprocate, their actions speak the loudest. However, the exception is if one person in a friendship really does want to be friends but has a hard time initiating (like me) but is very quick to say yes when asked. This can be discussed and accepted and a great friendship can develop.
5. take off your mask (first) — be real. This is not code for “dump all your junk on them” but simply be who you really are, warts and all.
6. in a crisis, show up — this will always be one of my most painful memories. When my true friend Kathy had a flood at her house from a dysfunctional toilet, I did nothing. No mopping, no lugging. no hot meals. Nothing. I am ashamed, astounded and incredibly grateful that we remain friends today. True friends show up. If they don’t, you may need to honestly share your disappointment and hurt and then choose to graciously forgive.
Action Step: Identify your current relationship circles (for obvious reasons I am not going to make my lists public).
Using the Biblical model of Jesus’ relationships (3 close disciples, 12 apostles, 72 acquaintances), Hybels says create five columns on a page or spreadsheet:
Column One: 72 — list all acquaintance-level friendships. These are people you don’t know well. You’ve never socialized one-on-one or shared a significant conversation. Workmates. Neighbours. Gym class.
Column Two: 12 — list your current friends. you know them a little better, socialize occasionally, and consider a friend.
Column Three: 3 — list your current inner circle. Can include spouse, adult children, or best friends. Doesn’t have to be exactly three but should be a small number.
Column Four: Distant — list significant relationships with faraway fiends who, if they lived nearby, would be in the 12 or the 3 groups.
Column Five: Potential — list people you would like to get to know better. Be realistic. Don’t put Oprah or Beth Moore (unless you are neighbours) on your list.
Once your lists are made, save them. Come back to these lists to make adjustments as you think and pray. You can move people from one column to another or prune them altogether (this sounds horrible but what it really means is that perhaps that friendship has already died but you haven’t let it go yet; now is the time to accept and recognize it’s over). Knowing where people fit in your relational world simplifies your life by clarifying your expectations.