“I thought everything I touched would turn to gold”: He was a wildly successful businessman – until he lost everything
Where is God when it hurts? This Christmas, Salt&Light brings you a series of stories of God's light in the darkness when it matters most.
by Gracia Lee // December 19, 2022, 3:39 pm
At the height of his career, Stephen Chua felt as though he were God. “I thought that the world was made for me and that everything I touched would turn to gold," he said. Little did he know that he was in for a rude awakening. Photo courtesy of St Luke's Eldercare.
“When I grow up, I don’t want to be like you.”
When Stephen Chua heard these words come out of his young son’s mouth, they felt like knives to his heart. Everything he had done had been for his son, or so he thought.
After graduating with a degree in business administration from the National University of Singapore, Stephen had put his hand to the plow, rising quickly through the ranks at a bank before opening a wine and restaurant business on the side that was raking in fine profits each month.
“When everything was going well I had only one dream: That when my son turned 21 I would give him a public-listed company,” said Stephen, now 59.
Yet he could not blame his son for what he had said. He knew he had not been present as a father. He knew that he had put his family through too much.
From riches to rags
It hadn’t always been like this. Up until then, life had been going so well that Stephen had thought he was invincible.
“I thought that the world was made for me and that everything I touched would turn to gold,” he said, adding that he would not think twice about spending $6,000 on a bottle of wine or hopping on planes whenever he desired.
“I felt very much that I was God,” he admitted.
Little did he know that he was in for a rude awakening. When the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008, everything that Stephen believed was turned upside-down.
His companies began losing money quickly and he found himself mired in debt he could no longer afford to pay off.
Desperate, he resorted to borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars from loansharks to help finance his drowning company, but the burgeoning interest rate only sank him deeper and deeper into the quicksand of debt.
Each week he found himself in a never-ending scramble to cobble together $7,000 to $8,000 so that he would not need to default on his repayment plan.
With his phone constantly pinging with calls and texts from his debtors, Stephen grew so desperate for cash that he even felt relieved when he was retrenched from his job at Bank of America because he received a huge payout that could help to repay his debts.
Within three weeks, however, all that money was gone and he was back to square one. Eventually, he was sued for bankruptcy.
As Stephen stayed in a private property, the loansharks could not harass him at his door. So they hunted down his parents’ and sisters’ addresses, splashing paint outside their homes and burning down their doors.
“From that kind of position I was in – managing a foreign exchange desk in a good bank, earning huge amounts of money through my businesses – to seeing everything crumble … it was very hard,” said Stephen.
Hurtling to rock bottom
It was not only his wealth that slipped away, but his relationships too.
“I lost everything. I lost my career. I lost my business. I lost my family. I had nothing. I was nobody.”
Tired of all Stephen had put his family through, his then-wife, who in his words “was absolutely a great lady”, filed for a divorce, taking their two children with her. It was during this time that his son had said those searing words to him.
He did not blame them, given that he had not been the most present or faithful father and husband to them all these years.
While Stephen used to wine and dine with many friends who were high-flying and well-connected chief executive officers, all of them were suddenly nowhere to be found.
“I lost everything. I lost my career. I lost my business. I lost my family. I had nothing. I was nobody. There was a lot of rejection and dejection,” he said.
At the end of his rope, he came close to taking his own life. “But I didn’t have the courage.”
Three faithful friends
Even though Stephen had lost absolutely everything, there were three friends who stood faithfully by him, including an investor who had lost almost $400,000 in Stephen’s business.
When one took him out for lunch, Stephen was immensely moved.
Said Stephen: “Previously when people bought me lunch I would always think that they wanted something from me. But I had nothing and this friend bought me lunch. He just came with one message, ‘I want you to know that you are special. I want you to know that you have worth. Do not give up.'”
All three of these friends, Stephen noticed, were Christians.
Prior to this, he had harboured an aversion to Christianity for reasons he could not explain. Even when he had been at his wits’ end, he had turned to every religion except Christianity.
“When I looked at these brothers, I began to see the love of God.”
But through the love and faithfulness of these three friends, Stephen found himself strangely touched by the Christian God.
His eyes welling up with tears, he said: “When I looked at these brothers, I began to see the love of God, that even before I accepted Him, His eyes were on me. When everyone had abandoned me, He never gave up on me.”
So, the man who was previously too proud to step into a church agreed to go with them and, with tears streaming uncontrollably down his face, gave his heart to Jesus that Sunday.
As one who had always seen religion – or anything for that matter – as a self-seeking transaction, Stephen was struck by this God he had just come to know.
“This God is about love. This God is about relationship. That was the first time that I began to see Him in a different way,” he said.
Too proud to wash a cup
It was like a breath of fresh air. Once obsessed with chasing after money, material possessions and success, he began chasing after God.
“I was literally on fire for Him even though my business was gone and I was nothing,” said Stephen, who got baptised and began serving actively in church.
“Simple things like washing a cup, cleaning a window, I couldn’t do because of my pride and my arrogance.”
As he learnt more about God’s Word and His ways, he began to realise how foolish he had been. “I thought that making a name for myself was good but it was all deception and foolishness,” he recalled.
Though he knew he had grown far too arrogant, the pride that had long accumulated in his heart would prove hard to break down.
Working at a wine shop for one of his previous suppliers who generously offered him a job, Stephen was once asked to help with the simple task of washing a cup. But he could not bring himself to do it.
“In my mind all those things were flashing at me – where I was as a banker, how I was a boss in a restaurant business and I would be telling people do things. Now I was being asked to wash this cup. I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Another time, he was asked to clean the window of the shopfront. He steeled himself to carry out the task – but again found that he could not, convinced that people were looking at him.
“Simple things like washing a cup, cleaning a window, I couldn’t do because of my pride and my arrogance,” he said.
“I found that the lower down I go, the more I encounter God. When I do the things that nobody wants to do, I find Him there.”
To his surprise, however, he found that God was slowly but surely enabling him to swallow his pride so he could carry out these humble tasks. And when he finally did it, there was a profound sense of joy and freedom.
“My whole perspective changed. I found that the lower down I go, the more I encounter God in special ways. When I do the things that nobody wants to do, I find Him there,” he said.
So drawn to this new realisation was he that he joined the hospitality ministry in his church, where one of his jobs was to clear the rubbish – “with joy!” – after every reception. He also started working at not-for-profit organisation Christian Outreach to the Handicapped, where he served adults with autism.
On what spurred this radical change from proud businessman to humble servant, Stephen said: “It was the presence of God that drew me. I knew where I could find Him.”
Running a different business
Today Stephen continues his journey of service as the Centre Manager of St Luke’s ElderCare Whampoa Centre, where he leads a team that serves the elderly on a daily basis.
“As we obey Him and trust Him, we don’t even need to worry about any other thing. He handles the rest.”
There are real needs on the ground, he added, and it is a privilege to be able to address some of these issues through this position that God has placed him in.
“I am still in a business but I run a different business,” he beamed. “I run God’s business and it’s a business about care, about serving, about loving, not about pursuing what I want to do.”
Once fixated on wealth and success, he now sees clearly what is truly important.
“Having God in our life is ultimately the most important thing. Finding His purpose for us surpasses everything. It doesn’t matter if I’ve got $50 in my wallet or $5 or $50,000, because at the end of it I’ve got God,” he said.
However, he is still quick to add that he is still a work in progress and that he needs to be mindful of his pride as it can creep back in if he is not careful.
As for his relationship with his son, now 28, they are now “like the best of friends”.
Grateful for the reconciliation that God has brought about in his family, Stephen said: “As we obey Him and trust Him, we don’t even need to worry about any other thing. He handles the rest.”
MORE STORIES OF GOD’S LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS:
“In our heartbreak, we’ve found comfort and peace in God”: Parents whose son was swept away by waves in Australia
“The most painful part of my life was also the most joyful”: Though her kidneys failed her at 35, she saw unexpected miracles
“She is a miracle”: How God kept His promise to a mother whose baby’s skull was abnormal
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