When Clare De Graaf came to a point in his life where he no longer needed his business to support his family, he sold it. His next steps could have (or should have) been to settle into a life of comfort, but instead, he saw opportunity rather than luxury. Since then he has been deeply immersed and engaged in the lives of others, his heart so filled with a desire to help others see the world through God’s perspective. Clare’s insights on cultivating a biblical worldview, and practical wisdom on leadership and relationships are golden, and yet, it always feels like he’s simply sharing. It’s never a lecture, with Clare. Witness his words emerge from a place of deep obedience and devotion.
To start from the beginning [of your journey], in your book you mention that while you were always serious about following Jesus, it wasn’t until age 31 when it really ‘awakened’ inside of you. Can you describe what sort of experience that was?
I was serious about being a Christian. I believed everything that the Bible said about God. There was nothing I didn't believe. But come Monday, when I was actually in the workplace, my life did not reflect the kind of person a Christian should be. I used foul language, I told dirty jokes, I went to places when I was traveling where no Christian man should go. Then come Sunday, I would be sitting there agreeing with all the information but not wanting to actually live like that.
When I found out that I had cancer at age 31, it dawned on me: Was I really ready to die? If I was going to see Jesus the next year or two, am I proud of the life that I lived? I knew I wasn't. That began a spiritual search for me. Within about two weeks I came to this conclusion: the kind of person that Jesus describes as those who love him and are his disciples bore no relationship to me whatsoever. I was theologically certain and I knew what I believed but I was an obedience coward. I really didn't want to follow Jesus, I didn't want to be like Jesus, I just wanted to be thankful to Jesus.
“When I found out that I had cancer at age 31, it dawned on me: Was I really ready to die? If I was going to see Jesus the next year or two, am I proud of the life that I lived? I knew I wasn't.”
I spent about six months trying to find some other way to follow Jesus, without actually following him. And I couldn't. Finally I just cried out to God one day and said, “Please forgive me for my sins. I want to be born again I want to become a real authentic follower” and my life began to change from that day on.
It's not always been perfect. My wife and I have been married forty five years, we still have our issues. Our family's not perfect, I still have sin in my life. But the more I know about the Christian life and the more I know about how Jesus would handle problems, the wiser it actually makes me. Now, I'm an imperfect practitioner of biblical truths but I do have fun, and I've enjoyed helping young men particularly [in their journey].
That's amazing. So, you are committed to helping young men?
Yes. I've been taking groups of young men to Europe teaching biblical worldview and history, helping them think through what is a Christian worldview and how does that affect history and current events. I want to help them develop a better biblical worldview.
What does being a leader mean for you?
I tell people that the best test of a Christian leader is [to ask]: would anyone follow you if they didn't have to? If you are a general in the army, your men have to follow you or they may get shot. But a Christian leader should have the kind of character and competency that people would want to follow. Not have to follow.
I want to be a person that my wife intuitively trusts me and will follow me even if she doesn't understand why I'm doing what I'm doing, or where it's going to end up. I hope she can say, “I trust you.” That's the ‘Holy Grail’ for a Christian leader.
“Most people don't think about getting a spiritual teacher. You need a chance to ask questions about, well, how does this work, how does that work? Like a golf teacher or a guitar teacher.”
I've never thought about it that way--that following a leader is sort of a magnetic or a natural reaction.
Yes. Bill Hybel says there is three elements for Christian leaders: chemistry, character, and competency. That's my definition of leadership too.
Do you have any key figures in your own life who have shaped or guided you to this conclusion?
Yes, I actually blogged about two of them today [Norm and Gene, two men who Mr. DeGraaf sought out for spiritual mentorship]. When I first became a Christian, I thought ‘I need to know how this works.’ If you want to learn how to play a guitar, you get a guitar teacher. Or if you want to learn how to golf, you get a golf teacher. But most people don't think about getting a spiritual teacher. You need a chance to ask questions about well, how does this work, how does that work? Like a golf teacher or a guitar teacher.
It’s kind of like being an intern. We have those in the medical field. No doctor could become a doctor without a residency. But we have no residency, no intern program for Christians. That's what spiritual mentoring is really all about.
That's a very insightful comment. What about your family? From what I understand, you are very close to your family and you value them a lot. How have they shaped your view of leadership?
Well (laughs). I think family is the same thing. When your children are young, and even into teenage years, they follow you because they have to. But now, many of my children are married, they don't have to follow me any more. So the question is, why would they listen to me? I hope it's because they still trust me to give them advice.
I think that's just part of our job as a parent and leader is to be someone they want to follow. So if they want to come to me and they look forward to spending time with me, then I think, ‘we're doing the right things’. Even though we were far from perfect parents by a long shot.
You're going back to that idea of “would they want to follow you?”.
Right, I think in all levels, in the church, in the family, even running a business as a Christian, would people work for you even if they didn't have to because they really believe in you or the company or the products? I think that's the best test.
I feel like you're talking about a natural sort of pull that leaders should have. Is it something that can be cultivated too or is it just a natural gift?
Well there is a part that that is a natural gift. Because, some people are just good leaders naturally. But you also have to be willing to be teachable and actually learn from your mistakes. Be a lifelong student of human nature, of the bible, of yourself. When you are, you become a better better leader. And a more effective Christian.
So it is something that you can cultivate.
Yes. A true Christian leader, while they might initially get upset or embarrassed by criticisms, if they are wise they sit back and say “Okay, if that's the perception, even though I don't see it, it has become their truth. So, I have to deal with their truth.” You see, biblical truth, is reality from God's perspective.
My worldview is a sum total of what I believe to be true whether it is or not. And I make all my decisions based on my worldview. Part of being a christian leader/mentor is to help people mature in their worldview. That means that there are some things that they believe, about themselves, the world, and God, that they have to abandon. To adopt a new worldview.
That's what Paul says, “when I was a child I spoke like a child I thought like a child I acted like a child, but when I grew up, I put aside childish things and became mature.” Hopefully a mature christian is constantly learning something new--abandoning a previously held worldview or expanding it. Maturing in your world view. Too many christians have a Sunday School idea of Jesus and the Bible. And they're happy with that because it's really simple and they don't have to think too much.
But my definition of faith is courageous obedience to the teachings of Jesus, and in any act of faith there's going to be risk. If it doesn't cost you anything, it's not faith. It's just belief.
It is important that we cry out to God and ask for forgiveness for not living in faith and God does forgive. But he expects us to repent. That is, to start going the other direction. He doesn't expect perfection, but he expects improvement.
There is this phrase that you used in your book, "mindless equilibrium.” Unfortunately, there seems to be so many would-be leaders stuck in that state of '”mindless equilibrium.”
If you believe that just being a nice kind person is going to change the world, it won't. We need to study the bible really really carefully. Not just listen to the words and slogans out there. You have to become a lifelong student of how does God and Jesus think, what does he believe?
Many people say, “You know what? I just don't care about that issue.” You don't have that option, if you are a follower of Jesus. You have to care about the things that God cares about. We can't be passionate about everything that God is passionate about. But as a follower of Jesus you do not have the luxury of saying “I don't care.” You should think about it, pray about it, and have a worldview you can articulate that you believe is consistent with what God says and what Jesus says. You can't say you don't care. I think too many young people just ‘don't care.’
“We can't be passionate about everything that God is passionate about. But as a follower of Jesus you do not have the luxury of saying ‘I don't care.’”
What is the hardest thing about living faith out in real life? What are some struggles that you have within your faith, church, ministry etc.?
The hardest thing is seeing my own failures and the failures of other Christians. When that happens, I know that non-Christians are looking at us and saying, “I just remembered why I don't want to be a Christian.” My son told me that when the Supreme Court of Massachusetts agreed to legalize gay marriage, there were Christians with picket signs "fags are going to hell" and "gays are going to hell". My son called me and said, “What am I supposed to do with that?”. I said, “When you meet with non-Christians you should apologize and say I'm sorry for my fellow brothers in Christ. I believe that they are born again people but they did not behave well at all.”
The next really successful reality show would be "Christian's Behaving Badly". It would be a commercial success that I think would discredit God (laughs).
(Laughs) Wow, we covered a lot of heavy topics.
(Laughs) it has nothing to do with the book! But that's the way it goes. I don't have to write books for a living and I hope to never have to write another book. If God gave me something significant to say I'd be willing to do it, but I wouldn't want to.
That sounds like obedience. Even when you don't want to...
Yeah. I'm speaking at a writer's conference in that fall. I've never even been to a writer's conference. I've never even taken a writing course in my entire life. I haven't even graduated from college. I flunked marketing at Calvin, so I'm still 2 credits short, I went there for four years! I never actually graduated. So I've never taken a writing course.
That's surprising to hear! I mean, I loved your writing.
I read a lot. I read good literature. I only read maybe two Christian books a year, but I read a lot of non-Christian books. I read Nobel-prizers. I read Chaucer. Shakespeare. Milton. I like good literature.
When I was writing the book I finished it in two weeks. Within two weeks Zondervan wanted to buy it, and within two more weeks I had an agent. So six weeks from the time I started. The agent was Billy Graham's agent and Don Miller’s and Yancey’s. Oh my gosh! I'm going, “I'm just not that good!” How can you explain that except it was God! Truly i'm not that good. I think I'm a reasonably clever guy and I can turn a phrase when I write but there are a lot of people who are good writers. It was God. I have no other explanation for it.
I remember you writing that in the introduction of “10 Second Rule”, “Come on! i'm not that good!” (Both laugh)
But one of the things about writing, and it's just good Christianity, be honest with your readers. Because most people know you're not that good. I have to be careful because I know the more transparent I am the more people can actually admire me. Sometimes I can be transparent, simply to be admired. So there's some stuff that I wanted to write in the book that I took out. I sensed God saying don't write that. You didn't write that to honor me, you wrote that to honor yourself.
Isn’t that wisdom? Knowing what to reveal and what not to reveal?
I tell people I have mileage. My pastor Jim Samra [Pastor of Calvary Church GR], came to me ten years ago as an intern at the church. He came to me and said, “Would you mentor me?” After two or three weeks I said, “This is never going to work. You know more about the bible than I will ever know, but I've got this going for me. I've sinned more than you have. So, if that's any help, I have more mileage”. (laughs). So I said, “I can actually help you by sharing sinful and stupid choices I and other men have made. If you want that kind of a relationship I can help you.” And so, we've been friends ever since. I have mileage. You only get that with age.
Mileage (laughs). I think you have a good punch for phrases.
You say you read a lot. What is the most recent book that you read? Do you have any recommendations for books?
I really like [Tim] Keller's book on marriage The Meaning of Marriage. I also read a lot of World War II books, not because I'm interested in battle, but because WWII was the last real war where there was clear evil; a good side and a bad side. It's not that every German was terrible and every American was honorable. But there was a world at war. I also find it to be a great study in leadership. There is a series that I like, An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson that is really interesting.
As a “student of our culture” what is the most interesting thing you’ve learned recently?
I listen to NPR almost always. A few years ago Diane Rehm interviewed the head of the Institute for Altruism in California. She asked, “Why do people do good things for others?” The guys answered that he became a Christian after coming to institute. He said, “it seemed to me that God created in us a desire to willingly sacrifice our own lives for total strangers.” You can train a guard dog to sacrifice his life to protect, but that's because you trained him that way. But humans intuitively will actually die for total strangers. So I thought, that's really interesting. I tell that story to non-Christians and I reference NPR and they are surprised. If I said it was from some seminarian they would say, “Well, of course you Christians would say that.”
Also the first time I heard about David Platt [author of Radical] was on NPR. I thought, ‘Wow, these people really admire him.’ The interviewers were saying, “David, if christians really behave like that there would probably be more Christians.” And he said, “Yeah, exactly!” So I went an bought the book after hearing him on NPR. So I think we should not run away from the world as if its the boogeyman.
I have a couple silly questions. What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
Caramel Caribou. It's made by Sherman's Ice Cream and the only place I know that carries it is on a shop on Fulton Ave. on Amway called Marilyn's. Don't even think about, it will become addicting (laughs). When I pull in the parking lot they start making my ice cream for me. (Laughs) Caramel Caribou.
What about your favorite color?
I think blue. I love the color of the ocean and I love the color of the sky. and for me, I find it very peaceful because I live on Lake Michigan during the summer so I wake up every morning looking at the lake. It's just beautiful.
Can you share a favorite memory with one of your grandchildren?
I went to a Bar Mitzvah in Washington about four years ago, a Jewish Bar Mitzvah and came back and I said, wow, we ought to have the same kind of thing for Christians. So, actually came up with a Christian bar mitzvah for my grandson Max. He had to do something he was afraid to do and one of those was he doesn't like to speak in front of audiences so he did a sermon with his father who is an ordained pastor, and it scared the wits out of him. We had a gathering of men and we all laid hands on him and we wrote a letter to him and then prayed over him and said today you are a man. When a man get's that kind of blessing he starts thinking like a man, and he starts acting like a man. So one of my memories is just praying over him. So that was a great experience.
Your grandchildren are lucky to have you as a grandfather.
I love being a grandfather.
Even more than being a father?
Well yes, it's like renting instead of owning (chuckles).
I wrote a quote down from your book, “I love the word intentional. It helps me draw a clearer distinction between a theoretical openness to follow Jesus and a carefully thought-out decision to obey”. That's kind of your life it seems, with your mentoring and “10 Second Rule.”
Yeah, trying to be intentional. Because I think that's what it actually means to follow Jesus. Generally we are very un-intentional about our spiritual lives. We just kind of let it evolve by going to church and doing things and so I think we need to be more intentional. And if you do, when you do, you'll live a life of little or no regrets. I can't say I have a life of no regrets, but I have a life of few regrets.