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Is God’s love really unconditional?
Posted by Clare
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“God’s love for us is unconditional. It never changes regardless of what we do or don’t do. He loves us just the way we are.” I recently heard a Christian I respect a lot make that statement and I’ve heard variations of it all my Christian life. But is it true?

I had the same misgivings when I read this quote from the bestselling book, Jesus Calling. (A book I do like by the way.) Here’s a portion of the reading for December 26. In it, the author assumes the voices of Jesus and says, “I am the Gift that continuously gives – bounteously, with no strings attached. Unconditional love is such a radical concept that even my most devoted followers fail to grasp it fully. Absolutely nothing in heaven or on earth can cause me to stop loving you. You may feel more loved when you are performing according to your expectations. But my love for you is perfect; therefore it is not subject to variation.”

Both of these quotes leave the distinct impression that God doesn’t love us or like us any differently whether we’re good or bad. Is that really true? If it is, it may be an explanation why so many Christians are behaving badly – thankful for God’s love but without any fear of him at all.

Is that really the God of the Bible?

Unconditional Love

It comes as a surprise to a lot of people that the phrase, unconditional love isn’t found anywhere in scripture – at least not in the top six versions I searched. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which it is true prior to our salvation. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

The Bible says that God loves all humans, generally, but he uniquely loves those who by faith cry out to him for salvation and believe in his son’s divinity, death burial and resurrection. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” I John 4:10

Jesus didn’t die for us because he saw our potential for goodness, or because we were virtuous. We were sinners. Calvin called us totally depraved. So it’s not a stretch to think of God’s salvational love for all who have been or will be saved as unconditional before salvation.

And this much is also true, once a soul is truly born again nothing – no sin can cause us to lose this love of God. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 However, let’s not confuse God’s faithfulness to his promises with his feelings about our behavior.

Can God love us but still not like us at times?

So, here’s the question, after salvation does God really have no different feelings toward us whether we are good, or bad, forgiving or unforgiving, profane or holy?

If that’s true, then what happened in the Old Testament? Here you have Israel, God’s beloved people – the people of the promise sinning by worshipping the golden calf and God said to Moses, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” Exodus 32:10

Then God warned Israel with this before they entered the Promised Land. “But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it.” Leviticus 26:14-16 And when they later disobeyed God, he punished them in all these ways.

God punished Aaron’s wife with leprosy, sent snakes when they complained about manna and he sent “his people” into captivity twice because they worshipped other Gods. Clearly, even though God at one level loved Israel, there were times he didn’t like them at all when they deeply angered and displeased him. His feeling toward their sin was anything but unconditional.

New Testament “unconditional love”

“Yes, but that was in the Old Testament, when they lived under the law. We now live by grace” is the common argument. Well then, what do we do with these verses?

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21

“For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater —has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” Ephesians 5:5-6

“If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.” I Corinthians 3:12-15

Jesus’ many teachings on the rewards he promises for our faithfulness and the loss of rewards if we aren’t, Paul’s teaching on discipline in I Cor. 5 and the judgment of believers based on what we did with our life in Revelation tells us one thing for sure. God likes those who act with mercy, justice and love and he’s unhappy with believers who don’t. It even says in Ephesians 4:30 that we can grieve the Holy Spirit by our sin. When we obey God, it delights him and when we don’t we sadden and anger him. And, I believe it’s dishonest, unbiblical and dangerous to think of God in any other way!

The danger of believing in unconditional love

I’ve been mentoring men for close to 30 years now and it’s been my experience that many of those who claim to be Christians, but are living in disobedience are grabbing on to the unconditional love idea like drowning sailors to a life ring. Why knock yourself out with holy living if Jesus is just as happy with you if you’re not?

While the unconditional love folks would probably never say that, trust me it’s what many in the church who are shamelessly behaving badly, do believe, and we better be careful to not leave that impression lingering out there. It’s a subtle variation on Love Wins and while we want to affirm the love of God, it’s only half the gospel if we don’t also speak of God’s justice, righteousness and judgment.

God hasn’t mellowed since the Old Testament. He still hates sin and punishes disobedience in this life and the next, even for believers. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Rev. 3:15-16

“Lukewarm living and claiming Christ’s name simultaneously is utterly disgusting to God.” Francis Chan, Crazy Love

Question:  What do you think?

Following Jesus in Real Life

 

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Letting go of the “Nut” in your life
Posted by Clare
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When I meet with “driven” men, or those in a tough spot in their marriage or whose spiritual life feels flat and lifeless to them, I’ll often ask them if they have a “nut” they just won’t or can’t let go of.

I’m told there are tribes who have a unique method of capturing monkeys. It seems they drill a 1 ½” hole in a coconut, drain the milk and dry the meat. A large nut is then dropped through the hole and a short rope or chain is attached, one end to the coconut and the other to a tree.

Soon a monkey will come along, pick up the coconut, shake it and hearing the nut rattling around inside, will reach through the hole for the nut. However, now the monkey’s fist holding the nut is larger than the hole and he can’t remove it.

All he’d have to do to be free is let go of the nut. But, soon the trapper comes along holding a club. The frightened monkey starts running around the palm tree and with each turn shortens the rope until there’s no slack left and he’s clubbed to death.

How stupid we think! But, many of us are gripping a “nut” of our own, and if we don’t let it go, will kill us.

So, what’s your nut?

Your nut may be an addiction, a relationship you know is wrong, or a wound from the past you simply can’t forgive or forget. Your nut could be an addiction to success, your job, your Facebook page, or a hobby that’s killing other important relationships in your life, including your relationship with God.

I know a woman so wounded by her former husband that it has kept her from ever truly trusting a man again. And that nut has even contaminated her own children’s view of men – killing future relationships before they’ve even developed.

I meet with men all the time whose nut is pornography. For others it’s sports, Fantasy Football, or working hard, not just to provide for their family, but so they can buy the next thing they think will make them happy. Many men spend more time every day working out or running than alone with God in Bible study and prayer. Their nut is what makes them feel good or look good. Sound familiar?

Our married daughters have been shocked by the Christian women they talk to who appear to be obsessed with reading the next Fifty Shades of Grey sequel or copycat. They know it’s morally toxic, but still they read on. Or they spend hours shopping or online, checking their Facebook every ½ hour, faces buried in their phone instead of talking to their children. And, all the while they’re truly puzzled why their spiritual and marital life is flat or dying.

For me occasionally, my nut is ministry. There are times, I’m more in love with ministry than I am with God and I have to confess that and let go.

So, what’s your nut – your “secret sin”? What is it you simply can’t or don’t want to let go of that’s slowly killing you physically, emotionally and especially spiritually? What obsession has your spouse, or perhaps even your own children been talking to you about?

“For a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.” II Peter 2:19b

Letting go of the nut

Naming your nut is the first step. Do you know that you have a problem? For the truly courageous, ask your spouse or a close friend this question. Is there anything in my life that you feel is so controlling me, that it’s hurting me, or causing confusion about what or who I truly love? Give them a few days to answer you either in person or by email  – whatever way they feel most comfortable. Getting people to speak truth to you is a tricky business, but assure them that this is important to you and you need their thoughtful and honest answers.

Confess any sin or obsessive behavior to God. Tell him you know you have a problem – a sin and ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom what to do about it. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” I John 1:8-10

Get help. If it’s a deep rooted sin issue, you may need good Christian counseling. Ask your pastor for the names of good, Christ-centered counselors.

If it’s a balance issue you may need a mentor or an accountability partner. On this website you can download information on both. Mentors or faithful accountability partners can not only help you get back on track, but keep you on track.

Unless you’re a better Christian than me, this isn’t a onetime thing. As I said, every year or two, I discover a nut I find tough to let go of. But if I don’t, I risk the slow death of my integrity, a moral conviction or my great relationship with my wife or children.

Question:  So, what’s your nut and what have you done about it?

Following Jesus in Real Life

 

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Christians ought to be in the Salvation Business
Posted by Clare
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I was having a discussion at dinner a few weeks ago with a group of young Christian leaders who were a bit shocked to hear me say, “Every Christian ought to be in the salvation business.”

Several of the men immediately questioned what I meant by the word salvation. They thought I couldn’t possibly believe that I, or anyone but Jesus could “save” anyone from their sins. So, they were really taken back when I responded that “yes” we Christians can actually save people from their sins!

Before you write me off as a heretic, let’s be clear. No one but Jesus, by his death and resurrection, and by the power of the Holy Spirit can forgive anyone from their sins, causing them to be born again and a child of God, and thus save them.  Jesus has a lock on that part of the salvation business. Period. However, there are a lot of other ways we can save people from their sins.

“Other” Salvations

We Christians are so accustomed to thinking about salvation in terms of Jesus redemptive work that we rarely think of salvation in any other way. However, the most common use of the word salvation or saved in the Old Testament refers to God saving, or rescuing the people of Israel from their enemies or restoring them to their land.

“In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” Isaiah 25:9

“This is what the Lord says: In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances.” Isaiah 49:8

The second most common usage of the word salvation or saved describes individuals being saved or rescued from their enemies or oppressors, such as David crying out to God to save him from Saul and widows crying out to be saved from poverty, hunger or hopelessness, etc.

“My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior – from violent people you save me. I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and have been saved from my enemies.” II Samuel 22:3-4

“The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” Exodus 15:2

“How you have helped the powerless! How you have saved the arm that is feeble!” Job 26:2

(Of course, there are also many references to the saving work of the coming Messiah, Jesus in the Old Testament.)

However, in the New Testament Jesus, his disciples and followers “saved” or rescued people in similar ways in addition to their receiving spiritual salvation through faith in Jesus. They helped widows and saved them from poverty. They took collections for the poor to save them from hunger. They prayed for the sick and saved them from their diseases.

If we’re to be imitators of Jesus, likewise we ought to be deeply engaged in saving people from the sinful and unwise choices that either they or others have made that causes so much fear and suffering. Jesus said that one of our primary purposes on earth is loving others. That means we’re to be about the business of making life better for others and saving people in every way they need saving, or rescuing.

Saving others from…

Here are some great examples of how individuals can do similar things, saving people from their sins or the effects of sin in this world:

• When we do an intervention for an alcoholic friend, we are rescuing or saving them from their bondage to alcohol, and perhaps even saving their life.

• When we visit prisoners, an older person, or someone in the hospital, we’re saving them from loneliness.

• When we give our weary spouse a back rub and encouraging words we’re saving them from discouragement.

• When we proactively give an unexpected and badly needed gift to another, or serve as an advocate for a powerless person we are saving them from hopelessness or possible poverty.

• When we faithfully go about the hard work of loving a married couple through hard times, we may actually be used of God to save their marriage.

• When we forgive others their sins against us we’re saving them from guilt and shame and actually restoring a broken relationship.

• And, of course, when we present the gospel to someone we are being used of God to save people spiritually in the most important way they need saving.

When we act like Jesus’ stand-ins – his agents of grace, you and I are partnering with God in his continuing work of rescuing both us and others from our sins.

Proactive Mercy

I’m so proud of the deacons in my church. Historically, most churches disburse benevolent funds as requested by those who apply for help and our benevolent teams still do that. However, a number of years ago they moved beyond being reactive, to being proactive in these ways.

• One Christmas they gave a gift of several hundreds of dollars to every faithful widow in our church along with a letter praising them for their faithfulness. Those who didn’t need the money were encouraged to pass it on to another widow who did.

• For a number of years, our deacons made lists of people they knew were really struggling in the church, especially single parent families. Many were living in fear because they had no savings. A breakdown of their car, or a medical emergency would have wiped out, forcing them to the indignity of coming to the church for help.

Instead, our deacons sent each one a check for between $250 and $750 depending on their family size and circumstances. They explained this was to help them establish a “rainy day fund” against future needs, however they were free to use the money as they saw fit without any restrictions.

I’ve spoken with widows and families who’ve received these funds and for them it felt as if God himself had answered their prayers and he had. God through his people is still saving those who cry out to him.

Please share with us some ways you or others have proactively “saved others”.

Following Jesus in Real Life

 

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Being an Advocate for the Poor
Posted by Clare
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Two decades ago a man I deeply admire asked this penetrating question of me, “Is there anyone right now praising God for you because without your advocacy for them they would be hopeless?”

My mind instantly swung into justification mode, and I began adding up the money I’d given and boards on which I’d served that assist the poor in some way. But, that wasn’t what he was asking. What he was getting at is this, “Are you personally engaged in the life of a person who is powerless or poor and had no other place to turn before you came along?” My honest answer was “yes”. I had been just such an advocate for a number of people in the past, but not presently.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve made it one of my personal goals to pray for and have my spiritual antenna up for people in need of an advocate. They’re all around me if I’ll simply open my eyes. But, even if one doesn’t cross our path, I believe we have an obligation to seek them out. I’ll share a few stories shortly just how that works in real life.

You only have to read the story of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) to get a feel for how serious Jesus is about us caring for “the least of these”. If you read that story, you’ll also notice that in almost every case he instructs us to go to them, not wait for them to ask us for help.

And Jesus’ teaching mirrors God’s repeated warning to Israel in the Old Testament about their lack of concern for the poor and the teaching in Proverbs regarding his heart for the poor.

“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered. When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” Proverbs 21:13 and 15

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” Proverbs 19:17

“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Just do a Bible word search for the words poor, alien or widow and you’ll see how often God admonishes Israel to care for the powerless.

What does it mean to be an advocate for the poor?

The term “advocate for the poor” isn’t found in the Bible. However, it is a term which captures the primary ideas in the Bible regarding our responsibilities toward the poor. The main idea is that the poor, the hopeless and the helpless are so often powerless or overwhelmed by their circumstances that they may need a person to advise, speak or act on their behalf – an advocate.

• David read a story in the local newspaper about a man who served 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and was recently released. He wasn’t sure exactly how to get in touch with him, so began with a call to the man’s lawyer. David asked the attorney how he could help and left his phone number if his client was willing to meet with him. Within an hour the ex-con called and they met for lunch.

To his surprise, the man wasn’t bitter about his experience and he wasn’t a Christian. He just wanted to move on with his life, but didn’t know how. David offered to try finding him a job and a place to stay until he got back on his feet and David did both. They met several times after that and David presented the gospel to him, but there wasn’t much interest. They still touch base occasionally and David simply tries to be a friend and encourage him, and is still praying for his salvation.

• A few years ago, a stranger visited our church and halfway through the service left, visibly upset and disturbed. An elder in our church observed this, got up and followed him to the back of church. The man was from a local facility for people struggling with a variety of mental disorders. The elder took him to lunch that day where the man shared that what was really frightening him was his belief that his court appointed legal guardian was robbing him of his life savings and someday he’d be homeless.

Although skeptical at first, his new found friend checked it out and discovered it was true. He confronted the embezzler who denied everything of course. So he hired an attorney at his own expense went to court and got himself appointed legal guardian and served him faithfully until the man died a few years later.

• While getting her driver’s license, a fine Christian woman I know observed a clerk being less than helpful with another woman who barely spoke English. So, she stepped to the side of the stranger and offered her assistance. Apparently, she was missing one piece of information, which was at home leaving no time to take the bus home and return before the Secretary of State’s office closed.

So, the Good Samaritan offered to drive her home, get what she needed and bring her back in time to get her license. Then, literally going the second mile, the woman drove her new found friend to work so she wouldn’t be late. It turns out that the woman was a Christian and thanked both my friend and Jesus for going out of her way to help.

Equipping yourself to be an Advocate

• Begin praying daily for Jesus to use you to minister to another person.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you radar for the poor and helpless in your life, church and city.

• Read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, by Ronald J. Sider, and The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky, to get a good biblical and practical overview of the problem and some creative solutions to both poverty and consumption, personally and globally.

• Meditate on why you might be hesitant to help a stranger or someone you see on the street.  What do you fear?  What do you think they want?  What kept you from getting involved the last time you saw or heard of a person in need?

• Another excellent book (non-Christian) for understanding the mindset of those in poverty is A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby K. Payne.

• I’m acquainted with a great ministry that helps train churches in wise benevolence. If you’re interested, go to: www.hlic.org

Finding the Poor

• Watch the newspapers, TV and the web for stories of people being treated unjustly, suffering a tragic loss, experiencing job losses, or losses of much needed services.

• Go to your pastor or the deacons in your church and ask if there is anyone in the church who really needs help or needs someone to help then navigate life.

• Volunteer at a local homeless mission, an urban church, retirement home, Habitat for Humanity, food bank, or other ministry which regularly intersects with the poor. But, do more than simply volunteer. Get to know personally some of the poor they serve and look for ways you might serve as their advocate.

• Look for people right in your local church who appear to be struggling.  Often times they drive older cars, sit by themselves, leave as soon as church is over, or wait at the bus stop because they lack personal transportation.

• Take a slow walk through the urban areas of your city with a friend.  Make attempts to strike up conversations with people of the same sex.  Invite them to have a cup of coffee.  Just show interest in them and get to know them personally.

Determining their Needs

Often the poor have immediate needs which often need to be met to allay their fears and give them a sense of security and safety.  A wise advocate will try to discern an immediate need from a primary need.  An immediate need is the assistance required to make sure a person is not hungry, unsafe, without shelter, cold, medically unstable, or about lose a much needed asset in which they have equity.  To the extent we are able, the Bible says we are to meet those immediate needs to stabilize their lives.

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” Proverbs 3:27

Primary needs on the other hand, are the underlying needs that all humans have – love, hope, understanding, a sense of belonging and most importantly the security of knowing Jesus personally.  One homeless man I met with for years was simply scared and lonely at times, usually at night, and needed right then to hear a friend’s voice. I bought him a cell phone with limited minutes on it, so he could call me or his family in another state whenever he felt overwhelmed. He simply needed the assurance that someone cared. Meeting these primary needs isn’t rocket science, but it does take some time and thought.

One word of warning and here’s a quote from my book, The 10-Second Rule, “I was once ripped off by a “Nigerian seminary student” standing in the back of church looking for his next mark. In fact, I’ve been taken advantage of more than once by people with legitimate needs who keep needing more. More money, more time, more whatever – just more. You’ll learn over time to establish some boundaries, but the risk-adverse will rarely follow Jesus. Being taken advantage of occasionally is the occupational hazard of a servant.

“If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life… Live generously.” (Luke 6:30, MSG)

Don’t let the occasionally abuse of your grace and generosity discourage you from being Jesus’ stand-in and an advocate for the poor.

Question: Share with us your experiences of being an advocate for the poor, or poor in spirit.

Following Jesus in Real Life

 

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