Thirty-five years ago, God put it on my heart to start a boys' home in Amityville, New York, on Long Island. I truly sensed the Lord was behind this work. Yet, after just a year and a half, state officials put impossible stringent regulations on the home. They told us we had to have a full-time psychologist on staff, as well as a priest or rabbi if we took in boys who were Catholic or Jewish. We couldn't afford to operate under those restrictions, so we simply shut our doors.
We'd taken in only four boys during the brief time we were open, and after we closed down, I lost touch with them. I've always thought that venture was one of the greatest failures of all time. For more than three decades, I wondered why God ever allowed us to move forward with it.
This past week, however, I received a letter from a man named Clifford. He told the following story:
"Brother David, I was one of the four boys sent to your Amityville home thirty-five years ago by the Nassau County Children's Agency.
"My father and mother were Jewish, but they split up and my mother remarried. She was such a rebel that she put me in a Catholic school. I was sprinkled in the Catholic Church when I was eleven years old.
"Right after that, our home became dysfunctional. I had to clean the whole house, cook, take care of my little brother, and care for my mom while working a paper route early in the morning. Once I had to break into my mother's bedroom, where I found her on the floor foaming at the mouth. Lots of empty pill bottles lay scattered around her.
"I had attended a huge Catholic cathedral, I had gone to confession, I had genuflected, I had done my rosary -- but I only feared God. I was convinced he didn't care about me.
"Neither I nor my mother knew that the social worker was coming to place me in your boys home. But I was desperate to get away from my stepfather's abuse, the poverty, and my mother's suicide attempts. So I went along and ended up in your home.
"Your house parents were so loving and kind. They taught us Bible studies and took us to church. One day they took us to a little church that was holding a tent revival. I was so bitter inside and so despondent. It was at that little church, under the tent, that the Holy Spirit began tugging at my heart. One night, I couldn't resist any longer. All the years of pain, confusion and hopelessness came to the surface. I was choking.
"Then I heard the preacher say, 'Jesus loves you.' I got on my knees and prayed, 'God, I'm not really sure that you're real, or that you're listening to me. But if you are real, please forgive me, and please help me. I need somebody to love me, because I feel so bitter, rejected and full of turmoil.'
"All at once, I felt like somebody was pouring warm molasses on my head and it was flowing down over by body. The bitterness all melted away. God had my heart completely from that day on.
"Brother David, that was thirty-five years ago. Now God has called me to preach, and he's moving me into full-time ministry. I found you while surfing the Internet. This thank-you has been brewing in me for thirty-five years. I just want to say thank you for caring. I know what the love of God is."
This man's letter proves to me that nothing we do for Christ is in vain. That boys' home was not a failure -- because one lost, confused Jewish boy discovered the meaning of God's love. He'd only known the dread fear of God until he came to our sanctuary.
How sad it is that so many millions like Clifford grow up knowing nothing of God's love. They've never known loving parents, so they don't know how to relate to the love of God. They live a lifetime full of fear, confusion and rejection.
Yet it's just as tragic that multitudes of believers who've tasted the love of God have never learned how to enter into the fullness of his love. They know the doctrine of God's love, they've heard it preached often -- yet they don't know what it means to be kept in his love.
The Holy Ghost recently stirred my spirit concerning his love. He led me to this passage from Jude: "Ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" (Jude 20-21). As I read these verses, I heard the Spirit quietly whisper to me:
"David, you've never yet come into the fullness and joy of my love. You have the theology right -- but you haven't yet experienced the ecstasy and rest of keeping yourself in my love. Up to now, you've only been in it up to your ankles. But there's a whole ocean of my love for you to swim in."
The Bible is filled with the truth of God's love. But at times I allow myself to wonder how the Lord could ever love me. It's not that I doubt his love; it's more a failure on my part to keep myself in the knowledge and assurance of his love to me.
That's the reason I'm writing this message. I want all of us to learn more about how to be kept in the love of God.
The revelation of God's love comes in part when we are born again. If you were to ask most Christians what they know of God's love for them, they'd answer, "I know God loves me because he gave his son to die for me." They would quote John 3:16 "God so loved the world, he gave his only son, so that whoever believes on him wouldn't perish, but would have everlasting life."
It's a wonderful moment when you grasp this truth. You suddenly realize, "God loved me when I was lost, undone, a stranger. And he proved his love for me by sacrificing his own son on my behalf."
Few Christians, however, learn how to be kept in God's love. We know something of our love toward the Lord -- but we seldom seek the revelation of God's love for us. In fact, if you were to ask most Christians to find biblical passages on God's love for us, they could point to only a few.
Yet understanding the love of God is the secret to an overcoming life. Multitudes grow spiritually cold and lazy because they're ignorant of the Lord's love for them. They don't know that their greatest weapon against Satan's attacks is to be fully convinced of God's love for them, through the revelation of the Holy Ghost.
Let me share with you three things that God's Spirit has shown me about his love for his people:
In his final prayer on earth, Jesus said, "Father...thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24). What an incredible thought: Christ was greatly loved by the father before creation. Before anything was placed in the cosmos -- before any planet was formed, before the sun, moon or stars came into being, before the earth was made, before the creation of man -- Jesus was loved by the father.
Then Jesus prayed this remarkable prayer: "...thou, Father...hast loved them, as thou hast loved me" (verse 21-23). He also prayed, "...that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them" (verse 26). Christ was saying, "Father, I know you're going to love those I bring into my body, just the way you've loved me."
According to Jesus, in God's eyes Christ and his church are one. Paul illustrates this with the analogy of a human body. He says Christ is the head, and we're his body -- bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh: "(God) hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all" (Ephesians 1:22-23). "For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" (Ephesians 5:30).
The implication here is that when the father loved Jesus before eternity, he loved us too. Indeed, when man was still only a thought in God's eternal mind, the Lord was already numbering our parts and planning our redemption: "According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love" (Ephesians 1:4).
I believe in the unlimited foreknowledge of God. I accept that the father knew from eternity all who would respond to his call to be made in the image of Christ. In the Psalms, David writes that he was loved by God while still in the womb.
"Thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly" (Psalm 22:9-10). "Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being imperfect [unformed]; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them" (139:16). In essence, David is saying, "Even before I was formed, you knew me, Lord. You had all my parts marked down beforehand."
God has always loved both his son and us -- because his love is as everlasting as he is: "...I have loved thee with an everlasting love..." (Jeremiah 31:3). "...God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation..." (2 Thessalonians 2:16).
Jesus didn't earn his father's love by going to the cross, or by his obedience, or by loving his father. Nobody can gain God's love -- not by any godly thing he or she does. Likewise, God didn't start loving you the day you repented and received Christ as Lord. He didn't suddenly love you when you began to obey his word and walk in the Spirit. You were already loved, from eternity.
How long has God loved you? He's loved you since he has existed -- because God is love. It is his very nature. He loved you as a sinner. He loved you in the womb. He loved you before the world began. There was no beginning to his love for you -- and there is no end to it.
When will God stop loving you? He'll stop only when he stops loving his own son -- which is impossible. Christ says, "...the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end" (John 13:1).
Now we can better understand what Jude is saying when he instructs, "Keep yourselves in the love of God." He's telling us, "Keep this truth -- lay hold of it, and never let it go. The knowledge of God's love is meant for your comfort, your strength. It will set you free and keep you free." The apostle John adds, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins...We love him, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:10,19).
Anyone can keep his joy when he's riding high in the Holy Ghost, not being tried or tempted. But God wants us to keep ourselves in his love at all times -- especially in our temptations.
The apostle John tells us very simply how we can keep ourselves in God's love: "We have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16). In short, if we "dwell in God's love," we're keeping ourselves in God.
The word "dwell" here means "to stay in a state of expectancy." In other words, God wants us to expect his love to be renewed to us every day. We're to live every day in the knowledge that God has always loved us, and will always love us.
In reality, most of us flit in and out of God's love according to our emotional ups and downs. We feel safe in his love only if we've done well. But we're unsure of his love whenever we're tempted or tried, or the time we've failed him. That's especially the time we're to trust in his love. He's telling us in these passages, "No matter what trial you face, you must never doubt my love for you. If you're actively trusting in my love, then you're living the way I want you to live."
Are you enduring some great temptation? Have you been overcome by some old lust you hate? Is your marriage in turmoil, your family in chaos? These are the times you need most to keep yourself in the love of God. You have to know that through it all, the eternal father is still loving you.
You may wonder, "Do you mean that, in loving me, God simply overlooks my failures? Does he turn a blind eye to my sin?" Of course he doesn't. He'll chasten you with his rod -- but he always corrects his children in great love. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth..." (Hebrews 12:6).
Jeremiah 31 offers a wonderful illustration of God's love. Israel was in a back-slidden state. The people had grown fat and prosperous and were indulging in all kinds of wickedness. They'd turned to idols and were committing fornication and adultery. They'd forgotten about all the tender mercies God had shown them.
Then suddenly, their lusts turned sour. They lost all pleasure in fulfilling their sensual appetites. Soon they cried out, "Lord, we're lost. We need you to turn us around." God heard their cry of repentance, and his loving heart went out to them. He chastened the people with his rod of correction -- and Israel cried,"...Thou has chastised me...turn thou me, and I shall be turned...Surely after that I was turned, I repented" (Jeremiah 31:18-19).
Listen to God's words at this point: "...since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him..." (verse 20). "...with lovingkindness have I drawn thee" (verse 3).
Here is what you must know of God's love: God was telling his people, "I had to chasten you and speak hard words of truth to you. Yet even then you sinned against me, doing despite to the grace and mercy I extended to you. You turned against my love, rejecting me. Nevertheless, by bowels of compassion were moved deeply toward you. I remembered you in your struggle -- and I will surely have mercy on you. I'll freely forgive and restore you."
In Hosea 3, God likens backslidden Israel to an adulteress. He tells Hosea, "...Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress, according to the love of the Lord toward the children of Israel, who look to other gods..." (Hosea 3:1).
God was instructing Hosea to give Israel an illustrated sermon on his love for them, even as they were cheating on him. He was saying, "You've sinned against me blatantly, like a prostitute on the street. But you're still married to me -- and I love you. I will be for you. Now, you be for me."
We see this kind of unconditional, restoring love in a letter sent to us recently by a dear sister in Christ. She wrote: "A year ago, when I was involved in an adulterous affair, I wrote you an anonymous letter asking for prayer. I was in such torment because of the deceit in my life. I am truly born again, and the Holy Spirit was dealing with me.
"I have now been restored to my husband and to my wonderful Lord. We really needed healing in many areas of our life after forty-three years together. Your messages convicted me so, and also encouraged me to keep trusting in the love of God. I've learned now more than ever how much God loves me."
God's love has had a powerful effect on this woman. Yet ignorance of God's love can have just the opposite effect. Consider this letter written by another woman:
"I have so often felt that God was out to get me -- to spank me and punish me for everything I did. Therefore, I was harsh and mean to others, trying to whip them into line. Now I just want to run to his mercy seat to receive his love, and to show his love to others. I'm tired of being so judgmental." Thank God -- she desires to be kept in the father's love.
According to John, all of God's love dwells in Jesus. He writes, "...of his fullness have all we received..." (John 1:16). How have we received the father's love? We've obtained it by being in Christ.
But, you may ask, what's so important about knowing God's love is conveyed to us through Christ? How does this effect our everyday lives?
This knowledge is more than just a biblical concept. On the contrary, knowing that God's love is conveyed to us through Jesus has everything to do with how we keep ourselves in his love. You see, it's not enough for me to know that God will always love me and never stop loving me through all my struggles. He also wants his love to have a certain effect on me.
How does God's love impact our lives? We can't look to man as our example. Many Christians respond to the revelation of God's love by turning it into a license to sin. They convince themselves, "God loves me unconditionally. He has to keep loving me in spite of all my drinking, adultery and pleasure-seeking. His grace is greater than my sins." Such people do despite to God's love.
We have to look to Christ as our example. Jesus has already told us the father loves us in the same way he loved the son. So, what impact did the father's love have on Jesus?
John writes, "Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us..." (1 John 3:16). Here was the fruit of God's love in Jesus: He gave of himself as a sacrifice for others.
The second half of this verse tells us the purpose of God's love in our own lives. It reads, "...and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (verse 16). God's love leads us also to present our bodies as living sacrifices.
Have you ever thought about what it means to truly lay down your life for your brothers and sisters? Paul isn't talking about becoming martyrs on foreign soil. He isn't referring to being an organ donor. And he doesn't mean we're to take the place of some condemned criminal on death row. Christ alone made that sacrifice.
No, the only kind of Christian who can bring life and hope to his brethren is a dead one. Such a servant has died to this world -- to all self, pride and ambition. And he has resigned himself to the holy will of God.
This "dead" Christian has allowed the Holy Ghost to take a spiritual inventory of his soul. He sees the corruption and ungodliness in his heart. And he willingly goes to God's altar, crying, "Lord, consume me. Take it all." He knows that only through being cleansed by Christ's blood can he give his life for his brethren.
This is the single most important truth that enables me to continue in spiritual warfare. If I'm fully persuaded that God is faithful to forgive and restore me, I'll have the power to resist all temptation. I'll know he is with me, no matter what I face -- and he'll love me through it all. I may fall occasionally. But I'll know he'll be waiting for me at the end of the struggle -- and I'll emerge loved by him.
I want you to read a powerful letter we received from a converted witch. Her story is a vivid illustration of someone who has been kept in God's love:
"Dear Pastor Dave, I came to Jesus twenty years ago after ten years of witchcraft. I read tarot cards and held seances in my home. I was doing well, getting rich, driving a sports car.
"When I gave my life to Christ, Satan appeared to me six weeks later in my bedroom. He told me I could be the witch of the south if I rejected Jesus. He paralyzed me from the neck down and pinned me to the bed. I didn't see Jesus in the room, but I sensed he was coming. He came into the room and called Lucifer by name, and said, 'You can't have her -- she's mine.' Satan left the room like a scolded dog, leaving an awful odor behind.
"Now, after serving the Lord for twenty years, I see so much witchcraft in the church. Anytime a person comes up to you with a prophecy or word and tells you something of your past that's under the blood and forgiven, that's a familiar spirit. The Holy Spirit would not bring up anything of your past that's under the blood. If he's forgotten your sins that have been forgiven, only the devil would remember them.
"Also, I see so many manifestations in the church that are being attributed to the Holy Ghost, but people are getting all the attention. The Holy Spirit comes for one purpose -- one reason -- and that's to focus all eyes on Jesus. If a manifestation centers on a person, you can be sure it's not of God."
This dear woman is a powerful living sacrifice. She still faces many trials: She's confined to a wheelchair and lives with awful physical pain. And some Christians tell her she's still under the devil's power because she hasn't been healed.
But she's confident in God's love for her. She knows she's been forgiven for her involvement in witchcraft and delivered from it fully. And she doesn't let anything keep her from speaking the truth in love to her brothers and sisters. She closed her letter to me by saying, "I give God honor and glory for showing me his love."
Keep yourself in God's great love for you, as this woman has done. It will be your strength through all things.