I have been reading the questions and answers on your web site since shortly after being baptized into the Church of Christ and really appreciate the insightful and godly answers you are able to give. I was just reading your answer to, "If a person doesn't follow God's specific will for his life, he'll end up in hell. How can you teach otherwise?" Your answer about God's will was encouraging, but I'm still unsure about how I can actually follow God's will and know it.
I hope I can adequately explain my situation without being too long-winded and confusing. Thanks for your time in reading this.
Ever since I started college, I have been searching to follow God. I was searching for a group of true Christians where I could be saved and follow Jesus. One day, I was walking across campus and two young men stopped me and invited me to a Bible discussion their group was having. I later found out that these men were from the Church of Christ in the area. Within a short time, I realized that I truly wanted to follow Christ and after studying the Bible with the pastor of the church (one of the young men who met me on campus that first day), I became baptized into the church and began to attend regularly and become acquainted with the members there.
The pastor encouraged me to confess my sins to him and other members of the church and even said he wanted for me to become more involved in the church and even move into town with some of the brothers so I could be better trained. I only had slightly doubtful and hesitant feelings about confessing my private sins to the pastor and elders, but I did confess to them and that felt good. During these first few months in the church, I was devoted to God mostly and it felt great most of the time. Sometimes I felt like skipping meetings with the church because I lived about an hour away from the members and preferred to stay home and work on the family farm, but I would only miss occasionally and then get back on track and enjoy meeting with the church. I found that these meetings and my acquaintance with members of the church would simply be social gatherings before and after the Bible study. This leads to what will be my first question: how can I focus completely on God and live my life for him all the time? What does it look like to love God with all my heart and how can I do that? It seems like as a church, we talk some good stuff about serving God and following his will, but how can I serve God in every single moment?
A little later on, the pastor and an elder also said that they would like for me to begin dating some young women from the church (in purity, it seemed pretty much just double or group dates to get to know each other). At first, I was sort of okay with this idea, but with my view of dating as getting to know a girl in preparation for marriage, I couldn't bring myself to adopt the view of the pastor and elder and engage in recreational dating. This brings me to more of my story.
At the end of this summer, I became reacquainted with a girl whom I had some deep conversations about life and views the previous summer. Last year, we were both involved in ungodly relationships with others, but she had changed this year. She and her boyfriend had broken up, and she was trying to turn her life around and said she was seeking to follow Christ. This common ground brought us very close together very quickly in our friendship and we began dating after about two weeks of talking about life and religion while spending our breaks from work and free time together. We often studied and talked about the Bible and I pointed her to Christ. We started attending a local Church of Christ together and she was baptized into the body just a few weeks ago. I realize that I may have been wrong to date this girl before she was baptized, but her heart seemed to be pointed in the right direction. I had told her in our conversations that I was going to marry a Christian.
Meanwhile, my pastor had called me and pretty much said "Christians only date Christians, so you need to break up with this girl, even if she becomes a Christian - which she is now and is attending a Church of Christ. Our physical relationship only went so far as holding hands, hugging, and short kisses, and we were committed to keeping it there until marriage. We began talking about marriage after seeing how much we held in common as far as our outlook on life goes. I haven't told my pastor or elder about our considering marriage because I haven't been back to my home church since we did and I hesitate to talk over the phone because of the previous conversation my pastor had with me.
I talked to the pastor at my girlfriend's church about my pastor's conversation with me and he felt that my pastor was controlling and that I should make my own decisions. This leads to another question: what does it mean to listen to those that God has put in authority over us? Does it mean that I should obey my pastor or the pastor at another church when their counsel disagrees? Am I sinning by listening to a different pastor than the one at my home church?
In I Corinthians 7, it says that every man should be allowed to have his own wife, so how can I know if I should marry this girl? She does encourage me to follow God and I feel that if we were married, we would mutually lift each other up to good works. As my girlfriend and I prayed together, studied the Bible together, and talked about religion often, we drew even closer together. We sought counsel from the pastor at the church my girlfriend and I attend together while at the camp and from another older godly couple at the camp. Both of these couples feel that it is best to wait a little while for marriage, but said the decision is ours and we have begun pre-marital counseling with the pastor.
After this is where it gets complicated and makes me very frustrated and sad and eventually leads me to the overarching question I began to write about. My girlfriend and I were considering being married in a couple of months, which could logically happen - our parents are alright with it, her pastor is counseling us in that direction, and we would have the finances to support ourselves. The issue is that sometimes I have had bad feelings of hesitancy without knowing why. These feelings come and go. They can be lessened by talking about the things that might stand in our way and simply by airing them out.
Yesterday, I struggled with my calling in life - I live on a farm and love farming, but I get the same type of bad gut feelings about becoming a farmer instead of an elementary school teacher. I really enjoy farming, but I just feel that God wants me to teach children instead. I have been told that I could be good at teaching and that I care for kids, but I still cannot point out specifically why I feel called to be a teacher. Sometimes I am rebellious against this calling and desire strongly to go back to farming and make that my life, but the horrible feeling returns that I am rebelling against God by wanting to farm.
This same feeling suddenly occurred last night while I was praying and asking for God's will in my relationship with my girlfriend. It was like God was telling me through this feeling that I needed to break up with her. I know that I did focus too much time and attention on this girl, but we had even been intentionally taking time away from each other to be individuals. I feel as though God convicted me of making my girlfriend an idol above Him, and that the only solution is to completely cut her out of my life. I feel so terrible about this, but I told my girlfriend about it and we agreed to spend this week and the next completely apart for me to refocus on God and spend time with my church family.
I guess my final question comes down to: are these unexplained feelings actually God speaking to me? Whenever I try to change my mind away from what the feeling tells me, the feeling comes back and I feel so separated from God. What should I do? I know this is a very complicated matter, but I'm just so lost and my heart is breaking because I don't want to lose my relationship with my girlfriend, and most of all, I don't want to alienate myself from God by disobeying his will for my life. How will I know what God's will is? Do these feelings mean anything? Thank you very much for your time.
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I John 4:1).
I need to explain that the term "Church of Christ" is not trademarked. There are a number of different groups who use the same name, but who do not teach the same doctrine. I try urging people not to look at the name on the door but at what people actually teach as a measure of how close to God's teachings they are.
The group that converted you to Christ sounds like the International Church of Christ. Of the various groups that use the name "Church of Christ," it is the only one that I know of which has "pastors" who are seen as over the elders. To understand why this is a problem, see "Pastors and Preachers."
The insistence on confessing your sins to the pastor and elders is another hint that this is the International Church of Christ. The belief is a misapplication of "Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16). Please don't get me wrong, sharing your struggles with someone you trust is a great help. Paul said, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). It helps to know that someone else understands and is praying with you and for you. But among the International Church of Christ, this has been formalized. Both James and Paul spoke of talking to fellow Christians; in the International Church of Christ, it insisted that it has to be to the pastor and elders (and in large groups, they have assigned mentors to whom confession is made, who then send summaries to the pastor and elders). Both James and Paul encourage sharing burdens because it is good for the person, but among the International Church of Christ, it is an absolute requirement that must be followed. It is a subtle change from what the Bible teaches, but it is a change none-the-less.
The preacher at your girlfriend's congregation is correct, this man is controlling. It is something that I've heard happens a lot in the International Churches of Christ -- a primary reason they have a bad reputation. What I strongly suspect is that your girlfriend is a part of a regular church of Christ. The pastor at your church probably doesn't count it as a "true" church, but he doesn't want to say it. So he ended up saying a contradictory statement that Christians should only date Christians even though she became a Christian.
One of the big problems is that there is no command in the New Testament that says Christians can only date Christians. It is a wise thing to do since dating a person with the same spiritual values as your own will create a better, more stable marriage. But notice in I Corinthians 7:12-16 that there were Christians married to non-Christians and they were told not to leave their spouses just because their spouse wasn't a Christian. After all, Paul states, you never know, you might convert your spouse.
Who you decide to marry is your choice. No one can make it for you. It is good to seek out counsel from others, but they can't make the final decision for you. This pastor at your congregation is far overstepping his bounds. In fact, what this man is doing is specifically forbidden by the Bible. "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:2-3). The word for "being lords over" is the Greek word katakurieuo. It means to become a master, to lord it over someone, to control or to subjugate. "But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).
Am I right guessing that the greatest push to become a teacher is coming from the church you attend? If that is correct, then consider that the reason might be more than it appears on the surface. Being a teacher would put you closer to their congregation and more directly under their influence. Being a farmer keeps you at a distance.
And you thought you were long-winded! I haven't even started answering your questions yet!
One of the big mistakes you are making is confusing your feelings with God's Will. How do you know if you are doing God's Will? "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, "I know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked" (I John 2:3-6). There is no passage that states that God guides a person by manipulating his feelings. God is more direct; He wrote down His instructions to you, and every other person in the world, in a book that we called the Bible. I have a big homework assignment for you: there is a series of lessons on making decisions on La Vista's site, both in audio and outline form. I would like you to go through all six lessons and look up all the verses in your Bible. I'm positive that by the time you get done, you are going to have a completely different outlook on what you are facing.
I'll be blunt: You are not rebelling against God by finding a charming young woman to be your wife or by deciding that you like farming as a career. It would be rebelling if you were breaking God's laws, but neither of these two choices breaks a command of God. God calls marriage honorable (Hebrews 13:4). Farming is mentioned countless times in the Bible as a respectable profession. If someone is telling you otherwise, then you need to separate from them because they are teaching their desires and calling them God's. "And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9).
Falling in love with a woman is not making an idol of her. Again, I suspect this is coming from the church you are a part of. I seriously doubt it is your own idea. If you were with her to the exclusion of God, we'd have to do some talking, but everything you describe is a woman who is going to God along with you. That is not idolatry. A companion in worship is what you want in a wife: "Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered" (I Peter 3:7).
By the way, if you like teaching, there isn't anything from stopping you from doing both. Schools use part-time teachers and substitute teachers all the time. I preach full-time and teach part-time at a community college because I enjoy teaching. I'm sure you can farm and do a little teaching on the side as well. "In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good" (Ecclesiastes 11:6).
If you will let me know where you are, I'll try to find a church I trust in your area that you can visit. I know you've asked other questions and I've only touched on the answers to them, but I think these are the most critical ones to address at this time.
Wow, thanks for the answers you've given so far. I am really encouraged by this. I'll get started on those studies right away. I still feel like I've become distant from God even though I'm praying and studying and even feel bad for thinking that my congregation may be wrong. When I was worshiping with them last night, I felt so far away from God and I wasn't feeling love towards them. So you're saying these feelings which seem like much more than feelings are just feelings? For the moment, how do you think it would be best to approach my pastor and other members of this church before I can get in fellowship with a different group?
Feelings are your emotional response to things around you. They come and go as events change and your attitude toward those events change. Nowhere in the Bible does God communicate to mankind in vague feelings. People have feelings about God, but they are not messages from God. Read through the Psalms and you'll find of a wealth of feeling expressed, but through it all there is a constant desire to serve God and to be found obedient to Him. The writers' current feelings never changed the knowledge that God was first in their life -- even when events made them wonder what God was doing.
For example, in Psalms 22, David begins wondering why it appeared that God wasn't close to him. "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent" (Psalms 22:1-2). But David answers his own question by remembering that God does help. "But You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in You; they trusted, and You delivered them. They cried to You, and were delivered; they trusted in You, and were not ashamed" (Psalms 22:3-5). As a result, he does not give up on asking God for help (despite his feelings). "But You, O LORD, do not be far from Me; O My Strength, hasten to help Me! Deliver Me from the sword, My precious life from the power of the dog. Save Me from the lion's mouth and from the horns of the wild oxen! You have answered Me" (Psalms 22:19-21). Knowing that God does answer, David's despair changes to praise of God. "I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard" (Psalms 22:22-24).
That particular Psalm is also a prophecy about Jesus and his death on the cross. Jesus' feelings before his death were that he did not want to do it. "Then He said to them, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me." He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, 'O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will'" (Matthew 26:38-39). And that latter point becomes key. It didn't matter what he felt; he had a job to do. "Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour" (John 12:27). Psalm 22 is an expression of what Jesus felt while dying on the cross as well as David's feelings when he was in despair.
Your feelings toward the church you are in are changing because you are becoming aware that things aren't as they appear to be. But you should not let the misbehavior of people drive a wedge between you and God.
In this particular case, I don't think you can shift your current congregation toward the truth. You are too new to your faith and they are too entrenched in their incorrect beliefs. I would suggest finding a better congregation and worship with them for several weeks. Listen to the lessons and ask yourself if they teach the Bible or their opinions. How often are the Scriptures cited and read? Will being in this congregation make you a stronger Christian or allow you to drift away into complacency?
When you find a good group to worship with tell that group you wish to join their membership. Then send a letter to your old congregation and state that you've joined another congregation. You can list your reasons if you want. If you do, I would suggest pointing out the violations of not lording over as a factor (along with supporting verses).