Summary: Although not all contention leads to way, yet all wars are a result of contention, and wars can include a contest of wills between two or more people, and this kind of “war” can be just as destructive to a relationship as can physical war. Even though not all contention leads to such a dramatic result, they can easily get out of control unless there are effective safety barriers put in place to keep angry feelings contained. This article provides some advice on how to do that.
In the Book of Mormon, the word “contention” is often associated with the word “war,” and indeed all wars are a result of contention. Although not all contention leads to war, yet all wars start because of contention. What that tells us is that if there is no contention there can’t be any war, and war doesn’t refer just to military action between nations. There can be a war of words or a war of wills between two or more individuals and this kind of “war” can be just as destructive to a relationship as can physical armed conflict. The word “conflict” is closely related to the word “contention,” thus any kind of conflict between people can only happen if there is contention between them.
In Alma 2:5 we read of a political conflict between the followers of Amlici and the rest of the people of Nephi where they assembled themselves “in separate bodies, having much dispute and wonderful contentions with one another.” The result of this dispute was physical war that resulted in the deaths of many people.
Although not all contention leads to such a dramatic result, it is nonetheless dangerous because contention is like a fire. Many times a fire is small and burns itself out with very little harm, but unless effective safety barriers are put in place before the fire starts, it has the potential of spreading, and when that happens it can quickly get out of control.
All fires need three things in order to exist – air, fuel, and heat. If any one of these three elements is missing there can be no fire. If contention is like a fire than it too needs certain elements in order to exist, and if those elements are not present, then there can be no real contention.
Because everyone is different, it is only natural that people are going to have disagreements with others. That’s just human nature, and is never going to change. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For this reason, not all disagreements lead to contention, so the question we need to ask is, how do we keep disagreements from turning into contention? And a follow-up question is, if contention does happen, how do we keep it from spreading where it can possibly get out of control? In other words, what kind of barriers can we erect that will effectively prevent the fire of contention from becoming a raging blaze of anger? To find the answers to these questions we need to learn what the ingredients are that must be present in order for contention to exist.
In Alma 4:9 we read, “And thus, in this eighth year of the reign of the judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God.”
What caused contention among the members of Christ’s church in the days of Alma was envying, strife, malice, persecution, and pride. However, there is one common element to each of these and that is pride.
Fire can manifest itself in various degrees of intensity, from the small flame of a match, to the roaring flame of a bonfire, to the expansive inferno of a burning forest. In the same way, pride can manifest itself in varying degrees of intensity as well as in many different forms. For example, holding a grudge is a milder form of malice, while strife is a more intense form of malice and persecution is a more intense form of strife. Yet without pride none of these attitudes can exist.
In the English language the word “pride” has a number of different meanings, but the kind of pride that the scriptures speak of can be defined as one of conceit, vanity, and arrogance. It’s exhibiting an exaggerated air of superiority towards others. Usually this is found in the area of ideas, where people feel that what they believe is right, and if that is so, then anyone who disagrees with them must clearly be wrong. Although it’s only natural, normal, and even beneficial for people to hold differing opinions, it’s when someone exhibits an air of superiority in expressing their opinions that the spirit of pride become manifest.
Pride doesn’t allow someone to disagree with them but rather, a person’s pride causes them to feel compelled to prove that the other person is wrong. It’s what motivates someone to keep pressing forward with a conversation in a desperate effort to get the other person to agrees with them. And the more they fail in that attempt, the more frustrated and irritated they become. It’s at some point during such a discussion that a small flame of bitterness is ignited.
If the discussion continues on in this manner, that flame of bitterness begins to grow in intensity and if not checked, it can turn into a feeling of animosity, and perhaps even loathing towards the other person. And if this flame is fed, it can grow into a feeling of hatred. Even if the discussion ends, if someone continues to dwell on their feelings of irritation and resentment, then they ‘re continuing to fed the flames of wounded pride, which will cause their bitterness to only grown stronger.
This happens in the arena of politics, between husbands and wives, between parents and their children, between siblings, friends, and even between members of Christ’s church. Since it’s natural for people to disagree with one another, what kind of a firewall can we build to prevent our feelings of pride from becoming a destructive force?
When Alma saw that this kind of attitude was becoming rampant within the church of God, he left his position as the chief judge and went “forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people” (Alma 4:19).
Alma’s solution, or firewall, to the scourge of pride was to “preach the word of God,” because he knew that “the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just–yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them–therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God” (Alma 31:5).
There are several reasons why preaching the word of God has such “a great tendency to lead people to do that which [is] just.”
The first is that it proclaims a message of peace. It teaches us to love our neighbor and even our enemies, to bless those who curse you, do good to them that hate you and to pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you (see Matthew 5:44). When Alma went among his people preaching the word of God he stirred “them up in remembrance of their duty, [so] that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride.”
The word of God teaches us how to relate to others, especially those who think or behave differently than us, and as we study the scriptures every day we are reminded of our duty to God and to our fellowman, which is to “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” ( Romans 12:21), to be longsuffering, and to treat others with kindness. As the apostle Paul instructed Timothy, “And the servant of the Lord must not strive (contend, argue, quarrel); but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient” (2 Timothy 2:24).
The second way that the word of God can have a powerful effect upon the mind of men is that it teaches us the principle of unity. God has commanded us to “be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). The idea of unity, of being one in heart and mind, is something that is found throughout all the scriptures. One of the reasons why God has given us a church is to help us “all come in the unity of the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” This is necessary if we want to become “a perfect man” whereunto we can measure up to the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
The third way that the word of God can have a powerful effect on us is because we are reminded that there will come a time when we will stand before the judgment bar of Christ to answer for the things we’ve done in the flesh. When that day comes, “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matthew 5:22). On that day we will seek mercy for the things we’ve done wrong, but the scriptures teach that if want to be forgiven of our trespasses, then we must first be willing to forgive others of their trespasses, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall [also] be judged: and with what measure ye mete [out to others], it shall [likewise] be measured to you again” ( Matthew 7:2). That knowledge can have a sobering effect upon how we choose to respond to others.
But the fourth, and perhaps the most important reason, is that as we listen to the words of God, whether spoken or written, the Spirit of the Lord attends us and exerts his influence upon our hearts to soften them and to humble us. And when that happens then we are more susceptible to the Spirit teaching the ways of righteousness, guiding us in the path that leads to salvation, strengthening us spiritually, and helping us to become more like Christ. Human logic and reasoning doesn’t have the power to produce this kind of a mighty change in our heart, and being forced to do so at the point of a sword very rarely changes people’s minds with any lasting effect.
But, because of our human nature, it’s easy to forget all of these things unless we are continually reminded of them, especially in the heat of an argument. This is why it’s important for us to build a permanent firewall that will help keep any feelings we might have of resentment, irritation, impatience or annoyance from growing and spilling out unto others
When we’re in a discussion with others there is always going to be a sharing of ideas, and many times those ideas are going to be in opposition to what others believe. When that happens, it’s normal for each person to try and help others see things their way, but the problem comes when we feel ourselves becoming frustrated that the person we’re talking to doesn’t want to agree with us, no matter how hard we try to convince them of our position. And the harder we try to make them see things as we do, and the less successful we are at doing that, the more our frustration level rises. If this situation continues, at some point, our frustration will turn into anger. At first it may only be mild irritation, but when that happens the match has been lit.
The reason for this is because we are focused on proving that our position is the only right one. Our attitude is that if we could just explain our idea a little better then surely the other person would agree with us. In our own mind, we don’t think of ourselves as being prideful for behaving this way, but if we refuse to accept that the other person is not going to see things our way and we continue to press forward with the argument, then we are being prideful.
Jesus Christ is known as the Prince of Peace, while Satan is the father of contention. Jesus wants us to be united, even when we disagree with one another, while Satan wants to divide us, even in areas that we agree on. Therefore, the way to keep from contending with others is to change the reason why we talk with people.
President Russell M. Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taught, “We need to build bridges of understanding rather than creating walls of segregation.” We are social beings, meaning that we like to socialize with others. We enjoy talking with others and sharing our thoughts about all sorts of things such as what we like doing or have done, places we’ve been, and our thoughts, opinions, or feelings about whatever interests us. We talk with people we like (friends), people we casually know (acquaintances) and sometimes even with people we don’t know at all.
There are many reasons why we talk with people, but whoever it may be, if we approach every conversation with the attitude that we want to make them feel friendly towards us or at least do what we can to make it easy for them to like us, then it becomes easy to avoid getting into an argument.
When someone feels like they’re being criticized, for whatever reason, they tend to feel obligated to defend themselves, even when they know they’re wrong. That’s just human nature. And when that happens, people figuratively start to build a wall to separate themselves from the person they’re talking with. When a difference of opinion arises, it’s like a chasm that separates us from one another, and the more we focus on those differences, the wider the chasm becomes. Therefore, when talking with people, our attitude should be, “How do I build a bridge of understanding that can transcend our differences rather than enlarging those differences? What can I do to bring the two of us together and avoid driving us apart?” If we approach each conversation with that kind of an attitude then it becomes easy to remain calm, and when we’re calm it’s impossible to get upset.
But when we’re concerned about proving our point, then we’re focused on our desires, and that’s a sign of pride. However, when we’re concerned about the feelings of the other person, and want them to have an enjoyable experience talking with us, where afterwards they can walk away feeling good, then we’re focusing on attending to their needs.
And the way to do that is if someone disagrees with us, instead of trying harder to convince them to see things our way, we should be willing to accept the fact that they see things differently. Instead of focusing on what we disagree on, it’s better if we seek to minimize our differences by discussing what we do agree on. If the other person wants to continue being argumentative, of course, that’s their choice, but we also have the choice to either continue the argument or do what we can to defuse it.
The word of God teaches, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Contention and strivings are what helps set the world on fire. As followers of the Prince of Peace, we can prevent our emotions from getting out of control and perhaps being the spark that ignites a hot argument, by learning how to build spiritual firewalls.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Man