I've felt contention before. I have felt it as a young girl listening through the wall as my parents argued, when I would babysit my siblings and they would fight too much for too long, when I felt offended by something someone has done to me, or when I myself was too angry to even see a solution is site. There is sometimes no soothing contention like that, often you much just walk away from it and wait for the storm to blow over and come back and pick up the pieces to restore order that was lost.
I loved this BYU Devotional given this year-It has real world application.
Devotional Address Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii
March 16, 2010
Roger B. Porter
Professor of Business and Government
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard
I am grateful for the invitation to join you this morning. One cannot look over this audience without sensing the warmth of your welcome and the spirit that pervades this institution. Those of you who are young, and those who are somewhat older, have much promise. You are building a foundation that will serve you and others well.
This institution is special to me in large part because it is where my brother David and his family have devoted so much of their lives. He has taught and coached for many years. Your teams have experienced much success through hard work and dedication. More importantly, much more importantly, are the lives he has influenced for good through his unwavering commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through his experiences, he has learned what is important in this life.
We have known President and Sister Wheelwright for many years. Sister Wheelwright taught our children in seminary. President Wheelwright was our home teacher and we were faculty colleagues for years. He is a man of great ability and commitment. When their call came to serve here it was a moment of great joy for them and for us. Since that day, I have only heard him speak of this institution with the greatest love and affection.
I am grateful for the generous introduction of my wife who knows me now better than anyone. She is well aware of my limitations and my enthusiasms. She gently helps me to work on the former and to channel productively the latter. Her goodness and values inspire all those who come to know her well. I hope that each of you are able to find an eternal companion as patient and as loving as she is of me.
Last night I read again the marvelous account in Mosiah 18 describing the courage of Alma the Elder in establishing the Church during a time when those who embraced the Gospel were persecuted and despised. Listen to Alma's counsel to the newly baptized saints of his day:
"Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people. And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having… their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.... And thus they became the children of God." (Mosiah 18:20-22)
I invite you today to reflect on what role contention plays in your life and to consider what steps you might take to increase the peace that you feel.
The Precursors of Contention
The term contention has both Latin and Anglo-French origins and refers to an assertion put forward in argument; striving in controversy or debate; rivalry, or a striving to win in competition. We all know people who seem to us to be contentious, and who are determined to prevail in argument.
We often feel contention when we are experiencing adversity, when all is not well or easy or convenient. We are susceptible to contention when we are angry or hurt, disgruntled or upset, discouraged or distressed. It is at such times that we want others to adjust, or our circumstances to change, in order that we may be free of our burdens. When everything seems to be going well, when the sun is shining and the humidity is not oppressive, when we feel good and experience no pain, we contend less with others.
Likewise, we often feel contention when we are criticized, or when we sense that others are judgmental or dismissive. This criticism frequently comes at times when we feel a great need for support or encouragement, praise or appreciation, and instead are experiencing the opposite. We respond in kind. We react defensively.
We also often feel contentious when we are frustrated or impatient. We question the motives of others and are more likely to accuse than to understand. We often feel contention when our thoughts and mind are focused on ourselves, when we are preoccupied with our situation, our troubles, and our concerns.
Contrast these elements that contribute to contention with other times in our lives when we are free from contention.
We generally do not feel contention when we sense that we are dependent on the Lord or on others; when we are humble; when, as Nephi expressed in his marvelous psalm, we feel a desire to have the Lord "encircle (us) around in the robe of (his) righteousness" (2I Nephi 4:33).
This is the opposite of feeling defensive, or eager to justify our actions or views. We are not filled with pride or a sense of superiority. We do not pursue a path where we are seeking to win arguments or prove to others that we are right and they are wrong. The absence of contention contributes to a sense of harmony and peace in our lives.
Contention and Harmony
Last week on a flight to New York I had a fascinating conversation with a fellow passenger. For much of the journey we were each pouring over the reading material we had brought with us. I was thinking about my remarks today and when he had finished the article he was reading I informed him that I was thinking about an idea and could use his help.
I asked him how he would define contention. He thought for a moment and then answered: "passionate disagreement." I responded: "Anything else?" He replied: "Heated but under control exchanges." He said that in the business world where he spent his hours, he hoped that contentious exchanges were kept professional.
I inquired if he thought there was more or less contention now than fifteen or twenty years ago. He sighed and responded that his sense was that there was more contention now, in part because of the development of technology. Today, there are more platforms through which people can express disagreement. Multiple media outlets and means of communication mean than our exchanges with others are ubiquitous and often impersonal because they are at a distance. He added that financial pressures in his world often contributed to contention and caused people to become cynical and to withhold trust.
Our conversation ranged widely. He suggested that people today often focus more on the noise surrounding what others are saying than on understanding the point someone is trying to make. We noted some of the many manifestations of contention – arguing, challenging, ascribing unflattering motives, road rage, and more. I suggested that we consider some pairs of contrasting terms:
Contention and harmony
Competition and collaboration
Zero-sum exercises and win-win exercises
What is common to contention, competition, and zero-sum exercises is that they involve an effort to prevail, to defeat, and to exert superiority. What is common to harmony, collaboration, and win-win exercises is an effort to share, to work together, and to benefit and bless one another.
During the course of our conversation we each learned much. We were coming from different perspectives and different experiences. The longer we talked, the more we found that we had in common.
When the plane landed, I remarked that I wished we had begun our conversation even earlier and that the flight was all too short. I thanked him for what I had learned from him and noted that though we came from different backgrounds we shared much in common. He had been born in Puerto Rico and had come with his family to New York City as a child. We discussed how relations between the different races and ethnic groups in our nation's largest city had changed for the better during the course of his lifetime.
As we parted, I observed that during our entire conversation there had not been a single moment of contention. We had not argued or challenged, but we had listened carefully and in the process I had learned much. He smiled broadly and said that he felt the same way about our conversation and that he also had learned much. We exchanged addresses and I promised to honor his request to send him a copy of my remarks this morning. In doing so, I will also send him a copy of the Book of Mormon which is full of insights on the subject of contention and peace.
The Lord's Work and the Lord's Way
All of the more than one hundred references to contention in the scriptures describe it unfavorably. Contention is associated with envy, strife, malice, persecution, and pride. (Alma 4:9)
When the Savior visited those in the Americas following his resurrection in Palestine, during his initial appearance, he admonished them:
"For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another" (3 Nephi 11:29).
The Prophet Joseph Smith received much criticism and persecution throughout his relatively short life. Importantly, however, he had a larger vision of his mission and of the Lord's work. He recognized the importance and the magnitude of the challenge of spreading the message of the Gospel. It would succeed, only if it was done in the Lord's way.
In communicating the principles and doctrines of the Gospel, and its associated warnings, Joseph Smith reminded us that we must not contend with others:
"Let the elders be exceedingly careful about unnecessarily disturbing and harrowing up the feelings of the people. Remember that your business is to preach the Gospel in all humility and meekness, and warn sinners to repent and come to Christ. Avoid contentions and vain disputes with men of corrupt minds who do not desire to know the truth. Remember that ‘it is a day of warning and not a day of many words.' If they receive not your testimony in one place, flee to another, remembering to cast no reflections, nor throw out any bitter sayings. If you do your duty, it will be just as well with you, as though all men embraced the Gospel." (Evening and Morning Star, vol. 2 no. 15 (December 1833), 120; reprinted in History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 468)
Debating others does not convert. And the reason for this is very simple. It is the witness of the Holy Ghost that conveys a testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel. It is the Spirit that converts. And the Spirit of the Lord is the antithesis of contention.
Avoiding Contention: A Personal Experience
Many years ago I had an experience that greatly influenced my thinking about how to deal with potentially contentious situations. We all face them in our lives. How we choose to respond is within our power.
I had been invited to represent the United States at a conference in Japan that brought together officials and representatives from approximately twenty nations from around the world. Countries in Europe, North America, Asia, and Latin America were represented including the Soviet Union and East Germany. The Japanese, who were hosting the conference, had divided its work into three parts – the search for economic prosperity with an emphasis on trade policy, the search for justice with an emphasis on social policy, and the search for peace with an emphasis on arms control policy.
The format for the conference involved distributing the delegates into three groups with each group considering one of the three topics. The groups would then report their findings to all the delegates on the final day. At the time I was serving in the White House advising the President on economic policy issues and was pleased with the format and topics given my interest and expertise in trade policy.
The Japanese, in their deferential way, wanted the delegates to feel like they were not being asked to produce some preordained outcome and determined to have one of the delegates, a British Member of Parliament, Colin Moynihan, chair the proceedings. I was delighted. When we met that first evening, Colin Moynihan and I found that we had much in common. I had served a mission in Great Britain and later attended graduate school and taught in England for three years. I loved England and its people and we discovered that we had many common acquaintances. We both enjoyed sport. He had coxed the British heavyweight crew to a silver medal in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games. We quickly gravitated to one another and I felt confident that I had an ally.
When the design of the conference was outlined the delegates were asked to indicate which of the three subject areas appealed most to them. I naturally selected the area dealing with economic prosperity.
You can imagine my distress when my new friend informed me that I had been assigned to the group dealing with arms control policy. I protested that I knew little about the subject and could make a much better contribution on the economic policy panel. He responded that the Soviet and East German delegates were determined to serve on the arms control group and that it was imperative that the United States be represented on that panel. I could not dispute his logic. I saw the need and reluctantly agreed, but my enthusiasm for the task was distinctly limited.
In preparing for this assignment, I was eager not to misrepresent U.S. policy and so I quickly contacted our embassy and was provided with a stack of speeches, position papers, and other documents on the subject.
That evening I poured over the documents the embassy had sent, learning a great deal about the U.S. and Soviet positions on arms control. I approached the task as if I were going into a debate the following day. I outlined the central elements of U.S. policy and the evidence I would use to defend and advance it successfully. My experience as a debater propelled me down a path where I was fashioning a powerful case for the U.S. position.
At the beginning of the evening I was concerned about my lack of familiarity with the subject matter. As I warmed to the issues and learned many technical terms, I was pleased with the result of my efforts. I felt less anxious and more confident. It was now nearly 4:00 am and I determined that I needed to get some sleep, even if only for a few hours. As I concluded my prayers before retiring, an uncomfortable feeling settled over me. As I lay reflecting on it, sleep did not come. It became increasingly clear to me what would happen the next morning. We would meet and contend with one another. I would remain convinced that I was right and that the Soviet and East German representatives were wrong. I had what I thought were powerful, even sophisticated arguments. The Soviet and East German representatives would similarly remain persuaded that they were right and that I was wrong. Neither of us would successfully convince the other. At best, we would amicably disagree. There was also a strong possibility that we would engage in a polite but acrimonious exchange. We would both feel justified; nothing would change.
I then asked myself how the Savior would approach the situation. From his perspective, I saw the coming day in a whole new light. I recalled his words to the Nephites:
"For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another" (3 Nephi 11:29).
Soon, I had a very different vision for the approach I should take. My task was not to attempt to win a debate but to produce agreement, to find common ground, to avoid contention. With this new framework in mind, I returned to my notes and in less than an hour I had detailed a number of areas on which I thought we could reach some agreement as well as a number of areas where we would inevitably differ. I was surprised that the first list was longer than the second.
When we gathered to meet as a group that morning, I offered to serve as the rapporteur responsible for writing the report the group would submit. Happily, the others readily agreed. I suggested each delegate offer some opening observations to get us started. We went around the room. I was the last to speak.
I noted that as rappateur I was in a difficult situation. It would be easy for some to expect that I would bias my report to align with my views. That would not serve our group or me well. Accordingly, I made two proposals. First, I said that after preparing my report at the end of the day I would visit each delegation, show it to them, and get their concurrence. If there was anything in the report with which a delegate disagreed, I would take it out, no questions asked. The Soviet and East German representatives looked surprised and relieved. Second, I said that I didn't think our report would prove very useful if it simply rehearsed our differences. Accordingly, I suggested that we try to produce a list of things on which we could all agree. Having made careful notes while others spoke, I read a list of statements, based on what others had said, which I thought might serve as the beginning of that list.
We worked on the list most of the morning. Later we turned to the task of defining our differences. Not surprisingly, we did not agree on everything. But, by focusing first on an effort to find common ground our discussions avoided acrimonious contention and produced much agreement. We were not paralyzed by those things that divided us. In the process, we gained added respect for one another. There was no spirit of contention. An assignment I had dreaded turned out to teach me a valuable lesson.
Reducing Contention in Our Lives
Contention has at its root a feeling of superiority and pride. May I suggest three things we can do to help reduce the level of contention in our lives.
The first involves our general attitude toward others. One of the great insights of the gospel is the idea that each of us is a son or a daughter of a loving Father in Heaven who wants us all to return and dwell with Him. He looks to us to assist him in this effort.
We are not merely to take the message of the gospel to others but to do all that we can to encourage them to embrace its principles and to follow the Lord's commandments. The more faithfully we live the gospel, the greater our love of others, and the more we want them to enjoy what we enjoy.
In Lehi's vision, after he partakes of the fruit of the tree of life and it fills his soul "with exceeding great joy," he immediately thought of others and "began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also." (I Nephi 8:12-13) We see a similar pattern in the experience of Enos who goes into the woods focused on himself, his shortcomings, and the hunger of his soul. Through his mighty prayer and supplication he receives a remission of his sins and his guilt is swept away. (Enos 4-6) What follows shortly thereafter is that his attention turns to "the welfare of my brethren." (Enos 9) Soon thereafter he went on to pray with great effect for those who were not of his own generation but who would experience mortality in a future time. (Enos 11-13)
When we are engaged in the Lord's way in assisting others to understand and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ we avoid contention.
The second way we can strengthen our ability to avoid contention involves viewing the events, inconveniences, disappointments and challenges of this life through the prism of eternity. In Isaiah we read:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The Lord views all things through the lens of eternity. We find ourselves enmeshed with the temporary and the trivial, with the passions of the moment. We contend with others, often over things that have no eternal significance. The Lord invites us and encourages us to adopt his perspective. When we lift our thoughts and our ways, and align them with those of the Lord, we free ourselves from the spirit of contention that is a tool of the adversary. We feel the peace that only the Lord's way provides.
Finally, a third way in which we can strengthen our ability to avoid contention is to forgive. Forgiveness is one of the great qualities we are to develop in this life. It is often not easy to do. As in all things, the Savior is our model. I cannot find a single instance in the scriptures when those who sought the Lord's forgiveness were denied. Even when suffering unimaginable pain, he petitioned, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
When we forgive, we remove a canker from our soul. We lift a burden from our shoulders. Disputation and tensions dissipate. Friendship can flourish. We look for the good and the worthy in others. We assist others in opening the door that allows the Savior into their life (Revelation 3:20). And, in the process, we are blessed with peace.
One of the most encouraging passages in the Book of Mormon is the account found in the Book of Fourth Nephi of life among those in the Americas who were visited by the Savior following his resurrection in Palestine. One is struck in reading about this period of peace, prosperity, and goodness, at how frequently mention is made of an absence of contention.
We read that "the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.... And it came to pass that there was no contention among all the people, in all the land; but there were mighty miracles wrought among the disciples of Jesus. And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. And how blessed were they! For the Lord did bless them in all their doings;... and there was no contention in all the land" (4 Nephi 1:2, 13, 15, 18).
In the single chapter that comprises this encouraging book, the most frequently mentioned characteristic of this model society is an absence of contention. The absence of contention is directly associated with justice, mighty miracles, a love of God that dwells in the hearts of the people, and great blessings.
Christ's Work and His Glory
Each of us chooses how we will allocate our time, the causes to which we will devote our efforts, and the ways in which we will spend our resources. In making those choices, it is worth considering the path that the Savior has taken.
What is the Lord's work? The more I read and understand the scriptures, the stronger my conviction that the Lord is not focused on meting out justice and punishment. He is not determined to win debates or prevail over others. His work and his glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." (Moses 1:39) It is to show us and to encourage us to walk that path that will safely take us home.
We are called to assist the Lord in his work. We are to invite, encourage, and warn. We have all been warned about many things in our life. Sometimes these warnings come in a critical way, sometimes in a judgmental way; and in other times in a helpful way. The Lord has said that we are to warn "in mildness and in meekness." (D&C 38:41)
In May 1829, early in this dispensation, in counseling those who desired to participate in this great work of spreading the Gospel, the Lord outlined those things in which we must place our trust and the path we must follow if we are to be His.
"And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good--yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy; And then shall ye know, or by this shall you know, all things whatsoever you desire of me, which are pertaining unto things of righteousness, in faith believing in me that you shall receive.... Keep my commandments; hold your peace; appeal unto my Spirit; Behold, this is your work, to keep my commandments, yea, with all your might, mind and strength." (D&C 11:12-14, 18, 20)
The Blessings of the Path to Peace
In this world, we choose those things that we consider most precious. Even if by default, we are in fact choosing. As we make those choices we need to remember the Lord's invitation and his promise.
"Pray always, and I will pour out my Spirit upon you, and great shall be your blessing--yea, even more than if you should obtain treasures of earth and corruptibleness to the extent thereof. Behold, canst thou read this without rejoicing and lifting up thy heart for gladness? Or canst thou run about longer as a blind guide? Or canst thou be humble and meek, and conduct thyself wisely before me? Yea, come unto me thy Savior" (D&C 19: 38-41).
When we come unto the Savior, we are free from the spirit of contention. We are not filled with the desire to defeat or destroy. The robes of his righteousness are ones that surround us with a feeling of love. When we follow his path, it leads to true peace.
As we free ourselves from contention we find a life that is filled with joy. We understand in a fresh and powerful way the meaning of the words of the hymn "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."
President David O. McKay had a vision for this university as a place sending forth young people prepared to serve as an influence for peace around the world. (Ground Breaking Services, Laie, Hawaii, February 12, 1955) President Henry B. Eyring affirmed that this influence would come from the Atonement of Jesus Christ changing the hearts of those who studied here. Through a changed heart, he promised, you will feel peace, and "will gain the power to influence others to choose the path to peace." (BYU–Hawaii Inauguration, November 5, 2007)
That is a promise, your promise. That is a path, your path. Your mission is invite others through your example, your patient encouragement, and your unfailing faith. The Lord has counseled through his prophets, over and over again, that you are to avoid contention. A more excellent and promising path, the Lord's path, is that of preaching and practicing peace. And as you travel that path, it will take you home, happy and cleansed and filled with joy.
I testify to you that the Lord lives, that we were created by God in his image, that we are his spirit children, and that he knows us perfectly and loves us unconditionally. I testify that he wants us to join in his great work of encouraging all his children to embrace his gospel and place themselves on a path that will bring them home safely. I pray that we all will in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.