The heart breaking headlines from Africa about the Ebola virus reminded of a talk I gave a couple of years ago about another ‘disease’. While the tone in some places is light hearted it is not my intention to minimise in any way the terrible effects of Ebola or other life threatening infections. I do, however, want to talk about a spiritual sickness that affects many of us directly or indirectly.
Elder Nelson in his days as a physician
The ‘disease’ is one that was identified by Elder Russell M Nelson, a physician by profession:
‘As we dread any disease that undermines the health of the body, so should we deplore contention, which is a corroding canker of the spirit…My concern is that contention is becoming accepted as a way of life. From what we see and hear in the media, the classroom, and the workplace, all are now infected to some degree with contention…’ (General Conference, April 1989)
As Elder Nelson indicates, Satan seeks to spread the contention contagion everywhere – including in our families, and at Church.
This is serious because when we succumb to contention we separate ourselves from the Spirit of God. “He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me,” said the Lord, “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).
Contention is often associated with a rash of symptoms:
Loss of control over the tongue
- A stiff neck
- A hard heart
- A chip on the shoulder
- An ill temper
- A swollen ego
- A mouthful of gossip
- A bad case of griping
- Getting hot under the collar
- A bee in the bonnet.
We must constantly examine ourselves for any sign of such symptoms.
There are a number of high risk behaviours that leave us more likely to succumb to this disease:
- Jumping to conclusions
- Flying off the handle
- Getting on a high horse or
- Picking a bone.
But what are the underlying causes of this disease, contention?
Proverbs 13:10 tells us, Only by pride cometh contention.
Again from Proverbs (18:6-7), we learn that A fool’s lips enter into contention,….. and his lips are the snare of his soul.
From time to time, even Latter-day Saints are found to be infected with the contention virus.
In many ways, contention and its associated disease, unrighteous anger, have their roots in selfishness. Those who respond with anger when they are frustrated or annoyed are saying, in effect, that their feelings and opinions are more important than those of others. If circumstances or the actions of others do not coincide with what they think should be, such individuals are offended and become angry.
Remember Elder Bednar’s words from the October 2006 General Conference: To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else.
If we detect these symptoms in ourselves then we need to do something about it. In the Relief Society book Daughters in my Kingdom (page 17) we read that the Prophet Joseph encouraged the Saints to be at peace with the Lord, with those around them and with themselves. He said:
‘…shall there be strife among you? I will not have it – you must repent and get the love of God…Not war, not jangle, not contradiction, but meekness, love, purity, these are the things that should magnify us.’
So what is the treatment?
The Lord counseled, “My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened. Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin” (D&C 64:8-9)
Is the Lord really saying that refusing to forgive another is a greater sin than the offense committed against us?
Yes. Truman Madsen suggests one reason for this: In refusing to forgive another, we, in effect, attempt to deny the blessings of the Atonement to that person.
As Elder Bruce R McConkie explained: “It is not the sinner, the transgressor, the offender, the liar who is commanded to take the initiative in restoring peace and unity among brethren. If perchance he should do so, well and good, but the Lord commands the innocent person, the one who is without fault, the one who has been offended, to search out his brother and seek to repair the breech.”
So our course of treatment needs to include regular and consistent forgiveness of others. There are other remedies that need to be administered though.
I like Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ statement that the commandment to avoid contention applies to those who are right as well as to those who are wrong (The Lord’s Way, Deseret Books, 1991).
Isn’t that great? Don’t we often think it’s OK for us to criticise, murmur or get annoyed because we are right and the other person is wrong? Elder Oaks’ statement implies that we need a good dose of humility.
In the Book of Mormon, Alma instructed the members of his new congregation “that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another”(Mosiah 18:21). Those new Saints in the wilderness of Nephi truly did unite themselves, accepting Alma’s challenge: “And thus they became the children of God. … And they did walk uprightly before God, imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants” (Mosiah 18:22,29).
‘Contention is a problem whose only real, long-term solution is spiritual. According to the Nephite prophets, “There was no contention in the land, because of love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.” (4 Nephi 1:15). When we are motivated by love, rather than by selfishness, we will not let anger or contention influence our relationships with each other.’ (Ensign, September 1988)
Instead of contending with our brothers and sisters we will have a desire to impart to them according to their wants and needs like the people of Alma
Charity is the long-term answer to the problem of contention. Nurturing this gift takes effort, but Mormon said that charity is available to all who seek it. “Pray unto the Father,” he said, “with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” (Moroni 7:48))
An important part of the treatment is to ask the Lord in both our family and personal prayers to help us see each other differently and control our negative feelings. We are more likely to avoid anger if we acknowledge our responsibility for our anger and pray for strength to overcome it than if we excuse our weakness. If we humbly acknowledge our weaknesses before the Lord and ask him to help us overcome them, He will “make weak things become strong.” (Ether 12:27).
The prognosis is good if we take responsibility for our own treatment and for our actions. The popular view is that we are not responsible for our feelings; they just happen. In this view, other people and events cause us to feel certain things, and so our only choice is how we are going to show our anger. However, emotional responses like anger are actually choices that we make.
In 2 Nephi chapter 2 we read that the Lord created things to act and things to be acted upon. As children of our Heavenly Father we are not things to be acted upon but beings with the agency to act. This agency includes control of our feelings as well as our actions.
President Wilford Woodruff assures us that we can determine not to let our emotions control us:
“I made up my mind years ago to be governed by certain principles. I resolved that I would never be controlled by my passions … nor by anger, but that I would govern myself. This resolution I have endeavored to carry out in my life.” (Matthias Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964, p. 397.)
The scriptures tell us specifically that the Lord expects us to stop being contentious, to cease being angry.
“Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.”( 3 Nephi 11:28-30)
Since the Lord expects us to stop being contentious, to cease being angry, he must know that it is possible for us to do.
May we all enjoy good health.