Latter-day Saint General Conference and the Spirit of Contention

I have in the past written and posted when I was disappointed with something that was said or not said during the bi-annual General Conference of my Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In light of that, I thought it would be right to express my general gratitude for a General Conference when that is the feeling I take away from it. This is how I felt after the last General Conference in April of this year.

My thoughts have gone back to three particular talks given at the last General Conference that I see as a series and developing the same theme. The first talk was Elder Christofferson’s talk, “One in Christ.” The second was President Oaks’ talk “The Teachings of Jesus Chris.” The third was President Nelson’s first talk of Conference, “Peacemakers Needed.”

As always, my thoughts on these three talks are my thoughts. I write and post to clarify and discipline my thought processes and speak only for myself.

Elder Christofferson begins his talk stating that “only in and through our individual loyalty to and love of Jesus Christ that we can hope to be one.” We are a Christian Church. Christians aspire to be like Christ. The only force that can unify Christians is their aspiration to follow Christ’s example and teachings.

Elder Christofferson adds, “We are too diverse and at times too discordant to be able to come together as one on any other basis or under any other name. Only in Jesus Christ can we truly become one. Becoming one in Christ happens one by one—we each begin with ourselves. We are dual beings of flesh and spirit and are sometimes at war within ourselves.” We cannot truly unify around a shared history and cultural traditions because we do not have a shared history and cultural traditions. We do not have a common language, mode of dress, or diet.

What we do have in common, or at least should have in common, is an aspiration to follow the words of Christ. Being supportive of each other as we each individually strive to live the gospel of Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities is the highest function of a Christian church.

President Oaks’ talk, “The Teachings of Jesus Christ,” drove home the point set forth by Elder Christofferson. President Oaks’ talk was very simple in structure and bold at the same time. He simply read, word for word, various quotes of Jesus of Nazareth taken from the scriptures. He did not use all of Christ’s words, but did recite a broad selection.

I am not going to repeat what President Oaks said here because I think his message was for each of us to familiarize ourselves with and focus on the words of the Savior. All of us, including myself, would be well served by doing as he suggests.  I did, though, appreciate what he said in concluding his talk. President Oaks gives us the answer if we are confused about any aspect of the teachings of Jesus Christ. President Oaks read from John 14:26, and assured us that “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”

Finally, President Nelson’s talk, “Peacemakers Needed,” elaborates on how a Church which is, as Elder Christofferson said, “too diverse and at times too discordant,” can avoid the Spirit of Contention and devolving into a squabbling mess while simultaneously trying to maintain a focus upon striving to be like Christ.

As an aside, I loved these words that President Nelson spoke at the very beginning of his talk. “I pray that the Holy Ghost will communicate what the Lord wants you to hear as I speak to you now.” He did not say, “I pray that the Holy Ghost will communicate what I want you to hear.” Or, “I pray that the Lord will make you do what I want you to do.” Or even, “I pray that the Lord make you do what the Lord wants you to do.” President Nelson’s simple prayer was that the Holy Ghost will communicate to each of us individually what the Lord wants us to hear.

President Nelson then tries to define what are the signs of a Spirit of Contention. “Civility and decency seem to have disappeared during this era of polarization and passionate disagreements. Vulgarity, faultfinding, and evil speaking of others are all too common.” He continues:

“Regrettably, we sometimes see contentious behavior even within our own ranks. We hear of those who belittle their spouses and children, of those who use angry outbursts to control others, and of those who punish family members with the “silent treatment.” We hear of youth and children who bully and of employees who defame their colleagues.”

The Savior’s Atonement made it possible for us to overcome all evil—including contention. Make no mistake about it: contention is evil! Jesus Christ declared that those who have “the spirit of contention” are not of Him but are “of the devil, who is the father of contention, and [the devil] stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” 3 Nephi 11:29.

Elder Nelson gives us an idea of what contention is, but he also warns what it is not.

Differences of opinion are part of life. I work every day with dedicated servants of the Lord who do not always see an issue the same way. They know I want to hear their ideas and honest feelings about everything we discuss—especially sensitive issues.

That you or I have a difference of opinion about an issue does not mean that either you or I are possessed by the Spirit of Contention. Trying to avoid being seen as contentious does not mean that we must agree or remain silent. Expressing a difference of opinion is not in and of itself contentious, especially about sensitive issues.

How then can we avoid the Spirit of Contention, especially when discussing sensitive issues?

Charity is the antidote to contention. Charity is the spiritual gift that helps us to cast off the natural man, who is selfish, defensive, prideful, and jealous. Charity is the principal characteristic of a true follower of Jesus Christ….Those blessed with this supernal gift are long-suffering and kind. They do not envy others and are not caught up in their own importance. They are not easily provoked and do not think evil of others……Charity propels us “to bear one another’s burdens” rather than heap burdens upon each other. The pure love of Christ allows us “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things”—especially in tense situations. Charity allows us to demonstrate how men and women of Christ speak and act—especially when under fire.….. In situations that are highly charged and filled with contention, I invite you to remember Jesus Christ. Pray to have the courage and wisdom to say or do what He would. As we follow the Prince of Peace, we will become His peacemakers.

I think President Nelson’s words here are very wise. I work as an attorney for our county’s children’s services. The issues we deal with can be very contentious and emotions can at times can run high. I go to the same court with the same magistrates, and typically the same attorneys, day after day, often multiple times a day. Usually, we will view a particular case very similarly, but there are times when there is a difference of opinion amongst these professionals on issues we all deal with day after day. At times, although not often, those differences can be strongly felt. Only in avoiding the Spirit of Contention does the court serve the people we are all sworn to serve.

When I am at my best, I will pray for the Lord to bless me to approach these difficult issues in the way the Lord would have me approach them and to know the words the Lord would have me speak and to speak those words in the way the Lord would have me speak them. I certainly find it to be helpful in avoiding the Spirit of Contention.

We all have our unique and individual challenges in trying to come unto Christ. If we make that coming unto Christ our ultimate goal as individuals, any issues we have collectively will resolve themselves in time.