Contention and the spirit of contention
The best period of Nephite history, hands-down, is the few hundred years after Christ visited them. Mormon records this idyllic point in their history in 4 Nephi, saying:
There were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.
There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.
And how blessed were they! For the Lord did bless them in all their doings.
What a utopia! If you want a preview of life during Christ's millennial reign, read 4 Nephi. From 3 Nephi 11 until the final destruction, it seems life for the Nephites was, for once, perfectly beautiful, peaceful, and calm.
Except for that one part.
Trouble in paradise
Just a few weeks or months after Christ's multi-day visitation to the Nephites to set this utopia into motion, we read this account:
The disciples were gathered together and were united in mighty prayer and fasting.
And Jesus again showed himself unto them, for they were praying unto the Father in his name; and Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and said unto them: What will ye that I shall give unto you?
And they said unto him: Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter.
Hold on, disputations? Contention? But this is supposed to be the peaceful, happy time! Hadn't Christ just finished telling them this over and over again during His first visitation?
There shall be no disputations among you…
And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.
And I give you these commandments because of the disputations which have been among you. And blessed are ye if ye have no disputations among you.
I wonder if the Lord felt a just the tiniest bit of righteous frustration when He plaintively asked His disciples, "why is it that the people should murmur and dispute because of this thing?" Almost like a tired mother asking her kids, "I just cleaned up this place. Why is it that you can't keep it clean for two seconds?"
The spirit of contention is a really big deal
Let's jump back about 600 years. Nephi (the first) had just seen an amazing vision previewing the history of his people up to and including their complete destruction. This hit him really hard:
And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall.
And when he returned from this vision down to his tent, what did he see?
I beheld my brethren, and they were disputing one with another… and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought.
And now I, Nephi, was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts, and also, because of the things which I had seen, and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men.
He had just seen his future people in vision, destroyed because of contention and disputation, opnly to return to the present to see his brothers sowing the seeds of that destruction right in front of his eyes. This spirit of contention and disputation plagued the Nephite people through every period of their existence.
So, is it any wonder the Lord prepared the record of this people to come forth in our day? Does this description of the people in Alma's time sound vaguely familiar?
There were many among them who began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists.
Contention has no place at home
Today, we are seeing the basic principles of civility and shared values disappear. Every side of every argument seems to be painting the other side as Hitlerian monsters. But as worrisome as this national polarization and spirit of contention is, we need to be "more diligent and concerned at home."
I was one of four boys growing up. And although we never had any serious, lasting feuds, we kids "contended warmly" with each other almost daily. Sometimes (when Mom wasn't looking), it maybe came "even unto blows." I can't speak for my brothers, but when I was in primary and was told to "get along" with my siblings, I didn't really take it seriously. I'd say to myself, "But they're super annoying. Plus, we're brothers. Brothers fight sometimes. Not a big deal."
But King Mosiah, the prophet, and seer, knew that is a big deal. After highlighting parents' responsibility to provide for the physical needs of their children, he taught the importance of saving them from the spiritual danger of contention as well:
Ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin, or who is the evil spirit which hath been spoken of by our fathers, he being an enemy to all righteousness.
Did you hear that? Letting kids "fight and quarrel one with another," is not "letting kids be kids." It's allowing our children to "serve the devil, who is the master of sin, … an enemy to all righteousness." So, pretty serious stuff.
Back to 3 Nephi 11. Christ taught this same concept in no uncertain terms:
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.
But I want to point out that he says the "spirit of contention" and not contention itself is the great evil to avoid. In other words, I think that He is not challenging us to forego any and all contention but to strictly avoid the attitude of stirring up argument, aggression, and pride. Sometimes, the contention is unfortunately necessary. The Lord told the Nephites (and He has told us today) that we must defend ourselves against threats to our families and our freedoms. That's why we pray for our militaries both as families and even in the Termple. I think we all pretty much get that part. But one area I think we as members maybe need to "contend" a little more is in the defense of our beliefs.
Defending the Gospel
We get a lot of flak for our beliefs. As the hymn says, "the truths and values we embrace are mocked on every hand." And yes, we are going to face opposition and even scorn and offense as we try to live and share our belief with others. We don't want to overdo it. We don't want to be pushy. We don't want to cross the fine line between "bold" and overbearing. And we certainly don't want to "bash." In a bash between a militant believer and a militant non-believer, the winner is always Satan.
But sometimes I think we are so afraid of getting into a "bashing" scenario that we are often unwilling to make a serious case for our faith if there is any sort of opposition or skepticism on the other side. When we hear our beliefs ridiculed, we might tell ourselves we are taking the high road by not engaging in that discussion. Sometimes the Spirit "restrains" us, and leaving is exactly what we should do. But sometimes I think we are just letting ourselves off the hook by taking the easy way out. As Elder Neal A Maxwell once put it, "the prophets always prophesied that the Church will emerge out of obscurity and darkness. As that is coming to pass, some members of the Church are finding that they prefer the obscurity."
As Elder Holland challenged us back in 2014, "Be strong. Live the gospel faithfully even if others around you don't live it at all. Defend your beliefs with courtesy and with compassion, but defend them." Yes, we are to be meek. But being meek doesn't mean being George McFly.
I would add that part of defending the truth is that we don't just dodge the tricky questions. What Elder Ballard taught CES instructors last year applies to all of us, so I tweaked it a bit to replace "teacher" with "member" and "student" with "non-member friend":
Gone are the days when a non-member friend asked an honest question and a member responded, "Don't worry about it!" Gone are the days when a non-member friend raised a sincere concern and a member bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue…
You should be among the first… to introduce authoritative sources on topics that may be less well-known or controversial so your non-member friends will measure whatever they hear or read later against what you have already taught them… Inoculate your non-member friends by providing faithful, thoughtful, and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.
To name a few such topics that are less known or controversial, I'm talking about polygamy, seer stones, different accounts of the First Vision, the process of translation of the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, gender issues, race and the priesthood, or a Heavenly Mother.
He then referenced the historical essays the Church put together to address those subjects and pleaded:
It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand. If you have questions about them, then please ask someone who has studied them and understands them. In other words, "seek learning, even by study and also by faith" as you master the content of these essays.
When we should contend
I want to share an example of an instance I was personally grateful someone chose to defend the Gospel.
Earlier this year, a non-member friend of mine told me he was going to a "Mormonism v. Christianity debate" with his family at one of the local churches. Surprised, I looked up the event online. One of the pastors of that church advertises himself as "a former fourth generation Mormon with over twenty years of ministry experience in the field of Christian counter-cult evangelism… an expert on new religious movements and cults." The event invitation read: "If a person of The Mormon faith should contact you at your home, would you know how to defend your faith in Jesus Christ?" The coordinator of the event described it on his website as a way for audience members to know "the differences between Biblical Christianity and Mormonism" and "how to engage the missionaries when they come knocking." The event even claimed to have… wait for it… a real-live Mormon on stage!
This friend of mine and I had had many opportunities to talk about religion and the Gospel, so I was rightly worried about what kind of crazy stuff he was surely going to hear. When we hung out later on the day of the debate, he told me again he was excited to see the debate. I paused a bit and finally said, "Well, I'm sure it will be interesting. You'll probably hear a lot of crazy stuff." He seemed puzzled, and I explained that our religion is unique and very fast-growing. So some people feel kind of threatened by it because they don't understand it. And when people try to convey what someone else believes, they often get it wrong and either intentionally or unintentionally don't really give the accurate description you would get from the horse's mouth.
This friend asked me, "OK, well what are the differences between what Mormons believe as opposed to mainstream Christianity?" We proceeded to have a good hour-long high-level discussion about the main points: the Trinity, Plan of Salvation, the Great Apostasy, the Restoration, and Temple work. We talked about the ridiculous rumors I heard most often from antis on my mission about Jesus and Satan being brothers, baptizing dead people and "secret" cult ceremonies in the Temples. It was a good talk.
After our visit, when I spoke to my wife, we prayed for my friend. Specifically, we prayed that his car would die on the way there (kidding,… but not really). But more importantly, we prayed that somehow there would be someone there to defend the Gospel and share true principles. And if not, that at least this friend of mine would at least be able to discern between my testimony and any slander that he may hear at the debate.
The day after the event, my friend texted me to tell me the event was great. He took notes. My friend said the discussion was not much of a debate, and the "real live" Mormon on stage did a fantastic job representing the Church and our beliefs. I recognized the name of the "real Mormon." It was the Bishop of the neighboring ward.
My prayer had been answered about as well as a prayer ever could be answered. I emailed the Bishop to thank him for being there. In his response, this Bishop told me how he ended up on stage at an event that was hostile to the Church. He had been invited by a ward member's non-member husband to sit in a "discussion" about the Gospel at the church that night. When he arrived, he was greeted by 200 audience members (plus an online streaming audience) who were excited to see the debate they had prepared for. All through the night, this good Bishop kept addressing the differences, but always returning back to the core tenet of our faith: the divinity of Jesus Christ and the saving nature of the Atonement. It was a tough discussion/debate, but he stuck it out. He told me:
Several people came up to me and [my wife] and thanked us. All I wanted to happen was to hope that they knew we were Christian and despite some doctrinal differences that we really have more in common than the may think. I left last night wondering/hoping that at least one person left that meeting knowing that we are a Christian people and strive to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the way we live our lives.
Sometimes it is appropriate to just walk away from the possibility of contention. Especially if we feel tensions may get high and we may fall into the spirit of contention. But thankfully, in that instance, that good Bishop, faced with a potentially hostile situation, did not back down. He did not sit by and let others define our beliefs. He addressed the tough subjects. He calmly answered the skeptical, critical questions. He worked his testimony into the conversation. He defended the faith. He contended for the faith. And he did so without the spirit of contention.
And for that, I will be forever grateful.