Sunday Talk: Weathering the Storms of Contention

Guess what! I talked in church again. So you lucky people get to read my talk today. Enjoy!


There’s always that feeling right after I get assigned a topic for a talk in church. The “do I really have anything worthwhile to say about this?” twist in my gut. Add to this the fact that for a couple of years, I was speaking once a month in church as I went around the stake as a high councilor, and I also feel at times like surely I must have said everything I have to say on pretty much any topic, and people are bound to get tired of listening to me sooner or later. But then I remind myself that, having blogged daily for 17 years, I’ve got a lot of experience repeating myself and coming up with new ways to say the same thing again and again.

And really, “Dealing with the storms of contention and conflict” is a spot-on topic as we head into another presidential election year here in America. The closer we get to November, the more I dread what things might look like on social media or even just walking around town. 2020’s election cycle was bad enough. Do we really have to have round two? We’re supposed to turn to the scriptures for help dealing with life’s everyday problems, but surely there’s not much there for “How to handle people who seem to want to hate you, no matter what.”

But then again, The Book of Mormon has the war chapters of Alma. A whole string of story after story about people attacking or being attacked. Subterfuge. Tactics. Political machinations. If anyone would know how to handle American politics, it would be Captain Moroni. So I turned to that section, wondering just what would be there that could give context to our present day troubles. Just how miserable were the people back then, having to deal with all those battles and bloodshed?

Alma 50:23: “But behold there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni, yea, even at this time, in the twenty and first year of the reign of the judges.”

“Never was a happier time”? I had to read that again to make sure I hadn’t gotten my wires crossed. How in the world could people really be happy in a time filled with so many problems?

The answer, of course, is found in the Gospel.

Different people are attracted to different things in religion. Some people love learning about the inner workings of theology, or how the ancient Israelites worshipped, and how that might apply to us today. Personally, I’m in this for comfort. For guidance in how to live my life on a day to day basis. Not in some theoretical situation, but in the concrete context of “how to handle difficult people at work,” “how to help my children be happy,” or “how to have a stronger marriage.”

As we study Come Follow Me each week, I’m honestly not that interested in honing my knowledge of people, places, or things. I want to know how what I’m reading can immediately help me in the here and now. Men are that they might have joy, and being able to rattle off all twelve tribes of Israel doesn’t help me much when it comes time to face a difficult discussion with a child, or when I need to choose between two terrible options.

So how does the Gospel help me do that? Yes, reading the scriptures and prayer can comfort me in times of struggle, but how do they make me happy?

After taking some time to think things through, I’ve come up with three different ways we can apply the Gospel so we can withstand those storms.

I remember in my first religion class at BYU, Professor Terry Warner told us that the entire theme of the Book of Mormon was to show something that’s actually mentioned in the verse right before the one I quoted previously. Alma 50:22: “And those who were faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord were delivered at all times, whilst thousands of their wicked brethren have been consigned to bondage, or to perish by the sword, or to dwindle in unbelief.”

When we keep the commandments, we are delivered. When we choose not to, we dwindle in unbelief.

So does that mean we’re going to avoid any and all hard times, as long as we’re faithful? Of course not. Abel was murdered. Christ was crucified. Joseph Smith was martyred. Almost no part of the scriptures describe people having it easy, kicking back without a care in the world. 

This makes sense, since we’re here to learn, not to simply have a good time. We chose to come to earth not in spite of the storms of contention but because of them. Though I get that telling someone who’s in the middle of a trial that it’s all going to be for their own good doesn’t really go a long way toward making them happy. Does that mean we’re just supposed to be happy in our misery?

I’m a fan of escape movies, even though there aren’t that many of them made these days. Whether it’s The Great Escape or Chicken Run, I like hearing about a group of people teaming up to reach a common goal that’s supposed to be impossible. The Book of Mormon actually has two great escape stories that happen at the same time. Looking at each of them teaches us a lot about how the Gospel can help us with the struggles in our lives.

In the aftermath of the destruction of King Noah’s reign, two different groups of refugees were left: one group led by Limhi, and another led by Alma. Limhi’s group was held captive by the Lamanites. Alma 21:5: “And now the afflictions of the Nephites were great, and there was no way that they could deliver themselves out of their hands, for the Lamanites had surrounded them on every side.” Obviously they weren’t big fans of this, so they decided they wanted to escape. Their plan? Suit up, arm up, and fight their way out. The first time they tried this, they were handily defeated, so they went back to the drawing board and came up with a new plan. Suit up, arm up, and fight their way out. (This must have made sense to them at the time, even if it doesn’t make that much sense to me now.) The result of their second effort was the same as the first. You would think that after those two sound defeats, they would try something else. Instead, they gave fighting their way out one last shot. In a result that probably surprised no one except them, this didn’t work.

It was only then that they decided maybe they should try praying for help. God didn’t step in and magically make their problems go away, but He did arrange it so the Lamanites lightened their burdens somewhat. Finally, one of them came up with a new plan. Get the Lamanite guards drunk, and hightail it out of dodge as fast as their legs would carry them. And for once, their plan worked. They got away and were free.

Contrast them with the people of Alma. They were held captive by the Lamanites at the same time, but Alma helped them take a different approach: Mosiah 23:27: “But Alma went forth and stood among them, and exhorted them that they should not be frightened, but that they should remember the Lord their God and he would deliver them.” They turned to God in prayer. This did not magically make their problems go away. They still had plenty of trials to go through, but “it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.” Finally, the Lord caused the Lamanites to fall into a deep sleep, allowing Alma’s people to hightail it out of Dodge as fast as their legs would carry them.

When you look at each story, they’re almost identical. The same captors. The same trials. The same escape routes. The only difference between the two is that one group tried to solve the problem again (and again and again) on their own, and the other involved God in the process. The one that didn’t ended up with much more pain, suffering, and death, and all of it proved to be in vain.

The takeaway for me is that when we involve God in our lives, it all gets easier. That’s rule number one in handling the storms of contention or conflict. As we turn to God, we will naturally be able to view those conflicts from a different perspective, and He has promised he will help make those burdens light, whether they’re literal or figurative. 

What next? It’s helpful to take a step back sometimes and look to see where exactly all these whirlwinds are coming from. Just because we came to earth to weather them doesn’t mean we need to seek out as many as we can. If you try to catch a two hundred pound weight when you’ve never done any strength training, you’re going to get hurt.

Some of the contention or conflict we experience is caused by our own making. I think all of us have a pretty good idea what our doctors and dentists would tell us to do to be healthy. Eat vegetables. Exercise. Floss. But brownies taste better than brussel sprouts, binging a TV series is easier than running a marathon, and honestly, who enjoys flossing? When we choose to ignore those recommendations, however, we are at least somewhat responsible for the effects of those choices. I don’t mean that everyone who got sick brought it on themselves, but I do mean there’s a whole lot of sickness and pain that could be avoided.

Even setting aside physical hardships, there are emotional storms that can be even more upsetting. Fights with friends and family. Judgements of peers. Arguments with strangers. Yes, some of that happens to us through no fault of our own, but some of it also happens because of things we do. Also, sometimes we are the ones inflicting emotional storms on others. Can we just wave a magic wand and have everyone be kind to us from here on? Of course not. But we do have some control over how we interact with others, and complete control over how we choose to treat others ourselves. Exercising that control can really make a difference.

For example, there’s a proven psychological tendency many people have to assume negative intent. This means that when we have some sort of negative interaction with someone, we tend to assume that the negative interaction was done on purpose. If someone cuts us off in traffic, we assume they did it because they’re a terrible driver, or maybe they just don’t like us in particular. If someone stands us up for a date, we assume it’s because they really don’t like us, or just wanted to waste our time. Is it possible that all of these assumptions are correct? Sure, but leaping straight to them as our first option doesn’t get us any sort of advantage. Instead, it makes us more liable to be grumpy and surly. Maybe your date got a flat tire. Maybe the guy cutting you off honestly didn’t see you.

Why do we do this, then? Typically, it’s because we’re afraid we’re going to get taken advantage of, and so we do our best to avoid that at all costs. While there are definitely times other people try to take advantage, if we can change our default so that we assume positive intent instead, we can be happier. When we’re happier, again, we’re in a better spot to deal with the storms we can’t control.

Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, said, “The vast population of this earth, and indeed nations themselves, may readily be divided into three groups. There are the few who make things happen, the many more who watch things happen, and the overwhelming majority who have no notion of what happens. Every human being is born into this third and largest group; it is for himself, his environment and his education to determine whether he shall rise to the second group or even to the first.”

So that’s number two: be prepared. Take the time to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually–you name it–so that when bigger tests come along, we’re best situated to handle them. D&C 38:30: “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.” If we work on ourselves–on changing our attitudes, improving our situations, and surrounding ourselves with friends–some of those storms will just blow on by, and some of them will get dramatically weaker.

The next thing I’m going to discuss might seem to be at odds with what I just said, but bear with me. There’s such a thing as being too prepared. When I was in grad school in English at BYU, my plan was straightforward. I was going to graduate and go on to get my PhD so that I could become a professor. Up to that point, I wasn’t that big on backup plans, because my primary plans had always worked. When I applied to undergraduate programs, for example, I literally only applied to BYU. I did the same thing when I applied to Masters programs. Safety net schools weren’t a part of my vocabulary back then.

I actually thought I was being very responsible when I applied to doctorate programs. I picked seven, thinking that way I’d be safe and make it somewhere. Of course, I made it into none of them, which really rocked my world and made me take a new look not just at what I wanted to do in life, but how I approached life in general.

Since that time, I’ve gone to the other extreme. I like having plans, backup plans, and backups to the backups. I’ve always looked five or ten years ahead in my life, assuming that by doing so, I could avoid a repeat of that earlier experience. The other week, I came across a video of a speech by Alan Watts, a man who billed himself as a “philosophical entertainer.” Normally I view anything in that vein with more than a few grains of skepticism, but the talk really connected with me.

In it, he argues that too many of us spend too much time living for the future. We get good grades in school so we can get into a good university so we can get a good job so we can excel in our careers so we can live comfortably so we can raise a family who can go on to get good grades in school and repeat the process. Is there anything wrong with those goals? Of course not. But Watts pointed out that when we constantly live for the future, we never actually live at all, because the only things we can actually experience are in the present. The same is true for people who spend all their time like Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, thinking about the past and wishing it could return. Let’s say for a moment it might be true that if coach would’ve put Rico in in the fourth quarter, they’d have been state champions and he would have gone pro. None of that can be changed now.

Alan Watts said, “Unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, “Now, I’ve arrived!” Your entire education has deprived you of this capacity because it was preparing you for the future, instead of showing you how to be alive now.”

When I heard this, I realized that my insistence on preparing for everything was in turn making it difficult for me to be happy in the present. Since then, I’ve been working on changing this attitude, though I’ll admit it’s been a struggle. It just always feels to me like, sure, things might be going well right now, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be going well tomorrow, so maybe I’d better do something to get ready for that potential. What’s helped me the most so far is to stop and remind myself that once I’ve got a plan in place, I can put my mind at ease, knowing that if the worst does come, I’m ready for it. 

Shantideva, a Buddhist philosopher in the 8th Century, said, “If the problem can be solved, why worry? If the problem cannot be solved, worrying will do you no good.” Christ put it this way: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

So how do we weather the storms of conflict and contention? First, involve God in our daily lives. This gives us perspective and the strength of divine help. Second, be prepared and take control over the things we can control. It’s hard to steer a ship through a storm if the rudder doesn’t work. Third, take the time to live in the present, which lets us avoid the needless turmoil being too focused on our past or our future can bring. If we do these three things, hopefully we’ll be able to have someone look back at our lives and say the same thing Alma said about the people during Captain Moroni’s day. “There never was a happier time.”

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