Contention—and How to Eliminate It


A few years ago, a lovely eighteen-year-old girl came to me, her stake president, for counseling. She was distraught and angry—her parents had insisted that she not see her boyfriend anymore. She said her father was a religious fanatic. Things were so bad she couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him.

I knew her father fairly well and was somewhat astonished as she continued to demean him. But I let her get her anger out, and then asked her to tell me about herself.

She told me how wonderful her parents had been until about six months before. Then, for some reason, things had changed. As she continued to talk, she confessed that her relationship with her boyfriend had gotten out of control, and both felt deeply guilty. Their guilt caused them to feel lonely when they were apart and they therefore began to see more and more of each other. Her parents resisted their spending so much time together.

Selfishness had led to sin, and contention was one of the fruits. With it came unhappiness and misery.

This experience illustrates an important principle about contention: Contention is often the result of selfishness. The person with a contentious spirit is usually thinking primarily of himself. And when we give in to such a spirit we separate ourselves further 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 Ne. 11:29).

How does the devil use contention as a tool to draw us away from the Lord? He knows that contention feeds the selfish feelings that surface, enlarging them—thus creating distance between our real selves and our ideal selves, between our actions and our beliefs. That gap makes us feel guilty, as happened to the young lady who had come to me. More contention is often the result of the guilt. Thus, contention can both result from and perpetuate selfishness. Its effect is to block out the divine powers within each of us.

Contention between Husband and Wife

A prime field for Satan’s attack is marriage: he seeks to foster selfishness—and thus contention—between husbands and wives. Many experts declare that finances and incompatibility are the most common causes of marital disharmony. But in fact those two problems are only symptoms, not the real cause of marital illness. What, then, is that cause? Counseling hundreds of people over the past twenty-five years has convinced me it is selfishness. Most want to relieve their marriage difficulties by forcing their partner to change rather than changing themselves. The result is contention.

I was once visited by a young couple who obviously resented each other. As they began explaining their problems, they soon were in hot disagreement. Realizing they could not discuss their problems together, I excused the husband and asked the wife to explain things from her point of view. For the next forty-five minutes she painted an ugly picture of her husband. If I hadn’t seen him just a few minutes before, I would have concluded that she had married the devil himself!

Next I excused her and asked the husband to explain the problems as he perceived them. For forty-five minutes he angrily described the woman to whom he was married. Had I not talked to her just a few minutes before, I would have expected that she traveled around on a broom!

I then asked the two of them to come together into my office. I wrote out a prescription for them, which I felt would help them resolve their serious marital conflict. The prescription was quite simple—during the next week they were to write down twenty-five things they loved about their companions. If they would do this, I would see them the following Tuesday. The next Monday the husband called and informed me he could not come up with twenty-five items. He also stated that his wife was not doing much better. I told them I would give them one more week. If they had not completed the assignment by that time, I would not feel it beneficial to meet with them again.

When they arrived at the appointment a week later, I noticed a definite change in their demeanor. I could feel a warmth between them that had been absent two weeks before. As they sat down, I asked the husband to read the first item he had recorded. He began to read, but then his voice faltered—there was obviously a lump in his throat. I next asked his wife to read her first item. Her voice trembling, she read her first item. I noticed that a tear dropped from her eye and splashed on her paper. We got through only five of those items that night. They returned the following Tuesday for our concluding counseling session. As they left my office they had their arms around each other.

When two people join their lives together, there are bound to be little differences in tastes and preferences. If we will let him, Lucifer will magnify these little differences into major issues. The result is contention and resentment towards one another.

On the other hand, if we will look beyond these little differences, we will observe the great virtues in our companions and the Lord will magnify them for us. Looking at virtues will many times eliminate contention before it has a chance to grow and develop. Just as a farmer’s field will not produce a healthy crop when he fails to care for and nurture it, so a marriage will not grow in love, harmony, and happiness when the couple neglect caring for and nurturing their love. With such nurturing, there is no ground for contention to grow in.

One important part of nurturing is prayer as a couple. My wife and I decided when we got married that we would always kneel together at least twice a day. Hand in hand, we would thank our Heavenly Father for each other, night and morning, after which we would express our affection for each other with a kiss. We learned it is difficult to be angry with each other after thanking our Heavenly Father for our marriage.

Another part of nurturing a marriage is to keep fun in the romance. Little notes of appreciation, loving and thoughtful surprises played upon each other, a cake with “We Love You the Mostest, Daddy,” written on the top, can lighten a difficult day. A bouquet of flowers delivered to your sweetheart can bring joy to both husband and wife. A weekly date—even an inexpensive one—can help both partners know the other cares.

As we seek to let our love grow and keep contention out of our marriage, we must nurture our relationship by sharing ourselves with each other. If a husband or wife doesn’t take the time to listen to his or her companion’s concerns, a wall will be erected between the two. Contention will grow, and unhappiness and sometimes infidelity result. If we are still courting each other and working on our marriage, we will find a great joy and satisfaction in sharing our deep and intimate thoughts with each other.

Sometimes destructive contention comes into our marriage when we fail to live eternal truths. I recall one young couple from a neighboring community who entered my office and exclaimed, “President, you are our last chance.” I assured them I would help them in any way possible, but only they could save their faltering marriage. As we visited, they shared their past. She had waited for him while he served a mission. They had married, feeling sure their marriage was the ideal marriage. But in their desire for material wealth the husband began working on Sundays. Pretty soon he wasn’t paying his tithes and offerings. Gradually the husband grew so busy that he didn’t have time to spend with his wife, and he neglected their children as well. As frustrations increased, so did contention in their home. Eventually the wife turned elsewhere for love, which led to serious sin.

Now, with their family almost raised they wanted to save their marriage if they could. I asked them if I could be absolutely honest with them. They assured me that they had hoped I would. I pointed out that they desired eternal blessings but were neglecting to live eternal laws.

I then suggested to the husband that he needed to repent, that he needed to return to activity in the Church, that he needed to start paying his tithes and offerings, attending meetings, and living all the commandments. He needed to get his priorities in order.

I explained that the wife also needed to repent, go to her bishop and confess her sins, and rid herself of her guilt feelings. She, too, needed to return to her activities in the Church, live the commandments, and make their home a castle fit for a king, a place where her husband would look forward to coming each night, rather than staying at work a few more hours.

I promised them that if they would do this, their marriage could be saved. Those exciting and happy feelings which they once had enjoyed could indeed be rekindled. They struggled with the decision but finally committed to do everything they possibly could. I assured them it was going to be difficult. The wife might be excommunicated or disfellowshipped from the Church. The husband would have to change his whole life-style after twenty-five years of neglect. But the effort was essential for happiness.

It would have been easy to counsel this couple in little manipulative procedures, but their problems stemmed from breaking eternal laws, and it could not be corrected until these laws were lived. And though it took time and courage, this couple has now discovered the joy of living righteously. Many times, the only thing we need to do to remove contention from our homes is to repent.

Contention between Parents and Children

Satan also tries to bring contention into the relationship between parents and children. The first family on the earth had a serious problem with contention. Developing a rebellious and contentious spirit, Cain rose up in the field and slew his brother Abel (see Gen. 4:1–8). From that day to this, Lucifer has successfully brought tremendous sorrow into families through contention. We are now living in a day when we have been taught by the philosophies of man that it is natural and normal for children to quarrel and fuss with each other, that this is even part of the maturation process. Although this may be natural, we should remember that the natural man is an enemy to God and that the Lord expects his children to be different (Mosiah 3:19). As it says in Mosiah 4:14, we should not permit quarreling in our families. We should teach that these things are not acceptable to our Heavenly Father. Contentious feelings in the home are often caused because we have not learned to listen effectively to our children. Through impatience, our discipline in the home becomes unfair, inconsistent, permissive, or too severe. The result is bad feelings in our children.

The greatest directive for family discipline that I know of is contained in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–46 [D&C 121:41–46]. Here the Lord admonishes us to discipline through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, unfeigned love, kindness, and pure knowledge. If we will accept this marvelous revelation and implement it as our own law of discipline, we will remove a great deal of contention from our homes.

Some years ago the Melchizedek Priesthood Study Guide contained an excellent example of a father who tried to implement the principle of unfeigned love in his relationship with his son. The result was a removal of the contentious spirit between them. As the son tells us:

“Throughout my life as I grew up as a boy, my father and I had many serious arguments. One day, when I was seventeen, we had a particularly violent one. I said to him, ‘This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’m leaving, and I will never return.’ So saying, I went to the house and packed a bag. My mother begged me to stay, but I was too mad and upset to listen. I left her crying at the doorway.

“As I left the yard and was about to pass through the gate, I heard my father call to me.

“‘Frank,’ he said, ‘I know that a large share of the blame for your leaving rests with me. For this I am deeply sorry. But I want you to know that if you should ever wish to return to our home, you’ll always be welcome. And I’ll try to be a better father to you. Finally, I want you to know that I’ll always love you.’

“I said nothing, but went to the bus station and bought a ticket to a hundred miles from nowhere. But as I sat in the bus watching the miles go by I began to think about the words of my father. I began to realize how much maturity, how much goodness, how much love it had required for him to do what he had done. He had apologized. He had invited me back and he left the words ringing in my ears: ‘I love you.’

“It was then that I realized that the next move was up to me. I knew that the only way I could ever find peace with myself was to demonstrate to him the same kind of maturity, goodness and love that he had demonstrated toward me.

“I got off the bus. I bought a return ticket to my home and went back. I arrived just shortly before midnight. I entered the house and turned on the light. There in our rocking chair sat my father, his head in his hands. As he looked up and saw me, he rose from the chair and we rushed into each other’s arms.

“That was the beginning of a new relationship between my father and me. Those last years that I was home were among the happiest of my life. I shall be forever grateful to him that in a moment of crisis he was able to put first things first” (Melchizedek Priesthood Study Guide, 1973–74, pp. 139–40).

Contention in the Church

Satan also seeks to sow contention in the Church setting. Sometimes contentions arise because we disagree with what a leader is trying to do.

I recall one couple who were very upset at their bishop. They came into my office and said the bishop had asked their son to be his assistant—but that the bishop had asked him to get his hair cut before he was presented to the quorum. Their son had come home angry. He had just had a haircut a few days before and felt no need to have it shorter. As the mother and father complained to me, they referred to how much more serious it would be if he were smoking or drinking. But getting a haircut seemed so trivial! Why would the bishop insist on that?

After listening to what they had to say, I asked them if they felt they really loved their son. They looked surprised at my question, but quickly assured me this was the reason they were here. I then told them that if he were my son I would go home and tell him how grateful I was that the bishop had such great love and respect for him. It was a great compliment to be chosen to be an assistant. Undoubtedly the bishop felt he must have leadership ability and the ability to be an example to all the other priests in the ward. I would explain to him how the Lord loves an obedient servant and that many times our obedience has to rest upon faith.

I told this wonderful couple that they needed to strengthen that bishop in the eyes of their son in every way possible; to do otherwise would only bring them unhappiness. Failure to support the bishop would communicate to their son that the bishop was not called of God, that we may follow our leaders only when we choose. The danger of this approach would be that they would be teaching their son that he was a law unto himself, ever sitting as a judge over the words and actions of those called to guide him. There would come a day, I said, when something much more critical than a haircut would arise to test their son. How he—and they—responded to this smaller test would help determine his response to the greater ones.

As we chatted, the contention in the room melted away. Through the Spirit we were all reminded that contention is of the devil and can bring only destructive results.

Sometimes we create contention in the Church by being insensitive to other people’s feelings. While serving as a missionary I was called to work in the mission home. Each morning it was my duty to teach a class in theology to all the missionaries there. One morning an elderly sister, just arrived in the mission, joined us for the class. During the discussion she took issue with a concept I was teaching and even wanted to argue her point. I was able to quickly put her down and prove her wrong. Then the Spirit of the Lord touched my soul and I noticed the hurt expression on her face. A question rushed through my mind: “What right did I have to be a missionary when I was so insensitive and unthoughtful to one of my sisters?”

At the end of the class I hurried to the mission library. For 1 1/2 hours I searched to find something to agree with what this sister had said. Finally I found a statement that supported her view. Delighted with my find, I now faced the challenge of my life. I had embarrassed her in front of all the missionaries; I now needed to repent in front of all the missionaries.

As we knelt at the breakfast table I asked President Bunker if I could take a few minutes before prayer was offered. I then turned to this dear sister, apologized for what I had done, and read the statement by Elder Whitney. With a slight smile she thanked me. Then an overwhelming feeling of love came into my bosom. I had just learned a great lesson: if we let pride stop us from doing what is right, we can miss some of life’s greatest joys.

That morning the prayer seemed to be more pure. Life was exciting, and I was extremely happy. After breakfast this sister came to me and thanked me again. Repentance had followed contention, and peace of mind was the result.

When we learn to overcome contention in our lives we bring ourselves closer to Christ. Feeding on selfishness corrodes our self-image and the peace and unity between husband and wife. It destroys relationships between family members, and thwarts the smooth progress of the Church. But as we learn the gospel, repent of our mistakes, and live in obedience to the counsel of our living prophets, we can overcome contention and begin again to progress back to God. When we through self-mastery, rise above the “natural man” and partake of the Atonement, we will eliminate contention and be partakers of the divine nature.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Contention—and How to Eliminate It” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a family gospel study period:

  1. 1.

    Why can contention be so destructive?

  2. 2.

    Do you agree that “the person with a contentious spirit is usually thinking primarily of himself”? Why or why not?

  3. 3.

    Why do you suppose looking beyond differences and concentrating on others’ virtues “will many times eliminate contention before it has a chance to grow and develop”?

  4. 4.

    Is it ever true in your family that contention arises because you don’t listen effectively to each other? How can family members listen better?

  5. 5.

    Name specific things that cause contention in your home. How could you avoid those problems?

  6. 6.

    What are you doing as a family to establish a spirit of peace and harmony in your home? What else could you be doing?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Preston Heiselt

A. LaVar Thornock, associate area director in the Church Educational System, is president of the Shelley Idaho Stake.