I once counseled a man whose outlook and behavior were so accusing that he frequently swore at his wife and children with the vilest of swear words. I met with him and his wife for a couple of sessions, trying to help him understand and overcome his accusing mentality. But he took offense, called me names, and stormed out of my office. His wife subsequently asked for a separation, and he ended up living with his parents. I never expected to see the couple again.
Needless to say, I was shocked almost beyond belief when he called me on the phone two months later and said he was ready for more counseling! After apologizing for his former behavior, he explained what had been happening to him. Staying with his parents had helped him see himself more clearly. As he watched them continuously put each other down and accuse and strike out at each other, he began to realize that he had been acting just like they had always done. Soon he hated to go home at night because of his parents’ behavior.
He also became more aware of the same accusing behavior in others, especially the people he worked with. He observed that his colleagues spent much of the day gossiping and complaining and putting each other down.
As he began to miss his family, his heart gradually began to soften and he felt remorse for the way he had treated them. Scenes of the times he had physically and verbally abused his wife and children passed through his mind, and he became haunted by the need to make up for his intolerable behavior. His sorrow increased until he began to feel that it was almost more than he could bear.
When he came to me for help, it was obvious that he was experiencing a change of heart. For the first time, he was admitting to himself how awful his behavior had been. Of course, he had really known it all along. But he had deceived himself into believing that his wife, children, and circumstances were to blame for his misery and unhappiness. He had convinced himself that if people only understood him better and were more compassionate he wouldn’t have had the problems he did. Caught in a paralyzing web of misery and self-pity, he had failed to see himself as the architect of that web.
But now he was beginning to see the truth about himself. That self-knowledge took him down into the depths of humility with a broken heart and a contrite spirit; he acknowledged his need to change and sought the Lord’s help in improving. Now he could see that his problems were spiritual and of his own making. He also saw that he was in the best position to do something about them.
He was ready for change. As he responded to the workings of the Spirit within him, his heart continued to soften. It didn’t take many sessions of counseling or much prompting from others for him to make positive and lasting changes.
This man’s turnabout was the most dramatic I have ever seen in a client. I’ll be forever grateful to him for confirming to me what the Lord has said all along through the scriptures and the prophets, but which so many of us fail to understand: The keys to peace and harmonious relationships are to be found within our personal application of the basic principles of the gospel. In other words, in order to have peace and harmony in our relationships, we must first have peace and harmony within ourselves. Such peace comes when we are doing what we know to be right by following the still small voice of the Spirit.
This message is taught by most bishops, one way or another, when counseling members, but it is sometimes ignored in favor of behavior modification techniques. The world suggests that we can manufacture our own change by goal-setting, behavioral objectives, behavior change techniques, positive mental attitude, and various other forms of self-improvement programs. Although these approaches may be useful in bringing about a measure of desired behavioral change, they are only partial because they are terrestrial. They are the best man can produce by himself.
The Lord has made it abundantly clear in the scriptures that the mighty change in our nature that really needs to take place can be done only by God through the principles of his gospel. (See Hel. 3:35.) The Lord’s promise is that when our hearts become broken and our spirits contrite, he will change our natures and purify our hearts. Then we will have “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.) Such a state of righteousness will lead to harmonious relationships, because in that state we don’t “have a mind to injure one another.” (Mosiah 4:13.)
What does it mean to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit? A broken heart comes from recognizing with deep godly sorrow that Jesus Christ, who was pure and holy and deserved no punishment for sin, took upon himself the punishment for all of our sins so that we might be spared from suffering for them. Truly recognizing the magnitude of his suffering for us individually is a humbling, heartbreaking experience; it should motivate us to change and to return his love. In addition, a broken heart includes feeling genuine sorrow for our individual sins and for the suffering they cause ourselves and others.
To have a contrite spirit means to have a penitent spirit. After recognizing our fallen state as mortals (see Mosiah 4:5), we seek the Lord in a repentant spirit and plead with him for a new heart and for forgiveness and mercy through the atoning blood of Christ.
As we exercise faith in Christ and dependence on him, he will help us change. Through genuine heartfelt repentance, we truly recognize and concentrate on our own wrongdoings and on our need for improvement, rather than on how much others need to improve. Then, as we seek forgiveness and the mercy of Christ, pleading for his help, his Spirit will change our hearts and give us the moment-to-moment guidance we need so we can live Christlike lives. In this way, the Spirit of God changes us from our fallen, self-sufficient, proud state to a condition where we can live Christlike lives and achieve a state of righteousness.
It would be convenient if there were a magic formula or a slick technique for finding happiness other than through these principles of the gospel. But there isn’t. However, both ecclesiastical and professional counselors regularly see people who want peace and harmonious relationships without repenting of unloving behavior. They want peace and a right heart through secularism instead of through the sanctifying influence of the Spirit of God.
I am beginning to learn how true the Savior’s statement was when he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” (John 14:27.)
Mercy—Instead of “Justice”
When people aren’t getting along, they are usually caught up in a blame-blame cycle where each sees the other as the problem, as the one who needs to change. They want to see “justice” done—which usually means they want justice done in their behalf against the other person. This kind of “justice” is really revenge.
When we are out for revenge we blame, accuse, and provoke others to wrath—and then we blame them for it. Only when we stop seeing each other in such self-justifying ways can lasting, substantial changes take place. In other words, it is not until we stop looking to the other person for change, begin to be honest about ourselves, and take responsibility for our own behavior that a change of heart can take place. Honesty about our own weaknesses leads to a more compassionate view of others.
On one occasion I was trying to help a woman see her husband more truthfully and compassionately instead of so accusingly. I told her I would begin describing her husband and his situation as I saw them, and then I would ask her to take over and continue with her observations. I began by mentioning some of his problems and limitations, and then started listing his strengths. Then I asked her to take over. She described how good he was with the children, how helpful he was in the ward, how much he liked people generally.
Suddenly she looked at me with shock on her face: “Do you know what I see? I see the man I married!” I explained that he had been there all along, but that she had ceased to see his strengths because of her exaggerated attention to his weaknesses.
She then looked at her husband, and as her head fell onto his shoulder she sobbed, “I’m so sorry for the way I have blamed you and treated you all these years. Can you ever forgive me?”
She had come into that session feeling sorry for herself and for the way her husband had mistreated her. But she left sorrowing over the way she had treated him. As she admitted the truth to herself, her heart softened, leading her to a sincere desire to change.
When we are more concerned about our own attitude and behavior than those of others, improvements in relationships can begin to take place. We cannot force others to change, to be good, or to be more responsible; they have free will to act the way they want to. The real issue is how we react to them! Are we being compassionate, forgiving, and patient—or are we concentrating on whether they are being responsible or not? And the strength to act consistently the way we should, given our weaknesses, comes by actively seeking the Spirit of God. The doctrines of men emphasize only self-control, which provides partial help at best. The Gift of the Spirit is where our real strength lies.
When this woman admitted to herself and to her husband how accusing and unforgiving she had been, she opened the door for him to be more truthful about his own weaknesses. If neither side in a conflict will back down, a stalemate exists. The only way to break a stalemate is for one or the other—preferably both—to initiate change by taking responsibility for his own part of the problem and suggesting ways he can change to make things better. Waiting for the other to make the first move or trying to accuse the other into changing only perpetuates the conflict. When we live by the law of “justice” (as generally interpreted by mankind to mean “revenge”), we are very exacting and demanding of others. And when they don’t live up to our expectations, we take offense and want to punish them into compliance. Our suppressed awareness of our own sins and shortcomings traps us into accusing, self-righteous behavior.
However, by coming down into the depths of humility, realizing our own weaknesses and turning to the Lord daily for forgiveness and guidance, we can have his Spirit with us—and harmonious relationships can follow. As we receive the Lord’s mercy, it becomes more and more obvious how much we need it. Then, in turn, we feel the need to extend this mercy to others—being as compassionate and quick to forgive as the Lord is with us. This doesn’t mean we won’t have honest disagreements or differences, but we seek to resolve them honestly and straightforwardly—and unaccusingly.
I learned an important lesson on giving and receiving mercy one winter when my son Rob was taking care of the neighbors’ rabbits. One night he forgot to empty the watering bottles—and the bottles were frozen solid the next morning. When he discovered his mistake, I had no mercy and became upset at his forgetfulness. I unjustly reproved him for forgetting and for making us both late that morning.
After I arrived at work, my conscience wouldn’t leave me alone. In a moment of truth I admitted to myself that Rob had made a simple human error similar to ones I frequently make. I admitted to myself that I had no justification in taking offense at his mistake, given my own weaknesses. The truth is, Rob is a conscientious boy who does many things well.
My sorrow for my own wrongdoing motivated me to find him at school and apologize. I found that he had taken the whole thing compassionately; even though I had been wrong, he had seen it from my point of view and had taken no offense.
The experience greatly humbled me. If my heart had been right in the first place, I never would have become upset by Rob’s simple mistake. If Rob hadn’t been merciful, he could have taken my behavior personally, which could have harmed his own self-esteem as well as our relationship. After I had apologized (part of my repentance), a peace of conscience came like that which came to King Benjamin’s people as they admitted their wrongdoing and called upon the Lord for forgiveness. (See Mosiah 4:3.)
Seeing Others Compassionately
In trying to help couples begin to see each other with compassion and mercy rather than with “revenge” and accusations, I use the following exercise. It helps them see how the attitudes in our hearts determine the way we relate to others. A number of bishops I know have found the exercise useful in their counseling.
I ask each partner to close his or her eyes, and I close mine too so we don’t distract each other. Then I say something like this:
“Think of all the things your mate has done that bother you—things you haven’t liked, offensive mannerisms or traits, ways he or she has accused you or belittled you. Take a minute to make a mental list. [One-minute pause.]
“Next, in your imagination, destroy that list somehow. Burn it, bury it, or throw it in the garbage. Destroy it so it is gone forever.
“Next, begin to think of the trials, challenges, or difficulties your mate is facing in life. Take about thirty seconds to ponder what he or she is going through and what it must be like for him or her to face those challenges. [Thirty-second pause.]
“Next, think of the positive qualities, traits, and attributes of your husband or wife—the things you and others admire, the things that impressed you when you were courting. [Thirty-second pause.]
“Now, ponder the good times you have had together over the years—times you felt positive, loving, or close; times you laughed together or needed to support and help each other; times you went through something significant together, such as the birth of a child. [Thirty-second pause.]
“Now, open your eyes. As you do, get in touch with the feelings or attitudes you are having in your heart toward your spouse. What are those feelings?”
So far without exception when couples have been genuine in going through this exercise—whether they did it with each other or toward their children—they have ended up feeling greater compassion, understanding, warmth, forgiveness, kindness, or love. Many have felt sorrowful for having been so unkind. They realize that when they see the other through the eyes of honesty and mercy, they see a different person than when they are seeing accusingly through the eyes of revenge. They realize how much of the time they spend giving out revenge, and how little they are seeing each other in a positive, merciful light.
I recall one particularly touching incident. After completing this experience, a husband looked over at his wife and said, “How can I ever repay you for the way you have loved me, sacrificed for me and the children, and forgiven me when I have been so selfish?”
When we have the Spirit in abundance and are perceiving reality honestly and accurately, we realize that all mortals are a composite of strengths and weaknesses. Given our own weaknesses, we have little occasion to take offense at their mistakes. As we realize this, our hearts become broken and our spirits contrite, and we begin to treat others compassionately.
The Book of Mormon gives numerous examples of people’s hearts changing from a carnal, selfish state to a state of righteousness. That change always came as a gift of God, through faith and sincere repentance. It was not something the people were able to manufacture by their own strength. “They did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling of their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.” (Hel. 3:35; italics added.)
We, too, can change our behavior through faith in Christ and repentance. The sanctifying influence of the Spirit of God can change our natures or our personalities so that we become “a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” (Mosiah 3:19.) And the marvelous thing about it is that when we have the Spirit of God in abundance, we may have the attendant fruits of the Spirit—some of which are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. (See Gal. 5:22–23.)
And when our own hearts have changed, our relationships with others will improve.
C. Richard Chidester, a professional marriage and family counselor and the father of eight children, is an associate area director for the Church Educational System.