Conquering Contention: A Matter of the Heart

Brother Steven Christenson
Brigham Young University Idaho, Biology Department Chair
1 Dec 2020 - BYU-I Devotional

 

The early 20 th century is a historical era packed with big names that most would recognize such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. There is another Jewish German from that time who you’ve probably never heard of named Martin Buber. A prolific author, he was nominated for seventeen noble prizes: ten in literature and seven for world peace. [1] Perhaps his most lasting impact, though, was in the philosophy of relationships and the heart.

In his final book, I and Thou, Buber observed that we all walk through the world oscillating between one of two states of being. In one state we view others as people—individuals, different from but equal to ourselves, with hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments, successes, and failures. Buber identified this state of being toward others as I-Thou. He labelled the other state of being as I-It, because in this state we view others as objects without feeling or free will. For example, we might see them as obstacles, irrelevancies, or objects of ridicule.

Our way of being towards others—or in other words, our inner thoughts and perceptions of the world—is often symbolized in scripture by the heart. For example, the Psalmist wrote,

 

For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he. [2]

And the condition of our heart—whether to see others as objects or persons—is of supreme importance to those around us. Each of us has an innate desire to be seen and recognized as someone, not something. It might be praise for a job well done, a nice text from a friend, or that encouraging glance from that cute guy or girl across the room. On the other hand, to see others as objects represents an assault on that fundamental aspiration. One of my favorite books, The Anatomy of Peace, describes it this way:

Seeing an equal person as an inferior object is an act of violence. It hurts as much as a punch to the face. In fact, in many ways it hurts more. Bruises heal more quickly than emotional scars do. [3]

However small or large the initial offense, a heart that objectifies another invites the other party to react in kind, acting through their own I-It lens. Defenses are mounted. Battle lines are drawn, and a perpetuating cycle of objectification, retaliation, justification, and escalation follows. An interpersonal state of war is declared. It is little wonder, then, that we describe the I-It way of being as having a heart of war.

The casualties of a heart at war could not be more evident, or more catastrophic. It occurs in our apartments and classrooms when we disregard or ridicule the thoughts and feelings of others. It occurs in the home when spouses fail to recognize the needs and values of one another. When parents try to manipulate their children into certain behaviors, or when children disrespect and demean their parents. When left unchecked, a heart of war can tear homes apart. It lies at the root of divorce, neglect, and abuse.

Unfortunately, a heart of war can rarely exist in solitude. When at war, it seeks affirmation and support from others. Gossiping, stereotyping, and bad-mouthing are all strategies for a heart at war to recruit allies to its unrighteous cause. A collective heart of war can poison political and civil discourse in our communities. When directed toward an entire group or people, a heart of war leads to racism, bigotry, and discrimination. Many of the great social movements of the past and present are at their heart a collective call of groups to be seen and recognized as people, not objects.

Whether at home or at large, the leader and champion of this contention is none other than the devil himself, as testified by the Savior:

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. [4]

Satan is not only the father of contention but the original heart of war. His plan, presented in the preexistence, viewed each of us as mere pawns on the chessboard of mortality, devoid of free will and subject to his control.

In contrast, the plan put forth by our Father in Heaven and championed by the Savior was one that recognized the agency, individuality, and dignity of each of His children. He sees us not only as people, but as His beloved sons and His daughters regardless of the pain or heartache we cause ourselves and others. His heart is the ultimate heart of peace. A heart of peace carries the same characteristics as charity, the pure love of Christ. It is long suffering, kind, humble, and selfless. It is not easily provoked and does not think evil of others.

In last week’s devotional, Brother Randy Beard spoke, among other things, on the topic of becoming more charitable. He quoted Dallin H. Oaks, who said, “The reason charity is greater than even the most significant acts of goodness . . . is that charity . . . is not an act but a condition or state of being. Charity is attained through a succession of acts that result in conversion. Charity is something one becomes.” [5]

The process of becoming more charitable can be likened to transforming our hearts from war to peace. During His ministry, the Savior taught that this transformation is more than wise counsel or good social advice. Of all the commandments He said the greatest was to love God, “and the second is like unto it, Love thy neighbor as thyself” [6]—or in other words, see and treat others with equal regard and acknowledgement. Change your heart from one of war to one of peace.

Changing your heart from war to peace involves a four-part process. First, recognize your personal battlegrounds. Second, humble your hearts. Third, seek understanding. And finally, act on the promptings received from increased understanding.

Step 1: Recognizing Your Battlegrounds

Hopefully, at this point, some of you might be pondering your interactions and wondering where you might be seeing others as objects. It may be a roommate, a family member, a political party, or an entire people. To identify your personal battlegrounds, consider the following symptoms:

Justification. To view others as objects is inherently wrong, and as such, requires justification. Signs of justification include name-calling, and stereotyping in ways that demean, ridicule, or dehumanize others, typically in exaggerated terms. “My roommate is  crazy.” “My teacher is an ogre.” “Those people are all terrorists.” Justification also requires a continual rehashing of past grievances and injustices.  

Another symptom is ally recruitment. Misplaced justifications always seem better when we can get others to agree with them. Do you find yourself complaining, gossiping, or badmouthing others hoping to have your own views validated?

Blaming. Finally, given a choice between attributing circumstance and character, a heart of war always blames character. John isn’t having a bad day; John is a bad person. Sally isn’t having a moment of weakness; Sally is a weak person.

Do any of these descriptions sound like you? You might have a heart at war.

Step 2: Humble Your Heart

Between a heart of war and a heart of peace is a heart of humility. Listen to the admonition given in Mosiah 3:19. As you hear this, think of replacing “natural man” with “heart of war.”

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. [7]

To become submissive and meek is to accept that you may not have the complete picture, and the picture you do have is heavily tinted through your own lenses of judgement and justification. You may also have to acknowledge that you are at least partly responsible, in one form or another, for the ongoing battle.  

Humbling your heart can be difficult. It will help to heed the invitation of Him who said,

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me. [8]

A humble heart focuses on the Savior and takes up the Savior’s yoke of forgiveness and reconciliation. Each of us have found rest in the undeserved understanding and unmerited mercy of the Savior. Reflecting on the Savior’s love and mercy can allow to see those around us from a new perspective.

Step 3 – Seek Understanding

In our quest for peace, humility must be followed by understanding. It has been said, “It’s a mighty thin pancake that doesn’t have two sides to it.” And the transformative power of understanding what others are going through cannot be underestimated.  

Consider the following example from one of my students, shared with her permission. It illustrates how increased understanding can fuel a change in our hearts.

My friends and I were cheerleaders in high school, and everyone knew who we were at school. During lunches and between periods the five of us would huddle up in a circle, and just ignore anyone else. There was one girl on our team who was shy and quiet. She badly needed friends, needed to be welcomed. Unfortunately, we were horrible to outsiders, and my friends and I brushed her aside like she was nothing.

One morning at practice I found this girl in the bathroom crying. It was just her and I, no group, so I approached and asked her what was wrong. She told me that her older sister was her only friend, and she had died in a car accident two weeks ago. Her grief and loneliness at the loss of her sister were more than she thought she could bear. The simple act of recognizing her and her pain that day gave her enough strength to carry on.

  

When asked what changed that morning in that bathroom, my young friend responded:

I saw this girl as a daughter of God and someone who wasn’t any less important than me. We were/are equals. I just remember that night going home and getting on my knees asking for forgiveness from Heavenly Father. I was so stuck on being on top, having friends who were popular. I look back on this experience and wonder why I cared to be that kind of person. None of that group were really my friends, and I hurt so many people. It wasn’t the type of person I wanted to be. Everyone goes through trials and struggles in this life, so I do my very best to be kind and treat people like Jesus Christ would. [9]

Sometimes, if our hearts are prepared, we will be blessed with a rapid almost instantaneous transformation of our hearts as my student received. Other times our personal transformation will require more intentional efforts. The path toward understanding can be fraught with difficulty. It may require the sacrifice of long-standing stereotypes, justified grievances, and deeply held grudges. We can try to gain a new perspective by asking and then sincerely seeking answers to questions like:

  • What challenges and hardships does this person face?

  • How do I or those in my group contribute to those challenges?

  • What are the values and motivations of this person and how can I honor them?

  • How might I feel or see things if I were in their shoes?

Over the years I have asked myself these same questions in countless situations with students, colleagues, and family members. In each case, as I have stopped trying to change them, and started trying to understand them, the resulting insights have ultimately changed me.

Step 4 – Act on Your Promptings

As you come to understand others and their situation more clearly, you will be prompted to act. Action is the fourth and final principle of a heart of peace. The apostle James wrote,

Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. [10]

Similarly, a heart of peace can only prosper when we act upon the promptings that we receive. We show by our actions that we acknowledge the worth of those around us. Over the years I have found that actions of acknowledgement, even in small ways, can have profound impacts. You might be prompted to offer a sincere apology, leave a kind note, or engage in an act of service.

As we act, we strengthen our own hearts of peace and we invite the hearts of others to change. There can be some risk in opening yourself in this manner, and change in others may not be immediate or ensured. That said, in my experience, as I act on the promptings of the Spirit, and acknowledge others’ humanity, I am often rewarded with richer relationship, greater peace, and increased joy.

From your responses in the discussion board I know many of you have had similar experiences of increased understanding and acknowledgement. I suspect you have felt the same increase of peace and joy in your lives as I have. And yet for most of us additional battlegrounds remain. We live in a time of great political, societal, and racial unrest. If there was ever a need for greater peace and the acknowledgement of our universal brotherhood and sisterhood it is now. My sincere hope today is the phrases “a heart of war” and “a heart of peace” might stick in your hearts and minds. I hope you will discuss them with your roommates, classmates, and family members. I hope you will challenge and inspire each other to recognize your own personal battlegrounds, humble your heart, seek understanding, and act on the promptings you receive. I pray that the powers of heaven will aid your efforts. Ultimately, I hope that our collective quest for peace permeates homes and extends across racial boundaries, social hierarchies, and political ideologies until we all acknowledge our common brotherhood and sisterhood under God.

I close with my testimony that there is a God. He is our literal Father in Heaven. He is no respecter of persons and loves us all with a love that is infinite and everlasting. I testify that He wants you and I to see each other as nothing more and nothing less than His sons and His daughters with a divine potential and inheritance. That we do so is my heartfelt prayer and invitation, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

NOTES:

 

[1] See “Martin Buber,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; plato.stanford.edu/entries/buber.

[2] Proverbs 23:7.

[3] The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, The Arbinger Institute, 2006.

[4] 3 Nephi 11:29.

[5] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, Nov. 2000.

[6] Matthew 22:39.

[7] Mosiah 3:19.

[8] Matthew 11:28–29.

[9] Mylee LeSueur; used with permission.

[10] James 2:18.

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This Speech has been Translated by
Katherin Sandoval & Natalia del
Villar