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Editor’s Note: Our friend and longtime Meridian writer Larry Barkdull recently passed away. To remember and honor him this is one of a series of his past articles that we are republishing weekly.
Perhaps to warn Latter-day Saints of a coming plague of contention, Mormon recounted the story of the abduction of twenty-four Lamanite daughters by King Noah’s wicked, disenfranchised priests. The reaction of the Lamanites and their king is telling:
And it came to pass that when the Lamanites found that their daughters had been missing, they were angry with the people of Limhi, for they thought it was the people of Limhi. Therefore they sent their armies forth; yea, even the king himself went before his people; and they went up to the land of Nephi to destroy the people of Limhi.
No attempt to fact-find, no investigation, no questions, the Lamanites simply reacted to what they perceived as evidence, assumed the worst, made an emotional decision, added to it anger, leveled harsh accusations, and rushed to judgment. The result? “The battle became exceedingly sore;” “they fought like lions for their prey.”Peace was shattered; pride and competition held sway over reason, and many lives were lost.
What fatal mistake had the Lamanites made? They “at-oned” with the spirit of contention.
To at-one is the tendency of something or someone to join with and become one with something or someone of a similar spirit: like joining with like. We commonly associate the phenomenon of at-oneing with Christ’s great At-one-ment by which Jesus resolved our weaknesses, sins and challenges, and cleared every obstacle that stood between us and becoming at-one with him and the Father.
The spirit of contention works on the same premise but destroys rather than saves. The spirit of contention is a fundamental hindrance to the At-one-ment and to the establishment of Zion.Consequently, Jesus condemned it: “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.”
We learn about the universal principle of “at-one-ment” in D&C 88: “For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light.” Notice the descriptive verbs when at-one-ment is allowed to properly play out: “cleaveth,” “receiveth,” “embraceth,” “loveth.” The opposites are true of the spirit of contention: it tears apart, rejects, resists and despises.
At-one-ment implies ownership of a thing or an individual: “Mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own.” We are owned by the spirit that we at-one with. We cannot avoid the pros and cons of the law governing the principles of at-one-ment; the makeup of the universe and our individual nature will always cause like spirits to seek each other out and pair up.
Understanding the Spirit of Contention
Think of the spirit of contention as a dark entity, for it is certainly that. As examples, we read of the “spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling,” “spirit of an unclean devil,” “spirit of infirmity,” “spirit of bondage,” “spirit of fear,” “spirit of error,” “spirit of jealousy” “spirit of whoredoms,” “spirit of anti-Christ,” and Paul speaks of “a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination.” These spirits seek opportunity to “stir up the hearts of the people to contention.”
The descriptions of these satanic beings are not meant to be metaphorical but rather intended to detect the various dark spirits and expose their diabolical assignments and offices. When we give them an audience or mimic their actions–whether these spirits are manifesting through another person or they tempt us to react and behave according to their assignment–we at-one with them. We forfeit a portion of our agency, give them leave to enter and act upon our bodies, and allow them to have their way with us. Suddenly, “the devil has power over [us]…and we become “carnal, sensual and devilish.”
The best of us steps into this snare, often easily. How does it happen? One reason is ignorance.
Things to Act and Things to Act Upon
Satan is in possession of a piece of information about the physical body that we might not fully understand, and he would like to keep that secret to himself. The physical body is like the artist’s canvas: its sole purpose is to be “acted upon” by the artist, who uses it to give tangible reality to the picture in his mind. Similarly, the physical body is uniquely designed to be “acted upon” by the spirit, who has the power “to act.”
But other spirits can influence the physical body. We exist in a continuous tug-of-war of competing influences: on the one hand there are myriad evil and unclean spirits; on the other hand there are the righteous spirits who receive their assignments from the Lord, for instance, “spirits of just men made perfect,” “spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord,” “spirit of prophecy,” and many others. Sometimes these titles refer to gifts of the Spirit, but often they describe spirits on assignment.
Evil and unclean spirits attempt to influence the body by manipulation, coercion and force, while righteous spirits seek to influence by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge.”
Because the devil is a spirit and the enemy of our soul, he will try to influence, enter, dominate and otherwise “act upon” our physical body. By satanic strategy, he is difficult to detect His modus aperandi is to work in the shadows, beneath the radar. He reigns over a kingdom of two types of nefarious beings: 1) evil spirits, often referring to the “third part” of God’s children who were cast out for rebellion, those who will never possess a physical body, and 2) the myriad “unclean spirits,” often referring to those who lived and died in their sins.
Collectively, these loathsome spirits are skilled in and gravitate to their preferred forms of wickedness. Like their leader, the devil, they stalk their prey as if they were roaring lions, wandering the earth, seeking whom they may devour. Paul warned us concerning these spirits and those who fall under their influence: “From such turn away.”
At-oning with the Spirit of Contention
If we at-one with these satanic beings, whether they tempt us directly or through another person, we allow them to act upon our body, and then we become like them: vicious, contentious, bitter, hateful, proud, arrogant, critical, fault-finding, manipulative, and the list goes on. If we encounter someone who is under the influence of the spirit of contention, we can seldom pacify that individual, because the influencing spirit feeds on contention, which is its life-blood.
If we cower before the spirit of contention (or someone influenced by it), try to appease it, confront it, shout it down, hold a grudge, gossip, criticize or give it any place in us, we immediately at-one with it, which is exactly what it is seeking. It cannot thrive without a partner or an audience. It needs someone’s body to manipulate and “act upon;” it seeks to twin. It wants us to respond to it. From such turn away!
If we attempt to engage it, confront it, fix it or give it our attention, we will experience guilt, frustration, the diminishing of our true self, and eventual destruction. We cannot win by engaging the spirit of contention. The saints in Kirtland learned that painful lesson: “Behold, I say unto you, there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances.”
At-oning with the spirit of contention always-absolutely always–turns out badly, and it always has: “My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened.”
That is not to say that we allow it to destroy us or someone else. The scriptures are filled with examples of righteous individuals who defended themselves and their people: Nephi, King Benjamin, Alma, Captain Moroni, etc. However, they always sought to be peacemakers, whom Jesus called the “children of God,” and when they were compelled to act, they always defaulted to priesthood principles:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile–
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
The spirit of contention is a powerful spirit and few people are as disciplined as these righteous individuals.
Contentions and Disputations Throughout the Ages
We recall that contentions and disputations were the common denominators of Nephite decline, apostasy and war. Contentions also brought down the Jaredite civilization, and later contention nearly destroyed the Nephites after the birth of Christ. When the Savior appeared to them after his resurrection, he commanded, “And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been.” If the people would obey this command, he promised that they would eliminate envy, strife, tumult, sexual sins, lying, murder, lasciviousness, secret combinations and economic and social distinctions.
Nephi, looking out across the generations of his children, prophesied that contention would define their history and eventually cause their downfall: “For behold, I say unto you that I have beheld that many generations shall pass away, and there shall be great wars and contentions among my people.”
A cursing is pronounced upon those who contend, and prophets and great leaders have sought to teach unifying principles to avoid the possibility of contention. King Benjamin warned, “But, O my people, beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit…. For behold, there is a wo pronounced upon him who listeth to obey that spirit; for if he listeth to obey him, and remaineth and dieth in his sins, the same drinketh damnation to his own soul; for hereceiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment, having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge.”
How to Escape the Spirit of Contention
Given the destructive nature of the spirit of contention, is there a way of escape?
The scriptures teach that charity and prayer are powerful deterrents to the spirit of contention. For example, the people of Limhi had tried and failed multiple times to deliver themselves from their contentious enemies. Only when they began to take care of the widows and orphans were they delivered from the contentions that had bound them. Charity freed them.
Similarly, the prophet Job was delivered from his accusing, contentious friends when he opted to react charitably. We recall that in the darkest hour of his life his friends contended that Job’s afflictions most certainly derived from sin. Although Job tried to defend himself, he could not prevail over the spirit of contention that worked through his friends, who should have been his most trusted and comforting allies. How did he dismiss that miserable spirit? He offered sacrifice and prayed for his friends. And charity liberated him! “And the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends.”
No wonder then that Jesus taught charity as the dual principle of deliverance and ultimate perfection: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven…Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Jesus could not abide contentious doctrine: “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”Rather, he said, “Resist not evil,” that is to say, “do not at-one with evil spirits and they who are influenced by them.” It would be better to turn the other cheek, give the abuser your cloak when he sues you for your coat, or if a contentious person compels you to walk one mile, agree to walk twice the distance. Do whatever is necessary not to at-one with the spirit of contention. For safety’s sake, do the opposite of what that spirit is tempting you to do! Choose charity!
But charity is hard to come by, and when it comes, it comes as a gift of the Spirit. Therefore, Moroni exhorted, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love.”
Praying for Enemies
Concerning our praying for our enemies and praying for the gift of charity, the prophet Zenos taught: “Thou art merciful, O God, for thou hast heard my prayer . . . when I prayed concerning those who were mine enemies, and thou didst turn them to me.” And conversely, “Yea, and thou hast also heard me when I have been cast out and have been despised by mine enemies; yea, thou didst hear my cries, and wast angry with mine enemies, and thou didst visit them in thine anger with speedy destruction.”
We see in Zenos’s words a promise that the power of prayer and the power of charity are sufficient to either turn the hearts of our enemies (who can be of you own household)back to us or to move them out of our way. In either case, we will be delivered. The criterion for such a prayer is a pure heart. “And if ye are purified and cleansed from all sin, ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done.”
Limhi’s people departed from the spirit of contention, embraced charity and succeeded in pacifying the Lamanite king, who in turn rejected the spirit of contention and avoided more bloodshed.
And it came to pass that the king was pacified towards [Limhi’s] people; and he said unto them: Let us go forth to meet my people, without arms; and I swear unto you with an oath that my people shall not slay thy people.
And it came to pass that they followed the king, and went forth without arms to meet the Lamanites. And it came to pass that they did meet the Lamanites; and the king of the Lamanites did bow himself down before them, and did plead in behalf of the people of Limhi.
How Nephi Overcame the Spirit of Contention
At the death of Lehi, Nephi finally bowed to the spirit of contention in his brothers and became angry. He was so disappointed in himself that he cried, “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.”
Nephi knew the tendency of the flesh to be acted upon by evil forces: “And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul?…. Why am I angry because of mine enemy?”
He understood that at-oneing with the spirit of contention is destructive, so he cried to God for deliverance: “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul. Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.”
He drew strength from God whom he had always trusted (Notice how he prays for strength to break free and stay free from contentious people and spirits):
Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.
O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?
May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite! O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road!
O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way–but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.
O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.
Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen.”
Jesus’ Commandment to Cease Contentions and Disputations
After the destructions at the crucifixion of Christ, when the Savior later appeared to the Nephites, he commanded, “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.”
These surviving Nephites must have faced and rid themselves of the spirit of contention because Mormon recounts four times, “there was no contention in the land!”He couldn’t stop rejoicing! Imagine what life would be like if we would likewise cease at-oneing with the spirit of contention:
“…the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land…and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.
And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.
… and there still continued to be peace in the land.
And there were great and marvelous works wrought by the disciples of Jesus, insomuch that they did heal the sick, and raise the dead, and cause the lame to walk, and the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear; and all manner of miracles did they work among the children of men; and in nothing did they work miracles save it were in the name of Jesus….
And the Lord did prosper them exceedingly in the land….
And now, behold, it came to pass that the people of Nephi did wax strong, and did multiply exceedingly fast, and became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people.
And they were married, and given in marriage, and were blessed according to the multitude of the promises which the Lord had made unto them.
And…they did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God, continuing in fasting and prayer, and in meeting together oft both to pray and to hear the word of the Lord.
And it came to pass that there was no contention among all the people, in all the land; but there were mighty miracles wrought among the disciples of Jesus….
And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.
And 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.
We might expect that if we would diligently strive to come unto Christ with full purpose of heart and rid our lives of the spirit of contention, we too might qualify in a short period of time for the Lord to come to us, establish us as individual Zion people and enjoy these same blessings.
Click here (www.pillarsofzion.com) to download FREE copies of the Pillars of Zion series. This series is an extensive set of books that explores the covenants, attributes and characteristics that define a Zion person. The Zion series is heavily documented with over 5,000 references, making it one of the most extensive research projects ever written about Zion. Also, follow our Internet missionary project: www.gospelideals.org.
 Examples of ministering spirits (sometimes gifts of the Spirit): spirit of power (2 Nephi 3:5),spirit of judgment (2 Nephi 14:4), spirit of burning (2 Nephi 14:4), spirit of revelation (Alma 5:46), spirit of freedom (Alma 60:25), spirit of truth (D&C 6:5), spirit of meekness (D&C 25:5),spirit of prayer (D&C 84:61), spirit of holiness (Romans 1:4), spirit of life (Romans 8:2), spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15), spirit of faith (2 Corinthians 4:15), and spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29).