How Do We Contend Without Being Contentious?

Guest blogger Jamie Huston posts again!

“He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention…” 3 Nephi 11:29


Contend thou, therefore, morning by morning; and day after day let thy warning voice go forth; and when the night cometh let not the inhabitants of the earth slumber, because of thy speech.” D&C 112:5

I know, these verses are talking about different things: confrontational hostility versus zealous engagement. Still, these two scriptures illustrate a problem in my mind: just how assertive can we be before we’re being pushy? On one hand, we run the risk of being too deferential and missing opportunities to advance the Lord’s work. On the other hand, we push the possibility that we might come off as obnoxious and offend people…and miss opportunities to advance the Lord’s work.

How do we exert our zeal while avoiding obnoxiousness? What’s the magic formula? Is it all just relying on the Spirit from moment to moment? That’s a necessary element of all our work, and nothing to sniff at. But what else should be shaping our level of assertiveness?

And when there’s a choice to be made, which way do we err? It’s said that when there’s a conflict between justice and mercy, lean towards the side of mercy. Does that apply here, counseling us to proceed with more caution than courage?

Actually, my position is that, when pressed, we usually do better to do more rather than less. After all, doesn’t life teach that we tend to regret the chances we let slip away out of fear more than actions that backfired?

I remember talking to a great bishop of mine once about this, and he directed me to Alma 38:12: “Use boldness, but not overbearance.” The striking thing was his application of the verse. Think about the times you’ve heard that verse quoted; it’s probably been in the context of advising each other to hold back and “be cool” with people.

But my bishop at the time focused on the first part of that admonition. He said that our culture in the church today had moved too far into the “but not overbearance” territory, often resembling little more than passive accomodation. It was his belief that the world of the 21st century would need us to be straight shooters who don’t worry about occasionally rubbing people the wrong way; in fact, we should expect it. True prophets do offend the mainstream (Helaman 13:26-28).

I agree.


  1. In other words, we’re wimps.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Jamie, I’ve been thinking about this myself. I think where I come out on it is that whenever we stop thinking of our interlocutors as souls (and brothers and sisters!), and instead view them as opportunities to win arguments or have some sort of ‘victory,’ the Spirit is grieved.

    I do think that you’re right to differentiate between mercy and caution, and that’s a very helpful view. I love that scripture in 3rd Ne. 11 that you quote. It seems to me that contention seems often to revolve around religious argument, and that’s particularly nasty stuff. Joseph Smith’s own experience sizes up what I think is the real danger:

    For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.

  3. I’ve thought a lot about this lately too, wondering how I’m doing. I don’t feel that I’ve answered the question yet, but a quote from Pres. Hinckley has been sticking in my mind: “We [LDS] do not wear our religion on our sleeve.”

    There’s a big difference between being bold in how I live my life and being overbearing in how I tell my neighbor to live his.

  4. Context is key: Be assertive and challenging at BCC. Be more accommodating in the audience of non-members.

    Logic is key: Use reason over emotion.

    Relationship is key: Influence through friendship, and never allow a relationship be damaged to score a point.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Nice one, Brian.

  6. And yet, it seems more press (at times) has been given to members who have chosen to be “less active” and how they keep having to deal with members who (either with boldness or otherwise being overbearing) insist they must be “more active”.

    I have been in many a EQ or HP quorum meeting where discussions were had about families who had made it clear they wanted neither HT or VT on their doorstep and yet, we were continually instructed to keep contacting them despite their wishes.

    Thus, the question. Do we believe we have the right to be more “bold” (or “overbearing”) with members than with non-members? If so, why? Did those members who chose to become “less active” somehow surrender their agency when they became members?

  7. jonahtrainer says:

    Contend is a verb while contention is a noun. Contending with a ‘warning voice’ and ‘speech’ invokes a more reasoned and logical approach. When we work by faith we work by words (Lectures on Faith 7). On the other hand, contention connotes much more passion, usually uncontrolled and violent. Often inferior minds prefer to work with their hands to get their points across but such a method is futile.

    It is possible to perform one’s duties and still be friends (D&C 82:22). The discussion is about ideas. Ideas can only be overcome by other ideas. Money and power are impotent against the power of ideas. Therefore, the use of cheerfulness and ‘without compulsory means’ are essential.

    Keeping the focus correct is also important. For example, one should be focused on discharging their duty to warn and leaving the warnee without excuse instead of whether the warnee will accept the message and change. Think Abinidi or Jonah.

    For example, one of my family members was with a couple who are family friends and have served as a GA and a temple president. They were discussing politics and the former GA’s wife mentioned they were voting for X. My family member said, “Oh, why are you doing that?” The response, “Because our sons went to school together, etc. (non-substantive immaterial reasons)” Then the ‘discharging of the duty to warn’ came when my family member said, “Well, I am voting for Y and I think it is a sifting of the wheat and the tares.” Of course, our families are still friends, despite our one very sincere but loud mouthed member ;). I think this illustrates proper contending as a way to discuss ideas, take a stand, discharge one’s duties and still remain friends.

  8. Peter LLC says:

    Money and power are impotent against the power of ideas.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the power of power 8)

    For example, one should be focused on discharging their duty to warn and leaving the warnee without excuse instead of whether the warnee will accept the message and change.

    I actually believe that this is the opposite approach we have been advised to take when approaching those not of our faith. I did not view my missionary service, for example, as an opportunity for the Lord to check off a list of people who had been warned and were now ripe for destruction.

    In fact, Elder Eyring spoke to us at a mission conference and told us in no uncertain terms that if we thought our well-meaning but imperfect efforts to share the message would be the only chance these people had to receive the gospel, then we were sadly mistaken.

  9. Excellent post. Striking that balance is often very difficult and the promptings of the spirit can’t be underestimated.

  10. The difference between contending the gospel and being contentious is in how we approach something and what expect out of that situation. It’s a difference between “bible bashing” and “bible sharing.” If you are being contentious, even if you began with righteous contending, you shifted over your goals from preaching the gospel to proving it right. To contend is to preach. To be contentious is to try to prove your right and the other person is wrong. Heck, I should know. I’m, admittedly, a very contentious guy. :)

  11. Mark IV says:

    Good post, Jamie. The issue of how we present ourselves in a public forum is important, so I appreciate this.

    I think it goes without saying that Mormons should follow the prompting of the Spirit when they discern it, so the question becomes, What is the default setting?

    While it is certainly true that the gospel will sometimes rub people the wrong way, I see no reason to think that the gospel needs any help from us in doing the rubbing. Some of the things I am most ashamed of about my mission involve the times I slam-dunked JWs or Lutherans in an obnoxious manner. It was intoxicating, because I was able to feel so righteous at the same time! If being offensive is proof of our righteousness (and there are plenty of people who seem to think that), then we would be living in the city of Enoch, right now.

    My own experience contrasts with your bishop’s experience. It has been very humbling to me to realize that I have been mistaken about some of the things I was most sure of, at the time. I know, for sure and for certain, that I have driven people who were faltering in faith away from the church with my zeal and obnoxiousness.

    The recent biography of Spencer W. Kimball illuminates this question. In the book (and on the accompanying CD), he expressed regret at the tone he projected in parts of The Miracle of Forgiveness. He felt, in his advanced age, that perhaps he had taken the wrong tack with some family members in calling them to repentance. And he had to rein in some of the self-styled “straight-shooters” among the Twelve.

  12. Mark IV says:

    True prophets do offend the mainstream

    That is a fascinating statement that deserves its own post. We all imagine ourselves to be in a persecuted minority. True prophets do indeed offend the mainstream, but who and what is the mainstream? In light of recent bloggernacle discussion, BCC is prophetic.

  13. BAN HIM!!!

  14. I don’t mind that notion that prophets occasionally offend. It’s the assumption that I am prophetic because I offend that strikes me as wrongheaded.

  15. Imo, a large part of “contentiousness” is that understanding is not the central aim – that the motivating factor for one party (or both) is “winning the argument”. It’s a fine distinction to draw between that and “contending”, since there obviously are times when we should defend the Church and each other against distortions and misrepresentations.

    I have found that the biggest difference for me personally is maintaining a calmness in approach and a mindset that focuses on understanding instead of belittling. I also have found that anger and offense lead inexorably to contentiousness, so if I can avoid taking things personally I can “contend” (engage different viewpoints) without being contentious (attacking the person expressing the different viewpoint).

    Iow, I can be assertive about my beliefs without belittling others with contrary beliefs – particularly if my primary focus is on understanding how the other person’s beliefs actually might be able to help me modify or understand myown better. Once I say, “There’s nothing I can learn from you,” contention is almost a foregone conclusion.

    If the other person holds that same view, I can avoid contention only by being willing to walk away without “winning”. I’m fine with that.

  16. Adam Greenwood says:

    I love you, Jamie H., but you’re flat wrong. Period.

  17. #7, The difference between contend (verb) and contention (noun) seems tangential since the question is on how to avoid being contentious (adjective).

  18. Mark IV says:

    Alma 38:12: “Use boldness, but not overbearance.”

    I can think of another angle on this verse.

    I think it is inaccurate to see boldness and non-overbearance as opposites, or as choices which exclude one another. The opposite of boldness is not pushiness, but cowardice. So, if we fail to witness or assert a position because we are afraid, the admonition to be bold is appropriate, but I think we are still under obligation to present the message in away that makes it likely our hearers will listen long enough to understand it. To interpret this verse as giving license to be overbearing is an example of wresting the scriptures, I think.

  19. Those waving signs depicting aborted fetuses and stepping on garments in April and October would definitely agree that prophets offend the mainstream.

  20. Mark: excellent point. Boldness and overbearance are probably not different degrees on the same scale.

  21. This was the keystone comment, in my not-so-humble opinion.

    Now, I can be assertive about my beliefs without belittling others with contrary beliefs – particularly if my primary focus is on understanding how the other person’s beliefs actually might be able to help me modify or understand my own better. Once I say, “There’s nothing I can learn from you,” contention is almost a foregone conclusion.

    If the other person holds that same view, I can avoid contention only by being willing to walk away without “winning”. I’m fine with that.

    This is why I strenuously avoid debates with Evangelicals – by and large that is the opinion they hold of us, at least in my experience. We should be as bold as possible, but only insofar as it is undeniably mixed with genuine love and compassion.

  22. True prophets do offend the mainstream

    However, on the other hand, “offending the mainstream” does not usually equal being a prophet. Too many people think they have the prophetic calling when all they are is rude.

  23. Latter-day Guy says:

    I think this is certainly a question that could have a variety of correct answers based on the situations in which you find yourself.

    I tend to lean toward the “don’t cause offense” crowd. Perhaps this is not a good thing, but I can’t help but remember that old CS Lewis quote: “It’s very easy to break eggs without making omelets.”