Enemies, Part 5: Under Attack? Take and Maintain the Moral High Ground

A friend asked me to write a post about confrontation. Specifically, she wanted advice on confronting a friend. Because teaching argumentation is my profession, my students, friends, and family often ask me about confrontation:

  • How do I handle a hostile person, co-worker, boss, or group?

  • How do I constructively express my anger?

  • How do I confront and when do I confront?

  • How do I defend myself?

  • How do I win an argument?

Obviously, there's no cookie cutter response. Every situation presents its own challenges; each person is unique. Various forms of communication are learned skill sets and require practice to master them. I'll be the first to acknowledge my imperfections as I continue to hone my communication skills. In this post, I'll share my own observations, mindsets, and strategies for interpersonal communication and basic conflict resolution. I will also use specific scriptural examples and illustrate their application to our individual interpersonal relationships.

Competition is inevitable because comparison is inevitable.  But the resulting conflict is always costly.

"Peace Be Still" by Arnold Friberg

Over the years, I've fashioned my own code of ethics relative to conflict:

  • Don't view others through a competitive lens. Competition and rivalry breed resentment and hostility within ourselves and our relationships. Yes, our capitalistic society thrives on individualism and competition---but it should not harm our relationships.

  • If possible, propose a win/win proposition rather than a win/lose proposition.

  • Avoid seeing ourselves as perpetual victims. Not everyone is out to get us. Our society celebrates and perpetuates "victimhood" status, but it's a false form of power and is also a form of "unrighteous dominion."

  • Those who initiate offensive attacks cannot claim the moral high ground. Ever. I'd rather "lose" in competitive interpersonal game-playing than lose my integrity and self-respect.

  • Therefore, never cast the first stone or throw the first punch---whether in word, action, or passive-aggressiveness.

  • Don't be sucked into an enemy's antics. Don't be manipulated by the enemy's  playbook.

  • If we are compelled to defend ourselves by "playing the game" or "fighting fire with fire" then call upon divine intervention to help us maintain the moral high ground, fight fair, and ultimately defeat our enemies. Pray for wisdom, utterance, and protection.

"As a Sparrow Falleth" by Elspeth Young

  • Know and understand your opponent. Observe his or her behavior patterns. Does he or she treat others differently? Does he or she single you out? Search for a motive. Pray for guidance and clarity of mind in order to make righteous judgments.

  • Pray for knowledge about your opponent. Knowledge is power. Knowing and understanding an enemy creates a very strong defense---or "stronghold" as the Book of Mormon defines it. Notice that Moroni obtained "a perfect knowledge" of his enemy, Ammoron. Moroni also "had a perfect knowledge of Ammoron's fraud; yea, he knew that Ammoron knew that it was not a just cause that had caused him to wage a war against the people of Nephi" (Alma 55:1). We, too, can gain a perfect knowledge of our enemies and their intentions through divine guidance. (I have detailed this principle in a previous post called "Got Enemies?".  In that post, I personally testified of attaining specific information---every single time---through divine guidance regarding my adversaries.)

"Aristotle" by Raphael

  • Be credible. Aristotle taught that our credibility (how others perceive us) is a powerful form of persuasion. Ironically, acknowledging our individual imperfections, faults, and fallibility gives us more credibility; we are perceived as trustworthy. In short, the best offense is a good defense: Our credibility is an inherent effective defense---if others perceive us as credible. Credibility has four components: competence, trustworthiness, concern, and dynamism.

  • Stay calm during conflict. Our emotions build or destroy our credibility. Thus, use emotion to work for us not against us. Any uncontrolled emotion undermines our credibility.

  • Encourage constructive and productive dialogue with your opponent. If he or she refuses, we can disengage but keep the door open for future discussion.

  • Acknowledge our opponent's perspective and humanity. (This strengthens our credibility.)

  • Draw clear parameters or boundaries. Don't let others manipulate us through fear or guilt.

  • Speak our truths but show a willingness to negotiate with opponents (unless negotiating jeopardizes our own sense of morality).

  • Be willing to hear our opponent's truth---even if his or her truth is immoral or wrong. (Our opponents will claim the same thing about us.)

  • Be willing to walk away or end the relationship if our opponent refuses to communicate or rejects all offers for resolution and peace.

  • Don't publicly trash our opponents. There's a difference between talking about our opponents/enemies and trashing them.

A Warrior Princess, Artist Unknown

Again, every one of us---myself included---fall short and make mistakes when dealing with opposition and enemies. And that's ok. Controlling our emotions is one of the biggest challenges in conflict resolution. Anger and fear are the hallmark emotions in conflict and (as we all know) are very difficult to control in the heat of battle. By the same token, anger is a God-given emotion and serves useful purposes: Our anger signifies when others are invading our personal boundaries or trampling upon our rights. However, we all know of anger's destructive powers. So, if we can give our anger over to God, He will help carry and channel our anger into a constructive and righteous orientation. Additionally, the Lord will compensate for our weakness and shortcomings as we contend with opponents. As I wrote in a previous post, our desired outcomes in defeating our enemies must be for righteous and peacemaking purposes. Otherwise, we're on our own.

Jeff Von Vonderen, a professional interventionist on the tv show Intervention elaborates:

Surrendering is about coming to the end of our own resources. Although 'surrender' is a word commonly used in a military context, spiritual surrender is not about losing or about being defeated. When we surrender spiritually, we gain enormously. It doesn’t mean resignation or compliance. Surrender helps restore our sanity. Whenever we observe ourselves growing anxious or angry or resentful, it is often a sign that we are trying to control something that is out of our control. It is a sign that we are trying to play God in our own lives or in the lives of others. Our anxiety, anger and resentments are often reminders to us to call on God’s grace and guidance. They are reminders to surrender. Fighting your enemies on their terms leads to spiritual disease. Bullies wouldn’t want to fight unless they weren’t already spiritually diseased. Same with resignation or compliance. They don’t lead us to a healthier spiritual life. When we surrender to God, we ask Him to take over and strategize for us. We give up on relying on our own resources (Soul Repair, p. 140-141).

There's a difference between fighting and fighting honorably.

I'm convinced that the battle accounts recorded in the Bible and Book of Mormon were written to instruct us in our interpersonal relationships. Yes, these accounts serve as prophetic warnings regarding our present day global conflicts. Yet, every time I've sought divine guidance in dealing with my adversaries, the Lord includes these various battle strategies as part of my divine instruction. Consequently, I've become exceedingly well versed in the strategical mindsets and examples provided by the good guys: Moroni, Pahoran, Helamen, Lachoneus, Teancum, Nephi (son of Lehi), Nephi (son of Helamen), Jacob, Alma, and Mormon. (Jesus Christ is the obvious ultimate example.) My spiritual instruction has also included warnings against the exploitative maneuvers of the bad guys: Zerahemnah, Korihor, Zeezrom, Sherem, and Giddianhi (leader of the Gadianton robbers).

"Captain Moroni" by Arnold Friberg

The good guys shared a common denominator: Nephite war policy was to engage only in defensive or preemptive battle. This strategy ensured continued blessings and directions from God. Their motives were to protect and preserve their families, their possessions, their religion, and their liberty. The bad guys also shared a common denominator: Always the dissenters, they would strike and ambush. They were always about power, pride, control, and dominance. Ferociousness and hatred were their badges of "honor."

Moroni's chilling account of his ongoing battle against Zerahemnah aptly illustrates my point. Due to Zerahemnah's unsuccessful attempts to dominate Moroni, Zerahemnah pledges to drink Moroni's blood. (A thirst for power and control makes people say and do crazy things!) As we know, Moroni eventually defeats Zerahemnah and offers fair proposals for peace. But, Zerahemnah has no interest in peace. He wants to win. Moroni's offerings only enrage Zerahemnah further---into a hysterical meltdown. In his rage, he strikes at Moroni. One of Moroni's soldiers intervenes and scalps Zerahemnah. Impervious to Zerahemnah's tantrum, Moroni forces him to surrender or die.

"Helamen's Army" by Walter Raines

This example sounds extreme, but it's not. These interpersonal dynamics are very common in relationships and pertain to all of us on some level. For this reason, crimes of passion are in a different category under the law than premeditated murder. Moroni shows admirable restraint in this passage of scripture. In fact, a considerable portion of the Book of Mormon highlights Moroni's reluctance to engage in battle. When forced to fight, however, Moroni carefully and consistently outlined his reasons for wielding his sword. My favorite quotation from Moroni provides further insight: "I do not fear your power nor your authority, but it is my God whom I fear; and it is according to his commandments that I do take my sword to defend the cause of my country, and it is because of your iniquity that we have suffered so much loss. I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of my god, and the freedom and welfare of my country" (Alma 60: 28, 36). When an opponent forces me to fight, I try to fight like Moroni.

"And Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him."

Of all the scriptural accounts regarding conflict, I'm most fascinated by David and Saul of the Old Testament. I'm fashioning the rest of my post around their relationship because it illustrates more fully the dynamics of one-on-one interpersonal conflict. (Yes, I know...this post is long.) Furthermore, David's conflict strategies mirror Moroni's. First, we must ask: How could David and Saul's loving friendship turn so toxic? 1 Samuel 16:21 tells us that initially Saul "loved [David] greatly." Saul was the anointed king and David a lowly shepherd boy. Saul mentored and tutored David in the art of war. David loved and served Saul with absolute loyalty.

"David and Saul" by Ernst Josephson

Why then would Saul want to kill David? The scriptures make it painfully clear: Saul was the problem. Period. Rather than acknowledge his own weakness and insecurities, Saul blamed David for anything and everything wrong in Saul's life. With no choice but to protect himself, David held the moral high ground by default. Additionally, David's integrity, credibility, and reliance upon God allowed him to operate and maintain the moral high ground while battling Saul. Through David's example, we learn that our desires for peace and our dependence on God provide fertile ground for the Spirit to function within us and direct us to victory.

The Book of Samuel gives us priceless specifics about the relational dynamic between David and Saul. Like Moroni and Zerahemnah, we can relate on some level to both men's feelings. Listed below are the reasons for Saul's increasing resentment and anger toward David. As we know, Saul's rage morphed into repeated attempts to murder David.

Saul resented and envied David's increasing spirituality and wisdom.

  • "And Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him" (David).

  • "And the Spirit of God was upon David."

  • "Wherefore when Saul saw David behave himself very wisely, he was more afraid of him."

  • "And Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, and Saul was yet the more afraid of David; and Saul became David's enemy continually."

Saul's growing resentment and anger drove away the Holy Spirit. As a result, Saul became more vulnerable to Satan's snares.

  • "And an evil spirit was upon Saul."

  • "And Saul's angered was kindled."

  • "And Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him, and was departed from Saul."

  • "And the evil spirit was upon Saul as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand" (which he then threw at David hoping to kill him).

"Saul Throws Javelin at David" by Guercino

David's military success and popularity threatened Saul. Even though Saul was king, the people loved and respected David more than Saul.

  • "All of Israel and Judah loved David. And he was accepted in the sight of all people."

  • All the women cheered, chanted, and danced in the streets in honor of David's victory in battle.

  • And Saul was "very wroth" when he heard all the people cheering for David because David "had slain tens of thousands and Saul hath slain thousands" in battle.

  • Saul's daughter loved David and wanted to marry him.

  • Saul's son, Jonathan, loved and protected David from Saul.

Saul's family, friends, and associates were unsympathetic to Saul's hatred, envy, and jealousy. Instead, they defended David.

  • Saul's son, Jonathan, constantly lectures Saul. He implores Saul, "Let not the king (Saul) sin against his servant (David) because [David] has not sinned against thee, and because his works have been to thee-ward very good. Wherefore then wilt thou sin against innocent blood, to slay David without a cause?"

  • "Jonathan spake good of David."

  • Saul's servant said to Saul, "And who is so faithful among all thy servants as David and goeth at thy bidding, and is honorable in thine house?"

  • "Jonathan knew it was determined of his father to slay David. So Jonathan arose in fierce anger for he was grieved for David because his father (Saul) had done him shame."

 Saul constantly portrayed himself as the victim.

  • "All of you have conspired against me."

  • "There is none of you that is sorry for me."

  • "My son has stirred up my servants against me."

  • "Why hast thou deceived me?" (Upset because his servant didn't kill a sleeping David, Saul accuses his servant of betrayal.)

  • Saul tells his servants and soldiers how conniving David is. Saul says, "See where his haunt is, for it is told me that he dealeth very subtilly. Therefore, take knowledge of all the lurking places where he hideth himself."  It doesn't occur to Saul that David has no choice but to be subtle and conniving because Saul is trying to kill him!)

Saul's animosity toward David turned into an obsession.

  • "And Saul continually watched and spied on David and sought to smite him."

  • "And Saul sought [David] every day, but God delivered [David] NOT into his hand."

  • "And David knew that Saul secretly practiced mischief against him."

  • "And Saul sent messengers to David's house to watch him."

  • "Saul sent messengers to David's house again the third time."

  • Saul eventually chased David from city to city in attempts to kill him. "And David saw that Saul was come out to seek his life."

"David Sparing Saul" by CF Vos

Saul refused to be humble and accountable for his horrific behavior---until David trapped him and held a knife to his throat. Knowing he could easily kill Saul, David chose to confront Saul instead.

  • David chastised him saying, "Know and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it. The Lord judge between me and thee and the Lord avenge me of thee, but mine hand shall not be upon thee."

  • "Behold, this day thine eyes have seen how that the Lord had delivered thee today into mine hand...and some bade me kill thee, but mine eye spared thee. And I said I will not put forth mine hand against my lord; for he is the Lord's anointed."

  • David also rebukes Saul's hateful obsession: "After whom is the king of Israel come out? After whom dost thou pursue? After a dead dog, after a flea."

  • At last, Saul Saul confesses: "Thou [David] art more righteous than I; for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil."

In contrast to Saul, David utilized the Spirit to fight against Saul.

  • David repeatedly "enquired yet again of the Lord" as to how to deal with Saul.

  • "And the Lord answered" David every time saying, "I will deliver thee."

  • David had just cause to kill Saul. But knowing Saul was an anointed king, David once again chose the moral high ground and spared Saul.

Our Modern-day Battles

Our battles are often categorized into two branches: interpersonal conflicts and group conflicts based on religion, ethnicity, and/or politics. Most of our battles will be a war of words. Once again, we can look to the scriptures and follow Christ's example of verbal peacemaking. Jacob's verbal spar against Korihor---along with Alma's rebuke against Zeezrom---serve as effective communication models for our day. We must remember however, that all of these men silenced their opponents because they called upon and thus spoke with the Holy Spirit. Hearts and minds are changed and battles won with this ultimate "weapon."

Surely, the Gadianton robbers meticulously organized using secret signs, pacts, etc. to keep their underground enterprise alive. Modern-day Gadianton robbers even more so. We are living in an increasingly secular society reflecting a growing hostility toward religion. The secularists' weapons consist of words, reasoning, argumentative skill, and manipulation of public policies. We can fight them, and we can fight them well and honorably using the strategies I've discussed here.

"I rejoice in the greatness of your heart." (Pahoran's letter to Moroni)

The same principles apply to our interpersonal conflicts. Pride was always the Nephite downfall. Let's learn the lessons provided by the Nephites and refuse to let our pride creep into our relationships. Furthermore, infighting within our LDS sisterhood serves to weaken us against far more dangerous adversaries: those who threaten our freedoms and religious liberty. Let's use the tools for constructive and productive dialogue for the sake of peacemaking. Minister and author Joyce Meyer offers this great piece of advice. (And Joyce is the first to point out her own "weirdness!" And I add my own brand of "weirdness" to hers.)

When people hurt us most of the time they're acting out of their own pain and their own dysfunction, and their own weirdness. Many times they don't mean to target us, but they don't realize how much pain they're inflicting because they live in pain. My dad sexually abused me for years. Before he died he told me, "I had no idea that what I was doing would hurt you so bad." God wants us to grow spiritually to the point where we are more concerned about what people are doing to themselves when they hurt us than what they're actually doing to us.

Her last sentence is profound. I'm not there yet. But I pray that we may see our adversaries as the Lord sees them. May we use compassion and love with righteous judgments in our interactions.