“Seeing the Face of God in Our Enemies,” Liahona, Mar. 2022.
Seeing the Face of God in Our Enemies
These lessons in overcoming conflict from the book of Genesis can provide a pattern for our own lives.
As a conflict mediator, I have gleaned much wisdom regarding how to transform conflict and invite reconciliation from looking at the example and teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. However, the New Testament isn’t the only book of scripture that has guided me over the course of my career. The Old Testament has some surprisingly profound insights that can help us when we get ourselves stuck in destructive conflict.
What is destructive conflict? It’s when our inability to collaboratively solve problems with others leads us to hurting others or ourselves.
With destructive conflict comes a fear of pain both in anticipation and as a consequence of the conflict, a fear of not being loved or seen the way we want to be seen, and a fear of failing to find solutions to the problems that beset us. When we let that fear take hold, we no longer feel equipped to solve the problems that we face and often experience emotions of despair, shame, or helplessness.
That sort of conflict feels dangerous for most people, which is why we end up using unhelpful conflict styles like avoidance, accommodation, or competition as a way of trying to make the conflict go away. Unfortunately, in destructive conflict, none of those solutions are really going to work.
Yes, we should avoid contention (see 3 Nephi 11:29). But we should never avoid, give up on, or attack the people we are in conflict with. Instead, we need to learn how to love the people we are in conflict with. It requires the application of charity, the pure love of Christ, toward our enemies (see Moroni 7:47).
Jesus taught that loving those who love you is easy. He also said, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” (Matthew 5:44). The Savior asks us to love as He does and become perfect as He is (see John 13:34; 3 Nephi 12:48). This may mean being willing to love others even when such love seems risky. We may hesitate because we naturally avoid danger. But deciding to love those who could hurt us allows us to push past fear and become filled with charity.
This type of love demands fearlessness in the face of conflict. It calls upon us to open ourselves up to the people we are in conflict with in a way that “suffereth long, and is kind; … seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; … beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. … Charity never faileth” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5, 7–8). Charity shows this kind of love with no guarantee that the people on the other side of the conflict will do the same.
Love allows us to see our brothers and sisters we are in conflict with so clearly that their needs and desires matter as much to us as our own, regardless of how they see us. We’ll do whatever it takes to find solutions that meet their needs as well as our own.
Two stories from the Old Testament are great examples of this love.
Esau and Jacob
In Genesis 25, we encounter a family conflict between two brothers, Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac. Esau sold his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of pottage (see Genesis 25:30–31). Later, following the counsel of his mother, Jacob impersonated Esau in order to receive Isaac’s final blessing (see Genesis 27:6–29).
Esau hated Jacob and vowed to slay his brother. Jacob fled to live with his uncle Laban. (See Genesis 27:41–45.) Eventually Jacob ran into trouble with his uncle and was forced to return home (see Genesis 31). Jacob knew that meant confronting Esau, who had a bigger army. He feared for his life and the lives of his family (see Genesis 32:7–8).
On the day they were to meet, Jacob sent a huge bounty of goats, camels, cows, sheep, and donkeys as a peace offering. He then bowed seven times as he approached his brother. Esau reacted in a way Jacob wasn’t expecting. Esau wept, embraced his brother, and told him there was no need for the peace offerings.
Jacob was moved by Esau’s love and responded:
“Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.
“Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it” (Genesis 33:10–11).
Three Elements Needed to Live in Peace
Jacob embodied a pattern of love here that I have found to be the most effective way to invite reconciliation with those we have wronged or who have wronged us.
Psalm 85:10 describes the conditions of reconciliation: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Jacob and Esau’s act of peacemaking meets the conditions found in the Psalms.
It took courage for Jacob and Esau to acknowledge the truth that they were not enemies—they were brothers. It took mercy to forgive each other. It took righteousness—the kind of justice that makes right what we or others have made wrong—for Jacob to offer Esau a portion of that with which he had been blessed. When all three of those elements were present, it allowed them to live in peace.
We can follow the same pattern in our own lives.
When we are stuck in destructive conflict, our fear of the conflict and our fear of others can paralyze us or cause us to act in ways that make things worse, not better. We often rationalize that anything we might do to reverse the destructive cycle won’t work. We become cynical that others can change.
However, Jacob’s example also offers us a way through that sort of conflict. Jacob faced his fear of his brother and his fear of conflict with him. He was more concerned about “us-preservation” than “self-preservation” in the moment, so he turned toward his brother, offering him both truth and justice for any wrongs he had committed. Esau’s heart, once set upon killing Jacob, was softened; mercy and peace flowed back in return. Jacob found a way to love his enemy and, in doing so, saw “the face of God” staring back at him.
Despite the anxiety we may feel in approaching conflict this way, it is far more effective in transforming such conflict than anything else. Christlike love creates space for us to truly see the people we are struggling with in a way that fundamentally changes both us and them.
Joseph and His Brothers
A generation after Jacob, we see another powerful example of love from Jacob’s son Joseph.
Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers when he is young. Joseph’s brothers felt that their father played favorites and that Joseph had garnered more favor. Joseph suffered greatly because of his brothers’ malice toward him. He was separated from his family for years, ended up a servant, and was imprisoned for a time. Ultimately, the Lord helped him overcome his adversity, and he became a powerful ruler in Egypt. (See Genesis 37–45.)
His brothers also suffered and, during a time of famine, came to Egypt, starving and defeated. When they encountered Joseph, they didn’t recognize him and begged for help.
Joseph had every right to cast his brothers into prison in order to impose justice on them. That was what they deserved. He chose instead to exercise grace—to forgive them, to love them.
“Come near to me, I pray you,” he told them. “And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.
“Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:4–5).
Joseph not only forgave his brothers but also saw a constructive purpose in their conflict. He recognized that God’s hand was in everything and that despite the suffering they all endured, “God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:7).
Again, a similar pattern can take hold in our lives when we acknowledge that the pain of conflict can actually lead us to outcomes that will strengthen our families and communities if we will work together to find solutions.
All of us will go through conflict. It will hurt. Sometimes tremendously. I am always in awe at the pain others are feeling when embroiled in conflict, especially with loved ones. However, that pain and fear do not have to be the end of the story.
We can choose to see conflict and the people we are in conflict with differently, much as Joseph did. We can choose to let go of anger, resentment, and blame and embrace our enemies.
We can choose love over fear and discover—as Jacob, Esau, Joseph, and his brothers did—that our enemies are our brothers and sisters. By striving to reconcile with them, we too can see the face of God.