Ether 12:27 suggests that God gives men weaknesses. How and why would he do this?

Truman G. Madsen, Professor of Philosophy, occupies the Richard L. Evans Chair for Christian Understanding, Brigham Young University. The verse that led to this question is: “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

Considering this scripture, I put several questions to an Honors Book of Mormon class at BYU. Their thoughts are intertwined with mine in the following discussion. We focused on four questions: (1) What is the context of the passage? (2) If God does give men weaknesses, how? (3) What does it mean to be humble so that God’s “grace is sufficient”? (4) How do “weak things become strong”?

The Context

This passage arises from Moroni’s anxiety about his writing—what he considered halting and awkward prose in contrast to what he had been reading from the brother of Jared, whose writings, he records in awe, were “mighty even as thou [the Lord] art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.” (Ether 12:24.) His fear: “the Gentiles shall mock.” He is reassured that “my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness.” In fact, he is promised his writing, however weak, will “become strong.” In what way? It will lead the humble to an intensity of faith, hope, and charity that “bringeth [them] unto me—the fountain of all righteousness.” (Ether 12:25–28.)

But why permit such a problem in the first place? The Lord might have given someone else Moroni’s task—a literary genius perhaps. And for a modern translator he might have raised up a Shakespeare whose vocabulary and range of expression were well beyond those of the young Joseph Smith. Yet Moroni and Joseph were not aspiring novelists; they were witnesses of divine treasure. The greatest of their words are transparent, and sooner or later we may see Christ, and see ourselves in need—in need of Him.

Further, the Lord has not delegated to men the burden of proof of his mission and promises. He reserves it unto himself. “The power of God unto the convincing of men” (D&C 11:21) is not a product of human word-craft, human argument, or human coercion; it comes from the Spirit. Pride, or even petty preoccupation with self, is like triple-plate steel against the flow of that Spirit.

Does God Give Men Weakness?

Ether 12 makes it clear that God gives men weaknesses. He does this in at least two ways.

First, we are all born into a world of weakness, a fallen world of infant dependence and of opposition and contrast on every hand. We enter this mortal world with weaknesses in our physical and genetic makeup; some we may bring individually from our pre-mortal existence. Some weaknesses are the inheritance from previous generations. The Lord may have customized—with our full consent—our particular obstacle course to those flaws and failings as well as to our strengths.

Second, out of his love for us, God is the giver and the withholder of gifts. “To every man is given a gift,” but “all have not every gift.” (D&C 46:11; see also Moro. 10:17.) It follows that to receive one is to be denied others. For the meek, both realities lead to a realization of the loving dependence we have on God and the interdependence we share with each other. We thus begin to see ourselves with new eyes: “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.” Then comes the crunch. Will we resent or repent? Will we permit his mercy and his long-suffering to have full sway in our hearts and bring us down to the dust in humility? (See Alma 42:30.)

What Is Humility?

Here the class observed that for the Book Of Mormon the opposite of humility is being “puffed up.” (See e.g., 2 Ne. 9:42; 2 Ne. 28:9, 12–13; Alma 5:37; Moro. 7:45.) About what? Almost anything: achievement, learning, wisdom, riches, status, clothing, class, military strength, beauty. And, strangely, the contrary of these. One can even be proud about not being proud. Of those of us who are puffed up, Nephi says, “They are they whom [the Lord] despiseth.” And except we shall consider ourselves “fools before God” [which we are] and “come down in the depths of humility,” he will not open unto us. (2 Ne. 9:42.)

Pursuing the synonyms for humility in the Book of Mormon, we made a discovery. In most passages the word “humble” is not a noun but a verb. Over and over the admonition is “humble yourselves before me.” We are fully responsible for humbling ourselves, even when—from all appearances—we are, in Alma’s words, “compelled to be humble.” (Alma 32:13.)

A law is presupposed here: “None but the truly penitent are saved.” (Alma 42:24.) In the language of Nephi, “Unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.” (2 Ne. 2:7.) These phrases in turn tie in with the permeating counsel in the Book of Mormon to bring to the Lord “a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (3 Ne. 9:18–20; 3 Ne. 12:19.)

The Hebrew roots of the above phrases are in two families: One set means depressed. The other means submissive, mild, patient, gentle, even saintly—like clay in the hands of the potter. We have a measure of control over both responses. Book of Mormon writers are consistent: in response to this “sufficient humility” in us, Christ pours down sufficient grace. That grace purges, cleanses, heals, and strengthens.

How Do Weak Things Become Strong?

In answer to this question, the class made three important observations:

1. None of the writers of the Book of Mormon have been given worldly honors for literary merit. Yet through their words Jesus Christ has not only been recognized, but embraced and glorified. Having found Christ in the Book of Mormon, converts see him more clearly in the Bible (as promised in 2 Ne. 3:11). Eventually they see him everywhere else. (D&C 88:40.) In such people, the Book of Mormon has indeed become strong—stronger than any other book, stronger than best-selling masterpieces, stronger than all of them together.

2. From the beginning of this dispensation the Church has flourished through the efforts of “mere mortals” whose real strength was a humility that called down power from on high. The revelations are introduced by the divine assurance that in this era men will learn not to “trust in the arm of flesh.” (D&C 1:19.) Instead, amidst the calamity of false pride and all its train of consequences, “the weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones.” (See D&C 1:17–23.) But in only one way: in the name and faith and power of Jesus Christ. Elsewhere the Lord describes his modern missionaries as “weak and simple” and as “unlearned and despised.” (D&C 1:23; D&C 35:13.) Yet he promises that by these weak things he shall “thrash the nations by the power of his Spirit.” (D&C 133:59.) That quiet miracle continues to this hour.

3. Several students found a still more intimate meaning in “weak things becoming strong.” Through an ever-closer kinship with God, a person’s worst flaws and failings may eventually be transformed into shining strengths. What consolation! When we acknowledge our weakness to the Lord and receive his aid, a precious side-effect follows—fervent compassion for others and a new concern to love and lift.

Of Joseph Smith it was said, “in weakness have I blessed him” (D&C 35:17), and “out of weakness he shall be made strong” (2 Ne. 3:13). When Joseph and his brother Hyrum began the journey which would lead to their deaths, Hyrum turned the page down on the same promise of the Lord to Moroni: “Because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.” (Ether 12:37.)

After this recording Moroni ascribes the same power of humility to Jesus Christ Himself:

“We shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood. And then shall ye know that I have seen Jesus, and that he hath talked with me face to face, and that he told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own language, concerning these things. …

And now I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written.” (Ether 12:38–41.)

We are encouraged to seek personal counsel from our bishop and local quorum leaders, rather than from General Authorities. But what should I do if I don’t feel comfortable talking to my ward leaders?

D. Jack Dunn, bishop, Murray 21st Ward, Salt Lake City. Before we turn to anyone for personal counseling, it is important that we try to resolve our problems on our own, seeking the inspiration of the Lord in our own behalf. Next, we would turn to husband, wife, father, mother, or other appropriate family members for advice and assistance. However, for those times when we do need help beyond our own resources and those of our family, the Lord has established a way for us to receive it.

Over the years, the First Presidency has encouraged us to follow the proper line of priesthood authority when seeking counsel from Church leaders. (See, for example, First Presidency letter, 20 Nov. 1981.) This has generally meant that we should talk to our bishop instead of taking personal matters to the General Authorities. In recent years, we have also been encouraged on some matters to turn to quorum leaders when appropriate. (See Melchizedek Priesthood Handbook, 1984, p. 7.) Of course, the bishop is still the one appointed by the Lord to talk to about matters of worthiness or confidentiality.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, sometimes a member of the Church feels he or she can’t talk to local leaders. If you have those feelings, I would suggest that you take a close look at why you feel that way; you may find that your concerns are unjustified. Let’s look at some of the most common concerns:

1. I don’t like his personality, the way he dresses, speaks, etc. In the Church, lay members serve other lay members—and all of us are unique as individuals. It’s inevitable that at some point in our lives we may not particularly care for the personality of someone who has been called to a position of leadership over us. But it would be unfortunate to let differences in style or personality keep us from seeking needed counsel from our leaders.

If your leader has actually offended you in some way, it would be well to follow the Lord’s counsel to talk to him about the matter and clear it up: “If thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled.” (D&C 42:88.)

2. He’s a neighbor—a personal friend. I’d feel more comfortable talking to someone I don’t know. It can be easier to talk to a stranger than to admit our problems to someone we know well. But when we really need help, most of us confide in a close, trusted friend. When appropriate, the bishop should be that kind of friend.

Concerning the relationship between members and their bishops, the First Presidency has stated: “The Lord has so organized His Church that there is accessible to every member … a spiritual advisor, and a temporal counselor as well, who should know them intimately and who could best know the circumstances and conditions out of which their problems come, and who, by reason of his ordination, is entitled to an endowment from our Heavenly Father of the necessary discernment and inspiration of the Lord to enable him to give the advice which the one in trouble so much needs. We refer to the Bishop or Branch President. …

“We, therefore, urge all members who have problems or questions that are troubling them to consult their Bishop or Branch President freely and fully and get from him the help which they feel they stand so much in need.” (First Presidency letter, 27 Jan. 1975.)

When I was called as bishop, I wondered if I could really love all the members of my ward with all my heart. It didn’t take me long to find out that I did have a great love for each member of the ward. I believe this love is a gift the Lord bestows upon bishops to help them fulfill their responsibilities.

3. He may think less of me than he does now. I’ve found that I have more respect—not less—for those I counsel with. My admiration for them continues to grow as I see great changes take place in their lives because of the things we’ve counseled about.

Shortly after I was called as bishop, I had an appointment to interview a member for an important ward position. Before we began the interview, however, he confessed a serious transgression from the past. As we talked about his repentance and about the many years of valiant Church service he had given since the time of the unfortunate incident, I felt impressed by the Spirit that this person had fully repented and should still be called to the position. I thought more of him—not less—because of the intense personal effort he had extended to repent and to keep the Lord’s commandments. This love grew even more as I watched him serve faithfully in his new calling.

4. I’m afraid he won’t keep things confidential. Bishops receive a strict charge to say nothing of the things told to them in confidence. It would be breaking a sacred agreement for a bishop to divulge confidential information to another person—even to his wife or to his counselors.

Those who don’t keep sacred confidences entrusted to them as the Lord’s representatives will surely be held accountable by the Lord. However, in my experience it is often those who have been counseled who divulge confidences—not those confided in.

5. He’s not educated as a professional counselor; he won’t know how to help me. It’s a rare opportunity to counsel with a bishop who is also a professional counselor or psychologist. Most bishops are men who have been schooled in the ways of the Lord: they know how to pray, how to search the scriptures, and how to discern and respond to the promptings of the Spirit. They understand the processes of repentance. In addition, they have had many of the common experiences of life, which have given them wisdom and empathy. They counsel out of love and with the inspiration of the Spirit.

If the bishop feels he needs additional help, he may counsel with the stake president and receive added inspiration from him. Or he may ask the stake president to counsel with the individual. If he feels professional help is needed, he may refer the individual to a Church Social Services counselor.

When we seek guidance from our bishop or local priesthood leaders, we can have confidence in them as spiritual and temporal counselors, even though they may lack professional training and—like all of us—are subject to human weakness and imperfection. We can be assured that they have the authority and may receive the spiritual blessings necessary to give inspired counsel.