The Necessity of Weakness

In honor of the late business professor and Latter-day Saint leader Clayton Christensen, I’ve been reading his book How Will You Measure Your Life? In many ways, the book is a breath of fresh air: instead of giving tactical advice, Christensen focuses on training us how to view and analyze our situations, our intentions, our actions, and our desires — and then devise our own tactics and strategies to become the people we want to be. This sort of metacognition isn’t based solely on anecdotal evidence (hallelujah!) and is broadly applicable outside of the business context. Even better, Christensen focuses on ensuring that his readers achieve success that matters emotionally — that is, not wealth, or power, or status, but deliberately crafting one’s vocation, relationships, and identity. I recommend the book.

However, as I read, I detected an assumption that I’ve seen in many Latter-day Saint contexts: that living reflectively and in accordance with our moral principles will, and should, bring improvements in commonly-acknowledged, measurable categories. If we live life properly, work hard, and work smart, we will achieve success on the Lord’s terms: inner peace, meaningful community, financial security (if not prosperity), and fulfilling family relationships.

(Here I move beyond Christensen, identifying tropes common enough that I hope I need not exhaust myself in finding illustrations.) 

There are two issues I can identify with this framework. First, it might incorporate values that shouldn’t necessarily be assumed to be Christian ones. It’s very easy to pursue the wrong things (for instance, the lifestyle of the wealthy) and wonder why the Gospel doesn’t help us achieve them — or to achieve the wrong things and deduce that, therefore, we must be righteous.

Second, related but not identical, is the assumption that adherence to gospel principles will invariably improve our lives and help us overcome the challenges we identify. This is a natural enough response: we all wish to reduce difficulty, unhappiness, and pain in our lives, and we have received assurance that we can do so with God’s help. However, I fear that the focus on improvement and overcoming might blind us to what the Christian message has to say to us when — not if — we fail.

(For purposes of this post, I’ll talk of failure as any result that is suboptimal, especially after effort is expended.)

The key text here, I believe, is Ether 12. In this chapter, Moroni lists many exemplars of faith, but the list brings him no comfort. He remembers that through faith his predecessors knew that the book they were writing would eventually be delivered to future generations and, as the last author of the book, he imagines this audience with anxiety:

Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them; and thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them. Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.

I wince in sympathy with Moroni’s self-criticism.

If Moroni were a Latter-day Saint and were to express these feelings to a church leader, I have a sense that, in many cases, the leader might make the promises that I’ve outlined above: by relying on the Spirit and through hard work, Moroni could obtain the Lord’s help in becoming a better writer, a writer whose skill the Gentiles would not mock. (See Heber J. Grant going from chickenscratch scribe to paid calligrapher, or baseball nobody to champion pitcher.) The Lord would help him overcome his problem and improve himself in the process, helping him to double his “talent.”

But that is not what the Lord says in the next verses:

And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: “Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; and 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. Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness.”

The Lord makes no promises to alleviate, remove, or negate Moroni’s weakness in writing. He does not replace his weak words with powerful ones. [1] 

Instead, the Lord overturns Moroni’s thought process, which assumed that God’s message would be better conveyed by someone whose communication skills were admired and praised. The Lord leaves Moroni’s weakness in place, unaltered, because God doesn’t primarily care about Moroni’s skill; God cares about readers’ spiritual response to Moroni’s pleas. Moroni’s weakness itself is a strength for the Lord because it calls readers to meekness and humility, to faith, hope, and charity.

Notice what this reassurance does for Moroni, alone and self-doubting:

And I, Moroni, having heard these words, was comforted, and said: “O Lord, thy righteous will be done, … if the Gentiles have not charity, because of our weakness, that thou wilt prove them, and take away their talent, yea, even that which they have received, and give unto them who shall have more abundantly. And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity.”

The Lord isn’t asking Moroni to go out and double his “talent” in order to be a “good and faithful servant”; he is requiring Moroni’s readers to exercise their charity for Moroni, less they lose the talent (charity) they have been lent. Not only is Moroni “comforted,” but he has reoriented his values to accord with the Lord’s counterintuitive ones — and he prays for his mockers.

While it is important to cultivate our abilities, provide for our families and our neighbors, and turn to the Lord in our everyday actions, I believe that we Latter-day Saints could do a better job of appreciating weakness and failure as integral parts of a Christian community, calling all of us to forgiveness and repentance, to grace and redemption, instead of universally promising a removal of weakness and the overcoming of failure.

Doing so would not only align us more with the God who “hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and …  hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Cor 1:27), but also will help us incorporate those of us experiencing so-called weakness and so-called failure into our Zion communities.

We would be better accepting of those in chronic poverty and economic precarity (a necessity if we wish to grow beyond the upper middle-class orientation of the American church), of those with less formal education, of those with different scripture-reading hermeneutics, of single people, of those whose experience of gender or attraction doesn’t map cleanly onto the categories the Church recognizes, of people who for whatever reason do not experience the ideal nuclear family life of husband and wife with children, of people with addictions, of people who are not upwardly mobile or self-reliant, of people who work in professions that don’t require a college education, of people whose bodily or mental or emotional abilities might mean that they cannot contribute to Church life in the presupposed ways, of people whose work is not fulfilling, of those who can’t hold callings, of people with unfulfilled goals and dreams and unrealized potential, and even of the figures in scripture who, despite striving valiantly, saw their families and their cultures fall apart.

Maybe, someday, we’ll have a church that looks like Gen. William Booth’s procession into heaven.

 

[1] Notably, too, the Lord does not dictate to Moroni what to write.

2 comments for “The Necessity of Weakness

  1. Chad L. Nielsen
    March 9, 2020 at 8:54 am

    Thank you for this beautiful post, Michael. I couldn’t help but think of some of the ideas Eugene England expressed in his “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” essay. We grow together both by enduring each other’s weaknesses and leaning on each other’s strengths. There are things to learn from both sides and it all provides the opportunity to grow in our love for each other as we strive for the kingdom of God.

  2. William
    March 9, 2020 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for the post, Michael! I think about what we tend to judge others on: their job, marital status, existence of problems in their family or lack thereof. As you point out, none of those has anything to do with their faithfulness in the gospel. And in some, we shouldn’t even be judging that. The only thing we need to judge from other people is how could we best serve them, and how could they best be used to help serve other people.

    Great post!

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