In Ether 12:27 the Lord tells the prophet Moroni:
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.
Many articles could be written on this one verse alone, but for the purpose of this article I will be providing some thoughts on at least two types of strength God gives to us. I was reading this verse today in church and felt like exploring more about what God means by “strong”.
I thought of my own weaknesses and then began to consider the weaknesses that others face here in mortality. Many struggle throughout their lives with issues even though they have prayed for help while others seem to be completely cured from their weaknesses.
I’ve often contemplated this and understand certain things within my own experience but sometimes I am puzzled with the experiences of others. God promises that weaknesses can become strong to us if we come to him in humility and I think we might be mistaken in assuming that by “strong” God means “completely cured”.
Dissecting the word “Strong”
Whenever seeking to learn more about the meaning of words in the Book of Mormon, I use two primary resources. The first is a Strong’s Concordance of the Bible where one may find definitions of Hebrew words. Although the Book of Mormon was written with a customized set of Egyptian characters, the ideas concepts were spoken and understood in Hebrew, so exploring the meaning of Hebrew words in a source like the Old Testament is a good first place to start. The second source is Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language because it provides definitions to words contemporary to the time that Joseph Smith would have understood them when translating the Book of Mormon.
These two resources often provide some great information when used together in this manner. First, let’s explore the Hebrew word for “strong” from a verse where the word is used in a similar context to Ether 12:27; we’ll go with Haggai 2:4.
Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, saith the Lord; and be strong, O Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest; and be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the Lord, and work: for I am with you, saith the Lord of hosts:
The word “strong” in each of these instances is the Hebrew word: “chazaq” (khaw-zak’) and it means:
a primitive root; to fasten upon; hence, to seize, be strong (figuratively, courageous, causatively strengthen, cure, help, repair, fortify), obstinate; to bind, restrain, conquer:–aid, amend, X calker, catch, cleave, confirm, be constant, constrain, continue, be of good (take) courage(-ous, -ly), encourage (self), be established, fasten, force, fortify, make hard, harden, help, (lay) hold (fast), lean, maintain, play the man, mend, become (wax) mighty, prevail, be recovered, repair, retain, seize, be (wax) sore, strengthen (self), be stout, be (make, shew, wax) strong(-er), be sure, take (hold), be urgent, behave self valiantly, withstand.
There are many meanings to deal with and many contexts in which the word can be used. The primary usage seems to suggest the idea of having control by the means of power. This thought is pretty consistent with what most of us would probably assume.
Active and Passive Strength
Now let’s see what Noah Webster has to say about the word; The first two definitions really caught my eye:
1. Having physical active power, or great physical power; having the power of exerting great bodily force; vigorous. A patient is recovering from sickness, but is not yet strong enough to walk. A strong man will lift twice his own weight.
2. Having physical passive power; having ability to bear or endure; firm; solid; as a constitution strong enough to bear the fatigues of a campaign.
Noah Webster describes how strength can be either active or passive. It is the active power that I think we more commonly associate with the idea of strength. This ability to exercise power to make things happen in a fashion worthy of heroism. Surely God can and has blessed people with this type of strength. So why don’t I feel like an action hero?
Nephi asked for power to break the bands his brothers restrained him with; this was most certainly active strength. However, the idea of passive strength intrigued me because I immediately began to consider how we might not look upon this power with the same admiration we view active strength.
Though some of the most exciting stories seem to come from displays of active strength, passive strength is in every way worthy of our admiration and desire. Passive strength means that we are strong enough, and isn’t that really all that is truly needed? I think Job is a good example of passive strength. The man lost everything and was smitten with boils and sickness (you don’t see too many muscle-bound, square-jawed, Job action figures out there do you?). Nevertheless the phrase “The patience of Job” has worked its way into our vocabulary as a nod to the Herculean passive strength of this man.
Maybe this is disappointing to some, maybe we want overkill strength. We have a weakness and wish that it would just disappear or that we would have such an amazing amount of power that we could exercise complete control and dominion over that weakness.
But this doesn’t seem to be what God is promising us or what we should expect.
He says that “my grace is sufficient for all men”. Sufficient means “enough” and “equal to the end proposed”, so although we might still struggle with the weakness throughout our lives, we can be given enough strength through grace to endure. Jesus said: “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)
Weakness isn’t sin, it is given to us by God as part of our mortal experience. It is a way for us to see God’s power being exercised in our lives. Each weakness is only an opportunity waiting for our attention and while we might not initially be grateful for them, we will indeed be grateful for the grace that we receive to help us conquer or endure these weaknesses; either way, victory awaits the faithful in the end.
Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Spotter
One of my favorite analogies to consider when discussing grace is that of a spotter in a gym.
Wouldn’t it be great if each of us had the strength to bench press any amount of weight placed upon us? In reality, nobody is that strong, we all have a breaking point and when we reach our own personal breaking point, a spotter becomes a necessity.
The spotter can only help us if we show up to the workout and actually get to work! The spotter waits and watches until we cannot possibly do one more rep on our own power and then he takes one or two fingers and applies just enough of his own power to help us finish the rep. He can help because he has the strength sufficient to help any of us and he wants to help.
When we falter, he doesn’t engage all of his power to snatch the weight off and remove all of the pressure and pain at our end. Our part is still very hard, so hard in fact, that we are still required to exert everything in the struggle. The difference is that without the spotter, the goal is not possible, but with the spotter the goal is not only possible, it is guaranteed. Exercise, like life, is not about going through the motions, it is about a struggle in which desire, time and effort bring strength.
No matter what weakness we each struggle with, recognizing these facts can help us appreciate the smallest endowments of grace and cherish them. God’s plan for us may require bearing the crushing burden of our weaknesses, but in the bearing, we develop spiritual muscle. God will provide the grace that is sufficient, but will we keep coming to the gym? Will we endure with patience our weaknesses and notice God’s strength carrying us along?
God’s commandments are irrevocable and our weaknesses stand between us and Celestial glory. Whether we conquer them in a moment’s blaze of glory, or painfully endure them to the end of our days, we can learn to trust the master and experience growth as we are relentless in our dedication to that complete victory promised to the faithful.