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Ether 12:27 and Revisionist Readings

MCQ - September 25, 2009

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.

For some time now, this has been my favorite scripture.  It’s a real eye opener.  It tells us (in God’s own voice!) that God knows and understands that we are weak.  He expects us to be weak, even made sure that we would be.  There is a purpose to our weakness.  And best of all, this passage assures us of the possibility of change, improvement and redemption.  We can not only overcome weakness, weak things can become strong.  Does that give you an enormous outpouring of hope?  It does me.  That’s why I love this chapter and this verse in particular: the hope of one day becoming strong in all the ways that I am now weak.  The possibility of that keeps me going on my worst days.

But lately, some people have been messing with my favorite scripture.  In the past couple of years I have run into a number of people who have given lessons or talks or commented on this scripture who have said that because this verse uses the word “weakness” (singular) rather than”weaknesses” (plural) it means only that we can become strong in the skills wherein we are weak (like the writing skillz that Moroni is complaining he lacks), not that all our weaknesses can be made strong.  By drawing this distinction between “weakness” and “weaknesses” these people take all the power and all the hope (and most of the meaning) out of this scripture for me.  If all it means is that I can become a good singer or writer or speaker (whichever I am currently weak in) then why should I care?  I don’t need God’s grace for those things, just more practice time.

I don’t know where this argument comes from.  It seems to me that it might be advanced because people are uncomfortable with the idea of God giving us weaknesses, like for example a weakness for alcohol or for drugs or for sexual misbehavior.  I don’t have any squeamishness about that.  I figure God did make me how I am, weaknesses and all.  I may do things that either help or hurt myself in terms of my relative strengths and weaknesses, but whatever is inherently a part of me is from God and is given to me so that I can learn and progress and help others to do the same.

The new reading of this verse has some of Moroni’s words to recommend it (he is talking about his weakness in writing after all, not complaining to the Lord about a weakness for locoweed) but it’s pernicious and wrong, in my opinion.  There does not appear to be any support for this reading on the Church website.  Under the entry for “Grace” the topical index has this to say:

The Lord promised that if we humble ourselves before Him and have faith in Him, His grace will help us overcome all our personal weaknesses (see Ether 12:27).

(Emphasis mine). 

Does anyone know where this ridiculous new reading of this scripture comes from?  Was there a talk that I missed or a lesson in Gospel Doctrine class that started this new interpretation? 

Whoever started it, be warned: I’m taking back my favorite scripture, so back off. 

Here is the scripture in it’s full context.  You tell me if I’m right or wrong about what it means:

23 And I said unto him: 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;

  24 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.

  25 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.

26 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;

  27 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.
  28 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.
  29 And I, Moroni, having heard these words, was comforted, and said: O Lord, thy righteous will be done, for I know that thou workest unto the children of men according to their faith;
  30 For the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved; wherefore thou workest after men have faith.
  31 For thus didst thou manifest thyself unto thy disciples; for after they had faith, and did speak in thy name, thou didst show thyself unto them in great power.
  32 And I also remember that thou hast said that thou hast prepared a house for man, yea, even among the mansions of thy Father, in which man might have a more excellent hope; wherefore man must hope, or he cannot receive an inheritance in the place which thou hast prepared.
  33 And again, I remember that thou hast said that thou hast loved the world, even unto the laying down of thy life for the world, that thou mightest take it again to prepare a place for the children of men.
  34 And now I know that this love which thou hast had for the children of men is charity; wherefore, except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of thy Father.
  35 Wherefore, I know by this thing which thou hast said, that 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.
  36 And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity.
  37 And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, thy garments shall be made clean. And 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.
  38 And now I, Moroni, bid farewell unto the Gentiles, yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood.
  39 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;
40 And only a few have I written, because of my weakness in writing.
  41 And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever. Amen.


  1. I read it more or less the same way as you, although I think of “weakness” as my state of being weak in general, and in particular in propensities for X, Y, and Z. Through the majestic power of Christ’s atonement, all weak things (including my personal weaknesses and myself as a whole) can be made strong. That’s so awesome.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — September 25, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

  2. I don’t get this. How can the singular form mean it refers to ‘skills’? I really don’t follow that line of reasoning and haven’t actually heard it expressed. Can you expand?

    I read the word in the singular form but in the same way that Ben does – we are all weak in general (Moses 1:10); though the process of becoming strong will obviously entail overcoming personal weaknesses (addictions, anger, laziness, etc.).

    Comment by gomez — September 26, 2009 @ 2:46 am

  3. Thanks for this.

    This is one of my favorite scriptures, too. I confess, though, that I don’t view the two interpretations you mention above to be mutually exclusive. For me, if one has a weakness (singular) and seeks to do something about it, the scripture means that through the grace of Christ, that weakness can not just a little better, but actually a strength. To me, this principle applies to a weakness like a skill, as well as a weakness like a personality flaw, as well as sin/sinful nature.

    Comment by Hunter — September 26, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  4. Great post, McQ. I agree wholeheartedly (though I’ve never heard that interpretation before myself). The funny thing is, the first thing I thought of was how I sometimes feel the same way about the way people in the ‘nacle often interpret scriptures!:)

    Comment by Bret — September 26, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  5. I followed you over here from Truth Matters. Most of my relatives are mormon. My uncle who passed away a few years ago was a bishop.

    The one thing I always noticed about mormons was their willingness to help. Since Truth Matters thinks mormons are not christian…..why don’t you gather up your community of friends and each of you donate $5.00 to this bloggers mother’s cancer fund? 1 John 3:17.

    I think “action” speaks louder than words.

    Comment by Barb — September 26, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  6. Gomez, I don’t understand the connection between “weakness” and skills either, except to say that those who espouse that meaning are applying the context in which Moroni is speaking: i.e., he says that the Lord has made him “weak in writing” and because of this “weakness” he is afraid that his words will be mocked (a very valid fear and a prophecy that has been fulfilled, in my opinion).

    This context is absolutely there, but it’s my view that the context need not dominate the words of God expressed in verse 27. I think the Lord is speaking more generally, not limiting his words to the context in which Moroni approached him. Apparently, there are those that think otherwise.

    Hunter, I don’t think these meanings are mutually exclusive either, but those who adopt the revised reading do. I have been told that explicitly: “this verse does not mean that all your personal “weaknesses” can be made strong, only the “weakness” that God gave you in speaking, writing, etc.

    Barb, it’s not really my goal in life to prove to anyone else that Mormons are Christian, and I think that’s a particularly bad way to get people to donate to a cause. Having said that, if it’s a worthy cause, I will be happy to contribute in spite of the way you put it.

    If you’re interested at all, you may want to read this:


    Comment by MCQ — September 26, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

  7. BTW, there was a commenter on this very blog who brought up this revised interpretation of this scripture, but I can’t find it now.

    Comment by MCQ — September 26, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  8. FWIW, in semitic languages such as the one the Book of Mormon text was presumably written in, one would definitely use the singular as a general expression of a category (i.e., encompassing plurals). Of course you don’t really have to go all semitic to make that conclusion, we do it in English too not infrequently.

    Comment by Jamal — September 27, 2009 @ 7:26 am

  9. I’ve recently come to a slightly different reading of these verses. When the Lord says “then will I make weak things become strong unto them,” is it possible that He’s not only (or even primarily) talking about changing the specific weakness into its opposite (e.g., changing someone who is easily angered into a paragon of patience)? While I believe such transformations can and do occur, they often take a very long time. In the short term, a “weak thing” can become “strong” to us if it causes us to realize our inability to succeed without God’s help, to exercise faith, to increase the frequency and fervency of our prayers, and to seek forgiveness.

    Comment by Darin — September 27, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  10. each person will only express their understanding of a scripture based on where their spiritual level is, basically where they are at that point in their life. As we experience different trials or circumstances, our view on scriptures change with our growth.

    Comment by Linda — September 29, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  11. Darin:

    While I believe such transformations can and do occur, they often take a very long time. In the short term, a “weak thing” can become “strong” to us if it causes us to realize our inability to succeed without God’s help, to exercise faith, to increase the frequency and fervency of our prayers, and to seek forgiveness.

    Yes, it’s definitely a long process, and in the short term we can learn those things along the way, but I believe weak things only become strong when they actually, you know, become strong.

    Linda, what you say is undoubtedly true, but words mean things. Let’s not enshrine misunderstanding as acceptable on the basis of promoting spiritual growth.

    Comment by MCQ — September 29, 2009 @ 11:03 am

  12. MCQ:

    I agree that the Lord can and does change weaknesses into strengths in the way you suggest, and I don’t mean to take away from this interpretation. But I think we’d be missing something important in the text of Ether 12 if we overlook the fact that we are “made strong” when we allow our weaknesses to humble us and turn us to the Lord. The Lord told Moroni in verse 37:

    And 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.

    It was Moroni’s “seeing” of his weakness — and his resulting humility and trust in the Lord — that “made [him] strong” and led to the promise of his salvation. I’d suggest that verse 27 can be read the same way. Moroni’s weakness became a strength insofar as (1) he saw his weakness, and (2) it caused him to humble himself and exercise faith. In this manner, even as Moroni retained the weakness, it was “made strong unto him.”

    I don’t think this reading detracts one bit from the message of hope in Ether 12. God gave us weaknesses because He loves us. The way we respond to those weaknesses can lead us back to Him.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Comment by Darin — September 29, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

  13. I agree largely with 1. Ben. 8 is intriguing too, which makes sense why it is singular.
    Over ten years ago I heard (don’t remember where) comments about


    being singular b/c it refers to our ultimate weakness, not just our individual weaknesses. That ultimate weakness can only be made strong through the Atonement. Instead of thinking of the atonement in piece meal fashion, in a modern, Western, self-improvement sense of one by one improving our wekenesses, it is declaring the power of the atonement to make us strong through Jesus Christ. Thinking of weaknesses in this modern piece meal fashion is anachronistic to the Book of Mormon. Seeing our ultimate wekaness helps us step out of a myopic view of individual weaknesses to the greater view of the divine grace of Jesus to save us from that which brings all weaknesses, our fallen nature–only overcome through the Savior.

    Comment by Marty — September 29, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

  14. Darin and Marty, excellent comments both. Thank you.

    Comment by MCQ — September 30, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

  15. MCQ, of course words mean things. However the level of interpretation, (that weakness means a certain talent or skill) would tell you that there is a lack of understanding or denial of other weaknesses. The gospel messages from the Savior are pure and simple for those who are ready and able to receive it.

    Comment by Linda — September 30, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

  16. Great post, MCQ! I guess the difference in interpretation had never really struck me, or perhaps I’ve just never heard the specific interpretation you’re arguing against articulated clearly. For what it’s worth, I think you’re right in your interpretation. It’s also, as you note, much more hopeful to consider that we might be made strong in all our weaknesses.

    This reminds me–tangentially–of a point Lynnette once made to me about how NT writers seem to have thought of sin as a general state of being (you’re in sin or you’re in grace, I think) but that we now generally think more of specific little bad acts–sins. This kind of reminds me of what other commenters have already said about weakness as a general state of being maybe also being what God was talking about. I don’t know.

    Comment by Ziff — October 1, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

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