Come Follow Me – Doctrine and Covenants 1
by Wendy Ulrich, PhD
Have you ever done anything that left you feeling foolish and weak? Something for which you hadn’t fully anticipated the consequences in time to avert them? Something that brought disapproval from your friends or contempt from your critics that even you had to agree might be warranted? Something that happened because you didn’t see the big picture, lacked experience with the problem at hand, lost your temper in the heat of a battle, or lost your prudence in enthusiasm for some new, shiny idea?
Yes, you have.
As have I.
How comforting the assurance that whatever others may think, whatever we may think, Jesus Christ is not alarmed by human imperfection and weakness (1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Ether 12:26-27). In fact, His preface to the Doctrine and Covenants asserts that He chooses and uses “the weak things of the world. . . [to] break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellowman, neither trust in the arm of flesh – but that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:19-20, 23). He throws the door wide open for every weak, ordinary person to speak in His name and participate in His power. What might weakness have to do with that power?
“Calling All the Weak!”
When the Lord “call[s] upon the weak things of the world, those who are unlearned and despised, to thresh the nations by the power of [His] Spirit” (D&C 35:13), Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders certainly fit the bill. In fact, the Lord regularly reminds not only Joseph but everyone reading the Doctrine and Covenants of his weaknesses, transgressions, and lapses in judgment (e.g., Doctrine and Covenants 5:23; 20:5; 35:17; 67:5; 124:1). And Joseph is not unusual: the list of great prophets who are used by God despite their various physical, social, intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual weaknesses is as long as the list of great prophets. Consider just a few, and see if you relate:
- Enoch describes himself as “but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech” (Moses 7:31)
- The brother of Jared pleads with the Lord not to be angry with him because of his “weakness,” his unworthiness, and his fallen and evil nature (Ether 3:2).
- Moses demurs five times when the Lord calls him to deliver Israel, asserting that he is a nobody (Exodus 3:11) who doesn’t even know God’s name (3:13), won’t be believed (4:1), isn’t eloquent (4:10), and should be replaced by someone else (4:13).
- Jonah not only flees from his prophetic call to the people of Nineveh, he is so frustrated by God’s mercy when they repent that he wants to die (Jonah 1:3; 4:1-3).
- Nephi sorrows, weeps, groans, grieves, gets angry, even loses weight in his concern about his imperfect handling of temptation and adversity – classic symptoms of clinical depression (2 Nephi 4:17-18, 26-27).
- Jacob speaks repeatedly of his anxiety, even “over anxiety” (Jacob 1:5; 2:3; 4:18), portraying himself and his people as lonesome, solemn, cast out, and hated as they “mourn out [their] days” (Jacob 7:26).
- King Benjamin’s “trembles” during his final address, aware that he is “subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind” (Mosiah 2:30, 11).
- Moroni frets, “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” (Ether 12:24).
- Peter and John are seen as “unlearned and ignorant men” by those who witnessed them heal in the name of Christ (Acts 4:13).
Why would the Lord not turn more to the wise, wealthy, and influential to convince the nations? Paul, arguably among the most erudite of all God’s prophets, writes to the saints in Corinth who are steeped in the Greek philosophy and wisdom of that day:
I came to you… not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.
For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.
And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
This seems to be the crux of the matter: human wisdom may convince, but it does not convert. Conversion comes through “demonstration of the Spirit and . . . power of God,” and we help by being humbly acknowledging our weakness more than by sounding smart. God Himself is utterly humble – not a trait that automatically comes to mind when thinking of One is omniscient and omnipotent (Matthew 11:29). He is humble before our agency – the one thing in His vast universe that He freely chooses not to control (Moses 7:32). Christ isn’t one to overpower us with His infinitely superior debating skills, any more than a father would rely on a scientific research paper on the efficacy of a vaccine to convince his five-year-old to let someone stick a needle in his arm. Christ wins our trust with love, so He takes the needle too. He doesn’t lie about it hurting. He tells us it’s okay to cry. And He buys us ice cream when it’s over.
Being weak is still not much fun in the living of it, however, as we experience dramatically in extended times of stress, heartache, or worry. We get tired of uncertainty. We hate feeling so out of control. We’re disappointed that any major life event between birth and death can’t proceed according to our expectations. We’re frustrated with having to learn new technology, new roles, and new routines. Not only can it feel like nothing we do is up to our usual standards, but we can feel like it’s our fault. Even acknowledging that at least some people become more creative, flexible, or persistent through such struggles, they can make us agonizingly more aware of just how vulnerable we are.
I recently gave a presentation to several hundred people on the other side of the country through Zoom. Despite countless hours of preparation and prayer on everyone’s part, the evening was fraught with so many challenges it became laughable – except that it wasn’t funny. I was tempted to conclude I just wasn’t cut out for such tasks and should stop trying. But then I reflected on a woman I’d watched struggle through similar challenges just the night before at an event much more visible and auspicious than mine. I’d seen her grace under that pressure as she and others tried something else, and something else, until imperfect but tolerable solutions were found. I remembered the Lord’s words to fretting Moroni: “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and . . . if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether12:27). The strength He offers is sometimes about improved skill or capacity, but it always about improved character and compassion.
I want to do more than acknowledge I am weak which is, after all, a given. I want to be willing to be weak. To me that means remembering that things worth doing are worth doing badly rather than not doing them at all, or while I learn to do them better. It means being willing to not know, to feel scared, to err, to struggle because curiosity, vulnerability, and effort are the path to the growth-rich, values-dense, relationship-robust life I want.
Lasting safety and hope do not lie in placating the gods of this world with our flawlessness or control (see D&C 1:16). Lasting safety and hope lie in being willing to trust more deeply both our own capacity for resilience even when all things seem to go wrong, and the will and power of God to make “all things work together for good,” even for us (Romans 8:28).
Joining the Weak
Beyond reminding us of our own weaknesses, however, the world’s unfolding challenges also cast a glaring light on the weakness of parents, teachers, or leaders we’ve looked to for security and guidance. When we see that these Strong Ones are weak too, we feel our own vulnerability more deeply. We may conclude they are evil or deceptive rather than accept that life is more complicated than we want to think. In fact, we may feel like we practically owe them distrust and contempt if they can’t see the obvious problems and their obvious solutions as clearly as we do.
People who put great hope in Jesus Christ were deeply disappointed when He didn’t seem to see the obvious either: that what they were sure they needed was a Messiah who would sit on David’s throne, not one who would hang on a Roman cross. Even if He ultimately triumphed, the leaders He left in His place were (and are still) those weak and ordinary people – unlearned, ignorant, reluctant, trembling, slow of speech, hated, depressed, anxious, and “subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind” – not exactly confidence-inspiring.
However, the world really is more complicated than we think, and so are we. Weakness and strength are generally flip sides of the same coin. Weaknesses can lead us to either desirable humility or dangerous sin. The strengths that define us can fade and leave us lost and undone, while lifting the barbells of our weakness can hone our physical and spiritual muscle.
We can find great hope for our weak and ignorant selves when we see weak and ignorant people also act with stunning spiritual power:
- The hated, slow-of-speech lad, Enoch, not only moves mountains but creates a Zion society too perfect to remain on earth (Moses 7:13, 69).
- The chastised and unworthy brother of Jared sees the spirit body of Jesus and the entire history of the human family (Ether 3:19-20, 25).
- The demurring Moses delivers thousands from slavery by parting the Red Sea and bringing them commandments engraved on stone by the finger of God (Exodus 14:21-22; 24:12).
- Jonah’s reluctant survival becomes a symbol of Christ’s own power over death and hell, and despite Jonah’s senseless frustration Jehovah speaks to and teaches him one-on-one (Matthew 12: 40-41; Jonah 4).
- Nephi’s depressive thoughts give way to a powerful testimony of the One in whom he has trusted, the God who brought him across the deep, showed him the future, and encircled him in consuming love (2 Nephi 4:19-21).
- King Benjamin’s trembling sermon and example establishes the gospel and church of Jesus Christ perhaps more fully than any prophet until the Savior comes (Mosiah 2-5).
- Moroni’s weak and stumbling words help bring millions of people to share his testimony of Jesus Christ and are published in over 90 languages (Church News, April 11, 2011).
- The unlearned Peter and John become witnesses of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:5, 7), perform miracles in Christ’s name (Acts 3:6-8), and eventually convey His priesthood authority to Joseph Smith, the prophet of the restoration (D&C 27:12).
This juxtaposition of human weakness and spiritual power is not coincidental. Even though we came to earth to grow in spiritual power, that quest rides on the legacy of a man who was born in a manger and died on a cross. The peace He offered was “not as the world giveth,” and His power is not as the world giveth either. Trees and mountains, fish and coins, seas and weather, even illness and death yielded to His voice; yet He makes clear that He, and we, can have the power of influencing people for good only through gentleness, meekness, kindness, wisdom, and love unfeigned, without hypocrisy, guile, coercion, or compulsion (D&C 121:36-46). We can’t power our way to someone’s heart.
Perhaps this is what over-anxious Jacob hoped to communicate to his family and to us. Remember, Jacob had grown up in a traumatic landscape of threat, uncertainty, and both societal and family violence that his prophet father was powerless to control or contain. Yet Jacob also found through the words of prophets a path to spiritual power:
We search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.
Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things. (Jacob 4:6, 7; italics mine)
When Jacob was willing to be weak and to be shown his weakness, he could begin to grasp a vision for himself that was bigger than either self-protection or self-promotion. He could be honest and real. He could be curious and delighted. He could be weak, and he could be powerful in Christ. He could come to know the Lord.
Just as the Lord God has tutored and empower His children, Jacob hopes to empower his:
. . . and we labor diligently to engraven these words upon plates, hoping that our beloved brethren and our children will receive them with thankful hearts, and look upon them that they may learn with joy and not with sorrow, neither with contempt, concerning their first parents . . . . that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory . . . and also all the holy prophets which were before us. (Jacob 4: 3-4)
Jacob, knowing that not only he but his children are weak, labors to share his story with them in a way that might endure. He acknowledges the temptation to treat prophets and forebears with contempt for their weakness instead of rejoicing in God’s condescensions. He hopes, because he knows he cannot require, that those he loves will receive his words instead with gratitude. But having done what he can to share the reasons for his hope and faith in Christ, he also seems to have found a way to tame his “over anxiety.” He can have less fear over what he might lose because he has such great hope in what he can’t lose. The children he so loves and wants to influence may be freer to change their hearts because both his love for God and his love for them won’t change either way.
Prefaced with Weakness
Why might the Lord preface the scriptures of the restoration by declaring, “the weak things of the world shall come forth . . . that the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world” (D&C 1:19-23)? Perhaps because the revelations and instructions to follow that preface are meant to help all his weak, simple children accept our weakness with humility instead of shame and accept others’ weakness with compassion instead of contempt, that all “might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge . . . [and] have power . . . through the mercy of God, by the power of God” (D&C 1:28-29) – power that is “not as the world giveth.”
More Come Follow Me resources here.
Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., M.B.A., has been a psychologist in private practice, president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, and a visiting professor at Brigham Young University-Provo. She founded Sixteen Stones Center for Growth, which offers seminar-retreats for Latter-day Saint women and their loved ones (see sixteenstones.net). Her books include Let God Love You; Weakness Is Not Sin; Habits of Happiness; The Temple Experience; Forgiving Ourselves; and national best-seller The Why of Work, coauthored with her husband, Dave Ulrich. Wendy’s newest book is Live Up to our Privileges: Women, Power, and Priesthood, published by Deseret Book.