Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional
November 12, 2013
"And Out of Weakness He Shall Be Made Strong"
Marcus B. Nash
First Quorum of the Seventy
Dear students, as much as Sister Nash and I admire President Clark, we are particularly excited to be with you!
Joseph of the Old Testament prophesied of the Prophet Joseph Smith in these words:
Thus saith the Lord unto me: A choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins…and unto him will I give power to bring forth my word…for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation…and out of weakness he shall be made strong.1
This last phrase must have comforted Joseph Smith, for although he was strong of body, mind, and character, he was weak by almost every other earthly measure. As I share with you stories and facts about the Prophet Joseph Smith, please keep in mind the phrase—“out of weakness he shall be made strong”—and consider three questions: How can weakness lead to strength? How was Joseph Smith made strong out of weakness? And, what does this mean for me?
As a boy, Joseph longed for forgiveness of his sins, but could not determine which church was true, and could satisfy his yearning.2He wrote:
though my feelings were deep and often poignant…it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.3
Joseph recognized that he lacked the ability to determine the true church on his own.4 Fully aware of this weakness, needing wisdom that he did not have, he read and pondered the Bible. After reading James 1:5, he went into the grove to ask God which of all the churches was His—and not just to make a journal entry on the subject! He inquired so that he could do something about it, so that he could join that church.5 In response to his humble, sincere prayer made with real intent, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph, forgave his sins, and, as he came to realize, opened the door for the Restoration.
Later, the Lord told him: “…I [have] raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.”6 Joseph did not dispute that he was one of the “weak things of the earth;” he in fact described himself as “an obscure boy…who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor.”7 Joseph was born into a low social stratum, with limited formal education, and raised in a family that scratched out a living from the land in rural New York. His first attempt at writing his history highlights some weakness. Let’s read together—in his own handwriting dating to 1832—Joseph’s description of his youth:
I was born in the town of Charon in the State of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December AD 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instructing me in the Christian religion. At the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Seignior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren and as it required their exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic.8
When I read Joseph’s own handwriting, I can almost hear him speaking. As much as I enjoy that, I am not sure that he would have received high marks from an English teacher on either his composition or his spelling.9 Joseph couldn’t even spell the town of his own birth correctly. The proper spelling is “S-H-A-R-O-N.”
Given his limited education, it is remarkable that he was given the immense task of restoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness, which required that he translate a large book of scripture (the Book of Mormon)—nearly 600 pages as originally published. This Joseph did in less than ninety days; and in those ninety days Joseph also had to sleep, eat, seek employment, endure persecution, receive the Aaronic and then the Melchizedek Priesthood, receive several revelations now included in the Doctrine and Covenants, travel, and secure the copyright for publication of the Book of Mormon. Any thinking person would conclude it to be impossible for the educationally weak Joseph to have accomplished such a thing, and the explanations fabricated by critics are much more far-fetched than the true explanation: He translated by the gift and power of God.10
Emma, Joseph’s wife, gave an interview late in her life in which she said that, at the time he translated the golden plates,
Joseph Smith…could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to anyone else.11
Against the backdrop of this history, please look at page one of Joseph’s first journal, dated November 27, 1832. Remember, this was written approximately three years and five months after he had concluded the translation of the Book of Mormon. You will note that he writes, and then strikes-out, the following words:
Joseph Smith Jrs Record Book Baught for to note all the minute circumstances that comes under my observation12
As I have held this diary and read these crossed-out words, I have imagined Joseph penning the opening sentence, and then thinking: “No, that’s not quite right, let me try again.” So, he strikes out the sentence, and writes:
Joseph Smith Jrs Book for Record Baught on the 27th of November 1832 for the purpose to keep a minute acount of all things that come under my observation etc.- -13
Finally, probably not entirely satisfied with the stilted, halting language he had just penned, he writes:
oh may God grant that I may be directed in all my thoughts Oh bless thy Servent Amen.14
With these words written as a prayer, Joseph—who is struggling to write a sentence—acknowledges his inadequacy, his weakness, and pleads for God’s help!
Now, compare the above journal entry written in November 1832 with a copy of an original manuscript page of the Book of Mormon, transcribed more than three years before (sometime between late May and early June 1829).
As we look at this together, please note the flowing prose, without punctuation, without strikeouts. This was not a composition. This was dictated, word by word, as he looked into instruments the Lord prepared for him, using a hat at times to shield his eyes from extraneous light in order to plainly see the words as they appeared. Contrary to one who translates with the use of a dictionary, as it were, the translation was revelation flowing to him from heaven, and written by scribes (with the inevitable scrivener errors). As you can see, there is a vast difference between the translation of the Book of Mormon and the journal entry: one is the product of Joseph the Prophet, Seer and Revelator working by the gift and power of God, and the other (his journal) was a product of Joseph Smith, the man.
This passage must have comforted him as he translated it:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.15
Joseph learned that the promise of heaven’s help extends even to the small details. For example, Joseph, a poor speller, corrected the scribe’s (who was Oliver Cowdery) first spelling of the name “Coriantumr.” The first time it was dictated,16 we find in the original transcript that Oliver spelled the word “Coriantummer.” This was reasonable for an English speaker, since there are no English words that end in “mr.” However, Joseph—who was a weak enough speller to accept the spelling the Lord gave to him, corrected Oliver’s spelling in the same line (that is, during the translation), so that it reads as it now appears in the Book of Mormon. We now know that while the “mr” ending is poor spelling in English, it is perfectly good Egyptian spelling and fits well into the Old World setting. Most readers of the Book of Mormon—then and now—do not know this, nor would Joseph have known this but for revelation.17
Joseph was not a mythical hero who lived above it all. No, he experienced the challenges, personal weakness, and vicissitudes associated with mortality, including what he called “foolish errors” in his youth.18 Years later, as an adult, he told the saints in Nauvoo that:
He was but a man and they must not expect him to be perfect; if they expected perfection from him, he should expect it from them, but if they would bear with his infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, he would likewise bear with their infirmities.19
In short, Joseph never pretended to be perfect or infallible, yet boldly acknowledged:
When I speak as a man it is Joseph only that speaks. But when the Lord speaks through me, it is no longer Joseph Smith who speaks; but it is God, and let all Israel hear. 20
Joseph faced times of uncertainty and loneliness just as we all do. In those times, he found comfort and sustaining perspective through prayer. In Liberty Jail, he cried out: “Oh God, where art thou?” and the response he received is so profound it has been canonized.21 During a time in Kirtland when he was abandoned by many (including his own brother William), Joseph pleaded with God to help them. Daniel Tyler was present at one such prayer and describes it in these words:
I had heard men and women pray…from the most ignorant, both as to letters and intellect, to the most learned and eloquent, but never until then had I heard a man address his Maker as though He was present listening as a kind father would listen to the sorrows of a dutiful child. Joseph was at that time unlearned, but that prayer...partook of the learning and eloquence of heaven. There was no ostentation, no raising of the voice as by enthusiasm, but a plain conversational tone, as a man would address a present friend. It appeared to me as though, in case the veil were taken away, I could see the Lord standing facing His humblest of servants I had ever seen. Whether this was really the case I cannot say; but one thing I can say. It was the crowning, so to speak, of all the prayers I ever heard.22
Prayer is woven throughout the tapestry of Joseph’s life.
It is striking that much of Joseph’s work was accomplished in roughly the age span we see represented here today! He received the First Vision when 14 years old, the visitation from Moroni at age 17, completed the translation of the Book of Mormon and organized the Church at age 24. To state the obvious, it was impossible for Joseph to have done all this by his own ability. It was only accomplished because he was strengthened and magnified by the Lord.
Now, to the first question I posed: “How can weakness lead to strength?” There is a divine purpose in 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.23
Although it seems counterintuitive, weakness is given to help us become strong in the only way that matters in time and eternity: that is, through the Savior and His Atonement. The Savior’s grace—His enabling power—will flow to us only to the degree we are humble before Him and exercise faith in Him. Our humility before the Lord, then, is an essential catalyst for the strength and power of God to be manifest in our lives now and forever. If we hold to that humility and exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, He will make us strong. The Savior is the great example of the humility and faith required of us: in the premortal life, in Gethsemane, and as a resurrected being, He does the will of the Father.24 If we wish for the Lord to make us strong out of our weakness, we can do no less.
My second question posed at the outset was: How was Joseph made strong out of weakness? As we have seen, Joseph (throughout his life) felt acutely of his weakness. He humbled himself before the Lord, and sought in faith for the Lord’s guidance and enabling power. He did so through the best means available—both then and now: thoughtful study of the scriptures, heartfelt prayer, and willing obedience to the Lord’s will, commandments, and ordinances. By living day-in and day-out in this way and making it the pattern for his life, Joseph Smith was made strong far beyond the desire and aspiration of his youth to simply be clean before the Lord. Indeed, he became the prophet who did “more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of man, than any other that lived in it.”25
The third and final question is “What does this all mean for me?”26 To state the obvious, we all have weakness. Fortunately, we are agents unto ourselves, permitted and enabled by divine design to act and not be acted upon.27 We can choose to be defined by our weakness, to be conquered by it, or we can choose to be motivated by it to humbly seek the Master’s guidance and grace, His enabling power. This, then, is the potential virtue of weakness: if, by our choice, weakness moves us to humble ourselves before the Savior and to exercise our faith in Him, then by His Atonement we can become strong. So, let’s not “excuse ourselves in the least point because of [our] sins” or weakness. 28 Rather, let us, like the Prophet Joseph, choose to recognize our weakness, humble ourselves before the Lord, and exercise our faith in Him through thoughtful study of the scriptures, heartfelt prayer, and willing obedience to the Lord. The better we get at consistently living in this manner, the more we shall, out of weakness, be made strong.
I recently received an email from a young man I know and love who has humbled himself before the Lord and exercised his faith to be obedient to His will. With his permission, I share a portion of his letter. As I read this, see if you can detect the very principles I have mentioned today:
Years and years of trying to overcome my challenges, only to be beaten down again had taken its toll on me, mentally, spiritually and even physically…I had tried everything to get over my problems. It wasn't as simple as repenting anymore, it was an addiction…I knew I needed God's help, but sometimes felt forsaken in my depressed state…I heeded as best I could your counsels and inspired words...It took more faith [and humility] than I have ever mustered before in my life. Faith in God and the Atonement and earnest prayer…And so I tried, I took it a half a day at a time. Then a day at a time, and so on - And now I am here in the MTC about to serve a mission for the Lord.29
While I wish he had never touched the unclean thing,30 I am profoundly grateful for our Savior who has all power in heaven and earth to miraculously cleanse, strengthen, heal, and make my friend—and you and me—whole.31 This promise of healing and strength is extended to all who are humble before the Savior and exercise faith in Him. We who humble ourselves will, sooner or later, join with Ammon in exclaiming: “I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.”32
Importantly, the Prophet Joseph grew in strength; he was not made mighty in a moment. It came to him, and can come to each of us, line upon line, here a little, there a little.33 So, as you consider how far you have to go, do not be discouraged; as my friend described in his email, the process is gradual and will require our steadfast humility and faith to follow the Savior and abide by His will. Be encouraged by the history of Joseph Smith, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator—and remember the Lord calls upon the weak things of the earth—like you and me—to do His work.34
Humility means that we hold to our faith without dictating a timetable to the Lord, something the Prophet learned through hard experience—think Liberty Jail, think Kirtland. When Peter walked on water, then doubted and feared, and began to sink, the Savior caught him immediately, and gently chided: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”35 I believe the Savior was telling Peter: “I know that the storm is raging and that people do not walk on water. Yet, you were doing so—so why did you doubt?” If your faith is attacked or, like Peter’s, seems to be wavering, remember what you know: that your faith has enlarged your soul, enlightened your understanding, and has been delicious to you—and that what you have felt is light, goodness, and is everlastingly real.36 So, as the Lord invited Peter, remember what you know, hold to your faith, continue to learn, and He will strengthen you.
Now—although serious sin can be avoided—you will nonetheless sin and make mistakes. For example, when Joseph transgressed the commandment of God to safeguard the 116 manuscript pages of the translation of the Book of Mormon, he was rebuked for fearing man more than God.37 He repented, was “called again to the work,” 38 and carefully protected the manuscript thereafter. Joseph was reminded:
You should have been faithful; and [the Lord] would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble.39
So it is with us. When we err or sin, repent, the Lord will extend His arm and support to us to the extent that we put our trust in Him.
Let me share a story to illustrate. Several years ago, I was hiking in the North Central Cascades of Washington with our oldest son Jonathan. It was night, and we came to a part of the trail that bordered a steep cliff on the edge of an abyss. At that point, Jonathan (who was 10 or 12 years old at the time) became fearful and dared not go on. I urged him forward, but he refused. I then took him by the hand, and with the other hand on his shoulder, I said:
Jonathan, I am your dad; I will not let you fall. I will grip your hand and take two steps. You then will take two steps, and together we will cross this section of the trail.
Slowly, gradually, we crossed that portion of the trail because I had him by the hand and he trusted me as his dad. Similarly, each of us may—if we humble ourselves before the Master and exercise our faith in Him—figuratively take Him who has all power in Heaven and earth by the hand. And, with the “matchless power”40 of God flowing to us, we cannot, we will not, fall or fail.41
Just before he and Joseph left for Carthage, Hyrum read aloud to Joseph from the very Book of Mormon you see pictured and then folded the page shown which reads in part:
…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.42
I am confident that Joseph and Hyrum took comfort at that unsettled time in knowing that because they had seen their weakness and been faithful to the Lord, they would be made strong in eternity. Such is the promise to all who see their weakness and turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart.
One final story: William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into the language of the common person—English—in the sixteenth century—and was martyred for it—stated to a cleric who opposed his efforts: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost!”43 In a parallel some three hundred years later, Nancy Towle, a famous itinerant preacher in the 1830s, visited Kirtland. While there, she sharply criticized the Church. The emotional Sidney Rigdon responded in kind, and accused her of being “in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity!” According to Towle’s record, Joseph said nothing during this heated exchange until she turned to him and demanded that he swear to her that he had seen an angel. Ever gregarious, Joseph good-naturedly replied to her that “he never swore at all.” Having failed to rattle him, she tried to belittle him: “Are you not ashamed, of such pretenses?” she rejoined. “You, who are no more, than an ignorant, plough-boy of our land?” Joseph calmly responded: “the gift has returned back again, as in former times, to illiterate fishermen.”44
Joseph compared himself to an “illiterate fisherman.” In this, Tyndale’s words were prescient: certainly a plough-boy did grow to know more of scripture than that cleric, and probably more than any man that ever lived, save the Savior only. As he reflected upon his life, Joseph Smith must have personally identified with Jacob’s observation that The Lord 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.45
Joseph Smith was and is a Prophet of God, made strong out of weakness. The man who could not even spell the name of the city of his birth was enabled to translate the Book of Mormon, which is everlastingly, powerfully true. Rather than have heartburn over the fact that Joseph was a human being, I am awe-inspired by what the Lord made of him and am encouraged by it to believe that the Lord can make something even of weak me. Those who knew him best were not put off by Joseph’s humanness: said Brigham Young: “I feel like shouting hallelujah all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet.”46 Although we do not enjoy that blessing in mortality, I take solace in the poetic promise that “millions shall know Brother Joseph again.”47
My how we love you, dear students! You were sent to the earth in this day and age to contribute to hastening of the work of salvation with the strength of God. You have come with your unique bundle of talent and weakness—and with just enough weakness to make you strong in the Lord if you so choose. My three-part invitation: (1) develop your talent with gratitude for Him who gave it to you; (2) humbly acknowledge your weakness before Him; and (3) steadfastly exercise your faith in Him, seeking His guidance and strength through thoughtful study of the scriptures, heartfelt prayer, and willing obedience to the Lord’s commandments and ordinances. As we have seen, in this way, Joseph was—despite all that the world and hell could throw against him—made mighty by the power of the Almighty. And, in this same way, you too will be made strong and succeed beyond your brightest, grandest dreams.
Our Heavenly Father lives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “the only true and living Church upon the face of the whole earth,”48 restored to give those desirous and willing full access to the Lord’s Atonement. President Monson is a prophet of God. The Savior lives, and His Atoning sacrifice offers the bright, shining hope of strength out of weakness, of forgiveness, healing, and good things to come for those who humbly seek and exercise their faith in Him. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
1. 2 Nephi 3:7, 11, 15, 13
2. Joseph Smith, History, ca. Summer 1832, in The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, ed. Karen Lynn Davidson et al. (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 10-11.
3. Joseph Smith-History 1:8.
4. Joseph notes in his history that he attended various church meetings “as often as occasion would permit”; he studied the scriptures; he pondered; and he prayed (JS-H 1:8, 11, 12, 13-18).
5. Joseph Smith-History 1:18.
6. Doctrine and Covenants 124:1
7. Joseph Smith-History 1:23.
8. Joseph Smith, History, ca. Summer 1832, 11.
9. Joseph felt keenly his weakness due to his lack of formal education, once lamenting what he called “the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832, Joseph Smith Collection, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. Also available online at http//josephsmithpapers.org.
10 See generally Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, online at www.lds.org. John W. Welch estimates that the translation was completed in about sixty-three working days. John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844, ed. John W. Welch with Erick B. Carlson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, 2005), 102.
11. “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, October 1, 1879, p. 290; spelling modernized.
12. Joseph Smith, History, ca. Summer 1832, 9.
13. Joseph Smith, History, ca. Summer 1832, 9.
14. Joseph Smith, History, ca. Summer 1832, 9.
15. 1 Nephi 3:7.
16. Hel. 1:15.
17. Isaiah 29:14. On “Coriantumr” and the spelling of proper names, see Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 61-93. Using evidence from the original manuscript, Skousen shows that the first time proper names appeared in the text, they were spelled correctly; in subsequent appearances the names may or may not be spelled correctly, suggesting that the Joseph Smith spelled out each name the first time but relied on the scribe’s memory thereafter.
18. Joseph Smith-History 1:28; In addition, a severe illness in his childhood required excruciating surgery without anesthesia which took years to recover from, and which resulted in him always walking with a limp. His oldest brother Alvin (whom Joseph loved and adored) died when Joseph was still living at home. His and Emma’s first three children died at birth; altogether, only five of their eleven children survived childhood. He was brutally attacked and beaten on various occasions. He was hounded with vexatious lawsuits. He never seemed to get out of financial duress. His remarkable spiritual gifts gave him strength in his spiritual, but not temporal, labors. See also Doctrine and Covenants 24:9.
19. Joseph Smith, Journal, Oct. 29, 1842, in The Papers of Joseph Smith: Journals, Volume 2: December 1841-April 1843, ed. Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Richard Lloyd Anderson (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 164.
20. Edward Stevenson, quoted in Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, comp., They Knew the Prophet: Personal Accounts from Over 100 People Who Knew Joseph Smith (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2004), 84.
21. Doctrine and Covenants 121:1.
22. Mark L. McConkie, comp., Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 223-24.
23. Ether 12:27.
24. See Moses 4:2; Luke 22:42; 3 Nephi 27:13; D&C 19:18-19.
25. Doctrine and Covenants 135:3.
26. 1 Nephi 19:23.
27. See 2 Nephi 2:16; Doctrine and Covenants 58:27.
28. Alma 42:30.
29. Personal email, identity of author confidential.
30. See Moroni 10:30.
31. See Matthew 28:18; Mosiah 4:9; Jacob 4:7; Mosiah 2:19-26
32. Alma 26:12
33. Doctrine and Covenants 98:12; 126:21.
34. See, e.g., Doctrine and Covenants 35:13
35. Matthew 14:31, and, more generally, Matthew 14:22-31.
36. Alma 32:28, 33-35.
37. Doctrine and Covenants 3:7.
38. Doctrine and Covenants 3:
39. Doctrine and Covenants 3:8.
40. Alma 49:28.
41. See Helaman 5:12.
42. Ether 12:36-37. See Jeffrey R. Holland, “Safety for the Soul,” Ensign, Oct. 2009, online at www.lds.org.
43. D. Todd Christofferson, “The Blessing of Scripture,” Ensign, May 2010, online at www.lds.org.
44. Cited in Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 171.
45. Jacob 4:6-7.
46. Brigham Young, in Deseret News, Oct. 31, 1855, p. 268.
47. “Praise to the Man,” Hymns # 27.
48. Doctrine and Covenants 1:30.