Concerning the word wrest, an LDS scripture study manual states, “Dictionaries usually define the word wrest to mean to twist, force, or divert to an unnatural or improper use. To wrest the scriptures is to twist them or force an incorrect interpretation on them.” Alma expressed the heavy consequences of such a practice in his statement, “Behold, the scriptures are before you; if ye will wrest them it shall be to your own destruction.” (Alma 13:20) The danger in forcing an incorrect interpretation on the scriptures is the principles taught are then capable of becoming inverted, and conveying a message they were never meant to convey. This action can blatantly, or even subtly, transform powerful truths into unstable falsities. Often wresting the scriptures is the result of taking them out of context, sometimes this is done innocently by accident, other times purposely in order to support a predetermined conclusion, or even to “justify in committing a little sin”. In my experience, there are few scriptures wrested more often in the church than Ether 12:27. The unnatural or improper use of this verse is usually due to either forgetting the context of the passage, or confusing the word weakness with the word sin. In verse 23-25 Moroni, worried that his weakness in writing might cause the Gentiles to mock the sacred things he was writing about says:
“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. . . And thou hast made us that we could write but little because of the awkwardness of our hands. . . wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness and stumble.”
The Lord then replies in verse 26 and the oft quoted verse 27:
“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.”
With the correct context we can observe that Moroni is talking about lacking the skill of powerful writing we find in the brother of Jared. That is a weakness, not a sin. Distinguishing between the two, while still acknowledging and respecting their consistent similarity and effect on one another, is imperative. Weakness could be exemplified in various ways such as mortal limitations, mental or physical flaws or illnesses, emotional disorders, lacking skills, strength or wisdom, and the one found in all of us – being subject and susceptible to temptations. These are all part of our experience in a probationary state and, as we learn from the verse above, can even be given to us by God. An example that comes to mind is John 9:2-3, “And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Weaknesses can provide God with an opportunity to manifest his works and lead us to him. Meanwhile, sin on the other hand, is a choice to disobey the commandments of God and violate the light and knowledge that has been given to us. It cannot be given to us by God, is instigated and encouraged by Satan, and leads us away from God.
In a recent article in the Liahona titled It Isn’t a Sin to be Weak, Wendy Ulrich wisely stated, “We commonly think of sin and weakness as merely different sized black marks on the fabric of our souls, different severities of transgression. But the scriptures imply that sin and weakness are inherently different, require different remedies, and have the potential to produce different results.” “Because we are weak, we may not recognize if we are dealing with sin (calling for an immediate and pervasive change of mind, heart, and behavior) or with weakness (calling for humble, sustained effort, learning, and improvement). How we view these things can depend on our upbringing and maturity. There may even be elements of both sin and weakness in a single behavior.” She goes on to plainly warn, “Saying a sin is really a weakness leads to rationalizing instead of repenting. Saying a weakness is a sin can result in shame, blame, despair, and giving up on God’s promises.” Essentially, confusing the two will lead to the unnatural and improper applications of the laws of justice and mercy.
Mercy ceases to satisfy justice when we justify, to any degree, in committing sin. God can pardon and forgive sin, but never justify it. For he “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” The minute we switch from trying to overcome the less than ideal circumstances we might be placed in, or the weaknesses that beset us, or the desires that have found their way into our hearts, and start using them to justify our actions, we lose the Spirit of the Lord and are not covered by the law of mercy. We all come from different backgrounds and have different opportunities presented to us, and God will be fair in judging us accordingly, but he does expect us to try to live up to the amount of light and truth we’ve been given. I believe like President J. Reuben Clark that, “when the Lord metes out punishment, he will mete out the least possible punishment that it is possible to mete out and satisfy the demands of justice.” But I also believe that we will be held perfectly accountable for the times we choose not to “exercise faith unto repentance”. Giving into sin because we are weak does not prevent us from accessing our Mediator’s mercy. For as Alma testified, “Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent and I will receive you.” The gateway to mercy is covered when we use our susceptibility to weaknesses as a justification and conclude that no repentance is necessary.
While we may be born with weaknesses, sin is ALWAYS a choice. Joseph Smith taught: “The devil has no power over us only as we permit him; the moment we revolt at anything that comes from God, the devil takes power.” He also said, “Satan cannot seduce us by his enticements unless we in our hearts consent and yield. Our organization is such that we can resist the devil; if we were not organized so, we would not be free agents.” We can also extract from these prophetic words that if we were born into sin, or born with an inability to resist temptations or enticements, we would not be free agents. Our second article of faith states “We believe that man will be punished for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” The doctrine of “original sin” was invented in the 4th century by St. Augustine and is false (Skousen, pg.199, Majesty of God’s Law). Further, we have this affirmation from President Spencer W. Kimball in October 1980:
“‘God made me that way,’ some say, as they rationalize and excuse themselves for their perversions. ‘I can’t help it,’ they add. This is blasphemy. Is man not made in the image of God, and does he think God to be ‘that way’? Man is responsible for his own sins. It is possible that he may rationalize and excuse himself until the groove is so deep he cannot get out without great difficulty, but this he can do. Temptations come to all people. The difference between the reprobate and the worthy person is generally that one yielded and the other resisted. It is true that one’s background may make the decision and accomplishment easier or more difficult, but if one is mentally alert, he can still control his future. That is the gospel message – personal responsibility.”
With this in mind, the words of Elder Dallin H. Oaks from his Oct. 1995 Ensign article Same-Gender Attraction are instructive:
“We should note that the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. Our religious doctrine dictates this usage. It is wrong to use these words to denote a condition, because this implies that a person is consigned by birth to a circumstance in which he or she has no choice in respect to the critically important matter of sexual behavior.”
While the issue he is confronting may be specific, the principle is general – we should refrain from using adjectives as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. This would include adjectives to describe behavior such as irresponsible, immoral, unethical, or lazy. We are not consigned by birth to a circumstance in which we have no choice in respect to any of those types of behaviors either.
Elder Oaks goes on to say:
“Different persons have different physical characteristics and different susceptibilities to the various physical and emotional pressures we may encounter in our childhood and adult environments. We did not choose these personal susceptibilities either, but we do choose and will be accountable for the attitudes, priorities, behavior, and “lifestyle” we engraft upon them.”
“We all seem to have susceptibilities to one disorder or another, but whatever our susceptibilities, we have the will and the power to control our thoughts and our actions. This must be so. God has said that he holds us accountable for what we do and what we think, so our thoughts and actions must be controllable by our agency. Once we have reached the age or condition of accountability, the claim ‘I was born that way’ does not excuse actions or thoughts that fail to conform to the commandments of God.”
“Whatever our susceptibilities or tendencies [feelings], they cannot subject us to eternal consequences unless we exercise our free agency to do or think the things forbidden by the commandments of God. For example, a susceptibility to alcoholism impairs its victim’s freedom to partake without addiction, but his free agency allows him to abstain and thus escape the physical debilitation of alcohol and the spiritual deterioration of addiction.
… Beware the argument that because a person has strong drives toward a particular act, he has no power of choice and therefore no responsibility for his actions. This contention runs counter to the most fundamental premises of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
A synonym for the word agency is stewardship. Ultimately, the message is that we are all accountable for our stewardship over our own thoughts and actions. Susceptibilities, that in and of themselves are not sins but are weaknesses and may vary in each person based on their circumstances and environments, cannot be used as excuses to justify transgression. Elder Oaks also offers some words of comfort for those who are confusing weakness for sin, leading them to feel disheartened.
“God has promised that he will consecrate our afflictions for our gain (see 2 Ne. 2:2). The efforts we expend in overcoming any inherited [or developed] weakness build a spiritual strength that will serve us throughout eternity. Thus, when Paul prayed thrice that his ‘thorn in the flesh’ would depart from him, the Lord replied, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Obedient, Paul concluded:‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong’ (2 Cor. 12:9–10).”
The efforts we expend in overcoming any inherited or developed weakness build a spiritual strength that will serve us throughout eternity. That brings hope to me. Along these same lines Wendy Ulrich adds:
“We cannot simply repent of being weak—nor does weakness itself make us unclean. We cannot grow spiritually unless we reject sin, but we also do not grow spiritually unless we accept our state of human weakness, respond to it with humility and faith, and learn through our weakness to trust in God. When Moroni fretted about the weakness of his writing, God did not tell him to repent. Instead, the Lord taught him to be humble and to have faith in Christ. As we are meek and faithful, God offers grace—not forgiveness—as the remedy for weakness. Grace is an enabling power from God to do what we cannot do on our own (see Bible Dictionary, “Grace”)—the appropriate godly remedy by which He can “make weak things become strong.”
Now, the points made thus far are not meant to lead one to believe that Ether 12:27 does not apply to sins, nor to believe that sins and weaknesses cannot overlap. As Sister Ulrich mentioned, “There may even be elements of both sin and weakness in a single behavior.” The principle being taught is that if we come unto Christ and have faith in him, he will “make weak things become strong” unto us. “Weak things” can definitely be sins, and weaknesses can become sins and even addictions. The object of this article is to show that the verse says, “I give unto men weakness,” not “I give unto men immoral behavior,” or “I give unto men pornography addiction.” The intent of the article, is to prevent us from using the scripture to make it appear as if God is giving us behavior or addiction leading us to conclude it is therefore justified, while still preserving the testimony in the verse of the Savior’s power to help us overcome all manner of afflictions and be perfected. He does give us weaknesses that may have the potential, if the principle in the passage is not applied, to become inappropriate behaviors or even addictions. It should be noted though, that in such a scenario our moral agency is not being infringed upon because whether they do or do not is up to us. God knows our capacity to withstand temptations and our potential for growth in this life. With his foresight of our ability to overcome, he allows us to be susceptible to opportunities to choose between right and wrong. That is the test of life. Jesus was subjected to powerful, direct temptations from the adversary but gave no heed unto them. As Paul testified, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
The inspiring thing is that whether we have wrested Ether 12:27 by saying that sin is really a weakness in order to rationalize and justify instead of repent, or by saying that weakness is a sin leading us to have feelings of shame, discouragement, and despair which are not of God, or by failing to recognize the power the atonement can have on sins and weaknesses, coming unto Jesus Christ now, is the answer. I submit that upon conditions of sincere repentance and humility, coupled with actively striving to live as we should, we can be forgiven of every sin because of his mercy and strengthened in every weakness because his grace. “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)