We know instinctively from childhood that we must contend against our weaknesses. If we are wise and determined, we make some progress over the decades. If we draw on the power of the Redeemer we can make quantum leaps. After subduing many of our weaknesses, it is a surprise to find that there is a very different temptation awaiting us on the road of eternal progress: overcoming our strengths. As Elder Oaks (1994) has observed in his insightful message, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall”:
But weakness is not our only vulnerability. Satan can also attack us where we think we are strong—in the very areas where we are proud of our strengths. He will approach us through the greatest talents and spiritual gifts we possess. If we are not wary, Satan can cause our spiritual downfall by corrupting us through our strengths as well as by exploiting our weaknesses. (p.12)
We admire people—in fact we may marry them—for their compassion, cleverness, ambition, organizational ability, or charisma. But those strengths can be a curse, especially in close relationships. The compassionate may become consumed in serving neighbors or the homeless or a charitable cause while neglecting spouse or children. The intellectual may reduce people to a scrap heap of motives and distort the meaning of life to a hopeless quagmire. The ambitious may become so focused on climbing that they fail to be available to God when He has an errand for them. The orderly may reduce life to a planner. The charismatic may find the conquest of new territory to be an addiction that keeps them from tending the home fires.
My own experience agrees. Nancy claims to have been attracted to me because of my enthusiasm, positivity, and self-assurance. I have always loved her for her peacefulness, goodness, and practicality. But there are times in a close relationship when my enthusiasm can feel demanding, impatient, unreasonable, and self-serving. There are times when her practicality seems confining and negative. I can insist that “I gotta be me!” Or I can learn the great lesson of life: to love as Jesus loves. I am happy to report that almost-three-decades of marriage have made me much better at listening to Nancy’s sensible, wise ideas. And I am immeasurably better for it.
If we rely on our strengths, no matter how amazing, we will never make it. Using our strengths to resolve problems that were created by our strengths has a predictable result. Ultimately there is only one power that saves. It is not compassion or cleverness or charisma. It is the Lord. King Benjamin advises us to:
[become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. Mosiah 3:19
We must submit to the divine way. Whatever our strengths, it is still true that we are dependent upon Christ for everything of eternal value.
And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. 2 Nephi 31:21
The qualities He gives us—faith, hope, and love—have enduring value.
How do we keep our strengths from becoming a stumbling block? Elder Oaks emphasizes humility as the essential ingredient.
How, then, do we prevent our strengths from becoming our downfall? The quality we must cultivate is humility. Humility is the great protector (p.19).
When we gloat about our strengths we clearly have forgotten who the great Giver of gifts is. Thus the talented may have a distinct disadvantage in the eternal journey. They can seemingly carry off this mortal struggle on their own. Yet it is the weak and meek who inherit the earth. It is the lepers, lame, and blind who were healed physically and spiritually. In God’s plan the humble have the advantage. They know they cannot rely on their own strength. They know to what source they must look. They know they cannot progress without constant infusions of goodness from heaven.
In the close relationships of family life there may be another gospel resource in addition to humility that is vital for balancing our strengths. Consider these examples:
One man is tranquil and gentle while his wife is enthusiastic. He will feel plowed over and she will feel unsupported and lonely—unless they manage their strengths. Another woman is a devoted mother and her husband is a remarkable businessman. Often he feels neglected by her and she feels betrayed by his lack of devotion.
No matter what strengths a person has, they will be a source of chronic friction—unless they are softened by charity.
Charity is the essential lubricant in family relationships. As the wise marital therapist, Daniel Wile (1988) has observed:
There is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years. . . . Each potential relationship has its own particular set of inescapable recurring problems (pp. 12–13).
There is nothing that makes us quite as contentious as the belief that we are right and need to correct others. The final and ultimate act of consecration is to put our knowledge, our ideas—all our strengths—on the altar for Him to do with as He will. In almost all cases He will be less interested in our being right than in our being good. We want to win arguments. He wants us to conquer divisions with love. There simply is no relationship remedy like charity. John Gottman (1994), a therapist and premier researcher on marriage, has said:
One of the great paradoxes in therapy is that people don’t change unless they feel accepted as they are (p.184).
With humility and charity we are prepared to be worthy family members. We can learn to give our partner the benefit of the doubt. We can listen better. We can work to understand our partner’s point of view. We can beseech heaven for the gifts of patience, gentleness, and meekness. We can seek the mighty change of heart that will make us more like our perfect exemplar, the Lord Jesus Christ. He can lift us above not only our weaknesses but also our strengths. He can make us divine.
Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail and how you can make yours last. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Oaks, D. H. (1994, October). Our strengths can become our downfall. Ensign.
Wile, D. B. (1988). After the honeymoon: How conflict can improve your relationship. New York: John Wiley & Sons.