The Arm of Flesh

Recently I’ve been reading and re-reading the piece of 2nd Nephi that people call Nephi’s Prayer or Nephi’s Psalm (2 Ne. 4:15-35). I began reading it as a part of regular scripture study, but I’ve been looking at it more closely as a personal narrative (Steve Cannon would appreciate it), and as a pattern to me of development and inner change. Nephi sorrows in his sins, then he remembers the Lord and his soul awakens, as he remembers “in whom [he has] trusted.” Nephi later says, “O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.”

The way Nephi repeats “arm of flesh,” and the way his internal process of change is linked to properly placing his trust in the Lord, makes me think carefully about what the Arm of Flesh represents.

You probably all know the common interpretations: the Arm of Flesh is the world, the security of armies or the comfort of western civilization. I’ve also heard that the Arm of Flesh can mean over-reliance on physical evidence, science or logical reasoning in matters of faith. We can view Arm of Flesh as a common trope for anything that seems to protect or comfort, but that has fundamental roots in the finite, limited world we live in. I like to think of things like our government infrastructure, our wealth or our university-acquired knowledge as forms of the Arm of Flesh.

Two lines of questions remain for me about where we should put our trust. First, how can mormons reduce reliance on the Arm of Flesh (esp. if it really refers to things like infrastructure, wealth or university-acquired knowledge)? Does “not trusting in the Arm of Flesh”mean not enjoying it while it lasts? Does the current Church emphasis on financial independence, secondary education and civic participation lessen, or enhance our reliance on the Arm of Flesh? Are we melding the Arm of Flesh into our worship?

The second line of questions is whether we can apply the idea of Arm of Flesh to cultural institutions within the Church. For example, I know a family who has refused to take jobs, etc. to support themselves, saying “the Lord will provide.” Or, often I value church because of my friends and the fun I have; is it trusting in the Arm of Flesh to value those relationships more than, say, taking the sacrament? Can over-relying on LDS pseudo-doctrine be the Arm of Flesh (like the infamous “tannic acid” justifications for the Word of Wisdom)?

Please help me work through these ideas. It seems like an important concept.


  1. Aaron, you’re right I guess that my questions, and to a certain extent Wendy’s, are peripheral to the idea of Arm of Flesh.

    I guess a part of me was trying to think hard about that metaphor and how far you can take it, to see what were and weren’t the appropriate domains of application for arm of flesh.

    I guess I’m not satisfied with the idea that this is a general admonition; Nephi’s greatest source of joy was from knowing in whom he had trusted, and ensuring he hadn’t misplaced that trust. I want to identify the mechanism by which we place trust in God, and lower our reliance on other elements (which means first defining and identifying those ‘other elements’).

  2. I think that is a critical question Steve. Suppose that we believe that certain kinds of truth are amenable to spiritual rather than physical observation. How do we take spiritual observations and strip out the coincidence and the deceptions and self-deception? Or what is the science of the spiritual. I have never really phrased it that way to myself before, but suddenly it seems like an incredibly important question.

  3. I’m not sure I have much wisdom to offer in this thread. I see admonitions against trusting in the “arm of the flesh” as general reminders to trust in God, heed his counsel, and to not become over-confident in one’s own abilities and insights divorced from heavenly input. Of course, there are a thousand specific questions one could ask about how to do this, some of which Steve and Wendy have raised.

    I do think, Steve, that the last paragraph of your post raises issues that are peripheral to your question. And some of Wendy’s questions are peripheral as well (though they are still interesting).

    Aaron B

  4. in that process? Does God always reply, or does he sometimes want people to make their own decisions? If the latter, is that relying on the arm of flesh? Are evangelical Christians who pray about how best to witness to their Mormon neighbors, and who think they get answers to their prayers from God blessing their efforts, relying on the arm of flesh, or God?

    I like flesh. People are messy and made of meat and make mistakes, but I like trusting in them, and I like using logic and reason to doubt them. If my trust in someone turns out to be misplaced, I like learning from that mistake. “Relying on the arm of flesh” is not necessarily scary to me. Better advice than “don’t rely on the arm of flesh” would be “here are some helpful decision-making tips”. Like “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” — wouldn’t it be great if that popped in the scriptures a couple of times? If so, there might be less Mormon MLM madness.

  5. It seems like the “moderation in all things” applies even to trusting in the flesh or trusting in God. There is an equilibrium that we have to achieve between fending for ourselves entirely(trusting fully in the flesh) and refusing to look for a job or accept a low-paying job because God will provide(“trusting in God”).

    I believe wholeheartedly that we must put our faith in God, but without works, faith is dead, you know…

  6. Kaimi, I think you are dead on — but then I start reading Hugh Nibley, who is all about how God will provide for his people, and his famous essays on “there is no free lunch,” etc. that seem to run counter. Maybe mormons who make their living off lds-related industries feel less strongly about financial independence?

  7. Mormons have a love-hate relationship going on with flesh. One the one hand (or arm, ha ha), a big part of the Mormon “meaning of life” on Earth is getting a body. Mormons think that the question “does God have a body of skin and bones?” is an important one. Mormons believe that people need bodies in heaven. Mormons believe that one of the most important events in the history of man was a guy finding out that God and Jesus have separate bodies. Mormons may even believe that you need hands of flesh to literally enter the gates of heaven. Mormons believe that eternal salvation hinges on a physical body being dipped in water.

    On the other hand, there’s the natural- man-is-the-enemy-of-God stuff, and the arm of flesh stuff.

    “Don’t trust in the arm of flesh” is not good advice because it is confusing. There are way too many gray areas in the church. The Mormons I was raised by and with believed that strict obedience to church leaders is obedience to God. Is that over-reliance on the arm of flesh? Has a kid who gets baptized at 8 without having received a strong spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of the church over-relied on the arm of flesh? What about a 10 year old kid who becomes a Scientologist because his parents do? If you decide to do something based on counsel given to you in a father’s blessing, is that over-reliance on the arm of flesh? What about if you take an action based on something you are told in a patriarchal blessing? What about something your priesthood-holding husband tells you to do? What about a missionary who shows manipulative videos and tells weepy stories in order to produce a purely emotional response in an investigator in order to lead him/her to baptism — does the end justify the means, or is that over-reliance on the arm of flesh that is displeasing to God?

    Is “don’t trust the arm of flesh” code for don’t trust your own instincts, your ability to reason, your doubts, your hopes, your education, your emotions, observable fact, people that have given you reason to trust them, or learned third parties? If not, how is trusting in the arm of flesh different than trusting in God? Put another way, rather than defining what the “arm of flesh” is, the more interesting question I think is — what does it mean to rely on God as opposed to the arm of flesh?

    If I get a good feeling in church, is that God talking? People tell me it is, but I don’t want to trust people, I want to trust God. God hasn’t told me how he wants me to discern his will. If I get a bad feeling in the temple, is that God talking, or the arm of flesh talking? Isn’t a “burning in the bosom” a fleshy feeling — can I really trust it? I was taught that in order to discern God’s will, I should study a question, search it out in my mind, then come up with a tentative answer, then pray, then wait and see if I got a good feeling about the tentative answer. Isn’t there major reliance on the arm of flesh

  8. Overreliance on the Lord is definitely a potential problem — refusing to take a job or support oneself and one’s family seems to be a classic example.

    If we’re truly in the wilderness, the Lord will send manna. But we can’t sit outside of Safeway waiting for manna to start falling in the parking lot.

  9. So attempts to predict/shape human behavior are forms of the arm of flesh? I can definitely see their uncertainty. I guess you would probably lump most approaches to religion in with the social sciences.

    I guess I brought up the hard sciences as a form of “arm of flesh” because they have been referred to as such by contemporary religion, specifically in the context of evolutionary theory. However, I’m not sure that Church opposition to evolution is what it used to be, and as a whole I think our religion is much more open to science than some.

    I like your thought that true science is our attempt to clean the human influence from knowledge. In a way, it represents the secular method of not relying on the arm of flesh. Is there a religious corollary?

  10. Steve C: I agree that it sounds important, and yet I’d never thought about this way until you brought up science’s approach to truth.

    “The Science of the Spiritual.” It has a great ring to it.

    It only makes sense that mormons, dedicated truth-seekers that we are, would constantly be trying to distinguish between “real” spiritual truth and artifice. So what then is the LDS scientific method? What is our approach to discerning between truth and error, as concerning human affairs? I’d like to say that we have some sort of lock on truth-seeking, but sadly our approach is hardly as disciplined or systematic as real science.

    Also, is there a danger that truths divined as absolute spiritual truths would lead to fundamentalism?

  11. Steve, great post. Wendy I love your comment. (Though your description of us as being made of meat is creeping me out a little.)

    I’m not sure that I would see logical reasoning or science as the arm of flesh. Science is an attempt to test human ideas against actual natural phenomena. In certain areas of inquiry those phenomena are extraordinarily stable — nearly infinite. To me science is also the rejection of reliance on the arm of the flesh. It’s how we attempt to clean human influence from knowledge.

    Of course in other areas of inquiry (“political science” and “social science” for example) the phenomena under study are very unstable. I see the arm of flesh everywhere in those highly tentative fields. For example the study management, a field of knowledge in which I have a personal stake, the truth value of propositions has a very short half-life because the market is constantly changing and the object of study is so resistent to generalization. So do I ignore the notions of my contemporaries? No, but it is wise not to rely on them.

  12. Wendy, I think you need your own weblog. It’s much easier than typing 5,000 words in a little Haloscan box.

    Thanks for pointing out why I never really made things happen as a Mormon missionary–I can’t tell weepy stories! Jokes I can do, a song on a good day, even a talk that won’t bore the congregation, but weepy stories are just not in my toolkit.

    You’re right that “don’t trust in the arm of flesh” is just too general to guide actual decisions, as is “trust in God.” I suppose “be careful who you trust” is a little more direct. “Know who your friends are” might work too. Even “trust, but verify,” the auditor’s motto, might help. I suppose “a fool and her money are soon parted” is too esoteric for MLM customers. Maybe “just say no” would work.