Thoughts on the Word of Wisdom

Just a couple of weeks ago, on August 19th, my wife and I were assigned to give sermons to our LDS congregation on the topic of the Mormon health guidelines known as the Word of Wisdom.

Just weeks later, the LDS church published a statement clarifying that the church does not forbid drinking caffeinated drinks:

“…the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine.  The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.”

Whether Mormons should consume caffeine has long been debated among members of the church, so the statement has caused a bit of buzz on blogs and in media.

The following is an adaptation of the words I prepared and delivered on the topic.

Blood on the Doorposts

When the Lord sent Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he brought many terrible plagues upon the land. In preparation for the final plague, the Lord commanded the people of Israel to prepare a male lamb, without blemish, and kill it and then mark their doorposts with its blood. The lamb was then to be cooked and eaten according to strict guidelines. The Lord told them:

“And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

And the homes upon which the token was found on the doorposts were spared from the plague.

Had the Egyptians been like modern Americans, I imagine that in the aftermath Egyptians might have experienced a new health fad involving eating lamb to ward off plague. Perhaps they would argue over whether or not it had to be a male lamb, or whether it had to be eaten in one night, and about what exactly constituted a blemish. And eventually someone would fund a double-blind scientific test to prove that lamb was not a cure-all, the results of which would be widely ignored anyway.

The end of the revelation of the Word of Wisdom recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 89 says to those who remember to keep and do what it teaches:

“And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.” (D&C 89:21)

While I have no doubt that the Word of Wisdom provides sound principles of health, we do not obey its teachings because they can be scientifically proven. If tomorrow science were to conclusively find that the health benefits of drinking coffee far outweigh any negative effects, we would still abstain from drinking it because abiding by the guidelines of the Word of Wisdom is our modern version of lamb’s blood on the doorposts. The Word of Wisdom is a token upon our houses and when the Lord sees that we follow it we will receive the blessings of health, wisdom, knowledge, and protection from destroying plagues He has promised.

In 1978, Elder Boyd K Packer explained that “As valuable as the Word of Wisdom is as a law of health, it may be much more valuable to you spiritually than it is physically.” (October Conference 1979)

Disagreements

While the Word of Wisdom does contain some specific restrictions and recommendations, it is not only a checklist. It is a collection of principles that all members of the church should be striving to implement.

And as individual members work to apply those principles in their own lives it is natural that they will come to conclusions and implement practices that they feel are derived from those principles, but which are not explicitly listed in the revelation.

Unfortunately, this has sometimes been a source of contention among members of the church. Even in Joseph Smith’s lifetime there were disagreements over the interpretation of parts of the revelation until official explanations of the meaning of “hot drinks” etc. were established by church authorities. And it took some time to establish official practice and then for the majority of the members to come into compliance.

In our day, most of us have probably experienced discussions about whether we should drink caffeinated soda or spoken with someone that believes that the Word of Wisdom requires that the bread people eat be made only of whole wheat unbleached flour, or that the principles properly applied mean that members should be vegetarians.

For some people these seem like natural conclusions that flow logically from the principles of the Word of Wisdom. However, to others they may often feel like overzealous misapplications of the Word of Wisdom.

I believe that these disagreements can be largely resolved by applying a simple principle: the principle of Stewardship.

Your Stewardship is the realm or area over which you have legitimate authority. Our stewardships can be superseded by those with greater areas of authority in the church. Where the apostles and general authorities of the church have been explicit and established official definitions and guidelines, we should comply with exactness. But in those areas where they have not been explicit there is more flexibility than we often realize. They teach us correct principles and let us govern ourselves within our stewardships.

I have stewardship over my own small family, but I do not have Stewardship over the family next door. It is perfectly within my stewardship for reason and the spirit to guide me to apply the Word of Wisdom in my family by not drinking caffeinated drinks, or by not eating white bread, or by not eating meat. But it is not within my stewardship to tell my neighbors that they are violating the Word of Wisdom because they do not do the same.

In March of 2003, Elder Quentin L. Cook, who would later become an Apostle of the church, warned that

“Almost any virtue taken to excess can become a vice. Certain members have wanted to add substantially to various doctrines. An example might be when one advocates additions to the Word of Wisdom that are not authorized by the Brethren and proselytes others to adopt these interpretations. If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark.”
(Looking Beyond the Mark, Ensign 2003)

Every family is different. They have different health needs, different weaknesses, and different strengths. While we should all try to be exact in those things that the church has explicitly asked us do (like abstaining from alcohol, tea, coffee, tobacco, and recreational drugs) we should also recognize that it is okay that the principles of the Word of Wisdom be expressed and implemented differently in each family according to their needs. Wisdom, in fact, means that variation in how the principles are applied is expected and good. At the same time, we should keep in mind that we will be accountable to God for our stewardships and we should avoid looking beyond the mark as Elder Cook describes.

Teachings from the Prophets of the Restoration 

Having established that, I want to share some quotes from modern prophets about the principles of the Word of Wisdom and hope you will seek the Lord’s guidance on how to appropriately apply them to your own life and family.

Speaking well over 100 years ago, the prophet Brigham Young said:

“The Americans, as a nation, are killing themselves with their vices and high living. As much as a man ought to eat in half an hour they swallow in three minutes…” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, Chapter 29)

It seems that things have not changed since then as much since then as we might have hoped. I work in the computer programming industry where it has become a cliche for programmers to drink immense amounts of high-caffeine sodas and energy drinks day and night while they write code. I’ve also seen students do this when cramming late nights for their studies. And I expect that this practice also happens in other industries.

Brigham Young could have been describing our modern culture when he said:

“When exhausted, some argue that they need stimulants in the shape of tea, coffee, spirituous liquors, tobacco, or some of those narcotic substances which are often taken to goad on the lagging powers to greater exertions. But instead of these kind of stimulants they should recruit by rest. Work less, wear less, eat less, and we shall be a great deal wiser, healthier, and wealthier people than by taking the course we now do.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, Chapter 29)

I know of one man who would stay up half the night and then first thing in the morning after arriving at work would drink a huge can of an energy drink infused with coffee to get himself going. After about 30 minutes his hands would get jittery because of the stimulants from the drink and he wouldn’t be able to type. So he would go outside and smoke a cigarette to calm his nerves. Then he would come back in and try to work, only to find he was having trouble concentrating. So he would drink another can of the energy drink to help him concentrate. It was a vicious cycle.

The prophet Joseph F. Smith described the same phenomenon, saying:

“In the mad rush of life for worldly honors and for the possession of the perishable things of this earth men do not stop before they get weary, and they do not rest before they become faint. They appear to think that what is necessary for them when they become weary and faint is to take stimulants to refresh themselves, that they may be able to run a little farther for a few moments. In this way the man of business braces himself up by taking strong drinks. The housewife and the mother who has the care of her family upon her hands, after she has toiled until she has become faint, feels that she must, in order to keep up her strength, take a cup of tea, and thus brace up her nerves and strengthen herself for a little while that she may be able to finish her day’s work.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, Chapter 36)

And the prophet David O. McKay succinctly explained why it doesn’t work:

“Stimulants are to the body what the lash is to the lagging horse—it causes a spurt forward but gives no permanent strength or natural nourishment. Frequently repetitions of the lash only make the horse more lazy; and the habitual use of strong drink, tobacco, tea, and coffee, only tends to make the body weaker and more dependent upon the stimulants to which it is addicted.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay, Chapter 11)

We live in a culture in which we constantly try to artificially push ourselves beyond our natural strength. We regularly get less sleep than our bodies need, and we try to compensate by using different kinds of stimulants.

The prophet Heber J. Grant reiterated the principle:

“The Lord does not want you to use any drug that creates an appetite for itself.” ( April Conference 1922 )

In seeking to apply these principles of the Word of Wisdom, we should be aware that not all stimulants being used in this way in our modern society are substances we ingest or drugs we take. The physical activities in which we participate and the media we view can stimulate the exact same chemicals in our brains that partaking of these substances does. And they can be just as addictive and damaging to our health and spirituality.

I know of a man who has a lot of tattoos and piercings. He once explained to me that one of the reasons why he had so many piercings was that he discovered that the adrenaline rush he would get right before they would pierce him was like a powerful drug. Behaviors that stimulate powerful brain chemicals like adrenaline, dopamine, and seratonin can violate the principles of the Word of Wisdom even though we are not taking anything specifically prohibited.

One of the most prevalent of these kinds of behaviors is viewing pornography. While viewing pornography violates the law of Chastity, in my opinion, functionally it is more like a violation of the Word of Wisdom. It artificially stimulates the same chemicals in the brain and creates an appetite for itself in the exact same way. Perhaps it would help if we approached this problem from a Word of Wisdom point of view.

While we may not struggle with the specific prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom such as coffee or tobacco, all of us can work to better apply the principles of the Word of Wisdom in our lives and stewardships under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. It takes effort and persistence and prayer and faith. But the rewards are great.

President Heber J. Grant declared:

“I would like it known that if we as a people never used a particle of tea or coffee or of tobacco or of liquor, we would become one of the most wealthy people in the world. Why? Because we would have increased vigor of body, increased vigor of mind; we would grow spiritually; we would have a more direct line of communication with God, our Heavenly Father; we would be able to accomplish more.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, Chapter 21)

Additionally, the Lord has promised that if we will do it, we will “run and not be weary, and walk and not faint.” With that promise in mind, let me conclude by reading Isaiah Chapter 40:28-31 to which the Word of Wisdom alludes:

“Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.

He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.

Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

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4 Responses to Thoughts on the Word of Wisdom

  1. What a wonderful talk! I believe you “hit the nail on the head” with principles and stewardship. Thank you so much for sharing. My husband, a convert, struggles with his caffeine addiction. I was raised in an LDS home where we were taught to eschew caffeine; I’ve taught our five children the same. When they ask about Dad I remind them that he wasn’t taught as a child and youth, so he got addicted before he knew better, and that they have been blessed with more light and knowledge from the scriptures and teachings of modern prophets. The other important key you mention is simply obedience–it doesn’t really matter what is forbidden or encouraged, what matters is our obedience to the commandment. Thanks again.

  2. I share so many of your beliefs about the Word of Wisdom. Very well presented, too. It takes the focus off of the list of don’ts quite well.

  3. GREAT thoughts! I think another important aspect is that of separateness. The ancient dietary restrictions were partially in place to separate covenant Israel from the rest of the world, thus making them consider their true affiliation every time they ate. I think the Word of Wisdom also serves this purpose, since it’s forbidden substances pervade modern diets.

  4. J. Max Wilson

    Thanks, Aaron! You are absolutely right that the Word of Wisdom creates separateness.

    making them consider their true affiliation every time they ate

    Great insight!

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