I recently came across an article on the Judaism site here at BellaOnline about keeping kosher. As you may know, Kashrut laws specifying how to keep Kosher cover the preparation and consumption of certain foods for the Jewish people. While the author of the article listed many possible benefits of adhering to this law, her point was that there is only one reason for keeping it: obedience to God. It occurred to me, not for the first time, how similar this code, and the struggle of the faithful to keep it, is to our own Word of Wisdom. The invitation adapted to the capabilities of the very weakest of us, and given through revelation coming up on 80 years ago, has become one of those “Mormon quirks” that make us stand out, that make us, to quote Peter, “a peculiar people.” (1 Peter 2:9) In a world where LDS individuals and the LDS culture is gaining some acceptance, it is tempting to jump to scientific research that seems to validate this principle with a promise, but whatever the physical health benefits of obeying the Word of Wisdom are, this is not primarily a code of health, nor do we adhere to it in order to stay at peak physical condition. Like our Jewish friends who keep Kosher, there is only one reason to obey the Word of Wisdom: because God said to.
In the Jewish faith, the term Chukkim refers to commandments given without any specific reason. Many scholars believe the purpose of such instruction is to allow followers to show obedience to God. In the LDS faith, while we have no specific term setting this concept apart, we, too believe in obeying the Lord whether or not He has given us a specific reason for His commandments. Indeed, such obedience is essential for developing true faith. We don’t pay tithing in order to fund the vast programs of the Church, nor do we fast once a month in order to detox our bodies. We don’t forgive because the person who wronged us deserves it, or abstain from premarital sex to avoid STD’s. We do all of these things because Father has commanded us to.
The Word of Wisdom is, of course, a code of health. It is defined under “Gospel Topics” as, “a law of health revealed by the Lord for the physical and spiritual benefit of His children.” ( lds.org ) As such, there are very obvious health benefits that come with obedience to this law. But focusing on them too much, to the point of overshadowing the simple spiritual aspect of humble compliance, results in our missing the point, or worse, obscuring it.
Our current understanding of the guidelines provided in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants is that coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs are proscribed. Less well-known are the parts about limiting consumption of meat and focusing on wholesome plants and herbs, both in our diet and for healing. What sometimes happens, is that we become caught up in these specifics, both in citing scientific research as justification for them, and in turning them into a series of "do’s and don’ts” we list, check off and are done with.
Citing modern research as validation for a revelation given well before such research existed may actually weaken our position. It is clear that tobacco is harmful and that too much saturated fat, such as what we’d ingest by eating an excessive amount of meat, can cause heart problems, but what of research that indicates that red wine or green tea might be beneficial to our health? The Lord clearly gave us the Word of Wisdom, in part, to help keep our bodies healthy, but remember D&C 29:34, “Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal;” As with other commandments, such as keeping the Sabbath holy and obeying the law of the fast, following the Word of Wisdom fully requires us to search, ponder and pray, seeking God’s guidance in order to fulfill and apply this law to our daily lives.
Many people assume the reason we are instructed to abstain from coffee or tea is that it contains caffeine. Accordingly, some members of the Church believe decaffeinated coffee is acceptable. Critics jump in triumphantly, pointing out that caffeine is found in other things not specified in the Word of Wisdom, such as chocolate or cola. And what about the alcohol in cough syrup? My response to this challenge has always been that I don’t abstain from coffee or tea in order to avoid caffeine, but to obey God’s commandments. Caffeine might be a reason for this instruction, it might be the reason for it, but my reason for obeying is that my Heavenly Father told me to, and I have faith that in time I will understand why. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon me, upon all of us, to seek to live the spirit of this law as well as the letter.
We have been instructed that “hot drinks” refers to coffee and tea, but what about taking a vitamin supplement that contains green tea extract? What about certain plants that are not illegal, but produce the same sensations and experiences as many illegal drugs? What about medical marijuana? What about taking a number of powerful prescription medications for pain, sleep, anxiety, etc? Is it acceptable to take these things any time they are offered by a physician, even if they have as great or greater an impact on our brains as illegal substances do? These questions are puzzles posed by the abundance offered in our modern world that each of us must figure out. Everything God does is for our benefit and growth. If we approach Him in humility, seeking to follow His will, He will clarify to our hearts and minds the way to live this principle, answering each of the above questions and all others like them.
The blessings we receive through obedience to the Word of Wisdom are spiritual as well as physical, just as the law is.
"And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. 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 89:18-21)
The more we humble ourselves and strive to obey this law, the greater will be the “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” we obtain, and the more fully our physical bodies will be able to support the needs of our spirits in this mortal life.