(post originally written in 2017, tweaked a little for 2021)
Whenever church lessons cycle around to include the Word of Wisdom, I see an uptick in people talking about it, which is great. Unfortunately, I also see a lot of inaccurate info being passed around and even contention in those discussions. As I read those things I asked myself a question, “Are we making this harder than it has to be?” My goal with this post is to merely point out some issues and ideas to help make our understanding of this commandment a little less complicated.
The Three Premises
Before we jump into the Word of Wisdom, here are three concepts that are essential to having a correct understanding of the Word of Wisdom, AND the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we do not accept these three things, none of it will ever make sense, and we will never reach a point of simplicity.
- God speaks to us through His prophets.
- Living prophets supercede dead prophets.
- The words of living prophets (modern scripture) supersede ancient scripture (the Standard Works) Here are citations for all three: (D&C 1:38. D&C 21:5. D&C 68:3-4. D&C 112:20. D&C 124:45–46)
If those three concepts rub you the wrong way, then you won’t much like what I have to say from here on out. To keep it simple, I will refer to these three things as “The Premises” for the rest of the post.
Now, an analogy: Let’s say you use some specific software for your computer – like Photoshop. The first version I ever used was 1.0, way back in 1990. Since then, there have been something like 25 upgrades to the program.
Here is the question: If I need help with Photoshop v. cc 2017 1.1, do I dig out my old 1.0 manual to figure out my problem, or do I look online for the newest instructions?
A bit of a no brainer. Yet, I read responses from people saying things like, “In Section 89 it says…” or “I answered the survey questions based on what is written in Section 89.”
Why would you base knowledge of the Word of Wisdom on the first version that was given 184 years ago, when there have been so many upgrades since then?
To explore that idea, let’s look at some concepts that came to light from obvious misunderstandings that were brought up in the survey.
1. The Word of Wisdom IS a Commandment.
If you do not believe in The Premises, then you might find yourself bringing up D&C 89:2, where the Lord introduced the Word of Wisdom by saying, “To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom…” This scripture does a great job in arguing that the Word of Wisdom is NOT a commandment, merely wise counsel – which is exactly right – IF you lived in 1833. But that was version 1.0.
Today’s upgraded version is different, and in force, if you have a testimony of The Premises.
“In 1851, President Brigham Young proposed to the general conference of the Church that all Saints formally covenant to keep the Word of Wisdom. This proposal was unanimously upheld by the membership of the Church. Since that day, the revelation has been a binding commandment on all Church members.” (Ezra Taft Benson, 1983)
Basically, the “non-binding” version only lasted about 18 years before the upgrade to commandment status. It has been taught as a commandment ever since. In 1921, President Heber J. Grant added adherence to the Word of Wisdom to the requirement to enter the temple. (link)
2. “Hot Drinks” Means Tea and Coffee. Period.
If you read D&C 89:9, you will see, “And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” What does that mean? Is hot chocolate a “hot drink?” Is iced Coffee okay? What about iced tea? Green tea? The original version opens up a lot of questions.
Apparently those questions about hot drinks popped up immediately after the revelation was announced. Both Joseph and Hyrum Smith both taught that “hot drinks” meant tea and coffee. (link) The Prophet Joseph said:
“I understand that some of the people are excusing themselves in using tea and coffee, because the Lord only said ‘hot drinks’ in the revelation of the Word of Wisdom. … Tea and coffee are what the Lord meant when He said ‘hot drinks.’”
So that version was very short-lived. Ever since then, “hot drinks” has been defined as tea and coffee. Of course in our society, there are all sorts of new ways to consume those two things. Iced coffee, iced tea, frappuccinos, etc. Coffee is coffee is coffee.
Tea has even more new ways to be consumed. Hot, cold, green, white, black, oolong, etc. However, anyone who spends more that 30 seconds researching will quickly find that black, green and white teas all come from the exact same plant. The only difference is the way that it is processed. Tea is tea is tea. If you read the label on the can, bottle or box, and one of the ingredients is “tea.” then it contains “tea.” Simple enough? Color is irrelevant. Green teas should keep us out of the temple just like coffee or alcohol.
But what about herbal teas? If it says things like mint, chamomile, peppermint etc., but does NOT list an ingredient that says “tea.” then it is not “tea.”
3. Stay Away From Strong Drinks, Hot Drinks and Tobacco – and Drugs.
I don’t know what illicit drugs existed back in the 1800’s, but I am pretty sure we have them beat. Pot, heroin, cocaine, meth and other illegal drugs are joined by a host of prescription drugs in a scourge on our society.
While these things are not listed in Section 89, they have been added by the Lord’s servants. President Hinkley is awesome:
“Some have even used as an alibi the fact that drugs are not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom. What a miserable excuse. There is likewise no mention of the hazards of diving into an empty swimming pool or of jumping from an overpass onto the freeway.” (link)
Over my lifetime, drugs have always been considered part of the Word of Wisdom. I don’t know when that began, but I’m sure it came about as a result of The Premises mentioned earlier.
These are just three examples of how using the original text of the Word of Wisdom will leave us lacking. It has evolved since then, as society has devolved. If we don’t embrace The Premises, then we can busy ourselves making our own wine, etc. and rehashing the same Word of Wisdom arguments forever. Moving on…
Here are a few of MY observations regarding the Word of Wisdom to chew on. Get it?
1) Not All Aspects of the Word of Wisdom Carry Equal Weight…Right Now
Once I got criticized by a reader for not emphasizing 89:11, which reads, “Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.”
Her problem with me? I was not teaching that we should only eat fruit in the corresponding season. For example, eat tomatoes only in the summer. To me, this was bizarro logic, because following it to an extreme would make it so you could never eat a salad in Utah in January. Right?
I did spend some time searching our modern scriptures (General Conference talks) to see if any of the brethren had addressed this thing, and I had just missed it. I searched, and couldn’t find one reference from the brethren that suggested that we limit our intake of herbs and fruit to certain seasons.
My conclusion: There are other, more important things that the Lord wants His representatives to be teaching us than seasonal fruit issues. That is part of The Premises. (Perhaps it doesn’t even apply now that we have freight and refrigeration capabilities that weren’t even dreamed of in 1833.)
President Harold B. Lee once taught that what we hear in General Conference is more than just a series of random lessons”
“If you want to know what the Lord would have the Saints know and to have his guidance and direction for the next six months, get a copy of the proceedings of this conference, and you will have the latest word of the Lord as far as the Saints are concerned.” (link)
Apparently eating a BLT in February in Idaho is not one of those things.
Another thing that does not seem to be a top issue with the Lord and the brethren is the eating of meat. If you search the General Conference talks for the past forever, there are exactly two instances where a prophet speaks about this issue. One is from President Ezra Taft Benson, where he mentions it briefly, and opens the context to indiscriminate killing. “In this revelation the Lord counsels us to use meat sparingly. I have often felt that the Lord is further counseling us in this revelation against indiscriminately killing animals, for He has said elsewhere in scripture, “Wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” (link)
The other citation I could find was Elder Boyd K. Packer, but he was using the concept as an example of people becoming fanatics:
“Avoid being extreme or fanatical or becoming a faddist. For example, the Word of Wisdom counsels us to eat meat sparingly. Lest someone become extreme, we are told in another revelation that “whoso forbiddeth to eat meat is not ordained of God.” (D&C 49:18).(link)
As far as I could tell, none of the brethren have ever even used the words “vegan” or “vegetarianism” in a General Conference talk. (Other than one side reference to Ghandi.) Apparently, and much to my delight, the consumption of meat is not very high on the Lord’s list of concerns He has for His children. I guess there are bigger fish to fry. Yum.
Of course this could all change in a heartbeat. Maybe next October we will all be challenged to go vegan, or ‘eat more chikin,’ or stop buying grapes in December. It is always possible… but for now, I am going to focus on the things the Lord is focusing on.
2) Our Personal Beliefs Do Not Change the Word of Wisdom
Whenever there is a discussion that involves the Word of Wisdom, someone invariably brings up something that is NOT part of the Word of Wisdom by saying that it “should be,” or that it is implied. Oops.
Yes, we eat too much sugar. Yes, caffeine is the devil. Yes, the saints eat too much ice cream. Yes, being overweight is probably more dangerous than tea, etc.
All of those things may be absolutely true, yet none of them are a part of the Word of Wisdom. I find it remarkable how often people want to insert their own personal beliefs into the commandment, and expect others to live by it. I have even seen people take the Word of Wisdom, add a dash of the popular modern philosophies of health and science, and then start hawking books and cookbooks with the actual name “Word of Wisdom” in the title. (Funny, I don’t remember any of the brethren endorsing a Word of Wisdom diet.)
God’s servants speak for God. And one of the things God rarely does is explain his reasoning. Don;t get hung up on that.
3) The “Don’ts” Get More Attention Than the “Dos”
Earlier, I gave two example of directives from the Word of Wisdom that the Lord has not had His servants push. In contrast, search for the word “addiction” in the General Conference talks. Page after page of talks about addictions come up. Alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, pornography and even prescription drugs are spoken of over and over again.
One of the key concerns is how addiction affects agency. President Nelson taught, “We are free to take drugs or not. But once we choose to use a habit-forming drug, we are bound to the consequences of that choice. Addiction surrenders later freedom to choose. Through chemical means, one can literally become disconnected from his or her own will!” (link)
The Lord and his servants are incredibly concerned about addiction. This happens at all levels of the Church. The substances that are most commonly talked about in worthiness interviews are drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Participation in these addictive substances is a deal-breaker when trying to be baptized or to enter a temple.
On the other hand, not eating enough whole grains has never once come up in a worthiness interview that I am aware of.
So yes, the “Don’ts” get more attention than the “Dos,” possibly because the “Don’ts” pose a greater danger to our spiritual growth and progression.
The observance of the “Don’ts” is also easy to quantify: “Do you smoke – yes or no?” Yet the “Dos” offer a never-ending opportunity for improvement. I can always eat healthier, plan and shop for food more carefully, add more fruits and vegetables to my diet, etc.
4) There IS Flexibilty in SOME of the Word of Wisdom.
Do you have celiac disease? I cannot believe for a minute that Heavenly Father would expect you to consider wheat as your mainstay just because He said it in Section 89.
Many people who suffer from cancer or other debilitating conditions find relief through medical marijuana. Just last year the Church released a statement that read, “While we are not in a position to evaluate specific medical claims, the Church understands that there are some individuals who may benefit from the medical use of compounds found in marijuana.” (link)
In both these instances, the remedy flies in direct conflict with the teachings of the Word of Wisdom, and I’m sure there are countless more. Personally, I believe God is merciful, and it is not for me to judge. There are circumstances where exceptions are granted – but exceptions are just that – exceptions, and shouldn’t be used to minimize the importance of the norm. Self-decided exceptions can get into fuzzy areas quickly,. For example: A young man can take Ritalin for his ADHD and it is a medical treatment, but if his brother steals a pill and takes it for fun, it is a sin.
Personally, if I ever felt I needed an exception to this, or any other commandment, I would consult with the Judge in Israel who has stewardship over me. That’s right: My Bishop. I would not take a decision like that lightly.
I did not intend for this to be this long, so I will summarize it briefly:
• The Lord has graciously given us the Word of Wisdom to help protect us and bless us physically, mentally and spiritually. I know this is true. I also know that I have much room for improvement.
• The Word of Wisdom is ever-evolving because the world we live in is ever-changing. If we don’t acknowledge these changes, our beliefs become outdated.
• If I am hung up on a part of the Word of Wisdom (or the entire Gospel) that the Lord and His servants don’t seem too concerned about, I should probably reevaluate my focus.
• If I find myself criticizing the Lord or His servants, and suggesting the I know what should and shouldn’t be in the Word of Wisdom, I ought to take a deep breath and re-think what I am doing.
• If you do not have a testimony of The Premises that I outlined earlier, please get one. That way, when the inevitable changes come, you will be able to adapt to them and count them as blessings. It will also prevent you from wrestling with, or sharing out-dated doctrine.
• The blessings that come from living the Word of Wisdom are real, and worth it.
I wrote two previous posts about the Word of Wisdom back in 2012 that you might find applicable: