This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
This article is part of a continuing series on the doctrines, principles and applications of the Word of Wisdom. In the thirteen articles I’ve written in this series so far, I’ve focused on the doctrine and principles of the Word of Wisdom. Before I go on to discuss the applications, here is a very brief overview of the series to date. Click on any title below for the full article.
- Doctrines and Principles of the Word of Wisdom
In his book Increase in Learning Elder David A. Bednar presents a powerful framework for understanding and applying the gospel. By distinguishing between doctrines, principles, and applications, Elder Bednar reminds us to build our understanding of the gospel on a solid foundation: first doctrines, then principles, and last individual applications. Absent true doctrine and principles, there is no sure foundation for applying the gospel in our lives. I use Elder Bednar’s powerful framework throughout this series to help us better understand the Word of Wisdom.
Distinguishing Between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications. Elder Bednar explains that doctrines, principles, and applications each answer a different question. Doctrines answer the question, “Why?” (e.g. Why are these truths important?). Principles help us understand “What?” (e.g. Given this doctrine, what guidelines should direct our actions?). Applications answer, “How?” (e.g. How do we apply gospel principles given our individual needs and circumstances?).
The Doctrine of the Word of Wisdom. Doctrines are the ultimate source of understanding why things are the way they are, why our Father has given us the counsel He has given us, and why we should desire to follow His counsel. Any understanding of the principles and applications of the Word of Wisdom should be built on the doctrine of the Word of Wisdom. This article is an exploration of that doctrine.
Rethinking Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee, and Tea. What are the fundamental principles of the Word of Wisdom? Elder Bednar’s work suggests we rethink our understanding of the role alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea play in the Word of Wisdom. We typically think of the admonition to abstain from these substances as a gospel principle. A closer look suggests abstinence from these substances is an application of a more fundamental principle that is broader in scope.
The Principle Behind Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee, and Tea. In this article, I explore the fundamental Word of Wisdom principle behind the counsel to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. As important as abstinence is, the underlying principle helps us know how to apply the Word of Wisdom beyond the narrower scope of these four substances.
- The Lord’s Way of Teaching Doctrines and Principles
At this point in the series I explore how the Lord communicates gospel doctrines and principles to us. This exploration is important to unraveling the confusion that is often generated by what some members feel is the lack of clarity in the Word of Wisdom and the role Church leaders take in helping us to apply the counsel.
The Letter of the Law. When we focus on the letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom, we discover that it is not flexible enough to guide us in many real-life situations. When we treat the Word of Wisdom as a list of do’s and don’ts, it becomes impossible for us to confidently make dietary decisions that aren’t explicitly addressed in the revelation.
The Spirit of the Law. While the letter of the law is important, LDS Church leaders consistently teach us that we also need to follow the Spirit of the Word of Wisdom. In this article, I explore the differences between the letter and the spirit of the law. I also suggest how understanding these differences can help us understand some of the long-standing debates and controversies about the Word of Wisdom.
Section 89 as Parable. When we expect the scriptures to give us unambiguous, point blank explanations, we may be misunderstanding the way God teaches us. We may find it useful to think of Section 89 as a parable in that it leaves breathing room for various interpretations, so that we can get out of it what we are ready for.
Why God Doesn’t Over-Explain. Many Saints have puzzled over the meaning of the Word of Wisdom. Why is this revelation, like so many scriptures, at least somewhat obscure? We all want to follow the Lord, so why doesn’t He just make His counsel plain to our understanding? These are questions I explore in this article.
- Principles of the Word of Wisdom Continued: The Foods Ordained by God
In D&C 89, the Lord tells us He has ordained three foods for our use: plant foods, animal flesh, and grains. He also describes the specific role each of these foods are ordained to perform in the human diet.
Three Foods Ordained by God. In this article I give an overview of the three foods ordained by God and explore what it might mean for a food to be ordained.
The Wholesome Herbs Ordained by God. “Whole herbs” and “every fruit” include all the edible parts of all wholesome plant foods, which include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. The Lord ordained these plant foods “for the constitution, nature, and use of man” (D&C 89:10).
Animal Flesh is Ordained by God. In addition to plant foods, the Lord ordained “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air” (D&C 89:12). In contrast to plant foods, these foods are not ordained for our constitution or nature, but instead for our “use” only, and we are asked to use these foods sparingly. In addition, the Lord tells, “it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used” except under certain conditions (D&C 89:13; see also vs. 15).
Are Fish Ordained by God? Just as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are used as examples of the types of substances that we should not use, is it possible that beasts and fowls are used as examples of the types of foods that should be used sparingly and only under certain conditions? I explore this possibility in this article on fish.
God Ordained Grain as the Staff of Life. Of all the plant foods the Lord ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use,” He tells us that grains are ordained for a special role: to serve as the “staff of life,” or the staple food for humans. In this article, I explain why these foods are critical to the Plan of Salvation and explore the possibility that grains are used as examples of the types of foods that serve this important function.
Applying the Doctrines and Principles of the Word of Wisdom
In contrast to doctrines and principles, which are eternal, Elder Bednar describes applications in this way:
Applications are the actual behaviors, action steps, practices, or procedures by which gospel doctrines and principles are enacted in our lives. Whereas doctrines and principles do not change, applications appropriately can vary according to needs and circumstances. Applications answer the question of “how.” Many applications can grow out of and be associated with a single principle. (see Note 1, p. 156)
For reasons made plain by Elder Bednar’s model, Church leaders generally do not give us specific instructions for how to apply doctrines and principles in our individual circumstances. Rather, like Joseph Smith, they teach correct principles to enable us to govern our own actions. The following story shared by Elder Bednar in 2013 is helpful in demonstrating how LDS Church leaders view these distinctions in the context of the Word of Wisdom:
I was in a large priesthood leadership conference, and we opened it up for questions, and [there was] a new convert who had come from a denomination where they had a very strict dietary code—things you could and could not eat. So his question was, “Elder Bednar, can I eat pork?” And I said, “Let me recommend that you read the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. That contains what’s called the Word of Wisdom, and you’ll find your answer in there.”
He said, “That’s not a very good answer. I just want to know if I can eat pork.” And I said, “You have a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants?” and he said, “Yes,” and I said, “Section 89 is where you’ll find the answer.” And he almost started to get angry. And he just kept saying, “Look, this isn’t a hard question. I just want a yes or no. Can I eat pork?”
After about three or four minutes, people were starting to get pretty nervous in the congregation, and I just said, “Look, let’s just call this a truce. You’re going to keep asking for a yes or no answer, and I’m not going to give you one, and the only way this is going to work out is you’re just going to have to go read Section 89 and that’s where you are going to find the answer.” And he was not happy; he was really not happy. And I was concerned that maybe he was offended or he thought I was being too hard on him or something.
The next day, when we came for the general session, one of the folks who was there helping with the sound system came up, and he said, “That gentleman from the priesthood meeting came up to me this morning, and he said, ‘I don’t know that I’ll get to see Elder Bednar, but he said you tell him, I found my answer.’”
Now, few things tickle me more. He didn’t say, “I got an answer,” he said, “I found my answer.”
Clearly, the Brethren feel we have been given enough find our answers to the important questions we might ask about applying the doctrines and principles of the Word of Wisdom. If this is the case, is there any value in discussing individual applications of the Word of Wisdom?
The Value of Discussing Gospel Applications
Since we have the doctrine and principles of the Word of Wisdom, what is the value of discussing applications of those principles? Consider, for example, how President Russell M. Nelson is helping us better understand how to keep the Sabbath Holy. In his address in the April 2015 General Conference, he suggested that the various applications of keeping the Sabbath Day Holy (the do’s and the don’ts) were ultimately not useful once he established a mature understanding of how to apply the essential gospel principle. Here is the key text:
In my much younger years, I studied the work of others who had compiled lists of things to do and things not to do on the Sabbath. It wasn’t until later that I learned from the scriptures that my conduct and my attitude on the Sabbath constituted a sign between me and my Heavenly Father. With that understanding, I no longer needed lists of dos and don’ts. When I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, “What sign do I want to give to God?” That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear.
If the principles of the gospel make it “crystal clear” what we should and should not do, what possible value could there be in discussing the applications, the “dos and don’ts”?
Here is where the principles explored in the articles listed above under “B. The Lord’s Way of Teaching Doctrines and Principles” can shed light. These principles suggest that because we are all at different places in our path to understanding, what is a “crystal clear” signal to an apostle is not necessarily crystal clear to each member of the Church. This may be especially true of children, youth, and members with less experience or practice in gospel living.
Given the Lord’s way of teaching us, we should not expect official instructions from LDS Church leaders on how we should apply every aspect of the Word of Wisdom as individuals. Nevertheless, the following are reasons why discussing gospel applications can be very valuable.
It helps us get ideas about how to apply the principles. As useful as it is to President Nelson and many Church members to use the question “What sign do I want to give to God?” additional guidance and suggestions for ways to keep the Sabbath Day Holy can also be useful. Even President Nelson was aided as a younger member by the lists of “dos and don’ts.” Without concrete ideas, our immaturity might lead us to logical, but ultimately unfruitful paths. For example, we might think that spending quality time with our family at professional ball games on the Sabbath Day is a great way to show our love for the Lord (although that could conceivably be appropriate under special circumstances).
It allows us to learn from the experiences of others. As others share their experiences, the consequences of those experiences, and what they learned from them, our own learning can be accelerated. Good examples may resonate with us and help us quickly adopt better practices. Negative examples can help us avoid dangerous side paths that might lead us astray.
It helps us desire higher standards than we might have otherwise. We tend to assume we understand when something makes sense to us, not realizing that there are almost infinite layers of understanding. We can stop short of reaching a higher goal if we falsely believe we fully understand a principle. Change is often difficult, especially dramatic change, but when we see others taking a higher path and testifying of the blessings they are receiving, our sights are raised, and our hopes lifted up. We are motivated to do more to embrace the Lord’s counsel.
Of course there are also dangers in misappropriating ideas and insights shared by others. The way other members apply the principles of the gospel are not the principles themselves. They are the individual applications of the principles, and we should be particularly cautious of turning applications into principles. And we should be careful to not assume that our own interpretation of gospel principles is the one others should adopt. Studying Elder Bednar’s framework on doctrines, principles, and applications can help us understand why this is important and how to keep these distinct.
Next Time: Applications
My understanding is that the Word of Wisdom is the text in D&C 89 (with the added clarification given in the Church handbook). Even among those Church members who are conscientiously trying to apply the principles of the Word of Wisdom, there is a wide diversity of interpretation and applications. I believe this is as it should be. While the doctrine and principles of the Word of Wisdom are simple and powerful, they are not unambiguous, and they do not provide straightforward guidelines to their application.
How then can we profitably discuss applications of the Word of Wisdom? In the next article in this series, I plan to present one model for framing the Word of Wisdom that honors both the letter and the spirit of the law as well as the distinction between principles and applications.
One healthy way of eating in harmony with the Word of Wisdom is a whole food, plant-based diet. For more information, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2011).
 David A. Bednar interviewed by Russell T. Osguthorpe, “The Importance of Teaching in the Gospel, Part 2,” Teaching, No Greater Call podcast series, 16 (2013).
 Russell M. Nelson, “The Sabbath Is a Delight,” General Conference (April 2015).