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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.
Last week in “Distinguishing Between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” I introduced a framework Elder David A. Bednar uses to help us understand and apply gospel principles. My purpose for introducing this framework was to see how it can help us better understand D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom.
In his book Increase in Learning Elder Bednar explains that gospel doctrines are foundational and must be understood to fully understand the gospel principles that flow out of them and to know how to apply those principles in particular circumstances. According to Elder Bednar, doctrines answer the question, “Why?” That is, they help us understand and appreciate why gospel principles are important and why we should love and embrace them.
Before exploring the principles found in the Word of Wisdom, it is therefore useful to study the doctrinal foundation of this wise counsel. As we do, I hope it will become clear how understanding this doctrine transforms our understanding of the principles of the Word of Wisdom and motivates us to embrace these principles like nothing else can. As Elder Boyd K. Packer taught:
True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior.
The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. . . . That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.
What is the Doctrine of the Word of Wisdom?
Where in scripture does the Lord explain why we should be careful about what we put into our bodies? Interestingly, the key doctrines of the Word of Wisdom are not directly addressed in D&C 89. But when LDS Church leaders discuss the Word of Wisdom, they consistently point to a select number of scriptures that help us understand the importance of the human body and of our taking care of this mortal tabernacle.
Like so many key doctrines, the doctrine of the Word of Wisdom is linked directly to the creation of the earth and God’s purposes for its creation. In Genesis 1 we read:
God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (Genesis 1:27)
Here we are taught that on the culminating day of creation, God took personal care in creating our bodies in His express image. According to the Psalms, we were “wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:13). Just this doctrine alone gives us some important clues as to why our bodies are so important and why we should take good care of them.
In modern-day revelation we learn more details about the explicit way in which our bodies resemble the body of God:
The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also. (D&C 130:22)
Before coming to this earth, we had a spirit body. One of the primary purposes for coming here was to receive the additional endowment of flesh and bones, a body like the one our Father and our Savior have. We hear this doctrine so often we may forget just how beautiful this truth is. Like Primary children singing, “I am a Child of God,” it is easy to repeat the words without appreciating the meaning. Perhaps this doctrine is worth taking some time to pause and ponder.
Because of the veil drawn across our memories, we’ve forgotten the eons of time we spent preparing for the opportunity to receive this inestimable gift. Before coming to this earth, we agreed that receiving this mortal tabernacle was worth risking all that earth life entails to obtain it. Oh that we could recapture the excitement we must have felt as we anticipated this critical step in our eternal journey.
Our Body is Essential to Our Salvation
Traditionally, Western religions have encouraged a focus on the spirit and a disparagement of the body. There is a long history of regarding the body as a weight that drags down the spirit’s ability to be pure and clean. The body has long been viewed as something evil, as something to overcome, as something that is an impediment to greater spiritual enlightenment. The doctrines restored through Joseph Smith correct this way of thinking. Using Latter-day scripture, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught us:
One of the “plain and precious” truths restored to this dispensation is that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man” (D&C 88:15; emphasis added) and that when the spirit and body are separated, men and women “cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:34).
Rather than being an impediment to salvation, LDS doctrine teaches that the body is essential to our ultimate exaltation. As the prophet Joseph Smith taught, “No person can have this salvation except through a tabernacle.”
Our Body as a Temple
As impressive as these doctrines of the body are, they don’t end here. In one of the key doctrines of the Word of Wisdom, the Apostle Paul taught:
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? . . . for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. (1 Cor. 3:16–17)
When we think of temples, we think of the 150 physical temples that dot the earth: buildings we’ve constructed and dedicated as houses of the Lord. But Paul teaches us a truth that transforms our understanding of the sacred nature of our mortal tabernacles. The temples that dot the earth are temples we’ve created with our hands, but our mortal tabernacles, our bodies of flesh, are temples created by the Hand of God. They were created in His image to house His Spirit. In this regard, the beautiful and sacred temples that dot the earth are but pale reflections of the temples in which we dwell.
This way of thinking is foreign to modern thought. Particularly here in the Western world, we think of ourselves as sovereign entities, in control of what is “ours,” including our bodies. We are taught to believe that no one has the right to tell us what to do with our bodies, and we have every right to do with our bodies as we will. Based on this way of thinking, our society believes we can dress as we like, mark our bodies as we please, and eat (or not eat) according to our desires.
We Mormons would be aghast if we knew someone purposely dumped trash inside one of our beautiful temples. We hold them sacred. No one has a right to trash them. But we might think quite differently about our bodies if we consider them “our property.” While we recognize we should take care of them, it is common to think they “belong” to us, and we can treat them as we please. We assume that as long as we are not hurting others, there is little true harm in eating foods that are not good for them.
Here is where the doctrine of the Word of Wisdom can help us reorient our thinking. Again from the Apostle Paul:
Know ye not that . . . ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price. (1 Cor. 6:20)
The idea that our bodies are a gift from God may tempt us to think that they are our property. This is a temptation Paul helps to correct with his declaration that our body is not our own. Our bodies have been bought with a price. And what a price it was!
A Sacred Temporal Stewardship
This doctrine helps us understand why we should follow the Lord’s counsel in taking care of our bodies, not as their owners but as their stewards. Our body does not belong to us. In a very literal sense, it belongs to our Savior. He created it. He redeemed it. It is His temple. It houses His Spirit. No wonder Elder Holland explained:
Exploitation of the body . . . is, in the last analysis, an exploitation of him who is the Light and the Life of the world.
The gift of a mortal tabernacle is not the gift of property but the gift of stewardship. This stewardship is an essential part of working out our eternal salvation before God, for without a body, there is no mortal probation. Paul goes on to say:
therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Cor. 6:20)
We probably have a better sense of what it means to “glorify God” in our spirit by living in such a way to bring praise, honor, and glory to God. But how do we glorify God in our body? After all, our body is temporal; it is made of dust and to dust it will return (Genesis 3:19).
Perhaps one way to view the Word of Wisdom is as a guidebook to help us in our stewardship, to teach us how to “glorify God” in our body. God created these temples in His image; He knows how they should be maintained, and in Section 89 He reveals His will for their “temporal salvation” (D&C 89:2). What a blessing to have this “principle with promise” (D&C 89:3).
The Great Principle of Happiness
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body.
Like all the doctrines of the gospel, the end purpose of the doctrine of the Word of Wisdom is our happiness. Understanding how integral the care of our body is to our preparation to “present it pure before God” helps us understand why the principles in the Word of Wisdom are so important.
According to Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith:
From the organization of the Church until the Word of Wisdom was given the Lord had, by revelation, tried to impress upon the members of the Church the fact that their bodies should be kept clean and pure, for they were to be the eternal tabernacles of the spirits which dwell in them. One of the main purposes of this mortal life is to obtain these bodies and if they are not kept clean then they are not fit for exaltation.
Finally, from Elder Russell M. Nelson:
With your body being such a vital part of God’s eternal plan, it is little wonder that the Apostle Paul described it as a “temple of God.” Each time you look in the mirror, see your body as your temple. That truth—refreshed gratefully each day—can positively influence your decisions about how you will care for your body and how you will use it. And those decisions will determine your destiny. How could this be? Because your body is the temple for your spirit. And how you use your body affects your spirit.
I love these doctrines! As Elder Nelson promises us, these truths “refreshed gratefully each day,” can help us make wise decisions in caring for our bodies so that we can receive all the joy and happiness our Heavenly Father desires to give us.
Next Week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Having introduced the doctrine of the Word of Wisdom, next week I plan to begin exploring the principles of the Word of Wisdom. I will start with an analysis of the most well known aspect of D&C 89, the counsel on alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Here is a question you can ponder in the meantime: is the prohibition against alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea a principle or an application of the gospel? (See: “Distinguishing Between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications”)
For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, 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.”
 Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” LDS General Conference (October 1987).
 Stephen H. Webb, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” BYU Devotional Address (January 12, 1988).
 History of the Church, 5:387–88; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on May 14, 1843.
 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 181.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1947–1950. (Salt Lake City: Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Vol. 1 (1947), 383.
 Russell M. Nelson, “Decisions for Eternity,” LDS General Conference (October 2013).