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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 Discovering the Word of Wisdom I discussed the hazards of treating the Word of Wisdom as a Mosaic Law by focusing narrowly on the “The Letter of the Law” and ignoring the principles and doctrines on which it is based. Fortunately, we have been blessed by the counsel of LDS Church leaders to know that alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea violate the letter of the law. This standard is clear and unambiguous, but when we stop with this counsel and do not consider the rest of the counsel given to us by the Lord and our Church leaders, we may inadvertently violate the “spirit of the law” and lose out on additional promised blessings.
I’ll be the first to admit that for most of my life I was more than content to focus on the letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom and call it good. It felt great to believe that there was at least one commandment that I was living fully, without compromise. Thanks to the blessings of growing up in the Church, using alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea was never a problem. I even thought I went a step further by never knowingly consuming a caffeinated beverage. I thought I had the Word of Wisdom down.
But I also wondered why I and other faithful Saints around me had so many health issues when we were all obedient to the counsel given us. While I never believed the Word of Wisdom promised us perfect health, we didn’t appear, as a people, to be as different from the general population as one might expect of a people blessed with the Lord’s law of health. Why weren’t more of us able to run without being weary?
It wasn’t until I learned that there are hundreds, even thousands of people in this world who are enjoying dramatically better health than all the rest of us that I started to be suspicious that I had not fully understood the counsel in D&C 89. After all, was it really possible that all of these non-LDS people had discovered a law of health with much better results than what the Lord had revealed to Joseph Smith? It was then that I discovered there is more precious wisdom in D&C 89 than I had seen before. It was then that I realized that our Church leaders had never taught it is sufficient to only abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Indeed, they have always had a much broader view of the Word of Wisdom and other commandments of the Lord. Elder Boyd K. Packer taught—
The commandments found in the scriptures, both the positive counsel and the “shalt nots,” form the letter of the law. There is also the spirit of the law. We are responsible for both.
Today I explore the spirit of the law, the spirit of the Word of Wisdom.
What is the Spirit of the Law?
We typically distinguish between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Obeying the letter of the law means obeying the literal interpretation of the law. For example, the Savior said, “whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain” (Matthew 5:41). To obey the letter of that law would be to go two miles every time we are asked to go one mile. That is the literal meaning of this counsel, but of course we know the Lord is teaching a much broader lesson—to not only serve others, but to give more than they ask of us. To embrace this broader meaning, the intent behind this counsel, is to follow the spirit of the law.
In the framework I’ve been using in this series on “Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” Elder David A. Bednar’s use of the words principles and applications aptly describes this distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. Principles convey the spirit of the law. Because they are eternal and unchanging, they are deliberately ambiguous. In contrast, applications are specific behaviors, useful in particular situations, but not flexible enough to apply to all situations. Focusing on applications of gospel principles is similar (though not always identical) to focusing on the letter of the law.
The Tension Between the Letter and Spirit of the Law
As I discussed last week in “The Letter of the Law,” there is often a tension between principles and applications or between the spirit and the letter of the law. The letter of the law is fairly straightforward and unambiguous and compliance is typically easy to evaluate. In contrast, the spirit of the law can be challenging to both understand and fully implement, and it can be very difficult to evaluate whether we are doing all that we can. Although keeping the spirit of the law is ultimately of greater worth, the letter of the law can be a stepping stone, or as Paul says in Galatians 3:24, a “schoolmaster” to help us on our spiritual path.
We see the tension between the letter and the spirit of the law in every dimension of the gospel. Below are some very simple examples of counsel we have been given. I’ll suggest some ways keeping the letter of the law could differ from keeping the spirit of the law, but I encourage you think of your own examples.
Reading the scriptures
Letter of the law: Opening our scriptures and reading the text.
Spirit of the law: Preparing ourselves to be worthy of the Spirit of the Lord as we study, ponder, and pray about the scriptures, likening them to ourselves, and trying with all our hearts to allow them to enter into us and change our ways.
Letter of the law: Going without food for 24 hours and donating the value of two meals.
Spirit of the law: Prayerfully dedicating our fast for a sacred purpose and then fasting with joy and thanksgiving. Donating a generous offering with desire to bless those in need.
Letter of the law: Donate 10% of our income to the Church.
Spirit of the law: Acknowledge that everything we have belongs to the Lord. Pay a full tithe with thanksgiving and also consecrate all of our time, talents, and possessions to the Lord.
Consider for a moment the difference between keeping the letter of the law versus keeping the spirit of the law. Which is easier to understand? Which is easier to do? Which is easier to evaluate? Which did Jesus Christ do during His time on earth? Which brings us more blessings? Which will best prepare us to return and live with our Father? Which do you want to embrace?
Now consider the Word of Wisdom.
Keep the Word of Wisdom
Letter of the law: ??
Spirit of the law: ??
What do you think is the difference between keeping the letter versus the spirit of the Word of Wisdom?
As I have been suggesting in this series, I believe keeping the letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom is doing the specific behaviors our Church leaders have asked, namely: abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea as well as illegal, addictive and habit-forming substances. If we do this, we have kept the letter of the law. We all know, understand, and hopefully obey the letter of this law. However, as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf teaches us, “the Lord requires not only outward acts but also your inner thoughts and feelings to be close to the spirit of the law.”
Word of Wisdom Debates
Most of the debates about the Word of Wisdom arise from the tension between the letter and the spirit of the law. Those who champion the spirit of the Word of Wisdom often feel we are not doing enough as a people if we simply abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. They rightly point out that a lot of things Latter-day Saints consume are much less healthy than a little coffee or tea. They wonder how it can be OK to consume enough junk food to put us into a spiritual coma and still feel we are “keeping the Word of Wisdom.” They complain that we as a people tend to be overweight and suffer high rates of diet-related diseases that could be avoided if we took the counsel in the Word of Wisdom seriously.
It is not uncommon for champions of the spirit of the Word of Wisdom to mention specific foods we might be better off not consuming in order to more fully keep the Word of Wisdom. Here they are treading on sacred ground and can easily cause others to feel judged, offended, or at least irritated. Whether they question sugar, white flour, meat, drinks that are hot in temperature, herbs out of season, caffeinated sodas, or other junk foods, they are quite likely to attract criticism from other members of the Church. Those who champion the letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom rightly point out that most of these substances are not even mentioned in D&C 89, none are a part of the letter of the law, and none have been specifically prohibited by LDS Church leaders.
One can certainly sympathize with those who champion the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. Are we right to congratulate ourselves for abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea while we freely consume all manner of unhealthy, addictive, and habit-forming junk food? On the other hand, we can certainly sympathize with those who champion the letter of the Word of Wisdom. After all, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are the only specific substances prohibited by the Lord and Church leaders alike. Are not those who try to add things to the Word of Wisdom going “beyond the mark,” creating in essence an almost impossible type of Mosaic Law prescribing what one should and should not eat?
Elder Bednar’s wise distinction between doctrines, principles, and applications is very useful here. It helps us see that while the doctrines and principles are fundamental, applications of gospel principles can vary widely from person to person. As a consequence, we will always end up in trouble when we try to tell others how they should apply a particular gospel principle. We know from study and experience that due to unique circumstances, our application of any gospel principle may look different from our neighbor’s. We cherish the freedom the Lord has given us to form our own interpretations, and His promise to guide us through His Spirit.
Of course, if we are wise and don’t take offense, we may learn a great deal from others about how to apply gospel principles, even if we don’t adopt the same practices they do. Most importantly, we can prayerfully study the doctrines and principles of the Word of Wisdom to better understand the spirit of this great revelation. These help us understand why our bodies are so important and what we should do to care for them. If it is helpful, I’ve explored some of these doctrines and principles in these two articles:
Our Church Leaders on the Spirit of the Word of Wisdom
When asked why the Lord does not give further guidance on the many different foods and substances not specifically addressed in the Word of Wisdom, President Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
Such revelation is unnecessary . . . If we sincerely follow what is written with the aid of the Spirit of the Lord, we need no further counsel . . . we are promised inspiration and the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord through which we will know what is good and what is bad for the body, without the Lord presenting us with a detailed list separating the good things from the bad. . . . A safe guide to each and all is this: If in doubt as to any food or drink, whether it is good or harmful, let it alone until you have learned the truth in regard to it.
Likewise, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated:
We receive numerous letters inquiring whether this item or that item is proscribed by the Word of Wisdom. If we will avoid those things which are definitely and specifically defined, and beyond this observe the spirit of that great revelation, it will not involve a burden. It will, rather, bring a blessing.
Elder Boyd K. Packer counseled us:
There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the [Word of Wisdom].
A final example comes from Elder Richard G. Scott who asked us:
Do you scrupulously avoid the use of stimulants and substances that conflict with the intent of the Word of Wisdom, or have you made some personally rationalized exceptions?
Clearly, the Brethren’s counsel on the Word of Wisdom and caring for our bodies goes beyond simply avoiding alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, but they are wise to not give us a long list of offensive foods and substances. Like Joseph Smith, they are teaching correct principles so we can govern ourselves.
Let’s study and embrace those principles so we can govern ourselves wisely. What does the spirit of the Word of Wisdom mean to you?
One healthy way of eating that seems in harmony with the principles in the Word of Wisdom is a “whole food, plant-based diet.” For more information, see: “Getting Started on a Whole Food, Plant-based Word of Wisdom Diet.”
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. Jane 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, “Covenants,” LDS General Conference (October 1990).
 David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2011).
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “A Matter of a Few Degrees,” LDS General Conference (April 2008).
 Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Word of Wisdom,” Improvement Era (February 1956): 78–79, emphasis added.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “‘Let Us Move This Work Forward,'” LDS General Conference (October 1985), emphasis added.
 Boyd K. Packer, “The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and the Promises,” LDS General Conference (April 1996).
 Richard G. Scott, “Honor the Priesthood and Use It Well,” LDS General Conference (October 2008), emphasis added.