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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 time in “Going Beyond the Doctrines and Principles” I reviewed the first thirteen articles in this series and discussed the value of going from doctrines and principles to examining applications of the Word of Wisdom. The goal for today’s article is to introduce a visual representation of one model for thinking about the Word of Wisdom. I hope it will create new awareness and insight for those seeking fresh approaches to this great revelation.
Applying the Doctrine and Principles of the Word of Wisdom
Many people believe the Word of Wisdom is very clear about the diet it recommends. What is interesting is that their interpretations of what it advocates vary—widely. Did the Lord do a poor job communicating? Or is it possible that understanding the will of the Lord demands a lot more of our effort than we generally suppose? And is it possible that our individual paths to embracing the Word of Wisdom may differ for good reasons—sometimes to a great degree?
Our bodies are much more complex than cars and yet the instruction manual we’ve received from God (the Word of Wisdom) is much less detailed. Even when the revelation in D&C 89 is combined with counsel from our Church leaders, we are still left with fairly broad-based principles:
- Treat your body as a temple of God and glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:19–20)
- Avoid all addictive, habit-forming, or harmful substances. (LDS Church leaders )
- Abstain from anything that is “not good, neither meet” to consume (D&C 89:5–9)
- Consume wholesome herbs and fruit “in the season thereof.” (D&C 89:10–11)
- Use animal flesh “sparingly” and preferably only during certain times. (D&C 89:12–13)
- Make grain the “staff of life.” (D&C 89:14–17)
While, of course, each principle is very important, principles are not unambiguous “dos and don’ts” that spare us from the need to seek the Spirit to help guide our interpretation. If it is not immediately clear how to follow these principles, we should ponder the fact that other gospel principles are ambiguous in just this way:
- Love your neighbor.
- Honor your parents.
- Have faith in God.
The Word of Wisdom is like the other commandments of the Lord in that Church leaders emphasize only a few specific behaviors to help guide us. For example, we know that part of keeping the Sabbath day holy is going to church and partaking of the sacrament, but we also know that simply doing these things is not enough and that how we do them is as important as what we do. Another example is fasting. Part of fasting is abstaining from food, but simply abstaining from food does not fulfill the spiritual principle of fasting.
Likewise, we know that abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea is part of keeping the Word of Wisdom. Most of us also realize, however, that observing just this aspect of the Word of Wisdom is not enough. Church leaders have repeatedly told us that we are responsible for both the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law.
The letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom is easy enough to identify. But D&C 89 also includes many verses of counsel on what foods we should eat, why we should eat them, and even the emphasis we should give to each type of food. So how do we apply this counsel? Exactly which diets do and do not honor the spirit of this great revelation?
Below is a simple visualization I’ve created to capture both the letter and the spirit of the Word of Wisdom while also honoring the differences between doctrines, principles, and applications.
The Letter of the Law
Because Church leaders have clearly defined the letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom (see the blue box in the visualization), it is equally clear that disobeying the letter of this law is an obvious violation of the Word of Wisdom (see the bottom rung in the visualization). Because it is so well defined, we can draw a solid line to mark off the behaviors that separate what it means to keep or not keep the letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom.
Interestingly, people who violate the letter of the law of the Word of Wisdom (whether they are LDS or not) do not necessarily have an overall worse diet or worse health results than those who keep the letter of the law. Nevertheless, it is part of our faith that we are blessed when we strictly follow the counsel of our leaders. The Church consistently emphasizes the importance of this law by linking our obedience to important opportunities and blessings, like baptism, priesthood ordination, and temple attendance. I am sure I speak for a great many Church members when I express my deep gratitude for this wise and powerful counsel which has saved so many of us from a lifetime of unhealthy habits.
The Spirit of the Law
What about the dietary counsel in D&C 89? Here Church leaders have not established an agreed-on interpretation to which Church members must adhere, but one thing is known about this part of the Lord’s revelation: Church leaders have never stated it is not important. They have never told us that we may safely ignore it simply because they are not going to spell out hard and fast rules about it. Quite the contrary. We are repeatedly told that we are also responsible for this part of the revelation. Just in the last General Conference, for example, President Thomas S. Monson reminded us:
The Word of Wisdom…gives specific direction regarding the food we eat.
Note that while our prophet declared that the Word of Wisdom gives us “specific direction regarding the food we eat,” Church leaders have only rarely attempted to clarify what that means in any great detail and have issued no authoritative direction that is binding on Church members. In fact, they appear less and less likely to spell out the details for us. Rather, they address it in more general terms that are open to interpretation. Here for example is a section from the Gospel Topics article on the Word of Wisdom on lds.org:
The Lord also declared in the Word of Wisdom that the following foods are good:
Vegetables and fruits, which should be used “with prudence and thanksgiving” (see D&C 89:10-11).
The flesh “of beasts and of the fowls of the air,” which is “to be used sparingly” (see D&C 89:12-13).
Grains such as wheat, rice, and oats, which are “the staff of life” (see D&C 89:14-17).
Given these principles, I believe equally faithful Latter-day Saints might honestly label any number of diets as a “Word of Wisdom diet.” Here are just a few popular ones:
- Whole Food, Plant-Based (WFPB)
- Mediterranean Diet
- DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
- USDA Dietary Guidelines
If we are sincerely trying to follow the doctrines and principles of the Word of Wisdom to the best of our understanding, and we feel comfortable that a certain diet is in harmony with the Word of Wisdom, it seems to me that diet is for us a “Word of Wisdom diet.” Consequently, we should expect blessings to follow from applying what we believe to be in harmony with the Lord’s will. In my opinion, doing this is following the “spirit of the law of the Word of Wisdom” (see the green text in the visualization).
Of course, the fact that many diets could qualify as a Word of Wisdom diet does not make them all equal to each other in terms of their health benefits. Since food is such a personal and socially complex aspect of our lives, health considerations may not even be the only criteria we use to choose a diet that is best for us. The following considerations indicate the variety of factors that might be important to us as we make dietary decisions:
- We feel it is acceptable to God at this point in our lives.
- It addresses our specific health concerns.
- It is supported by historical, scientific, and clinical evidence.
- It works within our lifestyle and budget.
- It fits with our family and social situation.
- It is doable within the local culture and the foods that are available.
- It is something we enjoy and want to embrace.
- It supports our stewardship of the Lord’s animals and His earth.
- It is in harmony with the principles in D&C 89.
Each of us has the privilege of choosing the diet we feel is best for us at this time in our lives. Even the healthiest diets have their strengths and weaknesses in relationship to the above criteria. We can evaluate these strengths and weaknesses with the Lord’s guidance. What I decide is right for me in my life right now may not be exactly the same as next year, and, obviously, it may not be what you decide is right for you now or next year.
Adapted to the Weakest, But Growing Bright and Brighter
In Section 89, we are told that this great revelation is “adapted to the weak and the weakest of all Saints” (D&C 89:3). This suggests that the counsel given here is just part of all that the Lord would be pleased to reveal to us. This suggests that there is much more light and truth about how to care for our bodies than these basic principles. Surely one blessing we receive by applying the principles to the best of our understanding is being in a position to obtain even further light and knowledge from the Lord. This further light will continue to deepen our understanding and refine our application. As our minds become single to God, He can guide us by His Spirit into all wisdom and understanding, but this is a long process for most of us (see the orange text in the visualization).
Speaking for myself, I am sadly not always anxious to receive additional commandments from the Lord. I too often look at these as a means of restriction rather than redemption. Logically, I know this is not correct. Following the Lord’s path leads to liberation. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland made this point recently in a powerful one-minute video concerning the Sabbath day. In the video he uses the two intersecting triangles of the Star of David to demonstrate how the Sabbath day is more about expansion than restriction. He shares his testimony that “the resulting freedom” of keeping the Sabbath day holy “is tremendous expansiveness that we would not have had any other way.”
Likewise, keeping the spirit of the Word of Wisdom is not primarily about restriction. Rather, it is a key to unlocking precious and eternal blessings, including “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (D&C 89:19). As we open ourselves to being led by the Spirit of the Lord in all we do to care for our body and spirit, that same Spirit is again able to lead us to a “tremendous expansiveness that we would not have had any other way.” That future is truly glorious and without limitation!
I am grateful the Word of Wisdom is designed for the “weakest of the weak.” What a tender mercy from our Lord. It makes the Word of Wisdom much less intimidating knowing that our Savior knows we have all we need to move forward with the counsel He has given us.
As you reflect on this visualization of the Word of Wisdom, where would you like to be? Which of the blessings that the Lord promises in D&C 89 would you like to claim? What is the next step you could take to move closer to claiming those blessings?
One particularly healthy Word of Wisdom diet is based on whole food, plant-based nutrition. For more information, see: “Getting Started on a WFPB 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. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 See example quotations in Jane Birch, “The Principle Behind Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee, and Tea,” Meridian Magazine (September 12, 2016).
 Here is just one example: 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. Do not forget: it is the Lord who has made the promise.” (“‘Let Us Move This Work Forward,'” Ensign, November 1985, p. 85).
 Thomas S. Monson, “Principles and Promises,” October 2016 General Conference.
 See the interchange Elder David A. Bednar had with a Church member which is quoted in Jane Birch, “Going Beyond the Doctrines and Principles,” Meridian Magazine (January 23, 2017).
 Word of Wisdom in Gospel Topics on lds.org.
 Jane Birch, “Shake Off the Chains,” Meridian Magazine (November 16, 2015).
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “Upon My Holy Day,” on LDS Instagram.