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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.
Today’s article is the final in a series on the doctrines, principles, and applications of the Word of Wisdom. In this article I explore the idea that any good diet both extends our understanding of the Word of Wisdom and at the same time falls far short of what the Lord wants to reveal to us. Even the healthiest diet created by humans cannot match a diet created by our Savior. One is the wisdom of the world and the other is the wisdom of God. One may help us live longer, healthier lives, but the other can help us prepare for exaltation.
What Popular Diets Can Teach Us
Mormons have said a great deal about the Word of Wisdom since it was first revealed in 1833. One consistent fact about all who have spoken or written about the Word of Wisdom is that they have interpreted this revelation through the lens of the science and/or health ideas that were popular in their day. In fact, it is impossible for any of us to interpret the Word of Wisdom without being influenced by our understanding of science and what makes for good health. This has advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that what counts as scientifically accurate and widely accepted wisdom changes over time. So, health claims about the Word of Wisdom confidently asserted by earlier Latter-day Saints may appear naïve, or even foolish, given what we know today.
Notwithstanding the fact that science can prejudice our interpretation of D&C 89, worldly knowledge has its distinct advantages. In fact, without the lens of scholarly understanding it is doubtful most of us would get much from the text alone. Even our ability to read the words on the page is only possible because of the study and learning we have received from the world. None of us have the ability to automatically know the mind of God for every revelation. The interpretive lens we get from the wisdom of the world is not only necessary, it is useful. It can give us insight into the meaning of the text and motivate us to bring our lives into compliance with the wisdom we find.
Without the wisdom of the world, we’d be blind to much of the wisdom in D&C 89. Since 1833, most of the powerful insights Latter-days Saints have “discovered” in the Word of Wisdom were first discovered by scientists or other thoughtful people not of our faith. These discoveries came through the hard work of research, the application of logic and the tools of scholarship, and much perseverance, sometimes in the face of severe opposition. We owe a debt of gratitude to the wisdom of the world for opening up many insights into this sacred text.
The Danger of Being Blinded by the Philosophies of Man
While we should appreciate the ways scholarly learning can help us approach the Word of Wisdom, it is also important to remember that the wisdom of the world can blind us to the wisdom of God. No matter how excellent a popular diet may be, diets devised by humans are not divine; the wisdoms of the world are also the philosophies of man. They may contain much truth and light, but they are not perfect, and we should not put our unquestioned faith in them.
We can see this clearly in the many misguided notions that earlier Latter-day Saints proclaimed about the Word of Wisdom. For example, early Saints assumed that meat was better to consume during periods of cold and winter because it provided heat to the body. Thanks to sophisticated modern methods of testing this hypothesis, we know there is no scientific basis for this assertion. Likewise, in keeping with the dietary doctrine of the time, earlier Saints assumed that dairy was a necessary and vital part of the human diet, especially given that the Lord asks us to consume meat “sparingly” at most. Now, of course, we know that roughly 75% of the world is lactose intolerant and that peoples of all pre-modern large civilizations throughout history have gotten along just fine without consuming dairy after they were weaned. This enables us to more objectively read D&C 89 and note that dairy is not featured as a food that is a necessary part of the human diet and that the Lord does not explicitly include it among the foods that are ordained for human use.
Recognizing the prejudices of previous generations should make us wonder whether the beliefs we have such confidence in today may not turn out to be as correct as we think in the years to come. The fact that so many intelligent, faithful Latter-day Saints have made flawed judgment calls about the Word of Wisdom because of their faith in the science of their day should make all of us hesitant to dogmatically declare that we somehow know the “whole truth” about the Word of Wisdom because of our confidence in the science of our day.
In my work at Brigham Young University, I help BYU faculty find connections between the gospel and the wisdom of the world. These connections can be very illuminating, both in helping us better understand secular truths and also in shedding light on our understanding of the gospel. However, we occasionally find LDS scholars taking these connections a bit too far by suggesting a more perfect fit between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God than is warranted. We find the same impulse among members of the Church who believe some popular theory, social movement, political party, or other human endeavor is so grounded in gospel truth that they can’t separate it from the gospel itself. In a brilliant article in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Rick Anderson addresses this issue and calls on us to not conflate the gospel with the philosophies of man. He summarizes his point well in this paragraph:
We are called as Latter-day Saints to be a force for good in the world in every way possible, which necessarily includes active and positive engagement with political and social issues. At the same time, it is essential to our spiritual survival that we never allow ourselves to forget the radical difference between the philosophies of men — no matter how superficially harmonious some of these may seem with particular principles of the gospel or with some aspects of traditional Mormon culture — and the teachings of the prophets. In a world that constantly entices us with messages designed to lure us away from the eternal truths of the restored gospel and into the embrace of philosophies that are partially and contingently true at best and actively destructive at worst, we must exercise constant vigilance.
Brother Anderson goes on to discuss several ways we can maintain the vigilance we need. His primary objective is to help Latter-days Saints recognize that all human-created theories and organizations are bound to the philosophies of men, and as good or useful as they may be, we should not allow our passion for any of these to “lure us away from the eternal truths of the restored gospel.” I agree with his assertion that understanding this distinction is “essential to our spiritual survival.”
I believe that understanding this distinction also applies to our love affair with the various human-made diets. These diets may be excellent. They may dramatically improve our health and enable us to live much longer lives. They may embrace much truth and represent very good practice, but in the end, we should not confuse them with pure wisdom of revelation because doing so can blind us to the greater truths that only the Lord can reveal to us. It takes intelligence and open-mindedness to understand the wisdom of the world, but to know the mind of God also requires humility, receptivity to the Holy Ghost, and a focus on submitting our will to that of our Father.
A More Excellent Way
If eating a healthy diet is a good practice, what might the “more excellent way” of the Word of Wisdom be? There is still much that we do not fully understand, either about the Word of Wisdom or about the nature of our bodies and the ideal conditions for the best human health. In other words, there is still so much “hidden treasure” we might explore in D&C 89.
I suspect that most of the precious truths in this revelation will yet be revealed as we, as individuals, sincerely seek the Lord’s guidance with humility, faith, and submission. In my experience, our seeking is greatly augmented when we come to our study with sincere, meaningful questions. The best questions come from our own experiences and felt needs, so we might want to ponder on our desires related to our physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual health (or that of a loved one). What do we want to know? This is a great starting point for a prayerful study of the Word of Wisdom.
You will have your own questions about your own health and the text in D&C 89. If it is useful, below are some of the questions I’ve had about this revelation. (For a longer list of suggested questions, see The Word of Wisdom: Questions to Ponder about D&C 89.)
The Context and Doctrines of the Word of Wisdom
- How does our understanding of D&C 89 change if we read it in the context of truths about the human body restored through gospel? What are those truths that made coming to earth and receiving a physical body central to our journey back to our Father?
- How does our understanding of our physical bodies change when we realize we do not “own” them, that they are a stewardship given to us by our Savior who not only created them but “bought [them] with a price”?
- How does our understanding of our physical bodies change when we realize that these mortal tabernacles are temples of God’s Spirit, more holy and sacred than the temples the Church builds?
The Introduction to the Word of Wisdom (vv. 1–4)
- What does it mean for the Word of Wisdom to be given “not by commandment or constraint” and yet also be a “revelation . . . showing forth the order and will of God”? (D&C 89:2)
- Why does the Lord specify that the Word of Wisdom is given for our “temporal salvation” and what does that mean? (D&C 89:2)
- How is the counsel in D&C 89 “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints” (D&C 89:3). What would the “unadapted” version of this counsel look like?
- What are the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” that the Lord is trying to warn us about? (D&C 89:4) What might these “evils and designs” have to do with the philosophies of men?
The Substances that are “Not Good” for Us (vv. 5–9)
- If the Word of Wisdom is principle-based, why does the Lord single out “wine or strong drink,” “tobacco,” and “hot drinks”? What about the many other drugs and substances that are also “not good” for the human body? (D&C 89:5–9)
- Why was “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make” (D&C 89:6) excluded from substances that are not good for us? Why do Church leaders now ask us to abstain from this wine?
- Considering the many health benefits of coffee and tea as documented by science, why does the Lord tell us “hot drinks” are “not for the body or belly”?
Foods Ordained by God — Herbs and Fruit (vv. 10–11)
- What does it mean for God to “ordain” certain foods for our use? (D&C 89:10, 12, 14)
- What are “wholesome herbs”? What does it mean that they are ordained for the “constitution, nature, and use of man”? (D&C 89:10)
- Why does the Lord specify “in the season thereof” and what implications does this have for our diet? (D&C 89:11)
- How can we use herbs and fruit “with prudence and thanksgiving”? (D&C 89:11)
Foods Ordained by God — Flesh (vv. 12–13)
- Why does the Lord specify, “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air”? What is the principle expressed in this verse? Is He intentionally narrowing the list of animal foods to use sparingly or using these as examples of the types of foods to use sparingly? (D&C 89:12)
- Why is flesh ordained for our “use,” but nothing is said about it being ordained for our “constitution” or “nature” as are herbs? (D&C 89:10, 12)
- Why is it “pleasing” to the Lord that flesh “should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine”? (D&C 89:13)
- How do we use flesh “sparingly” and “with thanksgiving” and yet “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine”? (D&C 89:12, 13)
Foods Ordained by God — Grain (vv. 14–17)
- What does it mean for grain to be “ordained” as the “staff of life”? If this is a principle, might it include other plant foods that serve a similar function? (D&C 89:14)
- If “all grain” is good for the food of man, why are some people intolerant of some grains? (D&C 89:16)
- Why does the Lord specify “wheat for man”? (D&C 89:17)
The Promises (vv. 18–21)
- What does it mean to walk “in obedience to the commandments” and how does this relate to the Word of Wisdom? (D&C 89:18)
- What do the specific blessings mean? Are these primarily physical or spiritual blessings? (D&C 89:18–21)
- What is the “destroying angel” and how will it pass us by and not slay us? (D&C 89:21)
The Power of God
The Apostle Paul tells us, “Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2 Corinthians 2:4-5). I find it interesting that the “wisdom of men” in regards to the subject of health and nutrition is found in millions (possibly billions) of pages in books, articles, and various websites. In contrast, the Word of Wisdom is less than two printed pages, less than 600 words in total. Yet in these few short verses the “power of God” is revealed for the “salvation of all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2).
Our mortal bodies are not just temporary vehicles to allow us to experience life. They are instruments through which God teaches us precious truths. They are sources of pleasure and joy, a means for the bonding of families, and the vehicles for bringing His children into this world. They are priceless endowments given to us for the rest of eternity. Without these bodies, we cannot become like our Savior. They are essential to our exaltation and eternal joy. It is no wonder that so much of what Satan does to undermine our progress involves getting us to neglect, undermine, or even attack our bodies.
It is because our bodies are so important that the Word of Wisdom is such a blessing and its doctrines and principles are worthy of our serious study. God tells us that the wisdom in this revelation is meant for the “last days” (v. 2) and is explicitly designed in response to the evils of our day (v. 4). It is adapted to the weakest among us (v. 3). It tells us what is good and what is bad for our bodies, what should be used sparingly and what should constitute the staple of our diet (vv. 4–16). It concludes with powerful promises of both temporal and spiritual blessings (vv. 18–21). It indeed shows forth the “power of God” in our day. What a joy it is that through this great revelation we can see God’s power in our day. In light of this, let’s not settle for the wisdom of the world!
A “whole food, plant-based diet” is an example of a way of eating that seems in harmony with the Word of Wisdom. While the diet itself is certainly the “wisdom of the world,” it has helped me see many of the treasures I had missed before in the Word of Wisdom by demonstrating how following the simple principles in D&C 89 can prevent and even reverse most of the chronic disease in our society today. What a blessing! If you’d like to know more about how to get started on a healthy diet, 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.”
 There are two large publications done by the U.S. military that present the research into this topic, both written by the Committee on Military Nutrition Research, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. The first is a 550-page publication, Nutritional Needs in Hot Environments, ed. Bernadette M. Marriott (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993). The second is a 350-page publication, Nutritional Needs in Cold and High-Altitude Environments, ed. Bernadette M. Marriott and Sydney J. Carlson (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996).
 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “What is Lactose Intolerance?” PCRM.org (accessed April 3, 2017).
 Rick Anderson, “Mormonism, Materialism, and Politics: Six Things We Must Understand in Order to Survive as Latter-day Saints,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 21 (2016): 239–248.