Jesus Christ came that we might have life, and “have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). For this reason, we receive almost daily guidelines from “the oracles of God”—the prophets, seers, and revelators who lead His Church—that enable us to lead peaceful, healthy, and abundant lives.
The Lord gave the “keys of the kingdom” to the Prophet Joseph Smith, who passed them on to the Twelve and successor Presidents of the Church. These keys provide access to revelations we need to navigate this mortal existence successfully and avoid the pitfalls of Satan.
What use is it to have these oracles, these prophets and revelators, if we don’t listen to them? The Lord warns, “All they who have received the oracles of God, let them beware how they hold them lest they are accounted as a light thing, and are brought under condemnation thereby; and stumble and fall when the storms descend” (D&C 90:5).
In His mercy, the Lord has warned us repeatedly through his oracles that those who fail to heed them will “stumble and fall.” One of the most obvious pitfalls Satan has placed in our path is the lure of substance abuse. According to research, “about 28 percent of all deaths annually can be traced to the use of tobacco, alcohol, or illicit drugs. Of these deaths, tobacco is directly responsible for the largest share. (“Substance Abuse: Facing the Costs,” Georgetown University Health Policy Institute.) That means nearly one in three people who die will be killed by consuming these things.
So, the Lord has given us clear direction to avoid totally these totally avoidable causes of misery and death. “I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation,” a commandment to abstain from death-dealing substances (D&C 89:4).
Experts always point to the Latter-day Saints as some of the healthiest people in the world. The statistics are old news: 35 percent less heart disease, 20 percent less cancer, 40 percent less chance of dying in a given year. Male church members live ten years longer and women five years longer than the general population.
Scientists now say the average Latter-day Saint in the USA can expect to live nearly 92 years. Of course, some of us don’t want to live that long; still, if we stay healthy, we might enjoy it. “Healthy behaviors don’t just increase your life expectancy. They are also going to decrease your incapacity,” one authority points out.
Prominent researchers conclude that the Latter-day Saint way of life produces these results: “Active Mormons practice a healthy lifestyle advocated by their religion, which emphasizes a strong family life, education and abstention from tobacco and alcohol.” (James E. Enstrom, Lester Breslow, “Lifestyle and Reduced Mortality Among Active California Mormons,” Preventive Medicine 46, no. 2 [February 2008], 133-136.) Faithful Saints also know they receive additional blessings of spiritual enlightenment and direction by keeping the commandments.
At the same time, the Saints live in a larger culture, and we suffer increasingly from many of the afflictions of that culture. The pressures of work, heavy schedules, poor diet, lack of sleep and exercise—these everyday stresses can add up to serious health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Like others in our over-achieving culture, many Latter-day Saints take false pride in being “crazy busy” and taking no time for themselves. Technology addictions mean too much time being physically inactive.
Although the Saints as a group are blessed with good health, these cultural behaviors will inevitably take an unwelcome toll on us if we don’t change. The Doctrine and Covenants gives divine guidance that can help us make the needed changes.
“Inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father. . . . And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man. . . . And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly” (D&C 89:5, 7-9).
The value of this revelation has been proven beyond question. The cost of alcohol abuse and tobacco-related disease is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, which is far less staggering than the cost in terms of broken lives and physical pain.
Still, over the years I’ve been asked why Latter-day Saints abstain from these things. “Isn’t it unreasonable to give up wine totally? A glass of red wine has proven health effects (although grape juice seems to do the same thing—without the alcohol). A cigar now and then doesn’t hurt you, does it? And the jury is out on coffee and tea—some studies show benefits, others don’t—but I couldn’t live without them.”
Of course, many people use these products in moderation and suffer few ill effects. My answer to these questions is simple: God has commanded me not to use them. For me, the Word of Wisdom is a token of a covenant I’ve made with my Heavenly Father. I believe He intended to help me protect my health; but more than that, He intended to test my faith and remind me that I belong to Him.
Anciently, God commanded the children of Israel to abstain from certain foods. People have different theories about this—some argue that some meats were unsafe, others maintain that those foods were often used in pagan worship. Regardless of these speculations, I think the Mosaic dietary laws were intended as tokens to remind the people of their covenant with their Redeemer.
Like principles underlying the ancient Mosaic covenant, the Word of Wisdom is a “principle with a promise”: “All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; and shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them” (D&C 89:5, 7-9).
These are stunning promises, for which bypassing a cup of coffee or a smelly cigarette hardly seems a sacrifice at all.
Of course, to qualify for these promises, we must follow not only the proscriptions but also the prescriptions.
“All wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving. Yea flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly” (D&C 89:10-12).
I have heard nutritionists say that it would be tough to summarize what we now know about nutritional science in fewer words than these. Every nutritional guide published today is simply a variation on these same themes: eat seasonal vegetables and fruits in moderation, along with small portions of meat to provide essential proteins.
Since the time of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Saints have known this prescription; today, however, we are less likely than ever to live by it. Utah, where Latter-day Saints dominate, has seen an alarming increase in obesity and diabetes. In fact, the counties in Utah with the heaviest Latter-day Saint population are also the heaviest in weight! (“Obesity Rates & Fast Food Consumption by County: Utah.” http://county-food.findthedata.org/d/d/Utah)
“All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground—nevertheless, wheat for man” (D&C 89:16-17). Researchers know that whole grains like wheat make you healthier. They provide fiber, protein, B vitamins, and minerals such as iron and zinc, which in combination reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. “Yet the average American eats less than one serving per day, and over 40 percent never eat whole grains at all.” (Kathleen M. Zelman, “Tips for Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains,” WebMD.com. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/reap-the-benefits-of-whole-grains.)
Also, I’ve wondered if the words in D&C 89:20, “they shall run and not be weary and shall walk and not faint,” are meant to describe a result—or an admonition. (Or both.) In any case, the health benefits of moderate exercise are well established. A brisk walk in the morning helps you control your weight, combat disease, improve your mood, and boost your energy. (“Exercise: 7 Benefits of Regular Physical Activity,” Mayoclinic.com.)
Some Saints become fanatics about the Word of Wisdom and lose sight of what it actually says. For example, some people prefer vegetarian meals—which is fine—but it’s extreme to teach others that the Word of Wisdom is a vegetarian doctrine. It isn’t. “Whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God” (D&C 49:18).
Because the Word of Wisdom teaches that we should consume “wholesome herbs,” some extremists argue that we should rely only on so-called “herbal remedies” when we are ill. But in Joseph Smith’s day, “herb” referred to any plant food, including vegetables. Church leaders have discouraged total reliance on herbal remedies. President Joseph F. Smith taught, “Let a reputable and faithful physician be consulted. By all means, let the quack, the traveling fakir, the cure-all nostrum and the indiscriminating dosing with patent medicine be abolished.” (Norman Lee Smith, “Why Are Mormons So Susceptible to Medical & Nutritional Quackery?” Journal of the Collegium Aesculapium, 1 (1983):30-34.)
Today’s sellers of high-priced, unproven herbal remedies could easily be counted among “the conspiring men” the Lord warns against: “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation” (D&C 89:4). The Lord is telling us that deceitful people would, in our day, conspire against our physical and spiritual health for their own profit. The enormous illicit drug trade wrecks lives and health worldwide (I have friends—good, solid Latter-day Saints—who have fallen into addiction and even suicide, victims of these despicable combinations).
It is up to us to choose the promises of the Lord—health, wisdom, the vigor to walk and run, and protection against the Destroyer.
It is not a burden but a blessing to live by the Lord’s revealed laws of health. These laws spare us from the curses of addiction, the ruin of our bodies, and premature death. Perhaps most important, obedience to the Word of Wisdom opens the channel of revelation from our Heavenly Father so we can receive those “hidden treasures of knowledge” that we need.
This lesson is partly excerpted from Breck England’s Dews of Heaven: Answers to Life’s Questions from the Doctrine & Covenants, Springville UT: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2012.