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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.
In this series on “Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” I’ve been using Elder David A. Bednar’s distinction between principles and applications to shed light on D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom. Another way of viewing this distinction is the difference between “The Letter of the Law” and “The Spirit of the Law.” Understanding these distinctions goes a long way toward resolving many of the misunderstandings we sometimes have about the Word of Wisdom.
In today’s article I explore another interesting dimension of gospel principles that applies to the Word of Wisdom, which is that principles can serve as parables in the way they convey gospel truths. Understanding this can give us fresh new insights into how we read Section 89.
Parables are short allegorical stories that convey important truths. Because they are poetic, they provide layered meanings that communicate on different levels depending on the audience. Jesus Christ loves using parables. Examples include the parable of the sower, the Good Samaritan, and the ten virgins. Here is one of my favorite parables:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 13:45–46)
Like all parables, this simple, beautiful story can be read on many different levels. I’ve returned to it again and again throughout my life to find new meaning and motivation. What is that pearl of great price? What are we willing to forsake to obtain it? Note how the story does not convey one surface truth that every person is likely to agree on. Each of us can get the wisdom from it for what we need at this point in our lives.
The Lord often uses poetic words, with layered meanings, to teach us, and I believe that this is true of the words He uses in D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom. I find it useful to think of the Word of Wisdom as a parable in the sense that it does not convey just one surface truth that every reader is likely to agree on. Rather, it provides layered meanings that communicate on different levels depending on the reader of the text. While Section 89 does not explicitly contain allegorical stories, it is useful to think of the counsel as a parable because the pedagogical function is similar.
Principles as Parables
The gospel is principle-based, and these principles are often revealed through parables. By using parables, the Lord is able to accomplish many important purposes at the same time:
- We hear what we need or are ready to hear.
- We don’t hear what we are not ready to hear.
- Different people can get very different messages from the same counsel because they are at different places in their lives.
- When we are ready to hear more, we can get more out of the same text.
- This protects our agency, our privilege to choose the amount of light and truth we receive.
- This gives us responsibility for obeying only the counsel we are able to receive.
- This protects us from the greater condemnation that comes from knowing more of the Lord’s will than we are ready to receive and willing to obey.
I find it useful to think of Section 89 as a parable in that it leaves breathing room for various interpretations, so that we can get out of it what we are ready for. When the Brethren in the School of the Prophets heard the Word of Wisdom moments after it was revealed to Joseph Smith, they were moved to immediately discard their tobacco. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries many Saints gave up alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and/or tea. Some reduced their meat consumption. Others added more fruits and vegetables or focused on whole grains over refined grains. Still others found treasures that perhaps only they saw in the text.
However, other Saints during this same time period got very little out of the Word of Wisdom that actually moved them to change their diet. Enough of the Saints were ignoring the counsel that the Brethren were led to clarify one layer of meaning of this parable: they asked the Saints to completely abstain from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea.
Once this clarification was made, however, many of the Saints assumed the Brethren had interpreted the full meaning of the Word of Wisdom and stopped reading the revelation to find further layers of meaning. They may not have recognized that the Word of Wisdom, like every parable, is filled with treasures, which we can find as we open our hearts and look deeper.
A Key to Finding Treasures
Because I write regularly on the Word of Wisdom, I frequently have the pleasure of reading what others have to say about this revelation. I’ve learned that many people feel that the text in Section 89 is vague, ambiguous, and disappointingly not helpful. In this sense, the Word of Wisdom is very much like an enigma, a puzzle, or as I describe it here, a parable. I sympathize with this perspective as I felt the same way for many years. For most of my life D&C 89 was like one of the obscure parables the Lord used that seem impossible to decipher.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that there is a key to opening up the meaning of any text that we find hard to interpret. The key is found in one of my favorite scriptures:
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. (D&C 50:24)
If the parable of Section 89 seems difficult to interpret, perhaps we can start out with simpler expectations. Perhaps each time we approach the text it is sufficient to be inspired with just a little more light, maybe just one way to improve our diet. Might we begin, for example, by simply asking the Lord to help us find one specific change to make?
I think almost anybody who would read the Word of Wisdom prayerfully with the question, “How could I improve my diet?” would find at least one thing that they could do. It might be adding more wholesome fruits and vegetables. It might be reducing meat or increasing consumption of whole grains. It may be cutting down on junk food or other foods we feel are not good for our bodies. The principle in D&C 50 tells us that if we receive whatever light we are given and continue in that light, we’ll receive further light and knowledge from the Lord.
Jesus Christ used this same principle when he explained to His disciples why He uses parables:
For whosoever receiveth, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever continueth not to receive, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. (JST Matthew 13:10–11)
Embracing the light we receive from the Lord is the pleasant path that unfolds the parable of the Word of Wisdom. Surely this will lead us to discover “great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” as promised by the Lord (D&C 89:19).
Examples of Layered Meanings
I find it fascinating to look back at Church history and discover that many members of the Church have opened themselves up to the Word of Wisdom and indeed found many layers of meaning in its doctrine, principles, and applications. For example, Elder Ezra T. Benson (a member of the Quorum of the Twelve under President Brigham Young) related this interesting evolution of understanding of the Word of Wisdom just 22 years after it was revealed:
When we first heard the revelation upon the Word of Wisdom many of us thought it consisted merely in our drinking tea and coffee, but it is not only using tea and coffee and our tobacco and whisky, but it is every other evil which is calculated to contaminate this people. The Word of Wisdom implies to cease from adultery, to cease from all manner of excesses, and from all kinds of wickedness and abomination that are common amongst this generation.
Compare that with a statement from Sister Susan W. Tanner in the 2005 General Conference when she addressed one of the fundamental doctrines of the Word of Wisdom, treating our bodies as temples of God:
What would happen if we truly treated our bodies as temples? The result would be a dramatic increase in chastity, modesty, observance of the Word of Wisdom, and a similar decrease in the problems of pornography and abuse, for we would regard the body, like the temple, as a sacred sanctuary of the Spirit. Just as no unclean thing may enter the temple, we would be vigilant to keep impurity of any sort from entering the temple of our bodies.
Sister Tanner goes on to elaborate on the layered meanings of the Word of Wisdom, including a personal story that shows how her mother found an interesting connection between food and spiritual well-being:
The restored gospel teaches that there is an intimate link between body, mind, and spirit. In the Word of Wisdom, for example, the spiritual and physical are intertwined. When we follow the Lord’s law of health for our bodies, we are also promised wisdom to our spirits and knowledge to our minds (see D&C 89:19–21). The spiritual and physical truly are linked.
I remember an incident in my home growing up when my mother’s sensitive spirit was affected by a physical indulgence. She had experimented with a new sweet roll recipe. They were big and rich and yummy—and very filling. Even my teenage brothers couldn’t eat more than one. That night at family prayer my father called upon Mom to pray. She buried her head and didn’t respond. He gently prodded her, “Is something wrong?” Finally she said, “I don’t feel very spiritual tonight. I just ate three of those rich sweet rolls.” I suppose that many of us have similarly offended our spirits at times by physical indulgences. Especially substances forbidden in the Word of Wisdom have a harmful effect on our bodies and a numbing influence on our spiritual sensitivities. None of us can ignore this connection of our spirits and bodies.
Finding New Layers of Meaning for Ourselves
Is there any end to our gaining more knowledge as we follow the path of receiving light from the Lord and continuing in that light? I am convinced that it is impossible in this life to fully plumb the depths of the parable of our bodies and how to care for them.
As we approach the text in Section 89, we can have faith that the Lord will reveal the understanding that will bless us the most. Recently, our Church leaders have given us examples of questions we can ask the Lord to discover His will for us. These can also be applied to seeking the Lord’s will for us in regards to the Word of Wisdom. Elder Kim B. Clark, for example, recommends these two powerful questions:
- “What am I doing that I should stop doing?”
- “What am I not doing that I should start doing?” 
Similarly, Elder Larry R. Lawrence suggests we ask the simple question, “What lack I yet?” Here are other questions he commends to us:
- “What do I need to change?”
- “How can I improve?”
- “What weakness needs strengthening?” 
Both Elder Clark and Elder Lawrence suggest we may be surprised at the very simple and doable things the Lord encourages us to do. We need not fear discovering new layers of meaning in the Lord’s counsel. He knows what we are ready to receive and what will bless us most at this point in our lives.
I’m grateful for the beautiful, poetic words in the Parable of the Word of Wisdom. I know the Lord greatly desires to grant us both physical and spiritual blessings. We can have confidence that His path is a pleasant one, filled with wonderful discoveries of hidden treasures that will bless our lives and the lives of all that we love.
One healthy way of eating that has helped many Latter-day Saints find multiple layers of meaning 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.
 Ezra T. Benson, “The Word of Wisdom,” Journal of Discourses, 2:358; Delivered in the Bowery, Great Salt Lake City (April 8, 1855).
 Susan W. Tanner, “The Sanctity of the Body,” LDS General Conference (October 2005).
 Kim B. Clark, “Encircled About with Fire,” Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Satellite Broadcast (August 4, 2015).
 Larry R. Lawrence, “What Lack I Yet?” LDS General Conference (October 2015).