Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 19: “Temporal and Spiritual Blessings from the Word of Wisdom” (George Albert Smith Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on October 10, 2012

Click here for the lesson material.

I see a lot of practical wisdom in the Word of Wisdom’s prohibition on alcohol and tobacco. Frankly, I don’t see the wisdom of the prohibition on tea. In Russia, where I served my mission, the prohibition on tea was a big deal, since tea is so culturally pervasive. So, I’d like to reflect on the prohibition on tea, rather than focusing these lesson notes on ideas like the practical benefits to avoiding alcohol and tobacco.

From the manual:

President Smith went on to explain that because of Daniel’s obedience to the Lord’s law of health in his day, not only was his life preserved, but Daniel also received a great spiritual blessing: “the inspiration of the Almighty.”

Notice the phrase, “the Lord’s law of health in his day.” I like this way of thinking about the more spiritual aspects of the Word of Wisdom that this phrase highlights. It’s not like there is a universally valid law that God has established that we must obey. After all, there are certain parts of D&C 89 that we emphasize today, and certain parts that we, quite frankly, ignore. We have had good discussions on this site (that you should be able to find by typing “D&C 89” or “Word of Wisdom” in the search box) pertaining to this relationship. I want to focus, instead, on the way that we understand the Word of Wisdom today, as the prohibition on alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea (again, tea esp.).

To think back to Daniel living the “law of health in his day,” is basically to frame the issue in terms of obedience. But I don’t mean obedience quite in the sense that I think we Mormons usually think about obedience. Rather, I want to link obedience to gratitude. To get more at what I have in mind, let me quote again from the lesson:

Our Heavenly Father not only tells us what we should avoid, but tells us what we may use with profit. He has said to us that all grain, all wholesome herbs, the fruit of the vine etc., are good for man. Flesh of beast and fowls of the air; and these things he refers to we may use with prudence and thanksgiving; and I want to emphasize with thanksgiving.

Why does Pres. Smith want to emphasize thanksgiving? And what does this have to do with obedience to the Word of Wisdom?

Thinking about these issues brings the Lord’s prayer to mind. We pray for our daily bread, and we receive it with thanksgiving. To be thankful is to recognize our dependence on God. To obey God’s law is to recognize God’s authority and power. In both cases, we must humble ourselves and view our own lives as something given to us that is not ours.

By recognizing that our lives are not our own, we can lose our lives. And only by losing our life can we find it.

But even if the law of health today is different than it was in Daniel’s day, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an important link. The link, of course, is that a physical/temporal law is tied to spiritual things. How can we understand this link? And what is the purpose of this law that is so explicitly physical and spiritual? Pres. Smith says:

I am fully convinced that the Lord in His mercy, when He gave us the Word of Wisdom, gave it to us, not alone that we might have health while we live in the world, but that our faith might be strengthened, that our testimony of the divinity of the mission of our Lord and Master might be increased, that thereby we might be better prepared to return to his presence when our labor here is complete.

How does the Word of Wisdom strengthen our faith and testimony? One answer might be that by avoiding alcohol, we are more happy and healthy. I don’t find this answer completely satisfying. I think a better answer entails thinking about the relation between obedience and gratitude that I mentioned above. The Word of Wisdom, in this sense, might be profitably thought about as an analog to fasting. If we obey the Word of Wisdom with the same attitude as we take on when we fast — or at least the same attitude that we should have when we fast — then we exercise faith. And, of course when we exercise faith, our faith and testimony are strengthened.

One more quote:

I feel the importance of the Latter-day Saints observing this particular law [the Word of Wisdom]. I believe that by obedience to it, much more faith may be enjoyed by the Latter-day Saints. We read in the teachings of Mormon that if there were not miracles wrought among that people it was because they did not have faith; and he told them, further, that without faith, “awful was the state of man.” [See Moroni 7:37–38.] If we violate the known will of the Lord it is natural that our faith will wane, for the Spirit will not always strive with us. . . .

. . . I firmly believe that by reason of neglect of this simple requirement, faith has diminished in the hearts of some of our people—that, by a more general observance of the Word of Wisdom, faith will be increased among the Latter-day Saints, and greater knowledge will flow to us as a result; for by obedience to it, there will come a disposition to obey other laws of our Father, and compliance with each insures a blessing.

Reading this quote in light of the points I’ve made above suggests, I think, a different way of understanding the quote above — at least after reflecting a bit about everything I’ve written, I’ve come to a different understanding than I had after first reading the quote above. My first understanding of miracles in the quote above was as a kind of promise held out to us that we will enjoy supernatural miracles if we simply obey the Word of Wisdom. I don’t think that’s a very good understanding of what Pres. Smith is getting at.

Rather, it seems to me that the key to understanding Pres. Smith is in the last sentence of the passage above: “for by obedience to [the Word of Wisdom], there will come a disposition to obey other laws of our Father.” Whereas I first saw this as a blessing in addition to the kind of (supernatural) miracles the citation of Mormon might suggest, I now see this last sentence as an explication of what kind of miracles Mormon might have had in mind.

Whether or not I’m right about this understanding, I think this last point is very important: by submitting ourselves to the Word of Wisdom, even if we don’t understand why we are submitting to this law, we are blessed. And we are blessed because in doing so we practice submitting our own desires, intentions, and plans to something higher than ourselves.

This is the case for countless members in Russia and elsewhere who submit to the prohibition on tea even though there isn’t strong scientific evidence that doing so is health-enhancing. And in this sense, I am somewhat jealous of these members who have to make a greater sacrifice to live the Word of Wisdom than I do — after all, I have seen how these greater sacrifices lead to greater blessings.

10 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 19: “Temporal and Spiritual Blessings from the Word of Wisdom” (George Albert Smith Manual)”

  1. gemma algaba said

    thank you for keep me updated..


  2. jacob said

    Thank you, Robert C!

    I keep coming back to something several of you have said on this site, that there is a celestial response, a terrestrial response and a telestial response to any commandment or gift from Heaven; a grace for grace type of response. This has helped me lately when I consider and/or chafe at all the “rules” and commandments but then try to see them as gifts instead of restrictions. So gratitude in response to the Word of Wisdom is a beautiful idea, a celestial response.

  3. kirkcaudle said

    The tea topic is very interesting to me in the WOW. I am glad that you focused on it Robert. Handbook 2 says the following about the WOW:

    21.3.11 Word of Wisdom

    The only official interpretation of “hot drinks” (D&C 89:9) in the Word of Wisdom is the statement made by early Church leaders that the term “hot drinks” means tea and coffee.

    Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.

    So, hot drinks “means tea and coffee.” The Church says nothing past that. The Church never officially defines tea as, “all tea other than herbal tea,” but I hear things like that all the time during these lessons at Church. I have looked and looked and I have never found an Apostle within the past 25 years that separates one kind of tea from another kind of tea when it comes to the WOW. That seems to always be something that is done by Mission Presidents, Bishops, etc.

    I know lots of members that drink tea that is not from the tea leaf. However, again, I am yet to find any authoritative statements from Apostles in the last 25 years or so that define what “tea” means. I have heard a few times that we don’t drink decaf coffee, but tea is never defined as anything but tea. Therefore, I always wonder who started other kinds of tea exceptions.

    If the Church really is just talking about the tea leaf than why not just come out and say that? It seems like an easy confusion to solve. Mormons that I know about 50/50 on the “what is real tea” issue. In fact, I had a Stake President that would say “tea is tea” during temple interviews, he went directly by book. With that said, he still gave herbal tea drinkers recommends.

    So I guess my question is, why do we (or some of us) further define “coffee and tea” more than the official handbook does?

  4. Robert C. said

    Kirk #3, great question. The best response I could find was Jim F.’ response here (comment #5) which basically refers back to the time the declaration about tea was made and makes a case that what “tea” meant back then did not include herbal tea. I know this doesn’t answer many aspects of your question(s), but I think it’s a decent place to start….

  5. kirkcaudle said

    Thanks for the link Robert. I have heard many people say something similar to what Jim is saying there. However, why does the “Church” not come out and say that officially? I mean, it seems like a very simple thing to add to the Handbook of Instruction. I always wonder if there is a reason they keep the word tea as broad as possible.

  6. Bill S. said

    On the coffee and tea issue, a wise man once said to me that the issue with decaf coffee was not that it violated the WOW, but that it gave the appearance of violating it. We would not want our family or friends believing we were violating the WOW and/or condoning such behavior, so in effect decaf coffee was verboten. One might conclude the same applies to the many variations of tea?

  7. kirkcaudle said

    I think that justification works if you believe that coffee is against the WOW because of the caffeine. However, if you do not believe that caffeine is against the WOW then there is really no difference between drinking decaff or drinking regular coffee.

  8. awesome
    It’s a awesome post.

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