The Word of Wisdom is a token or symbol of our covenant to follow all of God’s commandments.
My old treadmill is kind of a piece of junk. It is 5 years old, and has been put to heavy use in the winter months (and heavy abuse by the children in all seasons). It works well enough to use, but it is certainly not in peak condition. One of its quirks is an inability to lower its belt speed while running. If I am using the interval workout program, for instance, and the speed is supposed to drop from 8 mph to 6 mph at the end of a high intensity interval, then the belt speed actually stays at 8 mph. This makes it difficult to do any kind of speed training or cardio work. Fortunately the manual incline adjustment still works, so I can set the speed to a moderate pace and adjust the incline to add variation.
During December I was reading the reviews on new treadmills, and decided that a NordicTrack Commercial 1750 would make a good Christmas present. It is a little pricey, but I have some money saved up in a rainy day fund. And what are treadmills for if not for rainy days?
Over the last few weeks I have been listening to President Nelson’s talks from October 1985 through October 1986 while running on the treadmill. We have discussed the Word of Wisdom on this website before, but one of his talks made me think of it in a way that I had never considered before.
“Self Mastery,” October 1985
In his fourth General Conference talk, titled “Self Mastery,” President Nelson described the duality of the human soul and the purpose of that duality in fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives:
“Your physical body is a magnificent creation of God. It is his temple as well as yours, and must be treated with reverence. […] Remarkable as your body is, its prime purpose is even of greater importance—to serve as tenement for your spirit. […] Your spirit acquired a body at birth and became a soul to live in mortality through periods of trial and testing. Part of each test is to determine if your body can become mastered by the spirit that dwells within it.”
President Nelson then proceeds to list several ways that activity in the gospel, and particularly in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can help our spirits master our bodies. He lists Sabbath observance, fasting, the Word of Wisdom, and the law of chastity as examples, and spends some time describing each of these. On the subject of the Word of Wisdom, he offers this warning:
“If you yield to anything that can addict, and thus defy the Word of Wisdom, your spirit surrenders to the body. The flesh then enslaves the spirit. This is contrary to the purpose of your mortal existence. And in the process of such addiction, your life span is likely to be shortened, thereby reducing the time available for repentance by which your spirit might attain self-mastery over your body.”
Addiction, in its most severe and debilitating form, is a brain disease. When we are talking about the disease of addiction from a medical perspective, it is considered to be primarily a biological condition with secondary moral/spiritual consequences. President Nelson describes addiction as the enslavement of the spirit to the appetites of the body, which turns the purpose of mortality on its head.
“Joy Cometh in the Morning,” October 1986
A year later, in October 1986, President Nelson again discussed the Word of Wisdom, and this is the talk that really got my attention. His main subject was the qualifications for feeling joy, which center on personal worthiness. Joy is more than happiness or pleasure; it is the enduring reward of those who consistently adhere to standards that they know are right. He explained it this way, breaking the concept into three domains:
“In order to experience true joy in the morning, or at any time, at least three factors are needed. You need to feel good about the people with whom you live and work—your companions in life. You must feel good about yourself—not in any sense of conceit, but simply a proper esteem for yourself, well deserved. And possibly most important, you must feel good about your relation to God and sincerely love him.”
These three domains, feeling good about your relationships with others, feeling good about yourself, and having a good relationship with God, became the outline for his sermon, which is full of sound advice and wisdom.
In discussing the need to feel good about yourself, he revisits the doctrine of the duality of the human soul. “Therefore,” he explained, “spiritual and physical elements each must be nurtured if we are to earn proper self-esteem.” Spiritual self-esteem comes through religious devotion such as prayer and scripture study, as well as by developing talents. Physical self-esteem comes through regular exercise and healthy living.
It is in this context that President Nelson introduces a stunning interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. After discussing the contemporary medical research on tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, he makes this doctrinal observation:
“Obedience to the Word of Wisdom keeps one free from all such addictions. This protection is pronounced by covenant in the last verse of the eighty-ninth section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
“’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’ (Doctrine and Covenants 89:21).
“This reference to the first Passover reminds us that, in faith, ancient Israel was obedient to the commandment to take blood and ‘strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses’ (Exodus 12:7).
“’And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not … destroy you’ (Exodus 12:13).
“So, in faith, modern Israel is commanded to obey the Word of Wisdom. It becomes our token of a covenant with the Lord—a spiritual separator of covenant Israel from the rest of the world.”
The historical context for the Word of Wisdom seems to minimize, at least initially, its importance. It was not considered to be a binding commandment for the first few generations of the Church, and even Joseph Smith continued to occasionally drink alcohol for the rest of his life. Under the tenure of Heber J. Grant, the seventh president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1918-1945), the Word of Wisdom received elevated status and became part of the standard measure of worthiness for Church ordinances, including temple attendance. Because of its history of being considered a “lesser commandment,” hearing President Nelson’s discussion of the Word of Wisdom as a symbol of God’s covenant with modern Israel, in the same way that the Passover symbolized his ancient covenant, is rather unusual, and striking. I also believe that it is true.
We focus, maybe a little too much, on the physical reasons for obeying this commandment. Medical research shows this, or that, and the Lord clearly knew the dangers in 1833! That is true, and useful to a degree, in the same way that apologetics in general is useful, to a degree. And I think we tend to do this because it is one of the few areas where mainstream science has so thoroughly vindicated our beliefs.
But what if science had nothing to say on the topic? Or what if science contradicted it? Would we still thump our chests about how awesome the Word of Wisdom is and what a blessing it has been to us? Or would we lay it aside, embarassed, and prefer to not talk about it? Medical science has not fully supported our belief that coffee and tea “are not for the body or belly.” So is that part of the Word of Wisdom less important, and are we justified in being less strictly obedient to it?
The Lord taught Joseph Smith that “all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; […] for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual” (Doctrine and Covenants 29:34-35). The Word of Wisdom is not a temporal or physical commandment; it is a spiritual one, and to receive the spiritual blessings from following it we should think of it as a token or symbol of our covenant to follow all of God’s commandments and to separate ourselves from the world as his “peculiar people.”
“In the Lord’s Own Way,” April 1986
That October 1986 talk really got my attention, but so did the April 1986 Conference address. As I pounded away on the old treadmill I heard President Nelson describe the abject poverty he has seen in his travels around the world, both on medical missions and on Church assignments.
“In one country, so many people were sleeping in the streets and on sidewalks that we literally had to step over them as we walked. In another nation, our compassion was stretched almost to the breaking point as we yearned to help countless people in need. Young mothers with babies bundled on their backs begged for money while paddling their little sampan boats, which served both as their shelter and as their mode of transportation. And, oh, how our hearts ached for young men and women of another country who, one by one, were strapped as beasts of burden to wooden-wheeled carts heavily laden with weighty cargo. As far as our eyes could see, the endless caravan of vehicles continued, pulled by dint of human toil.”
President Nelson then dove into the scriptures, reciting passage after passage to support his assertion that, “Few, if any, of the Lord’s instructions are stated more often, or given greater emphasis, than the commandment to care for the poor and the needy.” The Lord has been repeating this commandment for as long as he has been calling prophets to declare his word.
But the causes of poverty are so variable! And the need is so great, and so constant! Where do we even start? Fortunately the Lord has given guidelines for how to approach this work. Here is the passage quoted by President Nelson from the Doctrine and Covenants:
“I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine.
“And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.
“But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
“For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
“Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.” (Doctrine and Covenants 104:14–18.)
President Nelson emphasized again that this work “must needs be done in mine own way.” The Lord’s way is to change the hearts of both the poor and the rich; the poor must take responsibility and work for themselves, and the rich are commanded to be humble and generous.
Using this passage and this directive as his basic text, he then proceeded to describe the actions that each person and each family should take, and how they relate to the welfare programs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My life has been blessed by that counsel, as my family has relied on those welfare programs to keep food on the table during hard times, and I have contributed to those programs as much as I can over the years, in times both fat and lean. I have never been compelled to contribute, and have never felt resentful about my donations.
Conclusion, or Back to the Beginning
So, there I was running on my treadmill in my leisure time, in my home with central heating and electricity, with food in the cupboards and in the refrigerator upstairs, all funded by my fantastic job supported by a prosperous national and local economy, and as I counted up these blessings I felt more and more grateful for them.
And what about that fancy new treadmill? Did I really need it?
I kept mulling over my decision, and never felt settled about it. At one point it was in my virtual shopping cart on the NordicTrack website and I was just one click away from completing the purchase. But I backed out. It was really a lot of money. Shouldn’t I save that money for other expenses that I know are on the horizon? With so many kids I really should save every penny I can spare!
One day in late December I decided to tinker around with the old hamster wheel. Christmas had passed, and with it my resolve to buy a new treadmill. So I lubricated the belt on the old one and ran the calibration program. And then the miracle happened! The belt speed quirk was fixed! I had run the calibration program before, and it had never fixed the problem, but this time was different for some reason. Maybe the difference, and the thing that really fixed the problem, was the change that happened in my heart.