It’s probably the understatement of the year to say that being sick is not fun. And it makes matters worse when you are sick or otherwise afflicted for an extended period of time. But being sick is part of mortal life, and so is learning how to deal with it. The Lord has not left us here without guidance. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said,
Latter-day Saints believe in applying the best available scientific knowledge and techniques. We use nutrition, exercise, and other practices to preserve health, and we enlist the help of healing practitioners, such as physicians and surgeons, to restore health.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that our bodies are temples, and that we are accountable to God for taking care of them so that we can perform the work that we came to earth to do. This doesn’t mean that life will be free of sickness, disability and even death. It means that we are responsible for taking care of our bodies the best way we know how. It is for this reason that the Lord gave us His law of health: the Word of Wisdom. The Word of Wisdom can help us maintain health as well as restore it.
A Brief History of the Word of Wisdom
The Word of Wisdom is a code of health by which members of The Church of Jesus Christ live. It was first given as counsel, rather than a commandment, received by revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote:
In those frontier settlements food was usually plentiful but seldom of the best variety. Meat predominated; grains were usually available; vegetables and fruits were scarce. For stimulation, resort was often made to home-brewed alcoholic beverages, though there was little or no drunkenness; to tobacco, mostly for chewing; and to tea and coffee. These substances were commonly and freely used when available. This, of course, did not give permanent relief from the pains of the body, which were due in large part to the lack of correct physiological knowledge. (Joseph Smith, Seeker after Truth, Prophet of God, Bookcraft, 1951, p. 198.)
President Joseph F. Smith explained:
The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by “commandment or constraint” was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome before he brought them under the law. (Conference Report, October 1913, p. 14.)
But times changed. President Boyd K. Packer said:
While the revelation came first as a “greeting; not by commandment or constraint” (Doctrine & Covenants 89:2), when members of the Church had had time to be taught the import of the revelation, succeeding Presidents of the Church declared it to be a commandment. And it was accepted by the Church as such.
Now, the commandment is in force. President Packer said:
The Word of Wisdom put restrictions on members of the Church. To this day those regulations apply to every member and to everyone who seeks to join the Church. They are so compelling that no one is to be baptized into the Church without first agreeing to live by them. No one will be called to teach or to lead unless they accept them. When you want to go to the temple, you will be asked if you keep the Word of Wisdom. If you do not, you cannot go to the house of the Lord until you are fully worthy.
A Principle With a Promise
The Word of Wisdom is a principle with a promise. President Packer explained:
The Word of Wisdom was “given for a principle with promise” (Doctrine & Covenants 89:3). That word principle in the revelation is a very important one. A principle is an enduring truth, a law, a rule you can adopt to guide you in making decisions. Generally principles are not spelled out in detail. That leaves you free to find your way with an enduring truth, a principle, as your anchor.
Members write in asking if this thing or that is against the Word of Wisdom. It’s well known that tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco are against it. It has not been spelled out in more detail. Rather, we teach the principle together with the promised blessings. There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the revelation.
Everything harmful is not specifically listed; arsenic, for instance—certainly bad, but not habit-forming! He who must be commanded in all things, the Lord said, “is a slothful and not a wise servant” (Doctrine & Covenants 58:26).
Latter-day Saints are encouraged to be prayerful and wise in implementing the counsel found in the Word of Wisdom. President Packer said:
… Learn to use moderation and common sense in matters of health and nutrition, and particularly in medication. Avoid being extreme or fanatical or becoming a faddist.
The Word of Wisdom does not promise you perfect health, but it teaches how to keep the body you were born with in the best condition and your mind alert to delicate spiritual promptings.
Each one of us is an individual, with individual needs concerning health and nutrition. This is the reason that we are to use wisdom and moderation in this respect.
Finding Healing in Obedience
The Word of Wisdom is a general outline for helping to prevent illness. But it can also be an outline for helping to heal from it. I have been struggling with a chronic illness for many years. A year and a half ago, I finally received the diagnosis. I worked with doctors, prayed earnestly for help in knowing what I needed to do to control my condition and did tons of research. The answers didn’t come all at once. Of this, Elder Richard G. Scott said,
Help from the Lord generally comes in increments. He can immediately cure serious illnesses or disabilities or even allow the dead to be raised. But the general pattern is that improvement comes in sequential steps. That plan gives us an opportunity to discover what the Lord expects us to learn. It requires our patience to recognize His timetable. It provides growth from our efforts and trust in Him and the opportunity to express gratitude for the help given.
This was true for me. Help from the Lord came incrementally. Rather than being an easy fix that only requires a pill, my condition necessitated an entire change in diet. It was here that I gained a greater appreciation for the Word of Wisdom and its counsel. I have always followed the Word of Wisdom concerning what not to do—don’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol; don’t smoke or take recreational drugs—but I hadn’t really paid much attention to the things that I should be doing. And, as it turned out, many of my answers came from what I should have been doing all along.
The Blessings of Obedience
The blessings of obedience to the Word of Wisdom are sometimes subtle and can go unnoticed if we don’t look for them. President Packer said:
… There is a greater blessing promised in the Word of Wisdom. Those who obey it are promised that they “shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (Doctrine & Covenants 89:19). This is the personal revelation through which you can detect invisible crocodiles or hidden mines or other dangers.
This blessing came to me because I was adhering to the counsel of the Word of Wisdom. In fact, some of the revelation came to me before I fully understood it. Years before my diagnosis, I felt very strongly that I needed to eliminate wheat and dairy from my diet. However, I love bread and cheese, and this was too much for me. So I stubbornly decided that unless and until I figured out why, I wasn’t going to stop eating them. After I was diagnosed, I discovered that wheat (specifically gluten) and dairy were exacerbating my symptoms.
Much of the counsel I needed to follow is found in the scriptures. President Packer said,
Another scripture counsels, “Cease to be idle; cease to be unclean; … cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:124).
Honor the principle of the Word of Wisdom and you will receive the promised blessings. “All saints,” the revelation promises, “who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments,” are promised that they “shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones” and “shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint” (Doctrine & Covenants 89:18, 20).
Faith to Follow Counsel
How does faith fit into this? Faith is not just a noun, it’s also an action word. Faith requires that we not only seek out the will of the Lord but to do it—even if the results seem contrary to what we want. Elder Lance B. Wickman said:
Faith is, quite simply, a confidence in the Lord. … It is common in our secular world to say that “seeing is believing.” Whatever value this little maxim may have in the mundane affairs of life, it is an alien presence when we turn to the Lord in the dark hour of our extremity. The way of the Lord is best defined by a different maxim: “Believing is seeing.” Faith in the Lord is the premise, not the conclusion. We know He lives; therefore, we trust Him to bless us according to His divine will and wisdom.
Thus, obeying the Word of Wisdom doesn’t mean that we won’t get sick. It does mean that when we do, we will have the power to overcome every illness and obstacle if it is the will of the Lord. Living with my condition isn’t always easy. Sometimes I feel like giving up—especially when I get lazy in my diet and relapse. But as Elder Scott counseled,
Your challenge may be a serious physical disability, a struggle with lingering illness, or a daily wrestle with a life-threatening disease. … Whatever the cause, I testify that lasting relief is available on conditions established by the Lord.
… It is important to understand that His healing can mean being cured, or having your burdens eased, or even coming to realize that it is worth it to endure to the end patiently, for God needs brave sons and daughters who are willing to be polished when in His wisdom that is His will.
Recognize that some challenges in life will not be resolved here on earth. Paul pled thrice that “a thorn in the flesh” be removed. The Lord simply answered, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” He gave Paul strength to compensate so he could live a most meaningful life. He wants you to learn how to be cured when that is His will and how to obtain strength to live with your challenge when He intends it to be an instrument for growth. In either case the Redeemer will support you. That is why He said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
When you feel you can do no more, temporarily lay your challenges at His feet.
In laying my burden at the feet of the Savior, I often receive the answers that I’m seeking. That doesn’t always mean that I’m healed. Sometimes it means the Lord shows me the way. But as I’ve deepened my study of the Word of Wisdom, I’ve found the blessings that come from obeying this principle in faith.