Monday, November 10, 2014

Why I Follow the Word of Wisdom (and other wacky Mormon stuff)

Frequently asked questions

"Why do you think coffee, tea and alcohol are sinful?" 

I don't. 

I'm pretty sure Jesus drank wine. His critics actually called him "a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!" (Matt. 11:18/Luke 7:34). 

As I understand it, going around judging people for what they eat or drink (or smoke) is the sin, not eating or drinking or smoking. 

True, some substances can be addictive, and addictive behavior is harmful. But I don't even consider addiction a sin. It's a misfortune. And condemning someone with an addiction as "sinful" is not likely to help them with their addiction.

"Isn't everything OK in moderation?"

Pretty much, yes. Moderation (or the Catholic cardinal virtue of "temperance") is a good motto to live by.

When I did drink alcohol, I for the most part was a responsible drinker. But on occasion I drank too much and behaved badly. I'm glad that by choosing not to drink, I've decreased the likelihood in my life of behaving badly (though it's still quite possible for me to behave badly stone cold sober!).

Occasionally I dine with a group of friends who drink wine or beer with their meal. And sometimes there is an individual in the group who is a recovering alcoholic, or who, for whatever other reason, is uncomfortable drinking alcohol. I feel good about keeping them company, so they don't have to be the only "weird" one at the table. Though, I don't mind being the only weird one at the table! I don't mind being the perpetual "designated driver." 

I don't see this as making me better than anyone else. It's just my choice. It's how I feel most comfortable living. As long as others are comfortable with the choices they're making and how they're living, that's all that really matters to me.

I like the fact that by choosing not to take certain substances I can bear witness that we each get to choose what kind of life we want to live -- even if our choices make us a little eccentric.

"What about the health benefits from drinking wine?"

As I understand it, there is clinical evidence that drinking red wine (and only red wine!) daily does help reduce unhealthy cholesterol, which reduces the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. But I understand you have to drink a glass of red wine every day in order to get this benefit. And you lose the benefit as soon as you stop drinking every day. When I did drink wine, I never drank it that often. I'd have to become a pretty devoted wine-drinker in order to get this health benefit.

One reason I never drank wine daily is because even drinking just a single glass of wine in the evening would make me feel a bit sluggish the next day. That made me decide to save wine-drinking only for the weekend. I actually found that once I gave up alcohol completely I was sleeping more soundly at night, and I had more energy overall. My doctor told me that even minimal wine-drinking has a negative impact on overall energy levels and on muscle strength, and when he learned that I had given alcohol up completely, he congratulated me on making a wise choice.

I'm very concerned about health. I practice yoga daily. I don't own a car, so I do a lot of walking and biking. I eat a balanced diet with lots of grains, vegetables and fruit, and my cholesterol is extremely low... Actually slightly lower than what is recommended to minimize heart attack risk. So... I'll take my chances without the health benefits of daily red wine drinking.

"I understand avoiding drinking and smoking, but coffee, tea, and pop? What are you allowed to drink? And what about chocolate? That has caffeine in it..."

The Mormon "Word of Wisdom" does not specifically name "caffeine" as a substance to be avoided, but "hot drinks," which has been interpreted to mean coffee and tea. So technically, a Mormon can drink all the Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew (or eat all the chocolate) he or she wants, and be considered in compliance with the Word of Wisdom. Only coffee and tea are on the no-no list.

First, a word about caffeine... I used to be a serious caffeine junky. When I started working at the law firm where I currently work, there was always free coffee in the lunch room, and it was the good stuff. Really good coffee. So I got into the habit of drinking sometimes as much as five cups a day! Also, the firm had subsidized pop machines in the lunch room, and you could buy a can of pop for 25¢. So when I got tired of coffee, I'd go for a Dr. Pepper or a Mountain Dew. That was a lot of caffeine. And I found I was actually feeling kinda tired and jittery, and wasn't sleeping well.

At some point, I decided to go off it cold turkey. No more caffeine. I suffered from caffeine deprivation headaches for a few days, but eventually found that once my body had made the adjustment to a caffeine-free diet, my energy levels at work were actually higher. An OJ in the  morning, and cold water the rest of the day (and a good night's sleep the night before) actually made me a much more productive worker than all the caffeine I could drink. I still drink caffeinated soda once in a while (maybe once a month). If I'm on a long road trip and I'm feeling drowsy at the wheel, I won't hesitate to buy a bottle of Mountain Dew at a gas station on the way. But I have no desire to let this become a daily thing again.

I love chocolate. Chocoholism runs in the family. My dad's a chocoholic. My mom used to have her own private stash of Fazer chocolates that she had to keep hidden so we kids wouldn't dig into it. My sister's a chocoholic. And so am I. I have found two negative effects from eating too much chocolate. First, a nice piece of dark chocolate in the evening can keep me up till 2 a.m. Also, all chocolate (light or dark) is loaded with calories. When I eat too much chocolate every day, I start putting on more pounds than I'd like. It doesn't matter how healthy the rest of my diet is or how much exercise I get, eating a bag of Cadbury mini eggs every day will do that. Once I actually looked at the caloric content of chocolate and compared it to other foods, I decided that I could still eat chocolate every day, but only in small quantity. As a little treat! Not as a main course! And never near bed time. That keeps me a happy camper.

I should make it clear that my decisions about caffeinated soda and chocolate reflect a desire to be healthy, which follows the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. Since the letter of the Word of Wisdom does not prohibit caffeinated soda or chocolate, my decisions about that stuff would have to reflect my own decisions.

"Then  why won't you drink coffee or tea?"

Because the Word of Wisdom (as currently interpreted by Church leaders) prohibits coffee and tea. This brings us back to the meaning of the Word of Wisdom for me.

Even if there were no caffeine in coffee or tea, and even if there were no known negative effects on health caused by drinking it, I would still not drink it so long as it were prohibited.

For me, there is a symbolic value of following the Word of Wisdom that transcends any possible health benefits. By following the Word of Wisdom, I in essence say that I'm willing to make this small sacrifice (it is, after all, a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things) as a sign of my love for God.

"Can't you have even just one teeny weeny little glass of wine to celebrate some special occasion?"


For the reason I've just given... Because my obedience to the Word of Wisdom has symbolic significance, even drinking an infinitesimally small amount of alcohol (a "symbolic amount"!) on purpose would be breaking it.

I love celebrating special occasions, but please don't feel insulted if I do so with a nice, tasty, non-alcoholic "sparkling" beverage, instead of with wine or champagne. This is important to me.

"But you're excommunicated, so you're not technically bound by Church rules."

That's right. This is my choice. It's one of the ways I can demonstrate my loyalty to God and to the principles of the Church, even if I am excommunicated.


I suspect that the Word of Wisdom as currently practiced in the Church is something for this time and place, and not an eternal requirement. Jesus did, after all, say he would "[drink of the fruit of the vine] with you in my Father’s kingdom" (Matthew 26:29). I look forward to that very special feast.


jake said...

I enjoyed this post. Thanks

Edward Morgan said...

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the main purpose of the Word of Wisdom was to constantly remind Mormons how they are set apart and different from others. When those around you are regularly drinking coffee or tea, etc., and you do not, it is a constant reminder in your daily life that you are LDS and have different beliefs. Any possible health benefits are nice but a secondary reason, I believe. Same for the dietary restrictions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. Eating and drinking is a daily and basic function. Religious dietary restrictions are mainly meant to remind believers how they are different from non believers and encourage conformity to the rules of the group you belong to.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Edward, I agree, that's one function of it. That could even have something to do with why the Word of Wisdom became a requirement only in the early 20th century -- shortly after the practice of plural marriage ended, Utah had become a state, and Mormons were trying to "fit in" to American society. Making the Word of Wisdom a binding rule might have helped remind Mormons that they were still "set apart" in some way.

However, I still think it's not purely social... Not just about defining our relationship with the rest of the world, but also about defining our relationship with God.

The fact that it is "just" symbolic doesn't make it any less important in either of those aspects.

Edward Morgan said...

Thanks for your comments John. And I agree that for a believing Mormon there is a religious and spiritual aspect to obeying the Word of Wisdom. Growing up in the Church, we were taught that our bodies are temples and obeying the Word of Wisdom will keep them healthy and clean. But as I got older and thought it through more I realized there were other aspects to the observance that were never really discussed at Church. I think it is great that the Word of Wisdom has a spiritual aspect for you. As for myself, I continue to observe it for health reasons even though I have not attended Church in many years.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

The health reasons are a good reason to observe it, and good health is one of the promised benefits of following it. Though it was always also taught to me as a spiritual principle, with spiritual benefits.

I always wondered why Mormons don't emphasize the part of the Word of Wisdom that emphasizes eating meat only sparingly, or the positive injunctions about eating lots of healthy grains, fruit and vegetables... The focus tends to be on avoiding alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco.

I guess it's easier to emphasize the legalistic "don'ts" than on the more nuanced "dos".

I've never encountered a person who was willing to speak in favor of tobacco, or who thought Mormons were weird for avoiding it.

I do remember as a kid members of the Church emphasizing that the Word of Wisdom was proof that Joseph Smith was a prophet, since clearly he couldn't have know what modern science has since demonstrated to be the clear benefits of living the Word of Wisdom. (I guess that's why, for many Mormons, recent studies promoting the health benefits of caffeine and wine-drinking seems awkward.) It's worth putting out there that the prohibitions and encouragements in the Word of Wisdom would not have been viewed as out of the ordinary in Joseph Smith's time. I think put in context, it is fair to say that the main significance of D&C 89 is that God takes as much interest in our physical health (in the temporal) as in our spiritual health.

"All things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal..." (D&C 29:34).

Armando Bravo said...

John: aprecio mucho tu franqueza, tu libertad de espíritu y tu auténtica religiosidad. Que tú, Göran, Glen y Will sean muy felices.