Our Creator has given us instructions about how to take care of and use our bodies. Over the years, in ancient and modern revelations, he has warned us of dangers and pointed us towards better practices. Although our mortal bodies are designed to wear out and die, ending our lives on earth, our bodies will be a part of our eternal existence after the resurrection. This post will provide a quick overview of God’s teachings on five subjects related to the human body.
1. Foods to Eat
I was once in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, and my eye was caught by a cereal box with a scripture quoted on its cover: “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof” (Ezekiel 4:9). Apparently the cereal in the box was made from all of these grains, which the Lord had endorsed in scripture. The obvious implication was that God wanted me to eat this cereal, and that the other cereals were an abomination. (I actually almost agree with that…) Anyway, I was intrigued, so I bought a box and tried it.
The cereal tasted . . . bad.
Still intrigued, I looked up Ezekiel 4:9 to learn its context. The verse is actually part of a specific instruction given to the prophet Ezekiel as an object lesson to warn the people of Jerusalem about the coming siege of the city, which occurred in 587 BC, a few years after his prophecy. Ezekiel was instructed to lie down on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right side for 40 days, laying siege against a miniature model of the city of Jerusalem drawn on a clay tile. The grains listed above were to be baked on a fire using human dung for fuel and eaten in rations, and he was also to drink water in rations. When Ezekiel protested about using human dung to bake his bread (a valid complaint, I think), the Lord said that it was okay for him to use cow’s dung instead. (Does the cereal manufacturer use human dung or cow dung to bake their product?)
Clearly this food was meant to be a symbol of the punishing conditions of a siege (and that’s honestly what the cereal tasted like). How many boxes would they sell if they put the scripture in its greater context? Normally I would be sort of annoyed at the cereal company’s false advertising, and the way they took that scripture out of context, but their cereal was so bad that I can’t imagine their company succeeding anyway.
Ezekiel 4 is just one of many examples where the Lord has told his people what to eat. Although the instructions given to Ezekiel were apparently not meant for the rest of us, the Lord has been interested in the dietary habits of his followers since at least the time of Moses. There were very specific foods prescribed to be eaten at the Passover feast. The Law of Moses gave instructions on which animals were acceptable as food, and also some directions for food handling. These scriptures are the basis of the Jewish kosher traditions, and are the reason why Daniel and his associates refused to eat the king’s meat in Babylon. In New Testament times the Lord altered these dietary restrictions in the context of a revelation given to Peter about preaching the gospel to the Gentiles.
The Word of Wisdom, revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1833, contains the Lord’s law of health revised for our time of the world. “All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground […] Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:16, 12-13). See my previous post on this topic for more information.
2. Not For the Body
The Word of Wisdom also cautions against the use of alcoholic drinks, tobacco, and “hot drinks,” which is consistently interpreted by Church leaders to mean coffee and tea. Although not specifically mentioned in the revelation, the use of addictive drugs of abuse is also considered to be against the Word of Wisdom.
Medical research has flip-flopped for a generation on whether moderate amounts of alcohol may have some mild health benefits. As of this writing the latest paper in the tug-of-war has come out strongly against alcohol consumption, indicating that whatever health benefits it produces are far outweighed by the public health burden of alcohol consumption, including addiction, birth defects, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, various types of cancer, and the trauma, violence, and loss of productivity due to intoxication. This study was published in August 2018 in the Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, and the paper concluded that “the safest level of drinking is none.” This result will no doubt be called into question by another major paper within the next year or two. In the meantime, we teetotalers have already made our decision, having been instructed by the Creator of our bodies that “inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:5). The prophet Isaiah was saying the same thing 2,700 years ago: “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!” (Isaiah 5:11).
Tobacco is less controversial in the medical literature these days, as the data are fairly clear that smoking produces no real benefits and increases the risk of myriad health complications, including heart attack, stroke, emphysema, birth defects, and various types of cancer. Latter-day Saints have been largely tobacco-free since the 1800’s, thanks to the Word of Wisdom and consistent teachings from Church leaders on the subject. This has no doubt saved us a huge collective burden of disease, and I thank the Lord for giving us this wisdom over a century before the Surgeon General issued his landmark 1964 report.
Coffee and tea are also a bit controversial in the medical literature, with some studies showing an apparent mild benefit and others showing no benefit or harm. Much ink has been spilled over the question of why these drinks are warned against in the Word of Wisdom, and whether or not that also applies to other drinks containing similar ingredients. Is it the caffeine? Is it the temperature? The short answer is that I don’t know, and that it hasn’t been revealed, but I trust the Lord’s advice on the subject. He was clearly right in the case of tobacco, and I think the science is slowly catching up to him on the subject of alcohol as well. I think the cost of obedience here is low, and the benefits are huge. It is perfectly rational to trust in the promised blessings of following a commandment even though you don’t entirely understand the reasons for it, when you have faith in the knowledge, power, and goodness of the One who is giving the command.
My wife and I have 8 kids. A generation or two ago that would not be an unusual number, but for those of us on the tail end of Generation X it is rather above average. As you might imagine, this fact about me tends to elicit comments from other people, and these comments range from complimentary to downright offensive. A patient in my clinic once quipped, “You know what causes that, right?”
I opened my eyes widely and said, “Yeah, I learned all about it in med school!”
(This is a family-friendly blog, so I won’t go into details.)
Reproduction is a critical function of the human body, and without it the entire human population would die off in a single generation. It should not surprise us that our Creator would have a guideline to help us use this important function of the body, and indeed he does; it is known as the Law of Chastity. The most comprehensive summary of the related doctrines and commandments is found in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” issued by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in 1995. Here are a few excerpts pertaining to the Law of Chastity:
“Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.”
“We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”
“We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed. We affirm the sanctity of life and of its importance in God’s eternal plan.”
“Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.”
“We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God.”
(Note that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is about more than just the Law of Chastity. It contains wonderful teachings about the role of families in God’s plan and the ways that family members should work together and serve one another. If you haven’t read the whole document, then you should!)
The emergence of technology to manipulate the biology of reproduction, to separate the act from its consequences, does not change God’s commandments on this subject. We are still required to respect the “sanctity of life,” and the “sacred powers of procreation” are still subject to God’s command that they be used only between married man and woman. In recent decades there have been dramatic changes in the broader culture and in the laws of the land to allow for more permissive standards on the subject of chastity, but the prophets have declared that God’s laws and God’s standards have not changed.
Just imagine a world where everyone keeps the Law of Chastity. Sexually transmitted infections would pretty much disappear. Single parent families, which are associated with increased risk of poverty and other negative outcomes, would be comparatively rare. The awful crimes of sexual abuse and sexual assault, with their many reverberations, would be eliminated. Young people would necessarily develop patience and mastery over their appetites and passions, which would lead to a whole host of positive downstream effects. Not every problem in society, or even every family problem, would be solved, but universal voluntary observance of the Law of Chastity would go a long way towards diminishing sorrow in the world.
One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from the late President Boyd K. Packer, whose teachings were clear and consistent throughout his ministry:
“To be entrusted with the power to create life carries with it the greatest of joys and dangerous temptations. The gift of mortal life and the capacity to kindle other lives is a supernal blessing. Through the righteous exercise of this power, as in nothing else, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy. This power is not an incidental part of the plan of happiness. It is the key—the very key.
“Whether we use this power as the eternal laws require or reject its divine purpose will forever determine what we will become.” (from “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” October 2010 General Conference)
The human body can malfunction in many different ways, and can be attacked by countless varieties of infectious pathogens. Genetic disorders can cause problems with the structure or function of the body’s organs and tissues. Autoimmune and neoplastic disorders attack the body from within. Degenerative and metabolic disorders cause a slow deterioration of structure and function, and trauma can break them in an instant. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and even prions can attack the body from without. Given how complicated the body is, and how dangerous a world we live in, I have often thought of how remarkable it is that we are healthy and well as often as we are.
The malfunction and eventual failure of our physical bodies is a part of the design, part of God’s eternal plan. With the long view in mind, God can use illness and death as part of life’s curriculum to teach us valuable lessons and help us develop noble attributes like charity, patience, humility, and faith. As I have said before, disease can be one of God’s most powerful refining tools, and many of my previous posts have addressed various aspects of this topic.
Job faced the tragic deaths of his children and suffered a horrible dermatologic condition, all without losing his faith in God. The man born blind in John chapter 9 did nothing to deserve his trial, but in his healing “the works of God [were] made manifest in him.” Hezekiah’s illness focused his thoughts on the Lord. Coriantumr’s battle wounds caused him to reconsider his actions, although by that time it was apparently too late to stop his people from destroying themselves.
And this learning continues today, as God uses every opportunity in this life, including its illnesses, to teach his children. Elder David A Bednar once shared a story of what he learned from his colleague in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:
“Several years ago I spent a Sunday afternoon with Elder Hales in his home as he was recovering from a serious illness. We discussed our families, our quorum responsibilities, and important experiences.
“At one point I asked Elder Hales, ‘You have been a successful husband, father, athlete, pilot, business executive, and Church leader. What lessons have you learned as you have grown older and been constrained by decreased physical capacity?’
“Elder Hales paused for a moment and responded, ‘When you cannot do what you have always done, then you only do what matters most.’
“I was struck by the simplicity and comprehensiveness of his answer. My beloved apostolic associate shared with me a lesson of a lifetime—a lesson learned through the crucible of physical suffering and spiritual searching.” (from “Chosen to Bear Testimony of My Name”, October 2015 General Conference)
(Elder Robert D. Hales shared additional insights from his sickbed in the October 1998 General Conference.)
I did my medical training at a university hospital, where I learned countless lessons within the course of a few short years. But many of my patients were also learning the lessons of life, in the university of the hospital, from the Master Teacher.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the greatest comeback victory in the history of the world (and it will only be surpassed by his second coming). On the third day after his enemies had captured, judged, and crucified him, scattering his disciples into hiding, the Savior of the world conquered death by bringing his own body back to life. This was no shallow or temporary political victory. The leaders of the Jews had convicted him of blasphemy for declaring that he was God, and the Son of God, which they felt he couldn’t possibly be, but his resurrection declared, unequivocally, “Yes, I was, and yes, I AM.”
As huge as that statement is, the implications of the resurrection for us are even larger than that. As Paul taught the Corinthians:
“19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
“20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
“21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
“22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:19-22, emphasis added)
The doctrine of universal resurrection is taught even more explicitly in the Book of Mormon. The prophet Alma had a special interest in the doctrine of the resurrection, and teachings from him and his missionary companion Amulek on this subject are some of the clearest in all of scripture. For instance:
“The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of all our guilt. Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous” (Alma 11:43-44).
Resurrection has no precedent in the medical literature. No successful cardiac defibrillation, as wonderful as it may be in the life of that individual, comes close to the magnitude of resurrection’s miracle. The power to recreate the physical body, after it has been beaten and destroyed by death, and to bring it back to life in a way that it will never suffer disease or death again, is beyond the comprehension of medical science. I don’t understand it.
But I believe it.
The human body is a marvel of design, one of God’s greatest gifts to his children, and a gift that keeps on giving. It comes with an owner’s manual, if we are willing to listen to the prophets, and this will help us to avoid some of life’s worst pitfalls. His instructions range from dietary guides to guardrails on the road of reproduction. The mortal body is designed to suffer disease and eventually death, which is all part of God’s plan, but in the end our bodies will be restored and glorified in the resurrection.
I thank God for my physical body, and for his teachings that help me understand it and take care of it.