I've been reading about the laws given to the Jews regarding what food they were and weren't allowed to eat and as I was reading the following excerpt from a study guide it really hit me that in restoring the church in these latter days, the Lord also gave a different and wise directive.
From the Old Testament Student Manual (Genesis-2 Samuel) pg. 173:
"...we turn to the laws regarding clean and unclean things. As with the other laws, you must try to look beyond the outward commandments and rituals for what they were meant to teach about spiritual realities.
Take, for example, the laws of clean and unclean animals. There were practical reasons for these laws related to health and sanitation. The flesh of swine is highly susceptible to trichinosis, a malady easily transmitted to man. Shellfish can develop a deadly poison if it is not killed and handled properly. But the Hebrew word for clean used in the dietary law means more than just physically clean. It carries the connotation of being "clean from all pollution or defilement...and implying that purity which religion requires, and is necessary for communion with God." (Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. "clean, cleanse, clear," p.78).
If the dietary code is seen as both symbolically and as part of a system of laws that covered all the customary acts of life, it becomes apparent how it served. God was using the diet as a teaching tool. People may forget or neglect prayer, play, work, or worship, but they seldom forget a meal. By voluntarily abstaining from certain foods or by cooking them in a special way, one made a daily, personal commitment to act in one's faith. At every meal a formal choice was made, generating quiet self-discipline. Strength comes from living such a law, vision from understanding it. Further, the law served to separate the Hebrew from his Canaanite neighbor. Each time he got hungry he was forcibly reminded of personal identity and community bond. Indeed, he belonged to a people set apart. The law therefore acted as a social instrument for keeping the Hebrew nation intact, a psychological instrument for preserving the identity of the individual, and a religious instrument for keeping the people in remembrance of Jehovah."
The Word of Wisdom is often seen as a peculiar set of restrictions on what Mormons are allowed (or not allowed) to eat, drink, or partake of. Many people in the general world community don't understand the full benefits of this wise counsel from God.
Certain items are designated as for the body and others are clearly labelled as not good, or in Old Testament lingo, we have "clean" and "unclean" food items. Just as the laws regarding kosher foods were strange and almost mysterious in their day, so the Word of Wisdom when it was first introduced was seen as something novel and weird.
Although the kosher laws have definite symbolic meaning, they also had health benefits that might not have been obvious. The Israelites likely didn't know or understand about germs and most food-borne illnesses. Yet the Lord in His wisdom gave them a set of rules that not only reminded them of their covenants with Him every they ate, but also gave them additional health benefits. The Word of Wisdom does the same. It specifies that alcohol, tea, and tobacco are not to be used or ingested. This directive was given long before the health community recognized the harmful and addictive effects of these items. It goes further though. Not only does the Word of Wisdom counsel against what items not to partake of, it was the original "eat whole, healthy foods" movement- advising the eating of fruits and vegetables while keeping the ingestion of meat to a minimum.
When we refrain from partaking of addictive substances we are keeping ourselves "clean from all pollution or defilement" and retaining a purity that is required for communion with God. We can't approach God with our whole body and soul if our body is being held captive by an addictive substance. This isn't to imply that we can't pray to God or that He won't answer prayers if we use such substances, just that we are far more likely to be closer to Him and more in tune with His Spirit if our bodies are free from that bondage and distraction.
As with the Israelites in their day, modern Mormons make a voluntary choice to abstain from certain items that the community at large considers to be popular, normal and even "healthy" in moderation. At every meal where we are offered coffee, tea or alcohol, we are reminded of our "personal identity and community bond," or that we are set apart from most other people because of the choices we make at the table. When we treat the Word of Wisdom as the great revelation that it is, we can recognize the spiritual as well as the physical benefits of following it. There is significance to denying oneself the popular pleasures of the world and following a stricter (even strange) set of laws from God.
There are many ways that God sets His people apart from the general population. When we are living our religion (whatever denomination) we should be seen as different, even peculiar. Never has God said that His people should fit in, be popular, or be hardly indistinguishable from those around them. We are called to stand taller, shine brighter, and have more integrity than those who don't believe.
The Word of Wisdom, while seen by many other denominations and non-believers as a strange set of restrictions, is an amazing example of how God takes an interest in every facet of our lives and continues to give us guidance and protection from harmful things in the world around us. He hasn't left us wondering if some of these things are good for our body or not- He gave us warnings about tobacco before it's harmful effects were known, He warned us about alcohol before it became so readily available that alcoholism is now a common affliction, and He warned us about coffee and tea before they became such popular and addictive beverages that people now squander hundreds or thousands of dollars annually on their addiction to such.
I, for one, am so thankful that God has continued to reveal His truths in our day and age. There is so much around us that is confusing...so many things that seem to be in the "gray" area....but through God's word and His Spirit, I can have peace of mind that He is guiding me and that I am doing my best to stay close to Him and keep myself "clean from pollution or defilement," both physically and spiritually.