Lists of “Do’s” and “Don’ts,”
and the Power of Covenant Keeping
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note: A version of this essay was cross-posted in answer to a question regarding the Word of Wisdom on the Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board at mormondialogue.org. Yes, there are a lot of things I do as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) that members of other faiths don’t do. There are a lot of things I avoid as a Mormon that members of other faiths (and the irreligious) do not. What’s the big deal? Do I believe I would go to hell for not doing things in the first category, or for doing things in the second? Maybe (and maybe not). Do I believe I will be blessed for avoiding things in the first category and for doing things in the second? Yes, but the reasons I try to “stay on the straight and narrow” as my faith defines it are more complex than that, as I explain below.
I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (otherwise known as Mormons). What’s the big deal about living the Word of Wisdom, which commands its adherents to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and harmful drugs; and about living the Law of Chastity, which commands its adherents to engage in sexual relations only with their husbands or wives, to whom they are legally and lawfully wedded (a corollary being that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God)? Arguably, aren’t there health benefits to using at least three of the five substances in moderation? And what’s the big deal about consenting unmarried adults engaging in sexual relations?
I believe not only that are there benefits to doing these things, but also that there is power in the concept of covenant keeping (as imperfectly as I might keep the covenants I have made). Why do I continue to abstain from beer or wine or coffee when medical consensus continues to grow that imbibing these substances in moderation may actually have health benefits? Because I have covenanted to do so. Why do I continue to abstain from premarital intimate physical relations? Why would I do so even when the world would see nothing wrong if I were to find someone with whom I could engage in physical intimacy? Because I have covenanted to abide by the law of chastity.
Are there temporal, tangible, physical benefits to avoiding these things? Sure. I don’t have to worry about becoming addicted to a substance I’ve never even tried, and I don’t have to worry about contracting a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) or bringing a new life into the world under what I would consider to be less than ideal circumstances if I don’t engage in intimacy without benefit of marriage. Is there physical power in keeping these covenants? Sure. Physically, I’m better off than I would be if I were to contract an STD or another illness which, while not primarily sexual in nature, could still harm my health (such as hepatitis, in any of its glorious varieties).
True, I could lessen the risk of physical harm (although I couldn’t completely eliminate it) by using a condom if I were engage in intimacy without benefit of marriage. And by no means do I mean to suggest that anyone who has not covenanted to abstain from certain substances somehow is less in God’s eyes for using such substances even if I make a different choice. And I could contract hepatitis or AIDS through no fault of my own. If that were to happen, would that take away the power inherent in covenant keeping? No. But I do these things—I keep these covenants (albeit imperfectly, in some respects)—because there is spiritual power in covenant keeping, whatever the arguable harmlessness of engaging in intimacy while using a condom, or of using, in moderation, substances which are proscribed by the Word of Wisdom.
However else I might avoid harm, and whatever other benefits might accrue to me by doing otherwise, there is power—spiritual power—in keeping my covenants (emphasis mine). If I keep them, I have access to power to which I would not have access if I were to do otherwise. That’s true no matter what the world says about drinking wine, beer, or coffee in moderation, and no matter what it says about what’s permissible when two people are in a “committed relationship.”