Run and not be Weary?

Among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the phrase “run and not be weary” is well-known and generally associated with Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 where it occurs. How these verses are interpreted doesn’t only affect our expectations of the Word of Wisdom, but also our understanding of certain rites carried out by latter-day saints. In my experience, a common interpretation of the promises in verses 18, and 20-21 is that they regard physical health and stamina while verse 19 is more spiritual, regarding wisdom. Here, I explore some of the problems with this interpretation and suggest an alternative reading for these verses, that I believe lacks such problems.

A pre-Apostle Case Study

“And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments,… shall run and not be weary…” D&C 89:18-20

Stories of runners in the Liahona, Ensign, and General Conference show support for the interpretation that D&C 89:20 concerns physical running, but don’t specifically claim that the runners in the stories did not become weary. When Dieter F. Uchtdorf was preparing for pilot training, a lot of the training involved running. He saw that men who did not observe the Word of Wisdom were faster than him. Elder Uchtdorf saysI remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute! Aren’t I supposed to be able to run and not be weary?’ But I was weary, and I was overtaken by people who were definitely not following the Word of Wisdom. I confess, it troubled me at the time. I asked myself, was the promise true or was it not?” Elder Uchtdorf still has confidence in God’s promises, but so far as I know, he never got to the stage where he could run and not get tired. In fact, I don’t know anyone who can. If this was a thing, BYU would consistently win in long-distance running, and other sports, because of their super-natural endurance. Right?

No True Scotsman

Sometimes when this sort of discussion has emerged in a church meeting, people have suggested that the people weren’t observing the Word of Wisdom well enough. Did they eat too much meat? Do they eat enough vegetables? While it is worth exploring the possibility that no one fully observes the Word of Wisdom, I think I should point out the dangers of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. Here is a simple version of it I pinched from Wikipedia.

Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person A: “But no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

The No True Scotsman fallacy is a flawed attempt to refute a claim by saying that the conditions are not “really” or “truly” met. In terms of the Word of Wisdom, we can almost always claim the Word of Wisdom must be strictly observed, in more extreme ways than anyone actually does, to enable people to run without tiring. Assuming Dieter Uchtdorf and many others were observing the word of wisdom well enough to qualify for its blessings, let’s explore an alternative reading of the promises in D&C 89.

The Bible in D&C

Authors of the Bible often make allusions to other scriptures that are available to them. They may do this by borrowing a phrase or keyword or idea they hope will give you a little hint, so that you can compare the two stories and gain deeper insight. Some examples might be the parallels in the creation and flood stories in Genesis, the Israel leaving Egypt and crossing the sea and Lehi’s family leaving Jerusalem and crossing the sea, or the phrase “in the beginning” in John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1. Doctrine and Covenants has a King Jamesian feel to it because it’s not written in contemporary English, and also because it borrows many phrases and words from the King James Bible. This didn’t escape whoever wrote the footnotes to the D&C 89. The footnotes to 89:20 include Proverbs 4 and Isaiah 40.

Proverbs 4

Proverbs 4 is one of the introductory chapters to Proverbs which links the Book of Proverbs to King Solomon, who is known for his wisdom. In Proverbs 4 a father advises his son to pursue Wisdom (personified as a woman here) and the fear of the Lord. Pay attention, wisdom is in the name “Word of Wisdom”, so this is probably relevant to D&C 89. It’s worth reading all of Proverbs 4, but verses 10-12 appear to best parallel D&C 89:20.

Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings; and the years of thy life shall be many. I have taught thee in the way of wisdom; I have led thee in right paths. When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened; and when thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble.

It’s clear to me that this passage is talking about metaphorical paths, metaphorical steps, and metaphorical running. When we walk after Wisdom, she guides us along the right paths, walking along the right paths helps us to overcome difficulties and avoid becoming lost.

Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40‑48 is a collection of prophecies of comfort and redemption. They are addressed to the exiled Israel in Babylon and teach of God’s awesome power. God doesn’t faint like normal people do. God doesn’t get weary like normal people do. Don’t give up hope, is the message. God is awesome and understanding.

Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
But they that await upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah is known for its rich symbolism and imagery. Be cautious about assuming that this is a promise about literal physical stamina. Right next to statements about running are statements about flying. Instead, renewed strength, eagles flight, running, and walking that do not exhaust a person appear to be images or symbols of the spiritual endurance, strength, comfort, and redemption promised to those who do not give up hope but await upon the Lord.

Walking (or running) in obedience to the commandments

D&C 89:18 actually talks about walking in obedience to the commandments. Then in verse 20, we are promised that if we do that we will walk and not faint. Running and not being weary in both Isaiah and D&C 89 appear to be similarly symbolic. When we walk or run we move forward, we can progress if we are headed in the right direction. Obedience to the commandments is a path we can metaphorically walk or run along.

Health in their navel and marrow to their bones

Health in the navel and marrow in bones also have symbolic significance in the Old Testament. In ancient Israel, marrow was seen as refreshing, moistening, nourishing, and strengthening the bones. People without marrow in their bones are dead people, dried up like skeletons. Compare with Ezekial’s vision of the valley of dry bones, where God restores the bones vitality and life; He resurrects the people and restores Israel. God will restore, refresh, nourish, and strengthen those who are not wise in their own eyes but fear the Lord. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), we gain wisdom from God by walking along his path in obedience. He spiritually resurrects us.

Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.
It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.
Proverbs 3:8

The Destroying Angel

The Israelites who walked in obedience to the commandments of the Lord followed the instructions Moses gave concerning the Passover. One of which was to wipe the blood of a sacrificial lamb over the doorways. This is a very visible sign of their obedience to God. God smote the wicked in Egypt but preserved those who followed in his weird ways.

And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.
Exodus 12:13

D&C 89:21 states “And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.” Interestingly, this and Exodus 12:13 are not promises of protection or long life. They are promises that God will not destroy. Unlike with the children of Israel, where God has said he will slay the first-born sons of those who do not wipe the blood over their door, in D&C 89 there is no equivalent time-frame or threat of destruction or death. God does not say he will smite the hot-drink drinkers or tobacco chewers. Instead, it’s likely a promise to contrast and complement the resurrection references (health in the navel, marrow in the bones). God promises that those who show they follow his direction will not suffer spiritual death but be spiritually renewed.

Our Word of Wisdom can seem a bit weird, kind of like wiping blood on the doorway, but it’s also a very visible sign of our obedience. I actually prefer it to the whole blood wiping thing, if I’m honest. And sometimes, in response to quizzical looks when I explain why I do not drink tea or coffee, I tell people it is a token of my faith.

Does the Word of Wisdom has anything to do with Health?

An official statement from the church last year states that the word of wisdom is a law of health for the physical and spiritual benefit of God’s children. The answer is clearly yes, the word of wisdom does have to do with health, but maybe not like you think. (I have written a bit about this here too.)

The Word of Wisdom does not promise you perfect health…
Elder Packer, New Era January 2013

Forget running with supernatural stamina, think about all the health problems experienced by the early saints as they settled Nauvoo and crossed the plains. They didn’t have perfect health. Far from it. They got sick a lot, and many died.

When D&C 89 was received, the backdrop was a large temperance movement in the USA. The medical consensus held that most diseases were due to an imbalance in energy. An excess of this energy could be brought about by over-stimulation from things like hot drinks, alcoholic beverages (especially distilled), using tobacco, or eating meat, among other things (for more detail see this article). If a person was lacking energy though, these things might revive them. This partially explains Joseph Smith drinking wine in Carthage Jail, or the statements in D&C 89 about eating meat in winter, cold, or famine. Later, the emergence of evidence based medicine led to better understanding of how these things affect our bodies, but there is no doubt that observing the Word of Wisdom in D&C 89 was understood to have health benefits. It’s likely that the revelation D&C 89 was informed by this background temperance movement. As evidence-based medical science has advanced and social situations have changed, church leaders have periodically made inspired changes to the way we practice the our observance of the Word of Wisdom. For instance, the church added vaping to the list of prohibitions in 2019.

Temperance and Wisdom

The direction given in D&C 89 was implicitly understood to foster physical health. While some understand the promises at the end to make D&C explicitly about physical health as well as spiritual blessings such as wisdom, I propose that instead, they only explicitly draw out a connection between obedience and spiritual blessings such as wisdom.

I have come to know also that a fundamental purpose of the Word of Wisdom has to do with revelation… As valuable as the Word of Wisdom is as a law of health, it may be much more valuable to you spiritually than it is physically.
Boyd K Packer, Prayers and Answers, October General Conference 1979

While the details and practice of the Word of Wisdom change over time, and don’t promise perfect health, it’s pretty clear that the spirit of Joseph Smiths revelation, known as the word of wisdom, involved care for our bodies. We are supposed to look after our bodies by exercising wisdom and temperance. As well has having the benefit of a healthy body, this also enables us to serve others in more ways, and leads us to greater wisdom, God’s support, and spiritual nourishment. What is good for your body is usually good for your emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being as well. The word of wisdom is as much about wisdom as health, if not more.