Coffee and Doubt

I enjoy the smell of coffee. When I’m studying or hanging out with friends at coffee shops, I sometimes look with curiosity at all the varieties you can order. Though my friends have patiently attempted to explain, I have to confess that I still don’t understand what all the different words mean (espresso, cappuccino, etc.) But some of the flavors and combinations sound rather enticing.

However, not only have I never so much as sampled the stuff, I’ve never really been all that tempted to do so. It’s one of the ways in which my behavior is surprisingly orthopractic. (Surprising to me, I mean, when I think much about it. And sometimes surprising to others as well.) Even with those nebulous, gray area issues that I don’t necessarily see as involving a moral decision, you might put me on the (gasp!) conservative end of the spectrum–I don’t drink caffeinated soft drinks, I’ll watch an R-rated movie once in a great while but I generally avoid them, and I do my best not to study on Sunday. I have exactly one piercing in each ear, and when I’m upset I usually use such shocking phrases as “gosh darnit!”

(I mention all this, by the way, because I’m trying to make sense of where I am–not because I see myself as some model of virtue in contrast to all the rebellious bloggernaclers out there who are addicted to Mountain Dew. Actually, my addiction of choice is chocolate. And in the interest of full disclosure, let me add that I have a hard time going to all three hours of church, and I keep skipping bits of it. Also, I can’t remember the last time I went to Enrichment, and I haven’t done any visiting teaching in years.)

I do sometimes wonder, though, about the fact that I don’t drink coffee. The thing is, when it comes to LDS teachings, I’ve ended up agnostic on quite a number of questions. While I sincerely believe there is truth in the Church, I’m rather skeptical about the One True Church idea, and about the necessity of ordinances. I still don’t know what I think about Book of Mormon historicity. When it comes to stuff like teachings on gender roles or patriarchy, I just flat-out disagree. With all that, you might think it wouldn’t be much of a step to ignoring (or at least creatively re-interpreting) the Word of Wisdom, too. But I find that I have no desire to go there.

I don’t entirely know what to make of that. Perhaps it’s that my identification with the LDS community is more a matter of behavior than of belief, making it easier to challenge doctrine I find troubling than to disregard behavioral norms. I can disagree with some of the views expressed in a particular First Presidency statement, for example, without experiencing too much cognitive dissonance. But to choose to take up smoking, or to decide that I no longer intend to live the law of chastity–I suspect that would require a serious re-thinking of my religious identity and commitments.

Or maybe I’m just a confused soul. But no matter how much I’m feeling mired in doubt when it comes to matters religious, I find that I keep on passing up those exotic-sounding coffee blends and ordering hot chocolate.


  1. Lynnette, thanks for your thoughts on that vexed issue of (mis)behavior’s relationship to(dis)belief.

    I don’t think my own commandment-keeping, such as it is, has often been very healthy. At various times in my life I’ve been motivated to keep the commandments frantically, with a hairshirt vengeance in order to (a) repent my way out of depression, which of course has never worked and (b) legitimate my own objections to certain aspects of church doctrine and culture. For much of my life I’ve felt a little haunted by the accusation that dissent is simply rationalization for sin. Sometimes I feel that as a dissenter I have to live the highest possible standard to obviate that criticism, and also to prepare against the inevitable day when in good conscience I will have no choice but to depart from the church on some issue. In my ideal world my only disobedience would be civil. Of course, in reality I regularly throw up my hands and give myself up as a sinner.

    I too love the smell of coffee. (Can’t say the same for the smell of cigarettes.) But although I sometimes swear, watch the occasional R-rated movie, down a caffeinated soda, or study on Sunday (all behaviors I’m constantly and unsuccessfully vowing to give up), like you, I can’t imagine myself going so far as to smoke or drink coffee. That would signal a much more serious re-examination of my religious identity and some kind of departure. Not to suggest that coffee and cigarettes are particularly heinous sins. I’m regularly guilty of worse. But because the Word of Wisdom is such a visible token of Mormonness, violating it is violating an identity and an identification with a community.

  2. I love coffee. I drank a lot of coffee before I became active in the church and I miss it still.

    I am coming to the conclusion that whatever we do to be obedient, even if it’s not really all that sinful, is a good thing. To that end, I didn’t argue when they asked me to pray in sacrament meeting and it’s a rule in our stake that women cannot give the opening prayer. So I trudged up and gave the closing prayer.

  3. I drank coffee in high school– as a type of rebellion because I didn’t know where to get cigarettes. And I’ll admit, I don’t understand the point of not drinking coffee. I love the smell, and though black coffee is gross, there are plenty of delicious coffee drinks out there I find myself craving on a regular basis. But I agree with Eve– that would be such a visible and tangible act of rebellion for me now. While I find myself doing the little things– swearing, watching some R-rated movies, not caring at all about caffeine, etc. I am fairly sure that I won’t be dropping by Starbucks anytime soon. I suppose such things as coffee, tattoos, alcohol, etc. seem very black-lined to me. Whereas my saying damnit makes me feel crude, and I just feel a little guilty and lazy when I study on Sunday. Those things won’t keep you out of the temple. But I don’t really think that is a legitimate reason to do or not do something– whether or not it affects your temple worthiness. But I took out my second set of earrings . . . maybe I am just more concerned about my public obedience.

    Hmmm . . . I am left with more questions after responding than I had when I started.

  4. I happily drink coffee and at some points have wanted to give it up over the past eight years due to the cost. And yes, it can keep you out of the temple, but Diet Coke doesn’t–go figure. Coffee became a way of getting myself out of bed to fight depression and get me to my horid corporate job. The main reason I drink it and it remains a part of my life is that it makes me feel “normal”. I’m rarely a lemming, but in this aspect I happily get in a Starbucks line and talk the talk and know the terms and feel a bit like I belong. At points in the past 6 years I have needed this like I needed air…not the coffee, the experience. I lost 3 men (former husband, father-in-law and Grandfather)in my family to death the Summer of 2000. Since then it has not been negotiable as a habit or expense, until about this past Spring when I thought I might like to revisit the temple. I am creating a life where the most joyous and tangible things aren’t a frappacino! (blended ice coffee) I’m proud of that, but there will be times when normal and comformity will come in the form of a cup with the green logo on the side and I will happily pay the 4 bucks to go there with the masses.

  5. Inertia or habit is a possibility. These are lifestyle changes you’re talking about, and as any dieter can attest, it’s hard to make a lifestyle change.

    At a friend’s wedding this summer, a stranger asked me if I was Mormon. I wondered where that question came from, and then I realized I was the only person in the group drinking lemonade, and I was the only woman in the group whose shoulders were covered. I have no religious reasons for either of those behaviors. It was unbearably hot, so I decided I would not add to my misery by drinking that night. And I haven’t bought any fancy dresses since I abandoned my religious reasons for full shoulder coverage.

  6. By the way, I noticed that Nine Moons is currently doing a fun-looking survey related to this topic here.

    Beijing, that’s a good point about habit–and a funny story. Even if I left the Church someday, I can imagine myself still opting for Sprite while my friends ordered beer.

    LaGirrrl, while coffee hasn’t been the particular thing that has played that role in my life, I can actually relate a lot to that feeling of needing something just to get you through the day when life is feeling overwhelming and miserable and there’s not much positive in it. I have to admit that I’ve used things like chocolate sometimes to bribe myself into getting out of bed.

    cmac, you got me thinking about the ways I chose to rebel as a teenager. One of the things I did was swear, which was particularly entertaining to do at BYU because people would be so shocked. I think a large part of why I’ve mostly quit is that it’s just never been as much fun since.

    Annegb, ahh yes, that ever-thorny question of obedience for the sake of obedience. I don’t entirely know what I think. But even if my motives for doing so are complicated, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that I do something like avoid coffee on the basis of the Church’s proscription (as it’s not something I see as inherently wrong).

    Michael, I’ve been told that by a number of people. It’s nice to think that in being able to smell but not taste, I’m actually getting the better end of the deal!

    Eve, I suspect that part of what motivates me as well in at least in some of these behaviors is a desire to pre-empt the accusation that I’m only questioning x, y, and z in Church doctrine because I’m seeking (for example) to rationalize my failure to follow the Word of Wisdom. And like you, I’ve at times questioned to what extent my approach to commandment-keeping is healthy; I notice that it’s in some ways marked by a rather strong legalism–which, I think, stems from a desire to fight off the despair of noticing just how thoroughly sin pervades my life.

    Another thought on this–I’ve noticed that over the years, as I’ve found myself in some ways feeling less theologically connected to the Church, things like the Word of Wisdom have actually come to feel more important. Perhaps it’s because they’re a way of maintaining a connection that, no matter how conflicted it is at times, still matters profoundly to me. If I ever did choose to drink coffee, I think for me that would signify that I’d given up on this whole Mormon thing.

  7. This situation sounds familiar to me…while I may have some fundamental disagreements with the Church, its leaders, and its doctrines, I’m very hesitant to do anything that’s technically ‘against the commandments,’ even if I don’t believe it to be morally wrong (like drinking coffee).

    This may have to do with the works-oriented approach to spirituality and salvation that has been engrained into me as a life-long Mormon. I recognize that there is a possibility that I’m totally wrong in my assessment of Church doctrines and practice–maybe the injunction against coffee and tea really did come straight from God, and perhaps my eternal happiness really does depend on my obedience to this commandment. So, while I may not even really believe that this aspect of the WoW is inspired, I’m still going to keep it, ‘just to be safe.’

    The other day I was reading Romans 7, in which Paul delights in “the law of God after the inward man.” In this chapter Paul promotes the idea that it’s the “inward man” that really counts when it comes to salvation. He desires righteousness, but because of the weakness of the fless, he acts contrary to his desires and sins. He says that, when he commits these sins, “it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” The focus is clearly on desires and intent, not outward works (the JST entirely changes this, but still). So I suppose it’s not really justifiable for me to keep a commandment I don’t believe is inspired, ‘just to be safe.’ Hmmm.

    But also, I’m just so used to not drinking coffee, and I’ve never felt deprived, so for me to go out and get some would probably be more motivated by a desire to rebel than a desire to drink coffee.

  8. Steve– I like what you are saying. To take it a little differently, if Paul says it is the “inward man” that counts, that can be largely based on our attitudes. So whether we understand why coffee is bad, our attitude of obeying the commandments is good. Like Adam, “I know not save the Lord commanded me.” And though I am not one to go for blind obedience, I don’t feel it necessary to understand why we can’t drink coffee, but my commitment to not drink coffee represents my willingness to obey.

    But if you don’t believe it’s inspired, that’s different– I just mean this application helps me understand why I don’t drink coffee. Like my seminary teacher once said– will two earrings keep you out of the celestial kingdom? no, but the attitude will. I can see some problems with this statement, but maybe it is at least a little bit true?

  9. I’m in a mood to do whatever I want and lie about it. Well, not kill anyone or commit adultery, but if I sip coffee one time in 28 years, I’m not going to sweat it.

  10. I not only love the smell of coffee, but I love coffee ice cream and tiramisu; moreover, I’m completely addicted to Mountian Dew, and I’m pretty sure that coffee and I would be very, very good friends if given half the chance. And, like Lynnette, I don’t entirely know why we’re not. I mean, I have my nose pierced, for crying out loud.

    Spring semester I had my first (and, I suspect, last) sample of alcoholic beverage, in a small glass (cup? vial? what do you call those little hard-alcohol drinking vessels?) of mead. I had agreed previously that if someone provided the mead, I, as a budding Anglo-Saxonists, would certainly be willing to try drinking it. I shouldn’t have been surprised when someone did secure some mead, and I was called upon to make good.

    I didn’t and don’t feel guilty for my two ounces of fourteen-proof fermented honey, and I don’t really feel like my friends who go out for a beer or two (or six) on Friday night are going to pick up a lightning bolt to hell on Saturday morning. But I have no desire to drink any further alcohol, and only partially because it feels like drinking boiling candle wax. At the very least, it seems like I’d appreciate any potential numbing effects it might have to offer, but nonetheless, I’m either thoroughly conditioned or thoroughly converted by or to the Word of Wisdom. Meanwhile, the BYU/FtSoY dress code has had no such effect.

  11. Why don’t you people see? Coffee IS morally wrong! Really! Get that through your heads! (Just keep thinking this: Coffee is morally wrong. If I drink coffe I am evil. I will commit to never drinking coffee. I will eradicate all coffee I encounter. Coffee should not exist. I will never drink coffee, because it is of the devil.)

    Okay, so really it’s just that I get migraines when I smell coffee. I would be in some serious trouble if it started to be an acceptable thing for church members. So join me in my campaign to keep coffee out of our churches and our lives!!!!! (insert maniacal laughter…)

  12. Vada, I adore anyone who inserts maniacal laughter into her posts. But I guess I’m under the influence of the devil, because I just love the way it smells at Barnes & Noble, of caffeine and chocolate and new books.

    (Someday I’ll shock all of you socially responsible leftists out there by posting about my conversion a few years ago to the True Church of Barnes and Noble.)

  13. I absolutely despise the smell of coffee (ugh!), and always have, which is no doubt one reason I’ve never even flirted with breaking this commandment.

    But there are ways in which I’ve always been drawn to the strict religious lifestyle, and I’m not entirely sure why. As a child I wanted to be either an orthodox Jew or an Amish. I found the idea of separating myself from the larger culture by a unique commitment to God extremely appealing. For similar reasons, I’m fascinated by the people who have ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. (Just the other day I almost bought a rosary, but then I thought that might be sacreligious for a non-Catholic . . . )

    Relatively “neutral” behaviors that are drawn into the realm of Church commitment I have no problem with (avoiding multiple earrings or tattoos, etc.). Whether God actually commands Jews to keep kosher, I like to hope that he appreciates their willingness to make this type of sacrifice for their relationship with him, because they believe it’s important. (When the behaviors the Church commands are morally objectionable, though, things of course get trickier.)

  14. Steve M, I’ve wondered too whether I’m just kind of hedging my bets. Which, I agree, may be self-defeating; if the only reason I don’t drink it is to play it safe, that’s not really all that admirable, morally speaking. Does keeping a commandment for the wrong reasons still have benefits? It’s an interesting question. However, like you, if I were to break the commandment it would probably be out of a desire to be rebellious, which isn’t a wonderful motivation, either.

    cmac, I like the idea of not drinking coffee as representing a kind of larger attitude. I appreciate the Word of Wisdom as a kind of tangible, everyday reminder of my religious commitments. I can’t figure out what I think about the virtue of obedience, though; that’s another topic that I’d like to tackle sometime.

    annegb, thanks for making me laugh.

    Melyngoch, I think you’re okay as long as you take out your nose ring before eating your coffee-flavored ice cream and drinking your mead. 😛

    Vada, does this aversion to the smell of coffee render you unable to truly enjoy the True Church of Barnes & Noble? I must say, that’s a real tragedy. 😉

    Eve, I’ve long known you were under the influence of the devil, but I’ll refrain from saying more, lest you retaliate in kind.

    Kiskilili, I too find myself somewhat fascinated by the strict religious lifestyle. I like that the Church has some clear behavioral markers, and I also like some of the practices I see in other faiths, such as giving up something for Lent. (Somewhat related tangent: I actually had a Catholic friend last year tell me that I inspired him to give up coffee for Lent. He said that if I could live without it, so could he. I laughed and pointed out that it was probably a whole lot more of a sacrifice for him, since I don’t really know what I’m missing.)


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