Crowded Meals: Eating Disorders & Christianity
As part of Mental Heath Awareness Week 2019, we'd love you to see this post from a couple of years ago, and engage deeper using the study guide. The difficulties within this entry are becoming increasingly prevalent in today's culture and so we're praying that it would be useful for you: whether it equips you to be a better friend to somebody, or gives you hope in your own tricky journey.
I never thought I would be sat here writing this. It has always been my secret. Sure, there are a few friends who are familiar with this battle, who have held my hand through doctor appointments, outpatients therapy and heavy sobs over spontaneous meals. But that is after all how the disease flourishes, it feeds upon deception and secrets, and unfortunately, the church often pushes it into the shadows. And yet here I am.
I have an eating disorder.
Already I can see your eyes shift awkwardly to the ground. Tension bubbles to the surface as you survey my body in a way you never have before, “are you really that thin? You don’t look like a walking skeleton to me.”
This is one of the many misconceptions that the media has fed about eating disorders. As tempted as I am to write this article merely challenging all of the dangerous stereotypes and lies that are postulated about anorexia, among other disorders, for now I will settle with this: weight-loss is merely an outer symptom of whatever is going on in the mind. If you can see that someone visibly has an eating disorder, then they are already dangerously tangled up at the bottom of the rabbit hole.
How did I get here? They say it all starts with a point. A trigger fired. A spark that is engulfed with flames. I’ve been trying to find this point for years now, pinpointing the exact time that anorexia placed its hands around my neck, ready to squeeze. But I can’t find it. The longer I search, the more convoluted the progression becomes. The feelings bleed into one another until I’m back to being a young child, wondering if anorexia has simply always been there, merely labelled at age 16.
I’m not sure.
I am sure however that this road has been full of tangents and turn-offs, full of many lanes and reckless drivers. Some anorexia sufferers prefer to begin looking out. Looking at the minefield of heart-ache and misplaced words that got them to this point. Not me. This disease begins and ends with me.
And yet for me, and many other women in the church, there is an added complication. Walking along this road I was never alone, but had Jesus at my side.
Anorexia and faith: a contradiction in terms?
I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember - lucky to have never walked outside of God’s love and grace. I have known Him, and Him me, for many years now. So when I first sunk into the depths of this disorder, and the relapses that have followed since recovery, how did I begin to reconcile this disorder and a faith that was at the heart of all I was?
My first reaction was, and still is, to distance myself from God. It is difficult to find a coherent approach to mental health and eating disorders in the institution that is the church, with a few tempted to say that eating disorders are a result of our failings as a Christian. This is something I just can’t accept having now lived with the disorder for six years. Whilst the eating disorder undoubtedly highlights the flaws in my faith and makes it harder to sustain a good relationship with God, it is not a direct cause of my own sin. If it were, then anyone who struggles with their identity in Christ would find themselves in the battle with an eating disorder.
mental illness is unfortunately a consequence of a fallEN world.
However, because of the nature of the disorder, I am all too aware that the thoughts that penetrate my mind are not of God. Out of shame and guilt, I tend to find myself climbing up a tree, out of God’s sight and my assumed condemnation.
How quick I am to brush Him with the same judgement that I put on myself.
The great thing is that God does not leave me stuck up my tree of shame.
You may have heard of Zaccheus the tax collector who lived in the times of Jesus. Hated by his community and aware of his vicious actions, Zaccheus climbed to the top of a tree during one of Jesus's 'walk-abouts' and there he stayed. Close enough to catch just a sight of God's glory, but far enough away so as not to taint the Son of God with his unholiness. However, Jesus sought out Zaccheus, and to everyone's shock and horror, invited himself round for dinner.
In my own life, God also seeks me out in my sin and my shame, calling me to come down from my tree of fear. After that, it’s up to me. There are days when my legs move from underneath themselves, eager to untie myself and climb down into God’s embrace. But there are other days when the leap seems too far, the embrace too fragile, as I grip onto my tree, not trusting God’s love for me at the bottom.
Where do we go from here?
I so wish I could finish this post by giving a tangible hope of my own recovery for those who suffer out there. Today I can’t do that. I can however give the hope that you are not alone, and at some point the stigma against mental health and eating disorders in society has to stop.
Having been enveloped by love in my own church, I have every hope that the Church can be a beacon of education and compassion for those who suffer. Having an eating disorder is a lonely and isolated journey that cordons off your mind from the rest of the world. We as the church have to make sure that eating disorders don’t flourish in the shadows. There are too many of us hurting in silence.
1. You are loved
I can also tell you that you are fearlessly and unmistakably loved, no matter what the state of your mind is. No matter how alone you feel in your suffering, you do not walk this battle solo. The God of the Heavens is at your side, and the monsters in your head are no challenge for Him. There will always be few people who really, truly understand what it is like to be in your head, however God sees it all. He sees all your thoughts and knows you inside out. Talk to Him. I have learned over the years that it is better to take my most sinister, most disjointed thoughts to Him than to block Him out completely. After all, we already know that He loved us at our darkest. Trust Him to love you now.
2. Your life has a purpose
Eating disorders and mental illnesses have a messy and dark past. Our culture is still laced with stereotypes and assumptions that were harmful and dangerous to those who suffer. Among this remains an assumption that you are useless goods, that your struggles have tainted your ability to help build God's kingdom. That simply could not be further from the truth.
One of the things I love most about the Bible is that it is an account of broken people being redeemed for God's purposes. Furthermore, one of the greatest Bible teachers this world has ever known, Charles Spurgeon, infamously struggled with a dark depression for his entire life. Yet look what a role Spurgeon was given on this Earth. Don't hold yourself to the earthly standards of defeat and a futile future, look to God for your purpose in this life.
3. Don't place your hope in recovery
I continue to pray for recovery, and I have no doubt that God could take this from me, however it is not in that that I put my trust. Instead, I trust that God has overcome this world, and everything I experience here will be but a breath when we are in paradise. This is simply my burning furnace, and it is through this that I must pass. I trust that He will restore me, but even if He doesn’t on this earth, I won’t give up on a God that has not yet let me down.
"I am the subject of depression so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to. But I always get back again by this–I know that I trust Christ. I have no reliance but in Him, and if He falls, I shall fall with Him. But if He does not, I shall not. Because He lives, I shall live also, and I spring to my legs again and fight with my depressions of spirit and get the victory through it. And so may you do, and so you must, for there is no other way of escaping from it.” Charles Spurgeon
If you want to think further about this issue, download the study guide for this post.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder, there are a number of places to look for help: