This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of “Ilira Revistë” magazine. Read the Albanian language version here.
© Marie Notcheva
Is there a point where a diet becomes deadly? Can a desire to look thin and “fit” become an unhealthy obsession? Is it possible for a woman’s behavior to be totally controlled by fear of gaining weight?
While it shouldn’t surprise us that the answer to these questions is “yes”, what is truly alarming is that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia affect many Christian women around the world. If we are set free from the power of sin, as the Bible says, why do so many believers become enslaved by addictions? Women in the Church often feel ashamed to seek help, and hide their struggles with eating disorders. However, there is great hope to be found in the power of the Gospel. First, let’s look at what anorexia and bulimia are.
Anorexia nervosa is the clinical diagnosis given to individuals who starve themselves (and often exercise excessively) in attempt to maintain a lower than healthy weight, usually defined as 20% lower than average for one’s height. Extreme dieting and fear of weight gain (along with viewing one’s self as fat when actually underweight) can lead to cardiac damage, interrupted menstrual cycles, premature osteoporosis, kidney failure, hair loss, and other health problems.
Bulimia nervosa describes the binge-and-purge cycle of consuming large amounts of food, then expelling it by vomiting, laxatives, diuretics and/or excessive exercise. Many bulimics were anorexics first, or combine the two behaviors to control their weight. Once the difficulty of self-starvation becomes so great that a woman gives up and eats, purging becomes her “safety latch”: the only way to indulge the appetite (that has been denied for so long). She now feels completely out of control. Bulimics are usually aware of the health risks, which include electrolyte imbalances (which can lead to heart arrhythmia and kidney damage); esophageal ruptures and dental problems.
Another long-term consequence of both anorexia and bulimia is infertility. The average woman’s body fat percentage is between 14-20%. When it drops below 8-10%, sufficient estrogen is no longer produced and ovulation stops. Often, sterility and miscarriages are the result of eating disorders. A high price to pay for wanting to be thin!
What Causes Eating Disorders?
Although the media is often blamed for equating thinness with beauty, the truth is that women of every era have wanted to be considered attractive and desirable. Preoccupation with having the “perfect” physical attributes is what the Bible calls vanity, and we women are notorious for comparing ourselves to others! While some blame modern advertisement for the message it sends women, psychologists label eating disorders “mental illnesses” and many people consider them diseases. This is wrong, however; there are no organic or genetic causes of either anorexia or bulimia. We cannot blame the media or biology. Eating disorders result from idolatrous desires and sin-deceived hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). They are learned behaviors, which by the grace of God can be unlearned.
Every action and decision we make is preceded by a thought. Then another thought, and another. “I am ugly. I need to lose weight”. Eventually these thoughts become a meditation. The meditation sooner or later leads to an action. “I ate too much…I will purge it.” Very often, a woman does not realize at this stage how serious it really is, and how trapped she will soon become. The action is repeated; others are added; and habits are formed. “That has many calories…I cannot eat it unless I run for an hour.” Weeks, months, and years of thinking food-obsessed thoughts and performing eating-disordered behaviors go by, and the bondage becomes deeply entrenched.
For a woman struggling with anorexia or bulimia, weight has become her idol. An “idol” is anything that we want badly enough that we are willing to sin in order to obtain it; a “must-have; will-do-anything-for; only-happy-when-I-have” craving. Both anorexia and bulimia are self-destructive means to attain an idolatrous goal: being thinner at all costs. When this mindset controls a daughter of God, she needs to remember her position in Christ. The believer whose “mind is set on things above” (Colossians 3:2) is focused on things of eternal value, and will not fall prey to the unbiblical thinking that fuels eating disorders. However, realizing that Jesus Christ died for this sin too should give the Christian great hope! It is never too late to turn around, and God gives us clear instructions on how to “renew our minds” with His Word in order to live lives pleasing to Him.
How Does the Gospel Apply to Eating Disorders?
When I was a child, I loved the story “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Anderson. I dreamed of turning into a swan as the maligned “duckling” did in the end, and being accepted into the ranks of the beautiful. By the end of high school, I had not been transformed into a swan. At 39 kilograms and on the verge of death, I was a teenager in desperate need of Christ. What needed transformation was my heart. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 that we are, indeed, to be totally transformed: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This means that we are not to copy the behaviors, mindsets or priorities of this world (including valuing thinness and physical appearance over our relationship with Christ). We “renew our minds” (learn to think God’s thoughts and share His priorities) as we meditate on His Word.
God has given us all we need to align our thinking with His will, and live Holy Spirit-empowered lives (2 Peter 1:3). How does this look in the life of a woman who wishes to forsake anorexia or bulimia? First, she must realize the truth about her position in Christ: she is no longer a slave to sin. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul reminds believers of what they were – drunkards, idolaters, homosexuals, etc. But when they came to know Christ they were completely changed! That sinful behavior was left in the past. The same is true for an eating-disordered Christian. Although the craving and urge may seem overpowering at times, she can choose to overcome her obsession with food and weight forever.
Do you struggle with anorexia or bulimia, but long to be free? The Savior Who cleansed the lepers is willing to heal your heart, as well. Here are some keys to walking in victory, with His help:
- Agree with God that the eating disordered behavior is wrong, and commit to turn away from it.
- Accept God’s grace daily. No matter how many times we fail, God’s mercy never runs out. Women with eating disorders are typically perfectionists. This performance-driven mindset runs counter to the Gospel, which demands that we humble ourselves as children (Matthew 18:4). Trust that His forgiveness is greater than your sin.
- Renew your mind. Pray and read the Bible daily to develop a godly way of thinking about food, appearance, and true beauty.
- Take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Every time you are tempted to binge or purge; compare yourself to a model on a magazine cover; or take offense to a comment (to use a few examples), stop and re-align your thinking in light of Christ’s teaching.
- “Put off” your old, eating-disordered behaviors and thoughts; and “put on” the God-honoring alternative (Ephesians 4:22-24).
When we come to know Christ, we reject, or “put off”, things that belong to the old, sinful nature (such as lying, stealing and anger.) In their place, we are to “put on” speaking truthfully; generosity; and kindness. An anorexic or bulimic Christian must consciously reject the lies she has internalized, and replace them with the Truth of the Gospel. For example:
|“Put Off”||“Put On”|
|Number on scale determines my value||I am made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and my purpose is to glorify Him (Ps. 86:9; Isa. 60:21)|
|Counting calories||Food is necessary to sustain life; receive with gratitude (1 Tim. 4:4)|
|Fear of gaining weight||God created my body; I can trust Him as I eat the way He intended (Psalm 139:13)|
|Some foods are forbidden or “dirty”||No particular food is unclean (Acts 10:15)|
|No one cares about me; I may as well
comfort myself with a binge
|God cares about me, and I can turn to Him (1 Peter 5:7)|
- Lastly, regular worship and fellowship are especially important as the Lord draws you out of the pit of an eating disorder. Don’t be afraid to share your struggle with another believer who may counsel, encourage, and pray with you.
The God Who redeems us from sin is still faithful to transform His daughters’ lives. In Christ, there is true and lasting freedom from addictions. Anorexia and bulimia are bondages that may be left at the foot of the Cross forever!
Marie Notcheva is a Christian author and conference speaker from Massachusetts. A certified biblical counselor, she is a regular contributor to The Biblical Counseling Coalition website. In 2011, Calvary Press published her book, “Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders.” She is currently writing a second book, about evangelism, discipleship and counseling in the internet age.