My relationship between my faith and eating disorder has been complicated, at best. I said the “Jesus Prayer” at a Christian camp the summer I became anorexic. I proceeded for years in pseudo recovery or full on relapse, all the while left with the question, “Where is God in this?”
In the midst of probably my worst relapse, I happened to be interning at a church and was at the height of my cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I was doing daily “quiet times” and working at a church to further the Kingdom of God, and on the other, I was getting more and more out of control with my anorexia. I knew that what I was doing was “wrong,” but I couldn’t seem to stop. There was no praying this relapse away.
At a worship night, I had to leave the room and went outside to cry. I felt so alone and distant from God, and worse yet, I felt like it was my fault. Wasn’t I the one actively choosing to disappear for hours a day to engage in eating disorder behaviors? Wasn’t I the one lying about my obsessive walks saying they were “for worship?” Wasn’t I the one who “wasn’t hungry” at 11 PM after a church event? My supervisor at the time asked me the obvious question, given my emaciated appearance, “Do you have an eating disorder?”
“No, I’m just naturally thin,” I answered in the most innocent Christian church-intern way.
“I thought so,” she smiled. We smiled. Crisis averted.
Even when going to a Christian recovery conference later that summer, I refused to disclose the truth: I had an eating disorder. Nowadays, I’m an open book with that kind of thing, but back then, I felt like it would be a failure to admit that I was struggling with an eating disorder. The entire summer internship I didn’t tell a single person the truth about what was happening for me.
Meanwhile in private… all summer I was coming to the realization of how out of control my eating disorder was getting… again. I was still lying to family, friends, coworkers, and classmates about HOW out of control, but I did at least start seeing a therapist near the church where I worked.
I specifically chose this therapist because I knew she was a Christian, and I thought she could help me. I told her all about how hypocritical I felt, working at a church with a rampant eating disorder. She showed me nothing but love.
In tears, I asked her one day, fearing the response, “Do you think an eating disorder is a sin?”
She didn’t wait two seconds to answer. “I think that’s like saying, ‘Is diabetes a sin?’ ”
She wasn’t judging me.
That was probably the most meaningful minute of therapy in my entire life. Even though I didn’t totally believe her at the time, I remember so much shame lifting when she responded in the way that she did.
Years and two master’s degrees later, I would echo my former therapist’s sentiment that an eating disorder is many things, but sin is not on my list.
I recently found out that a church I attended while living in California presented a video testimony about someone recovered (“delivered”) from an eating disorder. Notable in this video testimony is the girl talking about this sin in her life, and she discussed it being “selfish.” She also said that ultimately, the Gospel “marinating in her heart” (these are her literal words, pun probably unintended) “cured” her.
Fifteen years after being first diagnosed with an eating disorder, I have to say, at first I was livid. However, after cooling down, I realized that this “testimony” touches on a few larger issues. I will break them into the categories of: 1) Theological and 2) Societal.
What does sin mean?
Christians throw the term “sin” into a lot of conversations, but it can mean different things to different people. So here’s what sin means to me (my background is Episcopalian –> turned semi-fundamentalist–> turned Reformed –> turned ?? Protestant with Reformed influences). Sin is anything that is the absence of the shalom, the absolute peace and perfection, of God. As a result of the fall, sin is everywhere in society. People individually sin, there is corporate sin, and there is systemic evil in play in all brokenness of the world. War, earthquakes, climate change, and disease are just examples of how pervasive the brokenness of our world is. HOWEVER, just because something or someone is broken does not mean it is God’s desire for the world. In the Garden of Eden, God laid out a perfect image of what heaven will be like– all humans, in perfect communion with each other, the environment, and God. Regarding personal sin, all humans sin, or fall short of God’s standard. There is no way of earning God’s love by doing good, but we also can’t become unlovable by doing something bad.
2. What does the Bible say about mental illness?
The answer to that is easy: it doesn’t say anything. In 2000 BC or 100 AD, no one was taking Prozac or checking into rehab. The DSM was thousands of years from being created. Mental illness as we understand it now simply wasn’t discussed in Jesus’ time. There are definitely stories in the Bible, that reading them now, I’m kind of like, “Yeah that sounds like schizophrenia.” But the treatment du jour was either leaving the person to die in restraints or conducting straight up doing exorcisms. There are some crazy demon-exorcism stories in the New Testament. However, nothing was mentioned about “mental illness” because that is a societal construct, and relatively recent one, at that.
3. How has the church historically addressed eating disorders?
Again, eating disorders weren’t recognized in their current form until the last few decades. If you look back at The Middle Ages, there are a few saints canonized for their starvation, most notably St. Catherine of Siena, who straight up starved herself to death (sorry Catholics, fasted to death). If you’re interested in the history of starvation/ fasting and faith, there are a few great books on it, such as this one. Now: I am not condoning canonizing anyone for starving, but there was a time in church history when the mainstream church saw excessive fasting as an ideal. Just putting things in perspective.
In conclusion: When I heard on this video testimony that an eating disorder was this girl’s “sin struggle” I was leery. We all define sin differently, and mental illness is not mentioned at all in the Bible, so that’s some hermaneutical gymnastics to come to the conclusion that a culturally defined term, a “sin struggle” could be something that the Bible does not touch on. In my opinion, it comes down to what is seen as personal sin, which I will now address from a wider, societal perspective.
The myth of an eating disorder as a “choice”
I make a lot of choices in my day: some good, some bad. I chose to have a donut for breakfast. I chose to buy my dog a pet ewok costume on Amazon (sorry not sorry).
A long time ago, I chose to go on a diet. I was 13 and a normal weight and didn’t need to, but I felt like my eating was getting out of control. The diet spiraled quickly, and in a matter of a month, I had full blown anorexia.
While I chose to go on a diet, I did NOT choose to get an eating disorder.
There is a HUGE difference.
As a social worker, I work with people who have severe and persistent mental illness, like schizophrenia. Many people narrate their struggles similarly: they were in college, off to a promising future, when fate got in the way. They perhaps started hearing voices or seeing things that weren’t there and had a psychotic break. They got “sick.”
I have yet to hear anyone call schizophrenia a sin. It is 50% heritable– meaning that if one identical twin has schizophrenia, there is a 50% chance that the other twin will have schizophrenia as well. Schizophrenia is perceived as a genetic issue, an organic chemical imbalance or brain disorder.
BUT… anorexia nervosa is ALSO 50% heritable... meaning there are highly genetic factors associated with this disorder. It is as genetically influenced as schizophrenia.
The brain is still a mystery to us, but we know that genetics, personality, and life circumstances, such as trauma or abuse, are associated with eating disorders. Problematic genetics might be associated with the brokenness of this world, but could it be attributed to a personal choice? I don’t think so.
I think what this reflects is a stigma against eating disorders. I’ve wrote many posts about media glorification of anorexia in particular. I’ve been told that I have so much “willpower” to make myself starve. What people don’t get is that a full blown, diagnosable eating disorder is not sexy, nor is it stoppable without considerable force.
When I was interning at the church in college, I was on what I know now is my “path of no return.” I can control my eating disorder with up until a certain point, and then, it becomes a monster functioning on its own. Past the “point of no return,” I need residential treatment. It’s almost as if my neuronal pathways have gotten out of whack, and they need extreme treatment to get pointed back to normalcy. That’s not “personal sin” in my book. That is someone struggling with something that is out of his or her hands.
In current mental health legislature, the goal is to have insurance cover mental and physical health care EQUALLY because they are EQUAL issues. Just because we understand diabetes better than we understand anorexia doesn’t mean one should be covered and one shouldn’t. Similarly, I think people have equal “blame” for mental and physical health issues. Just like my previous therapist said to me so many years ago, I am not to blame that I have an eating disorder, similar to how a person with diabetes isn’t blamed for being diabetic.
2. Language and shame
To my last, and most important point: language. The words we use matter. They can speak truth into our lives or they can hurt. Brutal criticism can be memorable for a lifetime. When I saw that a church that I once loved and attended was calling a disorder that I’ve struggled with being “selfish” and a “sin,” it cut me to the core in so many ways. It activates my anger but also my shame. As I’ve discussed, I spent over a decade in an eating disorder, many of those years filled with shame. Shame for my struggle, shame for the way I’ve looked, shame for being who I am. The LAST thing I wanted in times of struggle is being called out as a selfish sinner. I already believed that.
As the church, we should come to those with eating disorders and all other mental health issues with open hands, stigma-free language, and loads of LOVE and GRACE. We should come with open hearts and ears rather than shaking fingers and shaming language.
One reason I didn’t start a blog until almost 2013 is because I didn’t think I was good enough. I wasn’t professional enough, I wasn’t together enough, and I certainly wasn’t healed enough. This article convinced me: No I didn’t have to have it together. There is beauty in the journey of healing rather than only the destination.
There is beauty in the trenches, the gunk, the mess.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is this:
Sin reigns over this land. There is no part of the world that is untouched by its grip.
Diseases of all kind, physical and mental, reap havoc on unsuspecting people.
Christians are busy yelling on street corners about repentance while the homeless person begs for food down at the street light.
God intervened on this mess of a world, and we know the end of the story. I went to a movie today with the special needs girl I nanny for, and during a difficult part of the movie, she whispered to me, “What happens at the end?” I saw the movie before so I knew, “Everything is going to be alright.”
At the end, shalom will be restored on the new heaven and new earth. No one will ever have an eating disorder, nor will people who had eating disorders be called out for their “selfish sin.” There will be a new order of things, and that new order is love.
Until then, and I’m going to be completely real with you: we need to chill the fuck out.
I believe that God delivers people from struggles but not always and not completely, this side of heaven. And frankly, those of us in the trenches don’t want to hear the words “what you’re doing is selfish and sinful.”
Let’s play nice and veer on the side of love and inclusion.
I will not tolerate churches preaching about mental illness being sin. I just won’t. It’s really not cool.
I find that many Christians don’t know a lot about mental illness. It is so stigmatized- as if Christians don’t struggle from it like the rest of the general population. Um, well, we do. We might as well talk about it and be REAL.
So please, churches, Christians, don’t call my eating disorder a sin.
Or do and I’ll have to write another blog post about it.