Theology of Everything
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A Theology of Eating Disorders
- Emma Scrivener lives in Eastbourne. She speaks at national events, is the author of 'A New Name: Grace and Healing for Anorexia', and blogs at 'A New Name'. View all resources by Emma Scrivener
Theology Network recommends Emma's new book, A New Name: Grace and Healing for Anorexia.
Seven years ago I looked like the perfect Christian – but I was gripped by an addiction that nearly destroyed me and the people I love most.
I was twenty-seven years old. A talented student at Bible college. I had my dream job, leading a thriving Sunday school. I’d been married for four years to a church minister in training. We were seen as ‘ministry dynamos’, a couple who would go far. But beneath the shiny exterior, I was slowly but surely killing myself.
Before you say it, let me interject: ‘Christians don’t get anorexia’, right?
Eating disorders affect all sorts of people, including those within the church. Believers are not exempt: in fact, they may be particularly vulnerable. That’s because such addictions raise bigger questions than whether or not our clothes fit. They’re about what it means to be human. What gives us identity and worth. Life and death and everything in-between. What we worship.
As my eating disorder took hold, I was just as ‘religious’ as I’d always been. I was still trusting in God. The difference was that this god had a small, rather than a capital ‘g’. And surprise, surprise, it was a god that looked just like me. The god of performance, hard work, externals and rituals. A god that gave nothing of itself, but demanded everything in return.
Like any religion, anorexia is built on a mountain of beliefs about what constitutes life and death, salvation and sin, shame and redemption.
According to the Bible, sin is rejection of Christ – a refusal to receive from a giving God. It affects us all, but is illustrated perfectly in the girl who refuses to eat. With the goddess Anorexia, sin is redefined – and it’s not just caloric. Instead, it’s about a lack of self-control, the shame that comes with wanting and needing too much.
In the Bible, there is a problem with uncleanness, with sin and shame. It’s a problem common to us all. Our sin is our separation from the life-giving God. And it’s not something we can atone for ourselves. It requires a Scapegoat, someone perfect who can take our mess and all that it deserves. That’s the salvation that only Jesus Christ can offer.
For the anorexic, however, ‘fat’ is the unforgivable sin. ‘Fat’ separates me from my god too – in this case, from the person I want to be. It also needs to be removed. In this model, salvation means atoning for myself, by myself: bearing my punishment in my own body. As I seek to recreate myself, my body becomes the scapegoat. I hate it and identify all that’s wrong in my world with this lump of flesh. Yet at the same time, I also worship it, ritualizing and relishing every aspect of my self-imposed atonement.
Through the rituals, I separate myself from my messy, sinful flesh with its overwhelming desires. I will punish my body while I concentrate on the real me – almighty willpower. With my secret knowledge of exercise and nutrition, I can soar above my own fallibility. I can split myself into two and rise anew, born again to a new kind of humanity.
And what about the community of faith?
In the Bible, worship takes place in the context of a wider body where we are free to be ourselves and speak the truth in love. With anorexia, the opposite is true. I retreat into myself and cut myself off from relationships. I hide and I lie. I turn my hatred against myself and against anyone who comes close.
At the centre of the Christian faith is Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out for us. In the Lord’s Supper we are reminded that we cannot save ourselves. We are needy – hungry for the Bread of life. But in Jesus we have found a self-giving God who invites us to his table and feeds us. ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them’ is what they said in the Gospels (Luke 15:2), and it’s just as true today. As we come in our brokenness, we know that we are not worthy, but we are welcome nonetheless.
At the centre of the anorexic faith is another body, also broken. This body is solitary. It is mine. And it is punished by me and for me. This continual sacrifice is proof that I am worthy after all. I wear my rules and rituals proudly, for all to see.
The drive towards self-improvement is relentless. The weight and exercise goals are never enough. The rituals serve as sacraments. It all feels like freedom. But I am enslaved. Each day more demands are added to the list. Each day my body shrinks along with my world.
The gospel of anorexia isn’t good news at all. It is a system of works, of slavery, self-salvation and self-destruction. It feels like heaven, but leads to hell. It is a religion, as powerful and addictive as any cult.
What’s the solution?
We need to be careful here. Anorexics are all about “solutions”. Everything is aimed at self-improvement. In the past, I’d turned over a thousand new leaves. I’d made a hundred new beginnings, each doomed to failure. These resolutions were all about me – my rules, my strength, my gospel, my way. In the end, I lost all I tried to keep. I got exactly what I asked for: religion without relationship, and law without love. But it left me hungrier than before.
In Romans 2 there’s a verse that I’d never understood. It says this: ‘God’s kindness leads you towards repentance’ (2:4).
My version of repentance had no room for kindness. Instead, it was about fear, pride and self-will. My version said, ‘Pull yourself together. Try harder, do more, make it better. Fix your own mistakes – or face the consequences.’ Gospel repentance looks very different. It’s the product of God’s kindness, undeserved and poured out without limit.
At my very lowest ebb I opened the Bible and came in brokenness before the Lord. In Revelation I met Jesus: someone I had never really seen.
He’s the Creator of the universe (Revelation 1) - and He’s a bleeding and bow-legged lamb (Revelation 5). He’s the embodiment of strength and glory – but also of frailty and pain. He’s Jesus as Lord, the conquering Lion. And He’s Jesus as Lamb, sacrificed and broken.
Meeting the Jesus of the Bible was life-changing. Like Jacob in Genesis 32, I felt as though I’d been fighting and fighting. Finally, He’d won. He’d slain me - with His grace. The road to recovery isn’t simple or easy: but at the foot of the cross is where it finally began.
Read more at emmascrivener.net