by Katie Kovacs, MSEd., LPCC
Eating disorders are extremely difficult to understand. Within Christian culture, beliefs and perspectives about eating disorders vary greatly. Often times, people try to find a Biblical way of understanding and approaching these complex illnesses, and even with the best of intentions, they miss the mark.
Many of my clients are young Christian women who are struggling with eating disorders, and they desperately want to use their faith in the recovery process. Some even go to Christian-based eating disorder treatment facilities like Remuda Ranch (Wickenburg, AZ) or Selah House (Anderson, IN). Yet, these women often find utilizing their faith in recovery to be a discouraging process. Attending church on Sunday morning, interacting with other Christian people, reading the Bible, and other activities that are meant to grow and develop their faith become so very difficult.
The reason: the nasty, demeaning eating disorder voice does not play fair. It has no regard for the sacred; it simply wants to destroy and conquer every area of a person’s life.
So as a support person, what can you do? Here are some general guidelines of what to do and what not do regarding Christians suffering from an eating disorder. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, nor does it apply to everyone, but these are the issues that I hear about most often in the counseling room.
Don’t quote scripture at her.
When you see your loved one struggle, you want nothing more than to comfort and encourage her. What better way to do this than with a Bible verse or two, right? Well, perhaps not. Although your intentions are most likely pure, and you are being Biblical by offering a piece of what is considered to be all that we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), you may not yield the results you are really hoping for.
Consider this: your loved one probably already knows that her body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). She likely has heard that she is to be anxious for nothing, but rather submit her requests to God (Phil. 4:6). If she has been dealing with an eating disorder for any amount of time or deals with over-exercise as a major symptom, she may have stumbled upon Paul’s statement that physical exercise profits only a little, and that it’s the spiritual exercise that is most valuable (1 Tim. 4:8).
Even though these words are considered to be truth, hearing these verses directly in relation to her struggles will likely lead her to feel invalidated, disconnected from God, and guilty about what she is experiencing, at best. Most likely, she will feel shameful, wallowing in the belief that who she is, at her core, is worthless and unlovable.
Do ask what you can do to support her.
Rather than assuming that Scripture verses are what she needs in the recovery process, ask her if there is anything you can do to support her and be ready to listen. Within that conversation, you can ask if there are any verses that she finds particularly helpful or encouraging. Chances are she has a verse or two that she has been clinging to, reciting in her head in those white-knuckle moments. And chances are she is just waiting for someone to ask her about it.
Many of my clients have shared with me that 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 gets them through the difficult moments of their recovery journey. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” My clients are incredible individuals that courageously face their pain, knowing that if they do, they will one day be able to stand beside someone else and help them do the same.
Don’t ask her if she’s reading her Bible.
You may be asking this from a loving, well-meaning place. Christians believe that the Bible is alive and active, sharper than a two-edged sword (Heb, 4:12). It can be a lamp to her feet and a light to her path (Ps. 119:105). However, when your loved one hears you ask if she’s reading, she will feel as though you are insinuating that she wouldn’t be struggling so much if she read more, had more faith, and relied on Jesus more.
Do communicate God’s unconditional love.
The Christian life is full of struggle, full of imperfection, and full of both lows and highs. In the Bible, God never promises that life will be easy. He only promises that He will be there through it: always.
Therefore, validate your loved one’s struggle. Tell her you love her. Tell her that you believe God loves her, more than she could ever imagine, even if she doesn’t feel that way. Be ready to find joy in her joy, and share sorrow in her sorrows. Be present. Be vulnerable. Be calm.
Don’t tell her that she is being sinful.
“I decided to open up about my eating disorder, and I shared what I go through on a daily basis and what behaviors I struggle with. They responded by telling me that I am being sinful, that I need to ask for forgiveness, and that I need to repent.” If I had a nickel for every time a client told me this story, I’d be a wealthy woman. Money aside: no other statement makes the protective mama bear therapist in me come out quite like this one!
Do fulfill your role as a support person.
As a support person, it is so easy to start pointing out your loved one’s wrongs. Although it feels counter-intuitive, resist the urge. Here’s why: eating disorders, by nature, are highly secretive and thrive in an environment of guilt and shame. Therefore, when a suffering individual hears they are being sinful, the eating disorder will likely get stronger. Inevitably, your loved one will then withdraw from you even more.
So what do you do instead? Trust that her experienced treatment team (dietician, therapist, and medical doctor) is challenging her eating disorder thought and behavior, and simply be the support person that you are.
Don’t be surprised if she doubts her faith at times.
The reality is that recovering from an eating disorder is one of the most grueling, exhausting, and sometimes overwhelming experiences that one can have. It takes so much time, energy, effort, support, persistence, and humility. There are days in the recovery journey that feel victorious, but there are days of enormous defeat. Through it all, your loved one may doubt her faith. She may ask, “Why would God let this happen to me?” “Why do I feel like God doesn’t even care about me?” “What’s the point of being a Christian if I have to go through this?”
Do normalize the doubt.
Even when it is challenging, strive to see doubt as an honest part of the recovery process. Be glad that she is willing to identify her doubt and express it to you. Validate it, and read the story of Thomas (John 20) for extra reassurance.
Don’t fall into the trap of self-righteousness.
The eating disorder values achievement, performance, and perfectionism. It loves control, and it even preaches asceticism, or the doctrine of self-denial or self-punishment. The eating disorder can convince an individual that by doing these things, or holding to these tenets, she is more spiritual. It can even lead her to become so morally confident that she becomes intolerant of others. Perhaps even more troubling, it can make her believe that she has to follow it’s rules just to be right with God.
Do wave a banner of grace.
Your loved one needs to know and experience God’s grace through you. She needs reminded often that nothing that she does can affect how much God loves her. At the same time, she needs to know that nothing she does can earn her spiritual standing. It’s only by grace, through faith.
Loving someone who is dealing with an eating disorder can be a confusing and challenging responsibility. It’s not going to be perfect, nor is it always pretty. My hope is that these guidelines provide just a little more clarity in the process.
Let me also say this: Thank you! Thank you for offering your support. Thank you for showing compassion. Thank you for joining the fight against eating disorders.
***Kovacs Counseling is experienced in helping friends and families learn to support loved ones that are struggling with an eating disorder. Please reach out to us at (614) 245-5544 if you’d like to attend psycho-education workshops or utilize consultation services in order to best support your loved one.