Filed under Homemaking Eating and Mealtime
Today, let’s focus briefly on bulimia. Elyse, you write that bulimics will often “identify a strong physical feeling of being compelled to binge.” But you believe this “strong physical feeling” is evidence of a spiritual problem. Can you elaborate?
Habits or compulsions are formed as one responds to the ups-and-downs of life in specific ways. Think about the neural connections that become our compulsions as simply the well-trodden pathways that our soul has taken over time. For instance, if one continually overate when guilty, worried, lonely, angry or bored, the desire to overeat when experiencing any emotional discomfort will be very strong. And, of course, the longer one persists in seeking to anesthetize the soul or placate the feelings with some form of pleasure (think “chocolate”), the stronger the feeling of compulsion will be.
Gluttony is also one of the sins of the flesh, so one not only has to fight the desire to overeat in the inner person, one also has to fight craving in the physical body – jitteriness, watering mouth, the brain sending messages to the body to move toward food, the desire for a sugar rush.
The way to renew your mind when faced with emotional discomfort is to answer the Savior’s invitation. “Come to me,” He said, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV). Rather than turning to the refrigerator to save her, the bulimic can turn to her patient Savior who has promised her rest for her soul. “Lord,” she might pray, “I’m worried about my husband’s job and I’m tempted right now to binge. Please satisfy my soul with the bread of heaven and give me rest.” Once she’s prayed like that, she needs to move her body out of the kitchen – perhaps she could go for a walk or put on some worship music and get down on the floor with her kids. Just so that she doesn’t stand in front of the pantry, praying that God will help her resist.
Besides greed, what other sinful desires may underlie bulimic behaviors?
Aside from greed, the primary motivating desire is probably vanity. The bulimic gives into her greedy desire to eat to excess and then she wants to avoid the resultant weight gain, shame and discomfort that will follow. She’s also looking to “make up for” her binge, so there’ll probably be quite a bit of self-styled law-making and the resultant condemnation and pride that always accompanies the desire for self-righteousness.
You see, the bulimic not only has a false savior, as we said above, she also has false laws, certain rules that she’s placed on herself. These rules might have to do with the size of her jeans (playing to her vanity) or different categories of food that she allows herself (playing to her pride). Once she violates any of her laws (gaining weight or eating a brownie, for instance), she’ll usually give in to the binge and then be forced to purge by her own shame and fear. Think about the purge as penance for the binge.
Why is it helpful to identify these sinful cravings and how can a person take steps of repentance and change?
It’s generally a good idea to try to understand why we do what we do, so that we can war more skillfully against our sin. Of course, no one ever completely or correctly understood himself, since the heart is deceitful and beyond understanding (Jeremiah 17:9), but God does, by the Spirit and Word, sometimes reveal certain desires, cravings or idols to us. Self-knowledge is significant but it doesn’t change us. For that we need the gospel, which alone produces repentance and faith. Looking into the face of Jesus is what transforms us (2 Corinthians 3:18), not looking into our hearts or eating habits, although sometimes it is helpful as first steps to do so.
In light of this truth, I’d encourage the bulimic to spend significant time meditating on the gospel. As she’s continually marinating her soul in these truths, it will be important for her to find an accountability partner, hopefully in her small group. She’ll need to confess her habits and promise to be honest about any binging or purging. She’ll need to identify her laws and her helper should assist in helping strengthen her conscience. She needs to be taught that eating a Twinkie isn’t sinful in itself, but as long as she thinks it is, it is, since her eating is not done in faith (Romans 14:23). Perhaps, along with her friend she could go through Love to Eat, Hate to Eat.
What role should a physician play in helping a person with bulimia?
The physician should first be consulted to be sure that there isn’t an underlying physiological cause, especially for the vomiting. If there isn’t, then he should monitor the bulimic, especially as regards the erosion of her esophagus and teeth and her general health and weight.
If we have a friend or family member who is struggling with bulimia, how can we help?
We should extend all the normal means of grace to a bulimic that we would extend to anyone else dealing with a sin problem. The sacraments, fellowship, encouragement, prayer and accountability in the local church is what she needs, as well as a continual dose of a robust gospel.