They say a little thing can make a big difference. In this case, a little recipe, posted by Janelle, brought on an avalanche of emails from you, our readers, on the topic of food. In two plus years of posting, we have never received so many requests to address a topic. So, we took the hint.
As we began to discuss a possible series, one thing became painfully clear: between the four of us there was about two grams of medical knowledge and about three verses worth of biblical understanding. It didn’t take much humble self-assessment to realize we were vastly under qualified and unprepared to address this topic.
It was time for a few emergency emails to some friends—and experts. And we’re very excited about what we have to share with you over the next few weeks.
First off, we have asked David Kotter and Dr. Jeffrey Trimark to join us for an interview. They are authors of a forthcoming book from Crossway entitled Eat and Be Content. As a pastor and a medical doctor, they’ve conducted seminars to help people eat for the glory of God. The result is this book, and we here at girltalk will enjoy an exclusive preview.
Secondly, Elyse Fitzpatrick, known to so many of you as the author of Love to Eat, Hate to Eat, has graciously agreed to an interview as well—not only about eating in general, but also on eating disorders in particular. We are very much looking forward to our conversation with her.
By pulling together the combined wisdom of these three authors, we hope we will be able to answer many of your questions. Most of all we hope that we will all be challenged to live for God’s glory and equipped to do so in every day life.
So, grab your diet coke and carrot sticks (I’m just kidding!) and let’s talk food.
FOODTALK WITH DAVID KOTTER AND DR. JEFFREY TRIMARK
To kick off our foodtalk series, we are pleased to welcome David Kotter and Dr. Jeffrey Trimark, authors of the forthcoming book, Eat and Be Content. First, let me introduce them to you:
David Kotter has served as a pastor at CrossWay Community Church since it was planted eight years ago in Kenosha. Recently, God has called David to serve as the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Dr. Jeff Trimark is the President of the Medical Staff of the United Hospital System in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For five years Jeff has served as an elder on the leadership team of CrossWay Community Church.
Together, Jeff and David have developed and taught the workshop “Eat and Be Content” over the last three years. (Download this extended bio to learn more about their background and qualifications.)
Thank you both for being our guests here at girltalk and thank you for being willing to share with our readers the combined insight God has given you about eating to the glory of God.
Because you are a pastor and a medical doctor respectively, your book offers a unique perspective. There is humble, caring, and straight-shooting counsel that is rooted in God’s Word. But you also provide sensible advice for healthy eating that is based on sound medical research. We know our readers will greatly benefit from your book—which is due out by the end of 2008.
To begin with, David Kotter, can you give us a short summary of what your book is about, and also what it is not?
Thank you, Nicole. We are glad to have this opportunity to speak with the girltalk readers. First of all, let me clarify that Eat and Be Content is not a diet book. This book is not about the stomach, but the human heart—not the cardiac muscle, but the biblical seat of the mind, will and emotions. It is not about losing weight in a Christian way, but about understanding eating as a moral act and learning to eat for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). The ultimate goal is not to be trim and attractive but to be content with the good gift of food, grow in sanctification, and increasingly hunger for God Himself. The purpose of Eat and Be Content is to enable Christians to turn from sinful to godly eating through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
David, the genesis of this book began, as you say, “with a gripping headline from a local paper.” Tell us about it:
Yes, I picked up the morning newspaper one day and the headlines stated that the rates of obesity in the country were at unhealthy and unprecedented levels. But that was not all; a chart showed that the state where I lived was above the national average. Specifically the chart revealed my county was above the state average. Slowly my brain assimilated the information: I was living in one of the heaviest communities of one of the heaviest states ever in the history of man.
My own bathroom scale mechanically declared the rest of the story: I was heavier than I had ever been in my life. Heavier than I wanted to be. Both the national and personal realities vaguely bothered me in the back of my mind, but never enough to make any significant changes. I tried to ignore these annoying thoughts. Even if I had wanted to make a change, I didn’t really know what to do. I ate and exercised just about the same as everyone else I knew. Yet every year I gained weight, and apparently from the newspaper, so did just about everyone else.
Soon after that, you had breakfast with your good friend, and medical doctor, Jeff Trimark. What happened at that breakfast?
As I settled in to talk, I ordered “the usual”: eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns. But God had something unusual in mind for us: Jeff asked to substitute Canadian bacon for the regular bacon in his breakfast. I don’t normally analyze what people order, but this was different and for some reason it stuck in my brain. To me, bacon was bacon, sausage was sausage, and I always ordered what looked good and was affordable. In fact, bigger was often better, by my reckoning.
When the steaming food, arrived I asked about the substitution. Jeff answered that Canadian bacon tasted just as good to him, but had several fewer grams of saturated fat per slice. I glanced down and realized that I really had no idea what was on my plate. It was affordable (it was a daily special), and it would taste good (I had eaten that breakfast many times before), but in four decades of life I had never stopped to seriously consider the nutritional content of anything that I ate.
Over the next several months, under Dr. Trimark’s patient tutelage, I realized how many foolish choices I had been making at mealtimes, and that it was no surprise that I was heavier than ever. I also learned that I did not need to hire a professional dietician, carry a little scale around to weigh out meager portions of food, or track the latest medical research trumpeted in headlines and echoed in advertisements. Just a few simple “rules of thumb” based on well-established medical research could guide a typical guy like me through a typical day. I was actually enjoying eating more.
David, as you learned healthy eating habits from Dr. Trimark you also prepared a sermon on this topic, and you were somewhat surprised at what you discovered, correct?
Yes, that’s true. Preparing that sermon over the next several weeks showed me a whole new spiritual side to eating. I learned for the first time that Proverbs discussed food in many verses, and that these were consistent with the rest of the Bible’s considerable material on eating. Although I hadn’t noticed before, God seemed to care a lot about what and how I ate.
Not only did I learn a lot in preparation, the sermon struck a chord with many people in the congregation. The response showed that I was not the only one who was interested in what God had to say about eating. I also discovered people who felt condemned and dominated by sin in this area of their life. Many people seemed to struggle because they did not understand the spiritual implications of eating.
It was clear that the Bible didn’t provide a menu for every day, or restrict people to only foods mentioned in the Bible for health. Nor was there a requirement for believers to be a certain size, shape or weight. But the Bible did speak to the heart of the issue. The focus was not on food but on the act of eating. Eating for ungodly reasons, such as reducing anxiety or masking feelings of guilt, is really a form of idolatry in the heart. I learned that overeating was a moral problem. Believers were exhorted to eat for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Only through the gospel can believers hope to eat this way. Only the gospel empowers believers to overcome these sins and gain discerning wisdom. All other diet plans and good intentions by themselves were bound to fail.
Dr. Trimark, while over-eating is primarily a spiritual problem and thus has a biblical solution, what are the physical causes behind excess weight gain?
In its simplest sense, obesity can be understood as a thermodynamic problem. Food contains energy, and all the energy that is eaten is either burned by metabolic functions like exercise or is stored in fat cells in anticipation of future use. (A third option, discarding energy with laxatives or vomiting is clearly not part of a healthy solution.) Simple thermodynamics explains that as people exercise less and eat more, more energy is stored. Despite marketing claims to the contrary, we are sad to report that medical science has yet to discover any revolutionary herb, dietary supplement, miracle food, ancient remedy, pharmaceutical drug, or mechanical device that can change this simple principle of thermodynamics. In a direct way, obesity is caused by overeating and under-exercising.
Nevertheless, something unprecedented has happened in the past few decades to cause a broad change in eating and exercise. What is this? Why are we experiencing an “epidemic” of obesity all around the world for the first time in history?
The simple economics of supply and demand speak to these changes. Relentless advances in agricultural technology have greatly reduced the real cost of food and its energy content. For example, a 3 lb. frying chicken cost two hours of wages for the average laborer in 1920, but only 12 minutes of labor in 1970. This represents a 90% reduction in real prices, even though inflation has increased both nominal wages and prices over time. (While the number you see on the price tag, the nominal price, increases every year, wages have increased much faster over time. Even though it’s still hard to make ends meet because of the cost of food, it is dramatically easier than a hundred years ago because the real cost of food is lower.)
As the real price of food decreases, economists agree that more food and energy will be consumed. For example, supersizing a fast food meal costs only slightly more, but also can increase the caloric energy by as much as one third. As a result of trends like this, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the poorest 20% of the people now have the highest rates of obesity. Instead of subsisting on the edge of starvation, for the first time in history the poorest people are among the heaviest.
Technological advances have also decreased the need for physical exertion to obtain food. At the turn of the last century, more than 80% of the workforce was employed in agriculture. For the vast majority, obtaining daily bread was a lot of work. They expended a lot of energy plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting, transporting, grinding, kneading, baking, and finally slicing their bread. The energy in bread was generally equal to the effort of obtaining it, and therefore little was ever stored as fat. In contrast, it is not uncommon today for a restaurant to supply all the bread you can eat along with a meal. The bread is not served alone; butter, jam or honey can double or triple the energy at no extra charge.
The human body carefully stockpiles all of this extra energy for the future. The stockpiled energy remains in fat cells and weighs heavily both on the bathroom scale and the national statistics.
While you believe it is important for people to understand the relationship between food and energy, you both take care to stress that there is a deeper problem here than simple thermodynamics…
Quite true. At its heart, overeating is not an issue of thermodynamics or economics but is primarily the result of a spiritual problem. Food is a gift from God to be enjoyed, but only with His purposes in mind. Paul exhorted believers, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” The Bible is a guide for eating to God’s glory and by design this is intended for our well-being. We are not restricted to specific foods only found in the book of Genesis or the clean animals of Leviticus. Rather, the Bible addresses the fundamental problem of sin in the human heart and its effect on how we eat.
Eat and Be Content will argue that obesity is primarily a symptom of the spiritual problem of discontentment, and therefore governmental, sociological, or economic solutions in isolation will necessarily fall short. Contentment results from either having all that is desired or not desiring all that could be obtained. Since food is required to survive, hungering and eating to contentment is part of the necessary rhythm of life. In the past, the primary challenge for most people was to obtain enough food to avoid famine and possibly even to satisfy hunger. Eating to excess was reserved for kings and the wealthy who could afford all the food they desired. Since then, dramatic improvements in agricultural technology have made an enticing variety of foods widely available. Rather than gnawing hunger, most people today face the spiritual problem of abundant food and unbounded desires. God’s original design is for people to enjoy and be sustained by food. The challenge is to understand how to limit desire in a way that is consistent with God’s good design. Like the apostle Paul, we must learn to eat and be content (Philippians 4:11, 12).
And the good news is that we can learn to eat and be content…
Yes, while people will never be content with the gift of food apart from the gospel, the simple truth that the death of Jesus Christ has broken the dominion of sin and accomplished reconciliation with a holy God for all those who believe. The power of the gospel brings salvation to believers, transforms desires through sanctification, and empowers obedience to the will of God even in the area of eating. Thus the only long-term solution to eating problems consists not of simply dieting and taking more exercise, but in repentance, fleeing temptation, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit for self-control, praying for wisdom, searching the scriptures for direction, and caring more for God’s glory than our own satisfaction in eating. Only by hungering for God Himself will we ever be able to eat and be content (1 Timothy 6:8).
David, so far we have learned about both the physical cause and the spiritual root of overeating. You described the sin of “discontent” as the primary culprit. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Thank you, Nicole. Yes, our book Eat and Be Content will help believers identify discontent in eating using two biblical categories: idolatry and foolishness. Idolatry in this context means turning to food to indulge lusts of the flesh rather than satisfy bodily hunger. Eating to comfort anxiety, relieve guilt, or gratify desires apart from God are ways of making an idol out of food. Alternatively, it is no more pleasing to God to remain thin by making an idol of physical fitness or personal attractiveness. Foolish eating goes beyond ignorance or immaturity and refers to the ethical transgressions ascribed to the fool of Proverbs. The blessing of an abundant variety of foods also carries a moral responsibility for understanding and eating “just enough” (Proverbs 25:16). Unlike other sins of the heart, discontent with food is a sin that has long lasting and cumulative physical effects like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.
Let’s talk about idolatry first. What is idolatry and how does it affect the way we eat?
Idols are more than the wood or metal statues condemned in the Old Testament. New Testament believers were exhorted to “Flee idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Calvin referred to our hearts as “idol factories” always producing substitutes for the one true God. An idol can be anything, even a good thing that attracts our affections and attention away from the living God. By its very nature, food can make an especially attractive idol for comfort, encouragement and even greedy enjoyment. This can lead unsuspecting Christians to worship God’s good gift of food.
Idols expressed in eating include fear, greed, anger, self-pity, and many others. The scenarios are common. A person in the grip of anxiety mulls over a personal problem and automatically reaches for a bag of chips. Chip after chip provides a momentary relief from worry until the bag is empty. Rather than turning to God with anxious thoughts (Phil. 4:6), food becomes an idol of comfort replacing the living God. For another person, mint chocolate chip ice cream can deliver a temporary feeling of relief from guilt, and thus becomes an idolatrous substitute for the forgiving Savior. Even apart from anxiety and guilt, there are many other ways to make an idol of eating. Since idols are never satisfied, idolatrous eating draws people again and again to food. Sadly, this particular sin has a cumulative physical effect and unchecked will result in obesity.
On the other hand, idolatry can lead people to eat too much or too little. Some people successfully lose hundreds of pounds, only by turning to the alternative idol of health and attractiveness. In this case, rigorous dieting and strenuous exercise become a consuming focus of life, much like an idol.
Fleeing from idolatry of any kind is one of the ways that Christians will eat and drink differently than nonbelievers, and one of the primary ways that we can glorify God as we eat. The gospel can break the power of this sin and enable people to eat for the glory of God.
Under the umbrella of discontent, you identify two biblical categories of sinful eating. One is idolatry, which we discussed yesterday, and the other is foolishness. What does foolish eating look like and how can we avoid it?
Unfortunately, some Christians believe they are eating for God’s glory, but are foolishly unaware that they are overeating. In the Bible, foolishness is more than immaturity associated with youth. Biblical foolishness is morally wrong, just as the fool says in his heart, “There is no God,” (Psalm 14:1). In contrast, the sanctification of believers can be considered as a journey from foolishness to wisdom in all areas of life, including eating. One of our obligations as Christians is to have a biblically correct understanding of what we are eating so that we increasingly can make wise choices.
In addition, our wisdom must be informed by medically correct information. This does not mean we should be tossed about by every sensational diet headline or be slaves to a method of categorizing and counting every calorie we consume. Rather we should be familiar with the best medical evidence that is increasingly available. Understanding a few key principles is one of the responsibilities that we inherit along with the incredible abundance of food that we now enjoy.
You talk about the concept of a “sanctified weight.” What do you mean?
Eat and Be Content will claim that a specific sanctified weight is given by God to every believer just like eye color or height. This is the weight that would result over time if a believer were to turn from sinful eating and make wise food and exercise choices. This weight can be medically estimated to within a few pounds based on gender, height, frame size and activity level. A specific amount of energy is required to maintain this sanctified weight, and this defines for each individual how much food is “just enough” (Proverbs 25:16). In our book we are able to give a more complete explanation of how to define what is eating “just enough” for the glory of God. We also provide believers with scientific but sensible ways to utilize these measures in daily life.
Idolatrous eating or gluttony can be defined as regularly and knowingly eating more food than is required to maintain this sanctified weight. Unknowingly eating beyond this requirement is defined as foolishness. Both are morally wrong and over time make believers overweight. Turning from these sins cannot be accomplished through sheer dint of will, embarking on the latest diet plan or following the latest eating guru. Fundamental changes in eating can only flow from the power of the gospel.
Dr. Trimark, you offer two simples “rules of thumb” for healthy eating. What are they?
The first rule of thumb is to not eat fewer than 30 grams of fiber each day. Why concentrate on this measure? Highly processed foods tend to be low in fiber while fruits, vegetables and whole grains are high in fiber. Eating enough fiber in a day naturally leads one to fill up first with healthier foods.
The second rule of thumb is to not eat more than enough grams of fat for your gender, height and frame size (for most people this is around 40 grams). For most people keeping track of fat grams is the simplest way to ensure that their energy intake is appropriate. Fat contains more energy per gram than any other components of food. A lot more energy: about twice as much as protein or carbohydrates and nine times more than fiber. This rule of thumb leads people to eat a satisfying amount of food, while consuming less energy. Dieticians call this lowering the “energy density,” and can be accomplished without the starvation feelings of a crash diet.
Tracking two numbers—fat grams and fiber grams—is sufficient to help people wisely avoid idolatrous or foolish behavior. The standards are easily remembered, and the information is readily available on certified government labels and in reliable Internet databases.
In our book we will help people to establish a maximum daily budget for fat grams based on their gender, height and weight. No matter how much weight needs to be gained or lost, eating the right amount of energy will lead over time to a “sanctified weight.” Nonetheless, the goal is not weight loss in isolation, but to eat in a way that glorifies God.
Dr. Trimark, while you believe that exercise is essential for a healthy lifestyle, it must not be done in isolation of good eating habits. Tell us a little more about why this is so important.
Doctors heartily encourage regular exercise for strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health. Proper perspective can help people pursue fitness without making exercise an alternate idol in life. Increasing medical evidence is leading physicians away from recommending intermittent sessions of high intensity exercise and instead recommending frequent walking, whether in the park, at work, or at home. Ideally, we should all strive to achieve 3 hours of continuous walking every week. For example, this would look like 45 minutes of walking at a brisk pace (4 miles each hour), 4 times per week. Additionally, we would encourage individuals to walk as much as possible throughout daily life—park farther away from the door and use the stairs as much as possible. Walking is inexpensive and risks few of the activity-associated injuries that are often seen in high intensity athletes.
While physical activity is good in its own right, many people overestimate the amount of calories consumed by a specific exercise and underestimate the value of making wise food choices. The energy consumed by regular exercise can be dwarfed by the energy easily eaten at a local restaurant. In order to expend the energy contained in a typical hamburger, fries and diet soda, an average person would need to walk about 10 miles at a brisk pace. Not choosing a diet soda would add an additional three miles to the journey. After walking such a distance, many people would be tempted to stop for a quick bite at a convenient fast food franchise. This illustrates that self-control in eating is much more important than drastically increasing exercise.
Daily decisions are also very important. A 12 ounce can of soda contains about 100 calories. The energy in one pound of fat is about 3,500 calories. In this light, drinking one can of soda a day with no corresponding increase in exercise would add about one pound of weight every month. A 20 ounce bottle of soda would add weight faster. On the other hand, an overweight person would expect a similar decline in weight following a simple switch from a habitual soda to a bottle of water each day. In other words, small decisions add up to considerable effects over time. Through our choices in eating, we can bring glory to God in a noteworthy way.
In summary, exercise should be for its own merits and weight reduction, if needed, should be accomplished by implementing godly eating habits.
There’s no place we’d rather conclude our interview with Dave Kotter and Jeffrey Trimark than the hope of the gospel. Gentlemen, can you please tell us again how the gospel empowers us to eat for the glory of God?
As with all the efforts to please God, it is beyond our natural strength to always eat for the glory of God. Even the desire to please God or eat for the glory of God does not naturally occur in our hearts (Romans 3:21). More common is the desire to eat in the service of other “gods” or idols, such as gluttony, fitness, beauty or long life.
As believers, we are saved by the power of the gospel; our desires are transformed by the power of the gospel and we are empowered by the gospel to obey the will of God, even in the area of eating. Every action of our lives must flow from the gospel, and we eat three times a day. How do we bring the power of the gospel to bear on this aspect of our lives?
We must first understand the gospel thoroughly before we can apply it to what we eat. Jesus Christ came to earth, lived a perfect life and died on a cross to take the place of sinners in bearing the just wrath of God. This is the good news that in Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself. As we are justified through the blood of Jesus, we are enabled for the first time to eat for the glory of Someone besides ourselves. As we are sanctified and are progressively made more like Jesus, the way we eat should change over time to bring more and more glory to God.
Thank you for this encouraging reminder! And thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us over these past two weeks. We have been blessed by your practical instruction and gospel encouragement.
As we conclude our interview we want to request that you, our readers, pray for David Kotter and Dr. Trimark as they finish writing Eat and Be Content. Please pray that God would bless them with wisdom and clarity as they write, and that their wives and children would continue to experience God’s grace during this project. Ultimately, may the fruit of this book be changed lives for the glory of God!
FOODTALK WITH ELYSE FITZPATRICK
As we bring you our final week of foodtalk on girltalk, we are so pleased to welcome Elyse Fitzpatrick for a conversation about the eating behaviors anorexia and bulimia. For many of you, she needs no introduction. However, in case you are unfamiliar with her work here are a few highlights…
Elyse is the author of two books on eating: Love to Eat, Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits and Uncommon Vessels: A Program for Developing Godly Eating Habits. She has also contributed articles to The Journal of Biblical Counseling on Helping Overeaters, Helping Anorexics, Helping Bulimics, and Disorderly Eating for the Rest of Us.
Thank you for joining us, Elyse!
The topic of eating—and anorexia and bulimia in particular—can, by its very mention evoke feelings of hopelessness and despair. Before we examine these destructive eating patterns more closely, can you remind us why we can have hope for change?
Of course, the only hope any of us have for change in any area is the gospel! Only when we know, and I mean really know, that our sins are forgiven, that we’re fully justified, that God guarantees our ultimate sanctification and glorification, that He is as pleased with us as He is with His Beloved Son, can we have faith to continue to fight against sin, especially over the long haul. When we recognize that this acceptance of us is not based upon our obedience, but rather the obedience of Another, we will respond in love for Him and in godly living. The only power that’s strong enough to root out sin is love. Only love for God can kill the love we have for our idols. In addition, love “casts out fear”: the fear of failure, success, despair, humiliation, desertion and most of all, ultimate judgment. When we are assured of God’s power to change us and of His unequivocal love for us, our love and faith will grow and we’ll be able to continue to war against our weaknesses and sins.
Can you describe the symptoms of anorexia and bulimia for us?
Simply: Anorexia is habitual voluntary self-starvation through super punctiliousness about food, diet and exercise, resulting in a weight at least 20% below normal. Bulimia is habitual binging and purging that may also include times of self-starvation or over exercise. The binge feels like an uncontrollable compulsion to over eat usually without enjoying the food. The purge may be accomplished through self-induced vomiting, over-use of laxatives and/or diuretics, over exercise. During the beginning years of this behavior, there may not be severe weight loss, however persistent vomiting and/or abuse of laxatives will eventually cause a significant, and sometimes irreversible weight loss.
You take great pains to emphasize that bulimia and anorexia are not diseases, but “chosen behaviors.” What do you mean and why is it so important to properly define them?
When I refer to these behaviors as such, I mean that we are responsible moral beings, created in the image of God, and that we make choices everyday about how we’ll respond to the trials we face in our day. Because there is usually no bacteria, virus, or organic dysfunction that causes us to starve ourselves or vomit after we eat, theses are behaviors we’ve chosen. Of course, some of us might naturally have more of a propensity to be perfectionistic, or more of a bent to habitually over eat, but our basic personality doesn’t determine our actions.
Although it might seem off-putting, it’s actually very kind to classify these behaviors as behaviors (and yes, sinful behaviors), rather than as diseases. To tell a woman that she has a disease for which there is no cure, that she’ll never be free of, and that she has to fight against all her life is confusing at best and hopeless at worst. If we didn’t know that we had a Savior, then labeling sin as sin would be unkind. But we do have a Savior and there’s one thing that all Christians (by definition) agree on, we sin and we need a Redeemer. We live in a culture that denies sin and responsibility and classifies all sorts of sin as disease. This is just one more example of mankind’s basic desire to shift the blame away from himself and onto another.
What do you think are the most common misconceptions about anorexia and bulimia and how does the truth of God’s Word bring proper perspective?
This question goes back to the one above. The most common misconception is that these behaviors are diseases and that a woman isn’t a responsible moral agent before the Living God. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 Paul teaches us that whether we eat or drink, in fact whatever we do, we’re to do it to the glory of God. The perspective that the anorexic and bulimic need is that all of life is lived coram deo: before God and must be lived out, day-to-day, in the trenches for His pleasure, not our own.
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.
Turning our focus to anorexia, you say that not only is this behavior very destructive to one’s health, it often shows up in teenagers. What are some of the warning signs that a mom (or teacher or friend) should be on the lookout for?
Generally speaking, until moms are aware of the anorexia, this would be the compliant child in the home that never gets into trouble and that you don’t really notice. Because of this, it’s hard to specify warning signs that might not frighten most moms in your audience. But in essence, I’d want to be sure that I was aware of what my daughter was eating, of what her weight was, and of how controlling or fearful she was, all without making too much of a fuss about any of it.
What sinful desires often drive anorexic behavior?
Usually the anorexic girl begins with an overriding desire to be perfect and to control her world so that nothing untoward, embarrassing or tragic might happen. She’s driven to the point of compulsion and is never satisfied with an “A”, she has to have an “A+”. Perhaps it might start out with a desire to lose weight or look better, perhaps to compete with her sisters or mother, but then, in this type of personality it can morph pretty quickly into a way to control others or demonstrate anger or fear. She might also have an over-active sense of modesty and be worried about looking shapely like a woman. She might even think that the material world (her body, food, her sexuality) is sinful.
How does God’s Word speak to these specific cravings?
Again, here’s where the gospel and the doctrines of grace are so very helpful. First of all, the desire to prove one’s own perfection is sinful, not only because it leads to controlling and pride, but because it’s a way to avoid Jesus as Savior. He’s our perfection and the sooner the anorexic rests in this alien righteousness, the better. He is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30) and in Him we’ve fulfilled all the requirements of the law (Romans 8:4). The perfection Christ calls us to in Matthew 5:48 can’t be accomplished by our efforts – they were accomplished for us in Him.
Secondly, her desire to shape her world and protect herself from embarrassment, harm or pain (by creating her own pain) needs to be overcome by the glorious truth that her King rules sovereignly over every single facet of her life and nothing can come to her apart from the loving providence of her glorious King. God’s sovereignty can be terrifying to a young woman if we don’t also stress His love. He loved her so much that He gave His Son for her and that Son is now ruling, in heaven, incarnate, bearing upon His hands the nail scars. She doesn’t need to control her world and she’ll exhaust herself trying to; no, that job’s already been filled.
What wonderful truths! As we conclude this interview, Elyse, how have you seen the power of the gospel help women to overcome the sins that lead to anorexic and bulimic behavior?
I remember one lovely young woman that I had been counseling for anorexic behavior for a number of months. She had been raised in a good Christian home and brought up in a church that preached grace. But she had never really gotten the good news. That’s not to say she wasn’t a believer, I think she was, it was just that she had never understood that the righteousness of Christ was really hers. One day, during a session when we had been going over the meaning of grace (again), tears began to stream down her face and she asked, “Isn’t God just kidding Himself?” That afternoon was the beginning of change in her as she saw that the perfection she had striven for was already hers and that she was being invited to rest in Him. She didn’t need to prove anything to anybody. Of course, even though she turned a corner that day, she still had to struggle against her habitual proud desire for self-worship and control, but the lessons of grace was what she needed to hear.
The lessons of grace are what we all need to hear, regardless of our temptations! Elyse, thank you so much for helping us better understand the eating behaviors of bulimia and anorexia and most of all for pointing us to the cross.
Once again, for further study on the topic of eating for God’s glory, you can check out Elyse’s books Love to Eat, Hate to Eat, Uncommon Vessels, and for a closer look at the cravings that underlie sinful eating patterns: Idols of the Heart: Learning to Long for God Alone.
We’re going to stop talking about food now. Well, officially that is. Food will probably always be sub-theme on this blog as long as Janelle is a girltalker.
But we hope that you’ve been encouraged, filled with fresh gospel-hope, and equipped with sound, practical advice for godly eating habits.
To conclude foodtalk on girltalk, we leave you with excerpts from a prayer from The Valley of Vision (p. 188) sent to us by Molly:
O Spirit of God,
Help my infirmities;
If Thou seest in me
any wrong thing encouraged,
any evil desire cherished,
any delight that is not Thy delight,
any habit that grieves Thee,
any nest of sin in my heart,
then grant me the kiss of Thy forgiveness,
and teach my feet to walk the way of Thy commandments.
Help me to wrestle successfully against weakness;
Give me power to live as Thy child in all my actions,
and to exercise sonship by conquering self.
Lead me safely on to the eternal kingdom,
not asking whether the road be rough or smooth.
I request only to see the face of Him I love,
to be content with bread to eat,
with raiment to put on,
if I can be brought to Thy house in peace.
May God give us all grace “to be content with bread to eat.”