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29 June 2017

How God set me free from my eating disorder

How God set me free from my eating disorder

I’m 39 years old. I grew up in Belfast. I’m the eldest of three children. I’m married with a daughter and a cat. I like crosswords, but not cryptic ones. I watch too much TV. I’ve been a Christian for more than 20 years. And I’ve a long history of struggles with my mental health: life-threatening anorexia as a child and as an adult; obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); anxiety; depression; self-harm.

As you read that paragraph, which part stands out? Maybe none of it. Or maybe, some of my words jar. “Christian,” you say. “For more than 20 years?” That’s a long time. Long enough to work out these mental health problems. Long enough to get fixed. 

In some ways, you’re right. God is at work in my life. I’m no longer dying of an eating disorder. I’m not obsessed with washing my hands. I haven’t self-harmed for a long time. I have periods when I feel low, but right now, depression isn’t ruling me. The Lord is changing me in significant ways. And yet. The brokenness is still there. In fact, the longer I’m a Christian, the more deeply I feel it. I want everything to be perfect. I’m controlling and desperate to prove my own worth. I’m often ashamed. Sometimes I find it difficult to manage my anger and my appetites. At times I feel frightened and overwhelmed by despair. 

I love Jesus, but I’m far from fixed. So what does this say about my faith? Has Jesus set me free? If so, in what sense? 

These are big questions; and they are questions that we should be asking as a Church. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year; yet 70 per cent of clergy (Matthew Stanford Survey) don’t feel equipped to handle mental illness. What sort of freedom does the gospel offer to people like me? And how can we offer “them” hope? 

This is the theme of a book I’ve written called A New Day. The title is also the book’s shape, which starts with evening, then moves through midnight to dawn and beyond. This might sound strange; but in the Bible the darkness comes first: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.” (Genesis 1:5). It’s also a picture of the Christian life. We might feel that Christians shouldn’t struggle; but Jesus meets us in our darkness. Instead of avoiding it, or lifting us out, he enters it himself. At the cross he bears it. And as he rises from the grave, he defeats it and brings us into a kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13). 

Jesus comes as a doctor for the sick (Luke 5:31). This includes those with mental health issues such as mood or anxiety disorders – but it’s much, much more. Not everyone will self-harm or experience an eating disorder, but the Bible says that some struggles are true for us all. We see this in Genesis 3, with the first man and woman. 

Adam and Eve are hungry for life on their own terms, and so they become anxious about whether or not they’ll be filled. They try to take control by disobeying God and are then burdened by shame. Angrily they turn on each other and they are then driven east of Eden in despair. That’s their story in a nutshell, but it’s our story, too. We are all hungry, anxious, controlling, shame-filled, angry and subject to despair. 

You might not think of yourself in these terms, but the Bible says they are true for us all. There’s no “them and us”, there’s only “us”. We are all sick – and Jesus comes for us all. 

This truth has huge implications for those who struggle and those who want to help. Our Saviour doesn’t ignore our darkness or “zap” us out of it - he joins us in it and he carries us through. So what kind of freedom does Jesus offer? Is it instant transformation - or a lifelong struggle? The Bible answers: “Both.” 

Christ comes to set captives free (Luke 4:18), and his freedom is both a one-off and an on-going process. As we trust in him we move definitively from death to life; from a kingdom of darkness into a kingdom of light. Yet there’s a sense in which we are becoming what we already are. 

Scripture compares us to beggars who marry a prince. It will take time (maybe even a lifetime) for the bride to step into her new identity. She is 100 per cent princess, but will she always feel like one? No. Likewise, does she instantly act like a princess? No. It takes time to feel like royalty and it takes time to act like royalty too. In the same way, when we exchange vows before God, we are changed. However, marriage is about more than just one day; it’s a lifetime of becoming new. 

When it comes to the Christian life, struggle is not an anomaly, but part of following a crucified Lord. Sickness is an inescapable feature of a fallen world and just as our bodies are prone to illness, so our brains don’t work the way they should. This means that as believers we’re not surprised when we feel depressed or anxious. Nor are we taken aback when those we love are caught in addictions or compulsive behaviours. Church is not a community of perfection, but a rag-tag mixture of sick sinners gathered around a beautiful doctor. So while our struggles are not an excuse to live as we please; neither are they evidence that we’re not doing the Christian life “right”. 

Jesus has come to set the captives free – and we rejoice in this truth. We celebrate the liberation he has already bought us; knowing that it takes a lifetime to work out. As we await his return, we help one another to cast off our chains. Together, we can step out of the shadows and into a new day. 

Emma Scrivener was born in Belfast, but now lives with her husband and daughter in the south east of England. She is the author of A New Name, (IVP) which talks about her experience of eating disorders. Her second book A New Day, (IVP) has just been published. She blogs at emmascrivener.net.

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