I once lived in the mirror. No, there wasn’t a bedroom hidden in my bathroom mirror. But the mirror was where I found my worth, purpose, and identity. My body was the temple where I went to worship. Each and every day, my thoughts were consumed with calculating calories; my emotions were filled with anxiety over how much food I was going to eat; my plans revolved around getting in my precisely measured out meals and workouts; indeed, my entire life was wrapped up in what my body looked like on the outside.
I had constructed an image to worship, and that image was my body. I would check every mirror I walked by to make sure I hadn’t gained any fat in the last few hours. Every morning I would step up to the judgment seat of the scale to see if I would be found guilty or innocent that day. And when the scale did not move in the right direction, or when I saw or felt any hint of fat on my sides, I pronounced myself guilty.
And in order to worship my body image, I enslaved myself to the “food laws” police, and I was the chief officer. As chief officer, I made the laws, I gave out the rewards for obedience to the laws, and I laid down the penalty for breaking the laws. When I kept my food laws, I told myself, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and received the reward of feeling safe, secure, and in control. But when my food laws were threatened by friends or family wanting to go out to eat, my world would come crashing down. When I inevitably broke one of my laws by either eating too much or too little, too early or too late, all of the feelings of shame, anxiety, and guilt would come flooding back in. No grace, no forgiveness, no mercy was to be found. I was enslaved to the master of my body. I was enslaved to the master of food. I was imprisoned in the pit of food and body idolatry, with no way out. I was sick, and needed healing. I was hungry, and needed to be filled.
But God redeemed my life from the pit, and crowned me with steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 103:4). And what did that redemption from the pit look like?
God showed me what my eating disorder and body dysmorphia truly was: sin committed against a holy God. By making myself the lawgiver and judge, I had attempted to stand in the place of the True Lawgiver and Judge of my life. By living in obedience to my food laws, I cultivated my own self-righteousness. I was therefore willfully rejecting the only righteousness that could justify me before the True Lawgiver and Judge: the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I had exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature (my body, food laws) rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). I was guilty, but not for breaking my food laws. I was guilty because I had committed cosmic treason against my Creator, and I needed rescue.
Now it may sound harsh to call my preoccupation with my body and with food sin. And I do not want to minimize the complexity of eating disorders or body dysmorphia. If there is one thing that I have learned in my journey with both of these disorders, they are extremely complex, as we as human beings are extremely complex. Counseling and sometimes medication are beneficial and even necessary in some circumstances. But in order to begin truly healing from our struggles, we must first agree with what God says about our sin, for “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
I remember the first time the LORD opened my eyes to this truth when I was reading Ed Welch’s small book called “Eating Disorder: The Quest for Thinness,” where he quotes Galatians 5:1-6. In the book, he replaces the words “circumcision” and “law” with “food laws.” It reads like this:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept [food laws], Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts [food laws] that he is obligated to keep [all of the food laws]. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by [food laws]; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither [eating too much nor too little] counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
To my surprise, my struggle with eating disorders and body dysmorphia was ultimate, at the core, a spiritual issue. Like those in Galatia who were trying to justify themselves by the law, I was trying to justify myself by my food laws. Similar to those in Galatia who were submitting themselves to the yoke of the law, I was willfully submitting myself each and every day to the yoke of my food laws and my body. But in my struggle with eating disorders and body dysmorphia, where is freedom ultimately found? It is found in the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.
And how did Christ set me free? God in Christ took on a human body and perfectly obeyed God’s perfect law in my place, and then took the penalty I deserved for all of my law-breaking. All of my food and body idolatry was transferred to Christ on the cross, and all of Christ’s righteousness was transferred to me. When I was enslaved to sin, Christ set me free from its power and penalty in His great mercy. I was set free from the joylessness of living for myself, for my body, and food; and set free to the joyfulness of living for One much greater than all of these, for the One who for my sake died and was raised, the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:15). And here is where true and lasting safety, security, purpose, peace, and identity is found: in the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Every day is still a war against the temptation of food restriction. When life feels out of control, the temptation is strong to run to the one thing that makes me feel like I’m in control: restricting food, instead of resting in the Bread of Life.
- Every day I must put off the old self enslaved to food and my body, and put on the new self created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24). When thoughts of restriction come, I must put them to death by the Spirit, reminding myself that the old man has been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).
- Restricting food is a poor stewardship of my body. When I restrict food everything in life is more difficult: I have less energy to serve my wife, I am constantly anxious, and I am crippled by shivering coldness. My body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, not a temple for idolatrous worship.
- I can enjoy good tasting food for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). I don’t have to say “no thanks” when offered a slice of pizza, but can abound in thanksgiving towards God for such a good gift (1 Timothy 4:4).
True wholeness, healing, and redemption from eating disorders and body dysmorphia are not found anywhere outside Christ. You and I will never find satisfaction in what our bodies look like in the mirror, for we were not created to find our satisfaction there. Instead, we were created to find our satisfaction in One who is far more glorious, beautiful, and perfect. So, look up from the mirror, or whatever pit you may find yourself in, and look to Christ. For in Christ, you will find abundant forgiveness, infinite worth, the fullness of joy, immeasurable value, bottomless security, and a peace that surpasses understanding.