When Body Image Becomes an Idol

During my high school years, I struggled with an eating disorder. Any weight gain was unacceptable to me–even that which was part of normal growth and development. If the numbers on the scale went up or I had to size up in clothing, I freaked out. Having total control over my body was so important to me that I restricted my caloric intake to a dangerous low while exercising excessively.

Looking back, I can put my problem in biblically accurate terms: I practiced body-focused idolatry that resulted in disordered eating. My thoughts and feelings concerning my body and food trumped what God had to say about these things in his word. I knew this was an area of my life not surrendered to God. If not for his pursuing grace, things could have gotten very bad.

Body idolatry and eating disorders are multifaceted problems. Helping people with these issues requires time, wisdom, prayer and the involvement of multiple people, including medical professionals. It requires a holistic approach that deals with both body and soul. The church shouldn’t shy away in fear.

Ultimately, it was my parents who spoke biblical truth into this area of my life and helped me see my problem as more than just physical. God used their watchful care and their faithfulness to nourish me with truth. Like me, those struggling with body idolatry and eating disorders need faithful men and women in the body of Christ to come alongside and care for them in grace and truth before it’s too late.

Awareness and Physical Care

A person with an eating disorder typically won’t be upfront and honest about it. With this issue comes hiding, denying, and often lying. To help a struggling person, you must be attuned to warning signs (weight loss, restricted eating, etc.) to identify the problem. A medical doctor needs to thoroughly examine and assess potential danger and harm. Seeing a doctor or nutritionist regularly may be a vital part of someone’s physical care and something she won’t receive apart from the insistence and help of another.

The Word’s Nourishment

Along with physical care and nourishment, those struggling with disordered eating need to be constantly nourished by the word of God. Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 4:4, “Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For those with disordered eating, spiritual components are tightly interwoven with physical. Issues of the heart need to be exposed and confronted with the truth of God’s word. Scripture draws out these divisions (Heb 4:12) and shines light on lies the heart believes.

A person consumed with body idolatry likely won’t be feeding consistently on the word herself. She’ll need to be fed specific biblical truths about her identity, her body and food by others through consistent counseling.

The Reality of the Gospel

Body idolatry at its root is an issue of misplaced identity and worship. God tells us in his word that all human beings possess great dignity and worth as those made in his image (Gen 1:27). We’re the crown of God’s creation, and we reflect something true about his nature. But we’ve all sought to find our loveliness and worth in something other than God (something like our own bodies), and we’ve worshipped the created rather than the Creator (Rom 1:22-25). God hasn’t left us in our idolatry, though. While we were running away, God sent Jesus to die the death we deserved for our rebellion (Rom 5:8) and to restore our misplaced identity by giving us a new, righteous identity in him. If we agree with God about our sin, turn from it, and look to Jesus in faith we are forgiven and healed (1 John 1:9). This is the good news that someone with an eating disorder needs to hear over and over and over. Helping this person find her reality in Christ, rather than the size of her body or the control she exercises over it, is the foundation for helping her find freedom.

Truth About the Body and Food

When a person’s reality is rooted in Christ, it frees her to think rightly about her body and food.

The Bible says life is more than food and the body more than clothes (Matt 6:5). The body and food are not ends in themselves for us to control and worship for our own fulfillment. They’re important in that they are means to help us accomplish God’s kingdom purposes, and they should be cared for and enjoyed to this great and glorious end (Matt 6:33).

For those of us in Christ, our bodies are the dwelling place of his Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), created in him for the purpose of good works (Eph 2:10). We should strive to eat in ways that appropriately fuel our bodies to bring God glory by accomplishing the various works he has ordained for each of us to do. For some this will mean eating more. For some it will mean eating less. For others it will mean eating differently. A person struggling with body or food idolatry needs to be trained, in concrete and practical ways, to eat to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

People with eating disorders need help and care from a number of sources. The body of Christ must be one of these sources. We must be equipped to step up and address this issue head on with wisdom and confidence in the sufficiency of scripture. We need to continually speak the truth in love as we seek appropriate help for those who struggle, recognizing that ultimately one person has the divine power needed to overcome (2 Pet 1:3), and he shares freely with all who come to him.

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