When Body Image Becomes an Idol

During my high school years, I struggled with an eating disorder. Looking back, I am now able to put it in biblically accurate terms: I practiced body idolatry that resulted in extremely disordered eating. Having total control over my body to ensure that it looked exactly as I thought it should was so important that I restricted my caloric intake to a dangerous low while exercising excessively. My thoughts and feelings concerning my body and food trumped what God had to say about these things in His Word. At the time, I wouldn’t have called my problem idolatry or unbelief, but deep down 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.

I saw a Christian counselor a few times, but ultimately my parents were the ones who spoke biblical truth into this area of my life and helped me see my problem as more than just physical. God used their close watch-care over my physical state and their faithfulness to nourish me with truth as vital parts of my journey to restoration. Like me, people struggling with body idolatry and disordered eating are not thinking biblically or rationally. They need faithful men and women in the Body of Christ to come alongside and care for them in grace and truth before it is too late.

Awareness and physical care

A person with an eating disorder is typically not going to 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.) and become aware that there is a problem. You must insist that the person struggling be physically examined by a medical doctor to assess potential danger and harm. Seeing a doctor or nutritionist regularly may be a vital part of someone’s physical care and something she will not receive apart from the insistence and help of another.

Nourishment of the Word

Along with physical care and nourishment, those struggling with disordered eating need to be constantly nourished by the Word of God. Jesus make this clear in Matthew 4:4 when He says, “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 the physical. Issues of the heart need to be exposed and confronted with the truth of God’s Word. The Scriptures have the power to draw out these divisions (Heb 4:12) and shine a light on lies the heart is believing. A person consumed with body idolatry will likely not be feeding consistently on the Word herself. She will need to be fed specific biblical truths about her identity, her body, and food by others.

Identity and the Gospel

Body idolatry at its root is an issue of misplaced identity and worship. God tells us in his Word that all human being possess great dignity and worth as those made in His image (Gen 1:27). We are the crown of God’s creation, and we reflect something true about His nature. But we have 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 has not 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 can be 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 true identity 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 identity is rooted in Christ, it frees her think to rightly about her body and food. The Bible tells us that life is more than food and the body more than clothes (Matt 6:5) In other words, the body and food are not ends in themselves for us to control and worship for our own fulfillment. They are 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 we who are in Christ, our bodies are the dwelling place of His Holy Spirit (1Cor 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).

Body idolatry and eating disorders are multifaceted problems. There is not one formula that will lead to immediate restoration. Helping a person with these issues requires time, wisdom, prayer and the involvement of multiple people, including medical professionals. But eating disorders are not a problem the church needs to shy away from in fear. We need to speak truth to those who struggle because ultimately only one person who has the divine power needed to overcome (2 Peter 1:3). He shares freely with all who come to Him, and we are the ones who know His name.

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