Anorexia and Bulimia are serious, habitual cycles of behavior. Bulimia is characterized by eating huge quantities of food and then inducing vomiting or some other form of purging. Anorexia is the practice of intentional, voluntary self-starvation. Often there are intermittent periods of bingeing and purging (a bulimic pattern). Both of these behaviors are chosen. They are not a medical illness. They are also cultural behaviors that are not universally seen around the world in under developed countries. Ed Welch discusses these in a good article in the Journal of Bibnlical Counseling, Spring 2006.
Welch begins the article with an explanation that both these issues begin with baby-steps. We are not born with these issues. “You began life with normal eating habits: you ate when you were hungry and didn’t eat when you were full. But in a weight-conscious world, where food is used for comfort, you take small steps and “normal” gradually disappears” (9). It is over time, and for various reasons that food becomes an obsession.
I have read significantly on these two issues and found Welch’s initial and simple descriptions helpful. He regards anorexia as restrictive and bulimia as gluttonous. Anorexia is legalist. Bulimia is licentious. Anorexia wants control while bulimia is out-of-control. (9). His diagram on page 10 was also very helpful. Marshall and Mary Asher (The Christian’s Guide to Psychological Terms – CCG) add an interesting twist.
Through the self-deception of the sufferer, they believe that the person believes she is normal and will often deny they have an eating problem, while at the same time feel sorry for themselves and blame-shift (11). Both of these behaviors fall into the Galatians 6:1-3 category. These people are “caught” in a sin and need help to get out. In a sense, they are unable to carry their own backpacks because they are blind to the true nature of the behavior. Much like Jesus’ disciples in Mark 7-9, they are not blind, but cannot see. Welch uses the word stuck. He speaks of their self-imposed rules and lists. They have an “Eat the bad and you are bad.” (11) mentality and so they punish themselves (penance) to attempt to cleanse themselves. They feel remorse (gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs) and must do penance. The act of penance is ingrained in the eating disorder’s behaviors. Because this is so, it is important for us to understand this idea of penance in contrast to true repentance. I will take a quick paragraph to explain the difference.
Penance is a way for man to earn his forgiveness, or at least prove his repentance. We most often hear the word penance associated with the Roman Catholic Church under the heading of, “acts of contrition” or “doing penance.” Penance is a sacrament used as a form of discipline or punishment imposed on a person to demonstrate their repentance. This is simply an example of one’s thinking that they must earn their way back into God’s gracious kindness. We see a sort of penance described in Colossians 2:16-23. The counselee may do this as an act of control, or there is also a very real possibility that the counselee is simply not saved (CCG 11).
Repentance is a gift of God, a merciful grace in which he opens our eyes to our sin and standing before him while also empowering us with the desire and ability to act upon what we profess to be true. By faith we believe his Word and what he declares to be the just reward and penalty for our unrighteousness. In obedience and through the power of the Christ we confess and agree that we have sinned, repent of our sins and respond by actively turning from that sin (put-off), and actively pursue the sanctification of our hearts, minds, wills, and emotions (put-on). Repentance is a purposeful, repeated, daily decision that demonstrates what we have confessed. 2 Corinthians 7:9-11 describes genuine repentance in the believer.
Welch goes on to describe that fact that those sufferers are dealing with lies and asceticism. “If you listen carefully, you will notice lies everywhere. You lie to others, and you believe those lies yourself.” (11). A huge part of the deception they are facing is evidenced in their worship. The suffering are not really worshiping God, but are worshiping their own created idols. While these people realize there is something wrong, they do not realize that the problem is a spiritual one and that their relationship with God is the issue. They are arrogant, lacking humble submission to God.
Welch gets to the main point on page 12 when he states, “The number one reason we stay stuck in self-destructive patterns is that we don’t really want to change.” We for some reason become attached to our sin and find some comfort in it. Much like depressions, even though we hate it, it is ours and its familiarity has become our new normal. “You might want to get rid of the bad consequences of your obsession, but you don’t want to give up the obsession.” (12). These feelings are strangely comforting because the sufferer is living in a world without God. They need to understand that there is no other place to go, because God is the only one with the word of eternal life. A wise counselor will help the counsel cry out to god instead of simply crying (Hosea 7:14).
So what can the sufferer do? Welch offers two beginning steps: confess and know God. Knowing God begins with the confession of sin. “Confess that your world is about you rather than Him. Confess that you are living as if you know better than God. Confess that you are trying to save your own life rather than lose it (Matt. 10:39). Confess that you are seeking life apart from Jesus.” (12). Welch makes an interesting comment that I have read from him in the past, “…first you need to rest. “In repentance and rest is your salvation” (Isa. 30:15). It is a counter-intuitive strategy: don’t do something, just sit there.” (12).
This was a good, succinct article that simply got to the point. Counselors must point people to Jesus. Counselees must see the Word of God for what it is (2 Timothy 3:16), and begin to trust its commands and instruction. Those with eating disorders “…must repent, confess their sin, and understand how she can learn to fear God, not man.” (CCG 11) As with depressions, the counselor must humbly, lovingly, and carefully walk side-by-side with those suffering from anorexia and bulimia.
 Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition.(Miriam Webster, 2004)