Killing Our Desires – A Female Prerogative?

Great comments from Missy on how, as a culture, we value self-control, when in fact it can be just as sinful as its opposite.

I’ve spoken with different people struggling with eating disorders and those battling bulimia often comment that they wish they were anorexic instead, because of the cultural kudos attached to mastering ourselves, especially our bodies.

It’s no coincidence that eating disorders are rife not just outside, but within the church, where passions (especially in women), can be wrongly interpreted as something to be quenched or discouraged.

A few weeks ago I was looking with a friend at some photos of her as a young girl, before she came to faith.  She said she felt like a completely different person to the girl in the pictures.  And there was so much to celebrate in that!  But amongst the genuine joy for the Lord’s work in her life, she commented that she felt some sadness too.  As we talked, she explained that when she became a Christian she felt she needed to renounce, not just past behaviours, but the more exuberant parts of her personality.  As a Christian, she felt that these passions were inappropriate.  What’s interesting, is that they still come out – but in distorted ways.  And this just reinforces her own feelings of worthlessness.  Which in turn makes her want to kill those desires all the more.

But hang on – isn’t Jesus the most passionate person who ever lived? And doesn’t he want all of me – my hopes and fears and dreams and intensity? Surely our desires are given by Him – but in the desperation to make life work, we channel them into idols.  It’s not the desire itself that’s bad, but its end – only in Christ can they be fully and wonderfully realised.  But we try to squash them.  Or else we let them run riot and they pour into shops and shoes… or even good things, like family and friends, but which cannot give us the meaning we crave.  And somehow we can manage to squash them and let them run riot at the same time.

In my own life, I struggle with being still.   Ironically, both community and solitude can be deeply threatening – and my to-do lists are ways of avoiding myself, or, more accurately, the half-formed drives that propel me into endless busyness, followed by exhaustion.  In the evenings, I’ll quite often have the TV on, a crossword on one knee and a book in the other.  When I wake up in the middle of the night I want to DO.  (Poor Glen – it’s 2am and he has to peel his wife away from cleaning the kitchen, or colour-coordinating the socks drawer.  Again).

As a Christian, I want to live a life of freedom and grace – but so often I retreat into my own ridiculous system of works.  I didn’t make it to this meeting or call that person, but wait, I did do the shopping and send that card…

Is it something particularly feminine to want to be valued and accepted – desires which, post-Fall, gets channelled into frenetic multi-tasking and endeavours to be worth something?   Certainly, within marriage, the biblical injunction for husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, suggests that, in this context anyway, men and women need different things.  My husband says men need to get off their backsides and love, women need to sit down and rest in love.

Returning to the issue of self-control, this is all part of the context in which self-mastery gains its kudos.  For the anorexic, who often feels voiceless and invisible, it’s as they master their physical appetite that they construct an inviolable self.  All of us do this – after all, ‘my way or death’ is simply another way of describing sin.

This is partly why some recovery programmes may help the sufferer on a physical level, but compound the spiritual/emotional issues. The anorexic is often encouraged to channel their amazing self-control into eating instead of starving, and to view recovery as a series of goal-orientated, self-empowered works.  Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that physical recovery (and this includes weight gain) is not absolutely vital.  In many cases it’s a key first step.  Nor am I saying that goals are always a bad thing.  But eating disorders are ways of wrestling with the very deepest existential and spiritual questions.  If you can ‘fix yourself’, or if your sole motivation is simply ‘to look better’, or ‘to be able to enjoy a nice meal with family and friends’, then, good as these things are, they won’t get to the heart of the problem.

Such goals and programmes are unable to deal with our deeper desires.  And they may well exacerbate the very works-centred striving that got us into that mess to start with.

What do you think?  Is ‘self-control’ our problem?  Is it the answer?  And even if it’s not ‘the answer’, what would godly self-control look like anyway?  Is there a genuine difference between men and women on this issue?  What is it?

3 thoughts on “Killing Our Desires – A Female Prerogative?

  1. Thanks for this Emma – lots of food for thought!

    As a Christian in ministry who has struggled with an eating disorder for 17 years, lots of this resonates for me. I’ve done the full spectrum, from bulimic towards restricting anorexic and overexercising before settling at EDNOS, which feels a lot like a diagnosis of not really sick enough so stop being a silly girl wasting our time.

    I know for me the problems started as I tried to wrest control over a messy outside world and to try and quell crippling anxiety. I was never one who on the outside looked like she needed self-control (I was quite good at that).

    Yet when you look at the fruit of the spirit in Gal, self-control is on the list. In Titus it is the common characteristic that all Christians, whether male or female, old or young are to possess. But is the problem with the way that we understand self-control? Because I wonder whether self-control has to do with not giving in to our sinful desires, rather than being disciplined for the sake of being disciplined, restrictive and wary of having fun. And could it even look different for each individual? Perhaps self-control for the anorexic is to deny the compulsion to under eat and to eat anyway. Maybe it is the self-control to not run 10kms as fast as you can.

  2. Emma, your post got me thinking.
    I agree with you that there seems to be a big ‘need’ to be self controlled and perfect as a Christian woman. But it’s not going to happen. No-one is perfect, only Christ.
    Those idols we create whilst yearning for our ‘goal’, they actually get in the way and trip us up on our haphazard journey.
    I get so angry when I fail to get to a ‘little goal’ I fear I hurt/anger people or push them away when I can’t help ‘simmering away’ (quietly fuming about something but unable to hide it).
    I must remember the Jesus loves me for myself but sometimes I do wonder how irritated and exasperated He must be with me…. Can the Almighty be like that?

  3. Hi M

    Thanks for your post – some great comments, especially the reminder that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps one of the issues is that we accept a worldly definition of self-control, rather than allowing the Bible to determine our understanding of it.

    I agree that self-control can be seen as not giving into our sinful desires – but I know that my heart instantly latches onto this as another work that I can achieve in my own strength. Given that it is a work of the Spirit, by definition this isn’t something I can do – and that’s where I struggle. I want to fix myself and I keep thinking I can change my own heart.

    Tim Keller has a great sermon on this

    – he makes the point that self-control is not about suppressing our desires, but desiring the right thing.

    I agree that repentance looks different for every person – as you said,self-control for the anorexic might mean eating. When it comes to spiritual disciplines such as fasting for example, what might that look like for someone recovering from an eating disorder?

    Hi BB

    Thanks for your post! Where do you think the ‘need’ to be ‘perfect’ comes from? Is it from us? The church? The world?

    I can really identify with the anger you feel at blocked goals. That’s another interesting one – why anger? At what/who?

    And you’re right – our feelings about the Lord reveal how we think of Him. I’m reminded of the parable of the talents (Matt 25:24) where the servant sins because of how he wrongly views His master. Sometimes I worry when the Lord answers my prayers or when good things happen, because I feel like he only has a certain number of gifts to give me, and I could use them up. But this is the Lord who loves to give more than we can ask or imagine, who longs to answer our prayers with overwhelming abundance (Mal 3:10). What a small view I have of Him. If we were to ‘get’ the truth of His grace and love, how would that change how we think and live? Not to mention our goals and what happens when they are blocked?

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