Sin or Sickness?

I’ve been blogging for about 6 weeks now and I’ve loved getting emails from people as well as interacting in the comments.

One reader recently asked a great question about whether eating disorders are a sin or a sickness.  Here are some of the things I said in our emails:

I’m a Christian and I sin all the time. And I forget God’s grace all the time too. And those two things are totally linked. Whenever I forget I’m forgiven, accepted and loved I try to punish myself, fake it and ‘perform’. And eating disorders are all about punishing myself, faking it and performing.

Eating disorders are just one more kind of disordered behaviour that show we haven’t really received the love and grace of Jesus.  And that is the heart of sin.  (See this article my husband wrote – all about how sin is not receiving the grace of Christ).

So, yes it is a sin.  But when I admit to being a sinner this is not my queue for a pity party or for indulging some self-harm.  (All that stuff is part of the problem!).  No we need to understand how Jesus sees sin.  According to Him, sin is a power.  It’s something that’s bigger than us. It’s not just a simple practice that we’ve chosen, it’s a master we’ve fallen under.  Every time we confess to sin we are confessing to something that is addictive and enslaving (John 8:34).

So really it’s not a question about whether an eating disorder is a sin OR a sickness.  Because of the nature of sin, EDs are a sin AND a sickness.  I am both guilty because I’ve given myself to something else other than Jesus and I’m helpless because it has trapped me.  We tend to think it’s one or the other, but time and again the bible tells me it’s both.  And this isn’t just a truth about EDs, it’s a truth about sin more generally.

So as I bring my struggles with eating before the Lord I remind myself,

a) the Lord loves me and has paid for all my sins with His blood,

b) I have sinned against Him in multiple ways and that’s wrong, and,

c) I am not able to simply choose holiness.  I can’t just grit my teeth and correct my behaviour.  No, I’m a slave to this sin and I need Jesus to set me free.  I need Him to come into my heart in a deeper way, to change what it is that I love and to remake me as someone who desires that freedom from the heart.

So a prayer that I pray for myself all the time is from Ephesians 3:14-20.  Paul is writing to Christians.  They already know Jesus, they already have Jesus in their hearts, but Paul wants them to know Jesus and His love even more:

16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

1 thought on “Sin or Sickness?

  1. Thanks for this Emma. I’ve been pondering the relationship too and I think that the recognition that both sin and sickness are in play is helpful.

    I was reading John 9 and I wonder if that could help a little. The disciples as Jesus who sinned and Jesus’ reply begins: ‘it is not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him…’.

    Because we live in a fallen broken world, we sin and we also are sinned against. We also live with the consequences of sin- seen in unruly gardens that do not want to be tamed, in illness and unjust suffering, in people that although created in the image of God in order to glorify him grasping for control and rejecting him, in brains that don’t quite think rightly and are in fact incapable of thinking rightly all of the time! Sometimes the situation we are in is the direct consequence of our sin- we are reaping its reward. Other times we are simply living out lives in a broken world. So when we are charged for tax evasion it’s a case of the former. When we get cancer, it’s the latter. Job helps us to understand this better too.

    I wonder whether that can be the rub for eating disorders. Because if we say that it is more akin to the first example, we are saying that it is all chosen, rebellious behaviour. And I don’t think that is right- at least in part because I see the actions of others around me- they can begin to restrict food intake to exert some kind of control, but it doesn’t become an all consuming passion, and I’m convinced that is not because in that regard they are any less sinful, but a combination of situation, personality and faulty thinking lead some into the snare and trap of an ED.

    Yet on the other hand, if we say it is just like the latter, we deny that while there is complicated faulty thinking an hard wiring going on, that there is some choice in behaviour and actions. Incredibly difficult, yes but the anorexic can chose to eat, despite the internal dialogue and fears. The bulimic can chose not to purge, despite the fear an shame and desire to numb pain and uncomfortable emotions. The overexerciser can chose not to run for 2 hours but to sit with the overwhelming anxiety and flood of feelings. Yet for them to do that is often so very difficult- in a way that those who have never been in that headspace find impossibly hard to understand. The agony of an internal dialogue that screams at you that you are a fat, lazy b**ch. That you don’t deserve to eat. That you are so worthless and hopeless that it would be better for everyone if you starved to death quickly. That tells you that it’s not really a problem and that you are making more of it than you need to, so it is actually the right thing to lie when someone asks if you’ve eaten. That tells you that if you just work harder, read your bible more, pray better that it will be fixed. You get where I am going.

    So where does that leave us- as you said, both sick and a sinner. It’s only because we live in a sinful world that our thinking can become so marred and ugly. But yet it is my own personal sinfulness that is also at work. To emphasize one at the expense of the other is so damaging- because it either absolves me of all responsibility or else heaps all the blame on me – neither if which are true.

    How thankful am I that the one who works in meis the Lord and giver of life, who raises the dead to life and is doing a mighty work in me by the power of his spirit to recreate a precious child into his image and likeness.

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