tough loveI’ve just sent an email that, if written about me (and it could have been), would have left me spitting blood. There’s a bit of me that’s howling at the keyboard and clawing at my own throat. But the other bit (which is bigger and louder), hit ‘send’.

A church leader has asked me about a member of his congregation. She is extremely thin and getting thinner. She also serves in a number of public ways in the church. Lots of people are worried. No-one wants to say anything, because that would be judgmental or might make her worse. After all, don’t we all struggle?

What would you do?

Here’s my thoughts:

On the one hand, her public involvement in certain ministries is an important – perhaps vital – source of support.  She could argue that it gives her a reason to keep going. An identity beyond her eating disorder.  A way of serving.  A purpose. To take this away would be difficult and maybe harmful. Plus, there’s pragmatics.  Every church needs more leaders.

If the church asks her to step down, what is it saying to her?  ‘If you struggle you can’t serve?’ It’s not her fault her battles are written on her skin. And what about all the others, the ones whose battles we can’t see so clearly? Are we taking everyone off the rota?

She’s a grown-up.  No-one can make her get help.  And anyway, isn’t prayer enough?

They’re important points. But that’s not what I said.  I said something like this: the slide needs to be arrested. She’s at a critically low weight. She needs a break from public ministry. She needs you to be honest with her about your concerns and the need for medical help. She needs love and prayer and maybe for you and others to step in where she doesn’t want you to go. I wouldn’t advise this for every individual. But given what you’ve told me, that’s what I got.

In her shoes, I can think of nothing worse. But that’s what I wrote. And here’s why:

Seven or so years ago, I was slipping into serious anorexia. I was also heavily involved in ministry.  I loved the work and the kids and the other leaders. God was blessing our efforts and (as with many churches) there weren’t enough leaders to meet the needs. I was good at what I did and I needed the money as a way of funding my studies. I was also losing weight at an alarming rate.

If you’d told me I couldn’t do my job, I’d have thrown a wobbly of epic proportions. And people did challenge me – though not about my work.  ‘We’re worried about you’ they said.  ‘Are you getting help?’

I assured them that I was (and it was true, though I wasn’t yet sick enough to qualify for inpatient care).

Tutors at college. Co-workers. Family. They talked to me – and for that I’m very grateful. But everyone thought that someone else was helping, and I was all too willing to crawl through the gaps.

I don’t know what, if anything would have made a difference. Perhaps nothing. As I got sicker, I dropped out of work and life anyway.

I owe my life to local church and to other Christians – both at that time and now. And it’s easy to speak with the benefit of hindsight. But some responsibilities should have been taken from me earlier. Everyone struggles – but there are some battles that others must help us fight. And it might have helped if others said the ‘no’ I couldn’t say to myself.

So: to the girl whose pastor might ask for a chat: I’m sorry. But sometimes there’s more love in a ‘no’ than a ‘yes’.

10 thoughts on “Unapologetic

  1. Emma, so true and relevant in any situation where I see someone struggling. It takes immense courage and love to pursue someone who is struggling, right into the gaps where they are trying to hide. I really connected with those reasons you listed at the beginning, they are so often just excuses I use to avoid loving someone in those awkward moments when I know they are struggling and it will be painful and costly to wade in and help.

  2. Emma – your words tonight hit me fairly hard. There are two occasions where people have done that for me in the past – and to be honest, I’ve always felt a little resentful about it. Reading that tonight – yeah. It helped me realise just how much it was needed, and how much it came from love, even though I couldn’t see it. Thanks lovely.

  3. Resentful is the expected reaction to this I think at least initially but it doesn’t mean that a challenge is a bad idea. On a different note – how did you feel about being asked about this? Were you ok with it? Just wondering because , after I had had cancer, for a while all cancer people in the church were sent to me. Sometimes it was a bit hard work because, although I wanted to help, I didn’t just want to be defined by my illness. It is a difficult balance sometimes. If you are ok with it – feel free to ignore the question : )

  4. You did what God urged you to do, Emma. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you to hit ‘send’. With that email you said ‘no’ to a probable death ahead of time and you said ‘yes’ to a God-given life which is precious in His eyes.



    “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Prv 11:14 ESV)

    “A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a faithful envoy brings healing. Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.” (Prv 13:17-18 ESV)

    “He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.” (Prv 29:1 ESV)

  5. Another great post Emma. You have a great gift for pastoral insight and writing, and I am always helped by your posts. Thank you.

  6. This is a really valuable post. It’s so helpful to see those decisions made by someone who does understand, because it shows the true love and compassion, and makes them feel a little easier to swallow. Thank you, for doing what’s best for that woman. I hope all works out for her!

  7. Hi Lesley – good question. I don’t have answers, but I’m happy to speak from my experiences. Sometimes it’s costly, and like you say, we need to have a balance – but there’s a bit of redemption in there too; if that makes sense.

  8. Not waving, but drowning.
    And what if she does throw a wobbly (whatever that is). We all hate to have our sin exposed, (at least I do anyway) but that all means nothing. Its often the only thing to do.

    I think of CS Lewis’s Eustace and the much-thicker-than-he-thought dragon skin. Perhaps you were being used as one of Aslan’s claws (body of Christ).

  9. Hi Emma,
    Thank you for this. Having also read your book, I appreciate your honesty and willingness to share, articulating what many people wouldn’t for fear of exposure. This paragraph particularly resonated with me: “If the church asks her to step down, what is it saying to her? ’If you struggle you can’t serve?’ It’s not her fault her battles are written on her skin. And what about all the others, the ones whose battles we can’t see so clearly? Are we taking everyone off the rota?” A friend said to me recently that his experience of the church is exactly that: expose your problems/weaknesses but if you do, you’re not fit to serve. I didn’t know how to respond. You can’t easily disagree with someone’s experiences. But at the same time the Bible says, ‘Carry each other’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:2), ‘encourage one another and build each other up’ (Hebrews 3:13). Us crumbling Christians need that support – we can’t pretend forever, not to ourselves and not to each other!

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