Fasting and Easting Disorders

A few years ago, I facilitated a six week course on prayer and fasting. As many of the group were in their 20s and many were also female, the topic of eating disorders seemed important to cover. In this article I try to summarise how true Christian fasting might relate to different types of eating disorder (as opposed to generic Christian counselling).

Fasting is a spiritual discipline. I cannot here cover the whys and wherefores of the spiritual disciplines other than to say that they are not magic and do not have any direct spiritual benefit themselves. Rather they are training tools that are within our grasp that help us train to move to a place where we cannot go by sheer effort - train, not try. They do not impress God, but rather help us press into God - they assist is in dying to the cheap things of this life and engaging with deeper truths and God. For more, see Richard Foster's book, 'Celebration of Discipline'.

Food and fasting provide just one way to help us focus on how we nibble at the things of this world for satisfaction; and how we can move beyond this to engage at a deeper level with God - to feast on God. It may be that the bodily state achieved by fasting also assists in our examination of our hearts and motives. Isaiah 58 also tell us that a true fast will result in a change in the way we see the world and act towards those in need.

-- In Bulimia Nervosa, there is a cycle of binging and starving/purging. People feel a lot of guilt in Bulimia, and it struck me that this pattern of behaviour is also seen in many other aspects of life, whether the person has an eating disorder or not. We all have cycles where we ‘medicate’ the stress and pain in our lives with "stuff" (posessions, luxury food, excess sport, etc…) and this of course intensifies the pain next time since it never really satisfies. See Ephesians 4v19 as a possible example. The spiritual disciplines, especially fasting, can help us see the origin of some of the pain and other disciplines (especially worship and prayer) can help us engage with God. However, in bulimia it has gone too far - beyond control - and if you have a history of this then you may wish to pick another habit to bring under control.
-- In Anorexia Nervosa, there can be aspects of control in the person’s story - for example, trying to bring perceived control to an out-of-control situation such as parental divorce. Here food is being used horizontally to impact relationships between humans, but God designed fasting to be used vertically to impact our relationship with Him. Matthew 6v16-18 is a good illustration of this, where the pharisees are using fasting in a similar horizontal manner. Again, if you have suffered from anorexia then I would suggest pursuing an alternative 'mortifying' discipline such as silence or service.
-- In excessive asceticism (avoidance of all pleasure), food is abstained from in order to minimise the fleshy desires and emotions. Colossians 2v23 tells us that this is ‘of no value’ and the thing that is of value is to be connected to God (v19). It was being pursued by some groups the early church encountered such as the Stoics and Ascetics. There are also aspects of buddhism that are similar to this asceticism, with the belief that all material things are actually impermanent. Christian fasting does not set abstinence as the goal, but rather abstains from some things in order to feast on God. Matthew 9v14-17 contrasts old and new convenant types of fasting - one is dry and ascetic and one is so new and rich that the wineskins cannot contain it.
In all these three situations, there is little aim to engage with God. Instead food is used to medicate, to control horizontally or to repress emotion. Christian fasting and discipleship is about feasting on and engaging with God vertically. hence, a possible way forward might be to encourage people with (or with a tendency to) eating disorders to focus on engagement with God through other spiritual disciplines, and not to fast until a vertical aspect to the use of food comes into being. It also struck me that there are also parallels in the way we all behave, so we should not stigmatise people with an eating disorder who are not fasting with this motive - this is certainly part of a Christian response.
Your thoughts on these points are welcomed. If people would like a book on fasting, I would highly recommend John Piper’s book ‘A Hunger for God’.
Rob Waller, 11/11/2010
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