It was my sophomore year of high school, and I was sitting with my cross-country team listening to the older girls compare fat grams in bagel brands. Little did I know how influential that conversation, and many more like it, would become in my life. Add to that the billboards, magazines, and other media that boasted model-thin women all around me, and I bought into the lie: “I have to look like ‘her’ in order to be beautiful.”
At the same time, I was playing basketball. The coach attempted to motivate us to play better and harder with harsh words and actions, and I began to believe another lie: “My worth is based on my outward performance.” This led me to inflict punishment on myself—if I didn’t live up to my coach’s expectations, then I didn’t deserve to eat.
These twin themes of appearance and achievement are at the heart of many women’s search for beauty and worth.
Thankfully, the gospel teaches us that our worth isn’t based on our outward appearance, but on the person and work of Jesus Christ. And our worth isn’t based on our outward performance, but on the perfect performance of Christ on our behalf.
For me, knowing these truths was tremendously freeing. I didn’t have to be thin and fit to be loved. I didn’t have to perform perfectly to be accepted. I am beautiful, loved, and accepted in Christ.
But I didn’t learn these truths alone. Others came alongside me and helped pull me out of the pit of an addiction to thinness and fitness. My nutritionist told me how many pounds I needed to gain to be at a healthy weight and gave me tips for normal eating. My mentor patiently led me through a study on the idols of the heart. And my Christian friends prayed for me and encouraged me to battle the lies I was so prone to believe.
Perhaps you know a friend or a loved one who needs to be rescued from lies she’s believed that have contributed to an eating disorder. In some cases, she may have already acknowledged her struggle. In other cases, she may not yet realize she’s enslaved to these lies, and you may be just the person the Lord uses to open her eyes to truth. Here are four ways you can help.
1. Pray for Her
We should spend more time on our knees pleading with the Lord to rescue our friend than we spend pleading with her to stop her destructive behaviors. Our hope is not in a person’s ability to change, but in Christ who changes the person.
2. Proclaim the Gospel to Her Often
Your friend doesn’t need a pep talk, or an article about 10 steps to freedom from an eating disorder, or for you to constantly tell her she’s beautiful; instead, she needs to be saturated with the gospel of Christ. She needs to be lovingly confronted with the fact that she primarily has a worship disorder and is a sinner in desperate need of a Savior. She needs to be gently challenged to love Christ more than appearance and achievements. She needs to be encouraged to dethrone these desires and put Christ alone on the throne of her heart.
Above all, she needs to be comforted with the truth that Jesus has been perfect for her and has taken God’s wrath in her place. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Regardless of how messy her circumstances, your friend needs you to remind her often that Jesus loves her and wants to free her from her addiction. A good way to do this is to take your friend to church with you. Invest in her life, invite her to hear truth, and then talk about it with her, applying it to her challenges. Change comes in the context of community. Your friend will want to isolate herself; you must move toward her in love.
3. Practice Good Listening
As you converse with your friend, listen carefully to the lies she’s battling. Write them down and then counter them with the truth of God’s Word. Also, pinpoint the suffering your friend has endured that has been a contributing factor in her eating disorder. Listen to her share the pain she’s experienced with a compassionate ear, and encourage her to process that pain in a healthy way.
4. Practice Good Eating and Exercise Habits with Her
Your friend has forgotten what it means to eat and exercise normally. Model that for her and invite her to engage in it with you. This may require great patience on your part, and your invitation may be met with resistance for a long time, but don’t give up on her. Gospel-centered friendships are grounded in God’s love, and love is both patient and kind. Over lunch or a walk in the park, you can bear with one another and point each other to Christ. This requires you to recognize you have opportunities to learn from your friend, even while she is struggling. Ask her to pray for you and speak into your own battles with sin. By doing so, you encourage an interdependent relationship grounded in the hope of the gospel.
Even though I’m no longer addicted to thinness and fitness, I know my flesh is weak. I know I’m still prone to believe lies about appearance and achievement. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work within me, I struggle less than I did in my teens and early 20s, but I still struggle. That’s why I continue to be grateful for the church, where I’m not isolated and alone but known and loved.
Be that loving community for your friend who has an eating disorder. By committing to pray for her and proclaim the gospel to her, and inviting her to do the same for you, you create a safe relationship for her to grow in godliness, by the power of God’s Spirit at work within her.