Shanda Anderson answers the question, “What does God say to those who struggle with body image?” She addresses:
- Biblical encouragement for someone struggling with an eating disorder (1:54)
- Cultural directives for identity formation (2:28)
- Social media as a weapon of mass destruction (4:46)
- Loves disordered by sin (6:20)
- Recognizing and struggling with motivations behind habits (9:15)
- God-given value that overcomes body image struggles (13:16)
- Shame as a barrier to healthy identity (17:15)
- Practical tools for embracing your identity in Christ (18:48)
- Can God take away an eating disorder? (21:45)
- Reflecting Christ by reflecting his glorious beauty (26:55)
Find more from TGC on body image:
Shanda’s recommended resources:
- 2017 Gospel Identity Conference with Tim Keller
- Broken Body Image from Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF)
- Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Body Image Distortions from CCEF
- When Eating Isn’t Enough by Michael R. Emlet
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Shanda Anderson: My name is Shanda Anderson, and I’m the director of clinical care at the Austin Stone Counseling Center. I’ve been in Austin since 2014, and in the heart of Stone biblical discipleship through counseling care and helping restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. We might care for one another and enjoy the riches of Christ and the freedom that he’s purchased for us. I hope you get to enjoy some of the things that God has taught me today.
We’re going to be focusing on answering some important questions that we’ve received from you on the topic of body image and identity. Some of the ways we’re going to organize this information is focusing on three questions that you guys have submitted. The first one is what is biblical encouragement for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, and is this eating disorder a sin? The second question is, how does the value that God gives me penetrate and help me overcome my immense struggle with body image? And thirdly, can God take away my eating disorder? It’s been 20 years since I’ve prayed, and yet I still battle.
These are three very important questions that cover a lot of broad categories. So know that the content that I’ll bring today is general. I wish it could be specific for each and every person. But I can’t nuance everything, but I’m going to trust the Spirit to give each of you listening what you need in regards to these issues and struggles.
So let’s start with this first question. What is the biblical encouragement for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, and how do we conceptualize that struggle? Is it sin? How do we walk with God through it? So I just want to first recognize that we are not wanting to focus on just behavior modification or what we’re doing outwardly in our activity and behavior. Again, the concept of identity and who we are is just going to be so foundational for all of these questions. And I want to recognize for everybody as we dive into this that our culture is singing songs over us all the time. There are messages and truly statements of identity formation that we are receiving all the time. It’s affecting us probably more than we even realize.
So for us to not over-simplify or reduce, I think we just have to understand the gravity and the enormity of how we are influenced so easily by cultural and the way social media is a part of the fabric and the foundation of how we live. Historically, a lot of struggles would come from just looking at magazines that we could pick up and put down, and might have been a little bit harder to find access to at times. And now we’ve got our smartphones with us all the time. From Instagram and Facebook and TikTok and all the ways that we are being reinforced by this image that culture is promoting as an ideal and a standard that in our flesh I think we are all driven to try and achieve or strive after.
We are image chasers because we are made in the image of God. We are made to be reflecting his glory, and we got very confused and everything got distorted and turned upside down with sin. So we are prone to wonder into these cultural messages that are informing and influencing us. And I think our idea of beauty, our idea of unideal body type, this again identity statement of my value, my worth, that is echoing I think in the background for each and every one of us, men and women.
Historically, we would have said a body image issue was more of a struggle for females, and that is just simply not true today. It is an issue that affects men and women. Again, that fear of man and insecurity that is so familiar, I think this idea of what do people think of me and why do I care and how does that affect the way that I live every day.
I think one source that’s even from a secular data point has described social media as a weapon of mass destruction on self esteem. That’s a powerful message from even a secular psychological standpoint of just the assault to our soul that is happening by a lot of airbrushed and cyber realities that are Photoshopped. There’s apps that will change your face, will change whatever feature you don’t like about yourself, and this hyper focus on perfecting ourselves and erasing any flaws and presenting an false sense of who we are and finding that as beautiful is so destructive to the confidence that we’re meant to have in Christ, the freedom that we’re meant to be able to walk in because of who he is and then who we are because of him.
So again, just recognizing all of these influencers that really are wrecking havoc on our ability to accept ourselves and the body and the packaging that God has given us. And we’re so thankful that the gospel sends a different identity message, that we’re not looking externally for what others think of us, and ultimately we’re not looking internally to what we think about ourselves. But we truly want to look eternally into the promises of God that are true in Jesus. We want to anchor ourselves firmly and securely in him and ask that the spirit would help us walk by faith in that way.
So when we are talking about just this prospect of an eating disorder, again, sin disorders are loves. Our hopes are often misplaced. Our functional saviors are often different than what we proclaim, even as a believer, to know and knowledge in concept that Jesus is where I find my worth. I’m often functioning out of a different savior mentality that is based on self sufficiency or my own efforts, and I think some of the eating disorder elements are influenced by that. Not all of them. There’s a lot of mitigating factors. There’s a lot of influencers and invariables that might be playing in for anybody struggling with an eating disorder. But there is a worship issue that we want to acknowledge, that we want to orient our lives around the greater hope and the more stable and steady promise of the finished work of Christ so that when my weaknesses are revealed, I know that God’s perfect power is made evident in my weakness. I don’t have to be afraid of my weakness. I don’t have to be afraid of flaws and imperfections. We can hide ourselves in the promises of Christ.
So as we labor and toil in this battle, we fight the good fight of faith, and I think an eating disorder is sometimes an opportunity for us to again remember that there is a war waging against our affections and our allegiance in what has ultimate authority and influence in my life. Fighting the good fight of faith. In First Timothy four and six, it’s from the Greek word agos, which is agony. There is a struggle. There’s a battle happening. So I just want to recognize as we process these ideas and the effects of disordered eating and body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia, binging, purging, all these areas where we might be looking for comfort or escape or to regulate our emotions that we are having a hard time regulating, all of those places are where we have to wage war against the flesh and against the lies of the enemy.
We’re either thinking less of ourselves and we’re going inferior, or we’re thinking more of ourselves and we’re going superior. To get an accurate sense of self is where we look to Jesus. We fix our eyes on him, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him, scorned the cross and scorned shame. Jesus bore our shame so we don’t have to live under the weightiness and the crushing weight of culture’s shame that tells us we should be a certain way.
So there’s a lot of habits that will get perpetuated over time, instincts that obviously we want to recognize are not easy to just turn off. It may take time for us to focus on what is again that motivating factor. It maybe different for every person. What’s driving that fear or insecurity or control, and so we don’t want to minimize all the elements at play. But we don’t want to emphasize and put too much priority on the disorder itself. I want to remind us all that we are not our struggles. We are not defined by our sin. Praise God, we are defined by the finished work of Christ and his righteousness. We have freedom to continue to struggle. And because of Jesus and his perfect righteousness on my behalf, I don’t have to be afraid of my own sin. I don’t have to be afraid of the areas that I’m aware that the struggle is intense and maybe affecting in pronounced ways.
So on the idea of is this eating disorder a sin, maybe. Maybe not. But we can acknowledge that sin is at play, that there are aspects of my treasure. Where I find my treasure, my heart will be also. That if I’m treasuring my body image, if I’m worshiping how I look, my affections are going to go towards what has my heart, what has my allegiance, what has my focus. So we become what we behold. Some of these disordered eating elements and how that shows up in our lives, we are often worshiping a lesser love and a counterfeit God that culture is propagating and promoting over and over again.
So we want to be able to repent. The gift of repentance, not guilt and condemnation, but the gift of turning away from what doesn’t satisfy and turning to the bread of life, the living water that does not run dry. It’s inexhaustible in his grace that is sufficient and is power perfect in my weakness. So being able to admit our faults and failures and where we have looked to the world or our own flesh or our worth, our value. And we’ve found significance in our appearance because again that is what is being reinforced over and over again.
So for the person who may have asked this question about the encouragement as you struggle, something that I tell all my clients and try to remind myself all the time is that the Christian life has tension. We don’t get to remove discomfort. I think the tension and the discomfort, the unease is walking by faith. So just for those who may think that faith and freedom means that there’s no longer a struggle, I would just offer you encouragement and grace that we get to struggle with Jesus. I think we’re all trying to learn how to struggle well, and there maybe a thorn in our flesh. Paul asked that God would remove it, and God said no. It remained. I don’t know what the struggle will look like for each of us, but we can walk with Jesus through it and find again the spirit that has the empowering and enabling source of grace and wisdom and endurance that helps us not grow weary and lose heart.
So I would just pray that there’s a lot of encouragement to struggle well and to again not to over-minimize and not make it too emphasized but to find your hope in Jesus and recognize that his ability will help you struggle well and by his grace I pray overcome in the victory that he has purchased on your behalf.
And for the second question is how does the value that God gives me penetrate and help me overcome my immense struggle with body image? And again, my instinct here is to first express compassion and empathy on our daily struggle to remember who we are in Christ, to claim and proclaim the excellencies of Christ and let his light shine into the darkness. So again I just want to honor the reality that walking with Jesus in a broken world is challenging, and doing that with again the messages that we’ve already acknowledged from our societal feedback that’s really crushing in the weightiness of pressure and assaulting the expectations and standards that we feel like we have to live up to the struggle with body image. It just makes sense based on our environment and the context that we’re living in. And so just to normalize that struggle and offer great hope that God has come, the you may have life and life abundant.
So in that, I think just this concept of identity is going to come so strongly into helping us. And Tim Keller has some great resources that I’ll just toss out there. There’s an identity conference on the Gospel in Life website that’s been really influential in my life. He just recognizes a traditional identity that historically has come from what others think about us, and then this modern identity that’s where we’re living now that’s what I think about me. Goes from the external in traditional to the internal before this modern identity. And they both are fragile and unstable and really leave us wanting because it’s a performance treadmill either way for others or for myself. And it’s one that is based on achieving something for myself, by myself.
And of course, we get the gospel identity as this alternative to what the world is offering that says my identity is received. My identity has been purchased. I just get to embrace what is already true about me in Christ. I don’t have to achieve it. I don’t have to work for it. I don’t have to earn it or prove anything to myself or to others. But having this truth that is established and fixed outside of me and outside of others, I get to turn my gaze and fix my face like flint to the one who delights over me and has loved me, even to the point of Christ dying on my behalf. Letting the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus be what is informing what’s true about me, what is true about you, and how I pray that hope that is the cornerstone, that anchor, the roots that are so steadily established that don’t grow weary and don’t fail us. That we would draw the hope from that identity that is found in Jesus.
That Jesus has lived today perfectly on our behalf, every day. What a promise. What an encouragement. What glory that we get to find rest in, and just recognizing that really seeking our identity outside of Christ and any other created this is going to leave us wanting. It’s going to leave us insecure and fearful and ultimately isolated in our fears within inner us, intimacy, and communion with God and with others because we’re overly focused on ourselves.
So we have that tendency for shame, which one definition of shame is just the I define myself by what others think of me. But you define yourself by what others think of you. And it is an exhausting treadmill that goes nowhere, and praise God that again Jesus died for that shame and offered us a fixed identity because we know what God thinks of us. Somehow in the beauty of being robed in the righteousness of Christ, like Isaiah 61 says, being clothes in his righteousness. When God looks upon us, he sees Jesus. We get to hide ourselves in him. We get to take refuge in him, and this beautiful concept of union with Christ, that the old has passed away and that the new has come. I get to put off the old and put on the new. I’m united with Christ. I am one with him. I think to nourish our souls and to reinforce our identity by that beautiful truth is where we end up being able to walk with Jesus through these ongoing struggles day after day.
And for the listener who asked the question about this immense struggle with body image, I just want to again recognize that with all the biblical truth that is wonderful, we are human and we are walking in a broken world. Sometimes just the language of an immense struggle of how consuming or distracting or discouraging or heavy this burden maybe. I want to give just a couple of practical tools that might be helpful.
One, just remembering that again sin corrupts, and we want to remember that God is the one who creates and restores and rehabilitates. So just I think recognizing the possible narratives that you are listening to the messages that we can identify as false or the lies that are influencing us and challenging our own emotions, challenging our own thoughts at times. Slowing down to just consider where that internal dialogue or those messages that we’re influencing ourselves more than anybody else because of what we’re taking in. I think if there’s a way to slow down and confront some of those narratives or just even identify them. I think awareness is a lot of the time a big part of moving towards freedom is just being honest and admitting where the world has influenced you more than the gospel and taking that into the light of God and his love.
Then the practicality of social media maybe something that you might want to cut back on or even take a break from and remove some of those constant messages and the ways that our eyes are taking in these ideals and these standards that are reconciling in our internal world what is true, even when it’s contrary to the word of God and the beauty of the gospel. So I think we just got to recognize that we are filtering all the time. And so I think just even being intentional to know to put a filter on with the glory of Christ and the truth of God that if and when you go into the world through social media or you turn on the television or you’re watching the news, we’re not going to accidentally filter through the wisdom of God. We have to be pretty intentional about that and put forth that armor of God and the shield of faith and the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the spirit to be actively and intentionally filtering and declaring what’s true over what the lies are that we’re taking in.
So when sin corrupts, God creates. God has created us. We’re made in his image, and so going back to just an internal perspective of biblical world view, I think reminding ourselves what is true and ultimately having that determine what is true about us and then entering into the world day in and day out, moment by moment, believing that and operating out of the truth and that narrative. By God’s grace, we’re going to be able to do the battle. We’re going to be able to wage war against the lies and schemes of the enemy that wants to deceive and distract and discourage us.
And lastly here with this third question, can God take away my eating disorder? It’s been 20 years since I have prayed this, and yet I still battle. Again, just compassion and empathy. This thorn in the flesh, this ongoing difficulty. I wish I could give you easy answers and quick fixes, but they don’t exist. And God is going to ask us to keep walking with him and believing his power again in our weakness. So I think it’s just helpful to remember in this realm that again culture is maiming you. Culture is giving an identity formation that is driving a lot of these behaviors, a lot of these focuses and fixations. So with a lot of patience, Jesus’s patience is perfect and his willingness to endure with you.
I think of Romans 5 when we talk about our suffering that produces character. I think of Romans 5 where we were told that we rejoice in ourselves. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. I think oftentimes we jump really quick to hope, and we forget about endurance and character. Not that hope is ever not active, and of course this is the hope that doesn’t disappoint. But there is a truth that God that does not shy away from that we endure and that nothing has seized us except what’s common to man. God is faithful. He’s just. He’s given us a way out so that we can endure, so that we can go through it. I wish the way out was removal and ultimate relief, and that is coming some day. But we can endure because God is with us. We can walk with him through it.
And culture is offering a name, and I would just encourage you to remember the name Jesus has given you. John 11, he’s a good shepherd, and he has given us… We know his voice, and he has named us. He knows us. And so he calls us by name. So remembering just that personal nature of how loved you are by God, and I think just that adoptive mentality that we are heirs to the kingdom of Heaven. And we often live and act like orphans, especially in our shame and our insecurity. So coming back to that identity that we are united in Christ and heirs with him. And that to be confident and humble, that’s our identity in Christ. We can be secure and selfless, competent and humble. And that’s going to be I think what’s going to fuel the enduring. That’s going to produce character, and God will strengthen us over time.
One of the things that I’ve been encouraged by in some of these long sufferings, some of these ongoing challenges where, like Paul, the thorn in the flesh, we endure and persevere to the end. It’s little by little and it’s day by day. Our faith is moment by moment. And we see those words specifically. Again, God’s mercies are new every day. The struggles are new, but his mercies are new.
Again outwardly we’re wasting away, but inwardly we’re being renewed day by day. In the Old Testament, there’s times where we see God driving out the enemies of the Israelites, but he says he’s going to do them little by little. One, so that they don’t forget their need for a God. That they’re going to rely on him as the struggles and the battles remain. But little by little, also so that the land that God has given them will be cultivated, even by the struggle, even by the enemy that God is doing something. He’s active. He’s working on your behalf on the pain.
So I know God does not glory in or choose the pain for our harm. He will work the pain for good, and as we hide ourselves in Jesus and believe his power more and more, I do believe that we will look upon these lighten momentary afflictions and believe that they are achieving for us an eternal way of glory.
And 2 Corinthians 4&5 are just beautiful places. I would encourage this listener that is having to endure, that may feel that they are pressed by not crushed, that they have to recognize where this jar of clay is fractured and feels broken. Again to believe that that inner renewal in Romans 12 as well that we are not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our mind day after day to be this living sacrifice, even when it’s hard, and asking that God would encourage that this individual to believe that God is for you and with you and Jesus will fight this battle on your behalf.
As we close out our time with just recognizing that so much of where we begin to be most helpfully shaped by and influenced by the gospel is where we get to that core, heart level. The imagination or where the metaphors, the images, the things that we connect to emotionally. So the image of a mirror, it’s something so simple, yet we have it everywhere. But again we see in a mirror dimly like Corinthians tell us. But when you’re thinking about this identity in Christ, even through again our secular psychology and bio-physiology, we know that even as growing infants and the developmental process of children, we model and mirror after what we receive from our primary caregivers. It’s very influential. We’re made to mirror because we’re made to image God. We’re made to imitate Christ.
But when you’re thinking about this concept of body image and identity, I think it’s remembering this metaphor of the mirror. Whose gaze am I beholding? Is it me? Is it an ideal version of me? Is it an ideal version of someone else, or is it Christ? And who’s glory and image do I want to reflect? This beauty even again of the sun reflecting, the firey light of the sun, that the moon in and of itself doesn’t have light. But it reflects the glory of the sun, and we want to do that and not get eclipsed by the world and have the light that we want to radiate forth and being back.
Again, introspection isn’t bad. Emotions are not bad. Beauty is not bad. I think what sin does is take something good and it corrupts it. And we make it ultimate. So I think it’s still remembering God values beauty. He is a creator. But we want to define beauty by what he values and then let our hearts glory in beauty that is defined by and determined by God, and that our ultimate worth is again influenced by many circumstances. But it’s not determined by them.
Again, our body, our beauty, whatever version we think we have, that is not the most important determining factor about us. And culture is going to take us captive again to the lies of the enemy if we’re not actively recognizing and filtering what we’re hearing and listening and ultimately buying into. We want that to lead to life and life abundant in Christ. So just this idea of again the anchor, the root, the cornerstone. Again, what has to be fixed? I think of a gyroscope often. It’s this fixed axis that’s used for navigation while all about is the swirling external that’s influenced by force. But there’s got to be a fixed center that’s not on me and not on others, but by God’s grace it’s Jesus. As we continue to build our life on him, I pray that we would experience again the freedom that he set us free for and be able to live in the world but not be of it. And to take our cues, our prompts, our lessons from our creator and not the creation.