A Review of “8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder” by Carolyn Costing and Gwen Schubert Grabb

If there is one area where Biblical Counseling needs to continue to develop it is in the area of practical and effective strategies for change. We are strong on the issues of thought patterns, heart desires, and motivations, but we are often simplistic in the area of practical restructuring for change. Yet change always requires more than information, and so we have to help people develop new habits and practices. This is particularly important in counseling those struggling with an eating disorder. While there are some great works on eating disorders from a Biblical perspective, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder is the most practical resource I have ever read on the subject.

8 Keys offers a helpful exploration of the subject of eating disorders by combining therapeutic strategies and personal narrative. The authors, both professional therapists, both previously suffered from an eating disorder. They give insight into the challenges and victories of recovery as they each share part of their story. Furthermore, at one time Gwen was a client of Carolyn Costin’s, and so readers get to explore one story from the perspective of both counselor and counselee. This is a unique and multi-faceted exploration of an eating disorder that serves readers well. The narratives serve to highlight several distinct features of recovery process. As the authors put it:

These narratives are intended to help you understand the therapeutic process, increase insight about your own resistance or fears, clarify issues, enhance your therapy, or provide you with the motivation to seek help if you have been discouraged or afraid to do so. (3)

Readers will find lots of insightful commentary and clarification in the stories of Carolyn, Gwen, and their patients.

The book’s chapters follows the 8 keys, giving readers focused detail on each crucial aspect of recovery. Each chapter delineates a specific principle and then provides opportunity for the reader to put it into practice. The authors include throughout each chapter various “writing assignments” designed to give the reader time to do some self-reflection, honest disclosure, or specific strategizing. The writing assignments are incredibly thoughtful and provide the sufferer some much-needed processing of their own experience, as well as giving counselors more insight into the specifics of this individual and their struggle. Biblical Counselors can adapt and adopt many of these assignments.

In addition to providing Biblical counselors with some practical resources, there are many ways in which the book parallels a Biblical counseling approach. For example, the authors rightly recognize that eating disorders are not about food, at least not primarily. The recognize that the development of an eating disorder has to do with more core issues, deeper heart desires. They don’t, obviously, use the same language a Biblical counselor would use to communicate these ideas, and that means we will have to fill in some gaps, but they do recognize a deeper foundational root to the problem. They also recognize the significance of renewing the mind, taking thoughts captive, and fighting to believe the truth – all common principles governing a Biblical counseling approach to treatment of an ED. They are careful not to buy into a comprehensive genetic model – which says you develop an eating disorder primarily because of your biological makeup. They understand the significance of both environmental influence and personal responsibility. In addition the authors are incredibly compassionate and model well a Galatians 6 approach to confronting and bearing burdens. No doubt their own experience lends itself well to their sensitivity and patience in writing to those who suffer. There’s much, then, that Biblical counselors can learn and affirm in 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder.

The book leaves something to be desired, however, in the realm of ultimate motivations. No doubt one of the primary reasons that people struggle to change is a lack of powerful motivation. We often want to break free from addictive habits, but the incentives we select are usually not strong enough to entice us when change proves harder than we thought. Costing and Grabb are conscious of that, and they often write to warn readers not to give up. They use their own recovery as a means of encouraging others to believe it is possible. No doubt many will find comfort and strength in such encouragements, but there is a more compelling motivation from which Biblical counselors can draw: the gospel of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Combined with the practical exercise which these authors develop, Biblical counselors can provide effective care and correction for those struggling with an eating disorder. The alternative is not always inspiring. So, for example, on one occasion the authors attempt to help readers normalize their exercise habits. As the seek to correct obsessive and addictive exercising they play right into faulty motivations. They write:

You will need to learn that true willpower and self-discipline means cutting back on, or cutting out, exercise! Think about it, what is harder for you, to exercise or take a day of rest? (176)

Their intent is good, but in an effort to motivate healthier exercise habits they simply appeal to the prideful self-discipline that drives it in the first place. An alternative motivation will look to the stewardship of the body that God has created, the limitations of human beings under God, the humility required of created beings, and the freedom of God’s sacrificial love for us. Biblical counseling offers some better, deeper, and more ultimately helpful motivations for change. The authors do conclude with an attempt at a deeper motivation. The eight key refers to finding deeper spiritual significance and meaning, but they approach this through the lens of Eastern mysticism and mindfulness exercises. Biblical counselors will need little instruction on the shallowness and vanity of such theology. Christianity offers something far more substantial.

Overall 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder is a fantastic resource. It’s ability to provide practical strategies for the cultivation of new habits is tremendous. Biblical counselors can learn a great deal from reading this work and implementing its practical tools. Combining these exercise with a Biblical perspective on change will give counselors a more robust approach to the compassionate care of those who suffer from an eating disorder.

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