For those who suffer from an eating disorder food is a terror. It is an obsessive thought that won’t go away – the average person struggling with an eating disorder thinks about food 70% of the day. Food is also a tormentor, it haunts and incites fear – there is a fear of losing control around food, or simply the fear that food will mean getting fat. Food, of course, is essential to existence and so when something essential becomes a monster in our lives and minds then life itself can feel overwhelming. Salvation at the margins means that Jesus invites those with an eating disorder to the perfect feast.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous stories. He describes in it, the son who takes his inheritance early and runs off to recklessly spend it on a self-indulgent lifestyle. When the money is all gone he finds himself fighting pigs for scraps of food. It is at that point that he comes to his senses. Hunger and food play a significant part in the young man’s story. In the words of Tim Chester, “food…represents the depths of his lostness” (A Meal with Jesus, 31). The prodigal son’s life and world are such a mess and food represents just how bad it has gotten. He feels despair, hopelessness, and isolation.
For those with an eating disorder it is not hard to imagine the emotional strain he feels. Food is essential, common even, and it is present in our every day interactions. You can think about the place food holds in our society. It is advertised everywhere. It is used as social lubricant at numerous functions and hang-outs. It is necessary fuel for our bodies, and celebrated pleasure for our souls. Its ubiquity, however, becomes terrorizing to those who are controlled by it. For those who have an eating disorder, of whatever kind, it represents the depth of their sorrow and struggle. It tends to create anxiety, desperation, and isolation. Those who share their story will often describe how anxious they get when they sense their hunger building. They will describe the hopelessness they feel when they do eat. They will describe the breakdown of relationships that occur as they feel ashamed to eat in front of others. For them food and hunger are indicators of just how broken their world feels. I can’t help but think of the anorexics I’ve counsel when I read the prodigal saying, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger” (v. 17). Perishing with hunger is their reality, even if they don’t always see it.
Food and hunger are not simply, however, the height of despair and brokenness in this parable. As Chester again says, “food represented the height of the younger son’s recovery.” It is hunger that brings him to his senses. It is hunger that stirs him to look towards the abundance of his father. In other words, God can use our hunger to bring us to Himself. Hunger, after all, is about more than just needing food, it’s about dependence. Hunger is the reminder that we must depend on God, we are not completely independent and autonomous. For some individuals with an eating disorder this is precisely the point that challenges them. For eating disorders may often develop out of a desire to control our world. When life feels uncontrollable, when we feel vulnerable and at the mercy of others and circumstances, then we might display our willpower through the denial of hunger, the control of our appetite, the control of our weight. “Anorexia,” says Chester, “is for some, a way to exercise self-sovereignty instead of trusting the sovereignty of God” (104). But Jesus offers a better way to live, he offers a truly perfect feast.
Jesus invites those with an eating disorder to come to a perfect meal. He wants to utilize their hunger to draw them to Himself. Hunger, that point of terror and fear for so many, can become the starting place of recovery and redemption. Jesus says:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)
There is a Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19) that gives life to all who partake. It grants joy and fellowship with God Himself. There is a feast that no one has to fear! There are many things that someone struggling with an eating disorder will need to overcome their battle (not least of which is seek professional assistance), but the best starting place is Jesus’ dinner invitation.
God would use hunger to lead those at the margins to come “take and eat” (Matt. 26:26). Individuals struggling with an eating disorder are often lonely and isolated. Many struggle in silence and solitude, fearful to expose themselves and their habits to others – statistically speaking only 1 in ten sufferers will seek help. Jesus, however, will gladly take salvation to the margins. For those who are terrorized by food, He says that there is grace at His table. Hunger may be the representation of your despair right now, but it can also be the starting place of your recovery.