we’ve been thinking a bit about binge eating. You might not term it an eating disorder as such, much less admit it to others – but there’s a problem. There’s something in there – in you – that won’t be silenced. And you don’t have a name for it. But it’s big and dark and most of all, it’s Hungry. Starving. No amount of cookie dough will satisfy it completely. But it quietens the growls, at least for a bit.
You know it’s not ‘healthy’. But here’s the problem. That food is your lifeboat. It’s metaphorical and literal padding, cushioning you from the world. From people and their needs and their eyes and their desires. Because they all want something from you and you’re doing your best, you’re keeping it together and giving out and giving out. But when the door closes and you’re by yourself in front of the fridge, that’s different. At last you can relax. That’s your time. That’s when you get fed.
Perhaps there’s a ritual. A laying out of the foods, an order of consumption, a place where you can eat. Where it’s safe. And you can feel the excitement, the guilty anticipation. And it may take hours until you’re done, until you know you can stop.
Or maybe you can’t wait that long. You’re in the car, clawing at the shopping bags, ripping open the wrappers, gulping and foraging in a frenzy of feeding.
Wait a minute, surely that’s a bit extreme. Yes, you overindulge, especially when you get stressed. Who doesn’t? Most of the time though, you’ve got it under control. Nothing a bit of will-power can’t fix. And yet…
you don’t feel right. Not all of the time necessarily. But sometimes – like when you’re on your own. In the wee hours of the morning. Travelling home from work. Those unbidden thoughts keep returning. Is this it? Why do I feel so bad? What’s wrong with me?
Maybe life isn’t what you’d planned. Or bits of it are – but they don’t feel like they’re meant to. The job, the relationship, the family. There’s a panic there,a lack of stillness. There are feelings, memories, hopes, disappointments, fears. You don’t know what to do with them. In fact, you’re not even sure what they are. So you keep eating and dieting or shopping and saving or working and burning out and waiting…for the answer. For the thing that’s missing, the next goal, the dress size, the new carpet, the promotion. But whatever you do, it’s always just out of reach. And you can’t cover the shame, you can’t stifle the fear and most of all, you can’t look within for the solution. Because within is where the problems start.
It can feel like the issue is food. That’s what’s stuffing up your life, making you feel out of control and guilty and sad. But what if the problem is not about what you’re putting in or even what you’re throwing up?
Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 6, when he says that life is more than food. As believers, we are not enslaved to what we eat or drink or wear. But our world is and we need reminding that we are different. In Christ we’re dressed like royalty, but so often we feel like hobos. All too quickly we can forget our liberation and return to those open shackles.
We see this in Matthew 15, when some religious people tried to entrap Jesus by starting a debate about whether or not it was necessary for the disciples to wash their hands before eating. Now don’t get me wrong. There are some good and practical reasons why you might want to wash up before you eat. But is it a moral requirement? A necessity? No! Yet even today we make rules or create rituals where none are needed – especially around food. In doing so we make food into something that’s imbued with special significance and even power. We look to it to provide us with identity and safety and security and comfort. We become trapped in the very behaviours that seem to promise safety and release. And then we turn deeper inwards to try to escape.
But Jesus blows these behaviours out of the water. He exposes the real issue – and it’s not about what we eat or how we eat it.
What goes into someone’s mouth does not make them unclean, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what makes them unclean…Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these make them unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a person unclean; but eating with unwashed hands does not make them unclean.
Adam and Eve didn’t sin in the Garden because they ate the wrong food. Their actions revealed their hearts – hearts that refused to trust the Lord, that denied His goodness and sought to be like Him and to rule themselves. What is the result? As sin enters the world, they are separated from the Lord. Their nakedness becomes exposure. They feel shame and want to hide and make coverings for themselves. With fig leaves! How primitive, eh? It’d be like me turning to a tub of ice-cream to help me feel better. Ridiculous..
It’s not just that the fig leaf is slightly inadequate. It shows that we have no comprehension of the depths of our problems. Adam and Eve desperately tried to fix the problem themselves – just as I want to deal with my issues, in my way. When I’m binge-eating, I’m not just comforting, but also harming myself. And that’s before I try to make atonement, by purging or resolving to cut down or whatever. But my efforts to change myself are as ridiculous and offensive as those leaves. To get to the heart of the issue, we have to address the issue of the heart. It’s my heart that’s saying I can fix it, I can make life work on my terms, I can make my own mistakes and I can pay for them. But as with Adam and Eve, if my shame and guilt is to be dealt with, then I have to accept the coverings of another. An innocent, who dies in my place and takes the punishment I cannot bear. The garments of the Lord Jesus Christ, who dies for us.
Food and weight won’t cover me and it won’t shield me from the demands of life. Nor will it give me a sense of control – because my life is not in my hands. Life can be very frightening, demanding. It can feel like we’re always giving out but that we never get back. That it is wrong to have needs, that our hungers and appetites are too big to be met. But we have been created to be dependent, created to be hungry. We have been made with a divine hunger that nothing else can satisfy. There’s a reason why you’re never full. But if we think our longings are too big, then perhaps we need to look again to the Lord whose grace and love is the epitome of glorious excess – boundless, endless and overflowing. What joy to be dependent on this Lord, the God who wants all of us, not just the bits we think are acceptable.
For those of us with lives dominated by food and fear, Jesus offers hope and freedom. Only in Him do we find a perfect covering for shame, a perfect love to drive out fear and a grander vision to capture our hearts.
We are not at the mercy of our impulses – instead, as believers, we are indwelt by the Spirit who brings freedom from the passions which once enslaved us. If you’re like me, sometimes you’ll know this truth but not feel it. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. Or that you’re rubbish or unsaved or that the Lord doesn’t care. It takes time to grow into who we are – and yes, that won’t happen in full until we meet Him. But there is hope in this life as well as the one to come. And it’s much bigger than telling ourselves to try harder.