By Abbie (Smith) Sprunger, Crosswalk.com
Eating struggles began gnawing at me around age twelve. It was the era of fat free, when my mom swore by pretzels and Diet Coke and lusted in misery over her size six reflection.
I began running and kept a detailed journal of all fat grams invading my body. A year later found me significantly underweight, religious in my diet and daily three mile run.
Anorexia had grabbed me by the throat.
High school brought a new load of pressures and striving. Food restriction provided confidence, however, and outsiders seemed to admire my thin frame. My parents saw through this and sent me to a therapist. My gods were determined though, and I would let none come in their way.
College-level tennis meant strength training preached its way into my paradigm. I bulked-up and began controlling my fears by overeating.
Everything had a category, and every day’s scorecard boiled down to caloric and exercise intakes. Food and health were my sacraments, alongside explorations of my newfound faith (introduced freshman year).
On the one hand, I knew I’d become God’s daughter, forgiven and redeemed, yet on the other--I remained just as harsh and unforgiving toward myself. I was neck-deep in layers of disordered eating and body dysmorphia.
True Self, False Self
Publicly I consumed normal, healthy portions, while in seclusion binged on heaps of food, and began throwing it up.
Every passing year I remember the last time, ten years ago now. Hunched over the bathtub, puking up remnants from my pantry and cake leftover from a gathering. Oh and ice cream, probably the hundredth pint I’d bought, convincing myself at the counter, “this time will be different—this time I’ll eat in moderation, just like all the diet experts and websites and magazines say I can.”
But a moderate amount led to another horrifying binge on all the “bad food” in the vicinity of my apartment.
Support groups helped, as did prayer, roommates, and letting go of things like mirrors, and scrolling through celebrity images, but my battle remained.
Being known as an “author,” “seminarian,” or “missionary” only exaggerated the shame. Surely I should be beyond this was an ever-present lie. The majority of my conversations with God related to food and body. His response seemed negligible, as did my healing.
In a truthful, non-judgmental tone, my fourth counselor explained bulimia as a bridge. “You don’t have language for what’s going on in your heart yet, Abbie. Maybe this disease is a gateway to new ways of learning to love yourself and God.”
The idea that my weakness could be a bridge sounded outlandish. It also sounded too wonderful to be true. Could God really take my diseased and dead parts and bridge them into something lovely?
Learning to Abide
The Spirit didn’t snap his fingers and heal me right away, but something did snap inside me, catapulting a new leg of my healing.
For one, I started being kind to myself (mostly via learning from Jesus’ kindness toward me), and differentiating between my true self, loved and designed by a thoughtful Maker, and my eating disorder.
I started learning to abide in God’s love, believing He actually meant it when he said, “you are precious in my eyes,” Abbie, “and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4a). Being made in His image meant I was an image-bearer of God’s beauty.
Wow! And there was nothing I could do to make Him love me more, and nothing I could do to make Him love me less. To be beautiful was to begin exploring the mystery and adventure and exquisite, eternal invitation of “being (God’s) me to the full.”
When loading-up my “binge cart” at the grocery store, I would tell it what a bully and liar it was, and how it may not seem the case in this moment, but Jesus would be victorious here.
“His grace is sufficient for me, for His power is made perfect in weakness,” I would preach to myself. “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Understandings of my identity began to shift from, “a sinner who’s saved” to, “a saint who struggles at times with sin.” And that in the words of Gerald May, “To be alive is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace.”
Yes, I was wobbly and unpredictable, but because of the blood of Jesus shed for me, I was also an unfathomably loved saint, forever marked by the power of the resurrection.
Permission to Live
Slowly I started coming out of hiding, learning to call safe friends after I’d messed up, and eventually in the midst of the mess.
I found permission to be more freedom-filled than restrictive. “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God,” C.S. Lewis noted. “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”
When I want to eat pumpkin cheesecake now, I do. Or when I don’t want to exercise, I don’t. And I’m learning to accept that if exercise isn’t acting as an idol for me, a healthy and growing amount of squish and cellulite and wrinkle will bless my frame each passing year.
I try to avoid labels of “bad” and “good” anymore, and simply eat foods that are tasty and make me feel alive. And unlike the years where food and I shared a mostly private table, most meals now enjoy the company of others.
God has walked so benevolently alongside me, and although the work of healing has been long, and slow, and unclear at times, the fruit of its labors have nourished a freedom into my days that I never knew possible.
Given our culture today, I’m positive someone reading this needs help now in their food and body journey. And if not personally, for a daughter or neighbor, niece or friend.
The good news is, though overwhelming and confusing from our standpoint at times, Christ is not overwhelmed by disordered eating and mindsets. Furthermore, He’s the expert on guiding us out!
Call out to him first for help, and ask the Spirit to direct your next steps today--maybe finding a local counselor, empathetic listener, or ED group.
I am praying for you, sister (or possibly brother), and do not say those words, lightly. I know how lonely this road can be, and more than anything, want you to remember this hour that you are not alone!
This very minute, in fact, you are surrounded by the Trinity, Himself, plus a host of angels hovering over you with delight. Apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15), friends, but with Him, I believe He can do anything.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Tero Vesalainen
Abbie (Smith) Sprunger is the author of newly released: What Is Beautiful? (Parent Cue, 2020) and resides with her husband and three children as the caretakers of Wesley Gardens Retreat in Savannah, GA.