Understanding the Motives of an Eating Disorder

I didn’t know a single thing about an eating disorder when my girlfriend (who is now my wife) wrote me a letter stating that she thought she might have one. Over the next ten years, Krista struggled with destructive eating habits. In those early days, neither of us really understood what was happening and our approach to the problem was often very simplistic. We needed to better educate ourselves on what an eating disorder was, and that meant looking deeper than the behavior. Specifically, overcoming an eating disorder means understanding the sin and the suffering that are involved in it.

An eating disorder is a pattern of destructive eating habits which significantly impair physical health and psychosocial functioning. There are three common types of eating disorders, though there are a host of variations on these: anorexia (a form of self-starvation), bulimia (a cycle of binging and purging), and binge eating (a compulsive consumption of massive amounts of calories).

The motives are as diverse as the individuals who engage in the behaviors, but there are several common ones we can identify. One of the more dominant motives is the desire for control, which can manifest in an effort to counterbalance feelings of insecurity in other areas of life. Someone may control their food intake or weight because it’s one area where they feel like they can have that level of power. Other motives include self-medication, appearance, pride, and even self-punishment. In each case, a sufferer is looking to their destructive habits to provide something for them, to which God offers a better alternative. One of Krista’s chief motives was a desire for control.

Krista’s Story

My (Krista) first semester of college I gained the typical extra pounds, so I went on diet and started exercising. But after a car accident forced me to look death in the face, I realized that I did not have control over my life. Instead of looking to God and being amazed at his sovereignty and control for allowing me to live, I tried to gain my own control by being even more strict with my plan to lose weight. I started skipping meals and exercising excessively. It continued just to feel like a diet until one evening when I came back to my dorm and ate all the food I had in my room. I immediately felt like I needed to get rid of it and started purging. When the behavior continued, I knew that I was facing something much bigger than I had originally thought. Where once I was in control of my diet and exercise, my diet and exercise started to control me.

Krista’s habits were unsettling to me (David). She was avoiding meals, lying about her behaviors, secretly going to the gym at 2 AM, and abusing laxatives. She would have panic attacks about meals or avoid social outings for fear of having to eat. My idea of helping was to pressure her to eat. After we got married the behaviors continued, and I would threaten to divorce her if she didn’t stop. All my focus was directed towards her external behaviors, but that wasn’t helping.

Krista’s Recovery

Through the help of friends and various biblical counselors I (Krista) began to see that the Bible held numerous truths that could guide me back to the life God intended me to live. Two realizations were important in my growth. The first was that my eating disorder involved sin. I was worshiping control above God. After realizing the ways that I had sinned, the remedy was that I could repent to God. 1 John 1:9 instructs us that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us…and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Because of Christ’s redemptive work on my behalf, I could be forgiven. Christ was and is the answer to my sin.

Then, I was later guided to understand that I had also experienced suffering. I was in a car accident in which I could have died. I suffered because of my circumstances, and then had formulated ideas and actions to deal with that suffering. By the time I sought help, I was also dealing with the suffering that my destructive eating behaviors had caused. Christ was also the answer to my suffering. He died to redeem my suffering so that it could be used for God’s glory and my good. According to James 1:2-4, I could actually consider my trials as joy because if I allowed God to work in them my faith could be strengthened through any difficulty. 

As Krista grew to understand her sinful motives and her suffering experiences, I (David) was able to find better tools to help her. God showed us both the richness of His Word and its relevance for all kinds of troubles. Confession of her sinful behaviors was a huge first step, but the bigger step was taking ownership of inordinate desires which drew her heart away from the Lord. Learning of God’s grace for her suffering also enabled her to let go of her maladaptive coping mechanisms and find true healing.

We often settle for simplistic explanations of problems and therefore simplistic treatments. People, however, are complicated and we are often a mixture of both sin and suffering. In order for Krista to find healing we both needed to understand the complex interplay of her sin and her sorrow, and the ways in which God’s Word speaks to both.

Photo of David and Krista Dunham

David and Krista Dunham

David Dunham, MDiv, is a pastor and biblical counselor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, MI and speaks regularly on issues related to biblical counseling. Krista Dunham has served as a women’s mentor, biblical counselor, and curriculum developer for various women’s and children’s ministries. Together, they are the authors of Table for Two: Biblical Counsel for Eating Disorders.

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