On Fasting and Eating Disorders

This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. 

What I’m interested in seeing you do is:  Sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and your lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once.  Isaiah 58:6-8,  The Message

At first glance, one might not consider segments of the liturgical calendar triggering for folks recovering from eating disorders–at first glance.  What does following church traditions have to do with a person’s brain chemistry, dysfunctional behaviors, and relationship with her body?

Well, the answer is pretty simple.  The world of a person in recovery can crumble with one tiny word: fasting.

In church tradition, the study of spiritual disciplines, and especially with examination of the life of Christ, we learn that fasting is a pivotal, life-giving activity.

In eating disorder circles, however, fasting takes on it’s own vicious, life-sucking perversion. The treatment community tends to use the word “restriction” to describe fasting in the context of an Eating Disorder.

Interestingly enough, Eating Disorder Awareness week annually tends to find itself nestled somewhere inside the forty days of Lent.   I imagine that a large segment of the Jesus-loving eating disorder community struggles a great deal with times of fasting in the liturgical calendar.  For the brain of someone who has dealt with any form of eating disorder, whether it be Bulimia, Anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, or others, skipping a meal or reducing calories can flip a switch that often cannot be turned off without extreme intervention.   In many cases, asking a recovering eating disordered individual to fast for a single meal would be like inviting a recovering alcoholic to drink a beer:  It is absolutely disastrous.  Brain chemistry-wise, with the spike of hunger, the high of starvation, and the empty feeling that comes with fasting,  I feel a hit of dopamine similar to someone who engages in an addictive substance.  As a result, it sets the demolition-ball of self-destructive thought patterns and behavior rolling in my mind and body.

For me, apart from acute miraculous intervention and clear direction from God, abstaining from food will never be an option as a form of spiritual fasting.

We know that when Jesus was led by the Spirit to the wilderness, He fasted from food for forty days during his time of temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2).  Old Testament leaders fasted and prayed.  Moses spent forty days fasting and praying, waiting on God (Exodus 34:28). David humbled himself through fasting and prayer on countless occasions (Psalm 35:13-14).  Daniel fasted and prayed (Daniel 10:3). The prophets fasted and prayed. Joel called Israel to fast and pray and mourn in order for God to return (Joel 2:12). Nehemiah fasted and prayed for days leading up to his vision from God (Nehemiah 1:4). Many individuals fasted from food, and they encountered God in miraculous and life-changing ways.

Many saints who have gone before us fasted from food.  Church leaders and powerful Christ-followers fast from food.  Jesus, when instructing believers on how to fast, does not say “if you fast,” but He says “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16).  God pretty much mandates fasting in the life of a believer.  Lent just provides a more concentrated opportunity, formatted somewhat after Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.

So far,  I probably sound pretty self-contradictory.

God mandates fasting, but I’m not allowed to fast as a recovering anorexic?  How can we make sense of this conundrum?  How do I protect my hard-won, seven-long-hard-years-worth of eating disorder recovery and foster deep spiritual growth in my life?  It is possible.  I am completely convinced that it is well within God’s will that I maintain and protect my eating disorder recovery, and I am also a strong supporter of the spiritual discipline of fasting.

In light of this seemingly paradoxical situation, lets look again at the words of the prophet Isaiah from chapter 58: This is the kind of fast day I’m after:  to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is:  Sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and your lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once.  

Fasting is about laying aside the needs of self.  It is about stepping out of the routine and stripping ourselves of something that we rely on regularly in order to become more aware of our need for God.  Dallas Willard says that for spiritual growth, it is important to engage in three abstinence disciplines:  Fasting, Solitude, and Silence (Willard, Renovare, 2016). True fasting is this according to Willard:

Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a life substance, that is not food (“bread”) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4:32, 34). Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting – feasting on Him and doing His will.

Good news! Fasting does not have to be about abstaining from food.  Willard also uses this as the definition of fasting: Fasting is the voluntary abstention from an otherwise normal function—most often eating—for the sake of intense spiritual activity (Renovare, 2016).  We can chose to abstain from a different normal function in our lives other than food in order to clear out time to feast on God’s word.

Fasting is about clearing out space to feast on God.  That’s it.  I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of normal everyday functions that I can voluntarily abstain from that do not involve food.  Food is clearly the obvious route, and for many, it makes the most sense.  But some of us have to get creative about fasting.  Lucky me, I am a pretty creative person!

Isaiah makes it clear that fasting is not primarily about the process, but it is proven by its end-result.  It is about the relationship between Father God and Child that overflows out of the deepened trust, dependence, and desperation.  It is about enriched character that erupts out of our practice of using God’s Word as our life-sustenance and soul-nourishment.

The true fruit of fasting is this:

Breaking the chains of injustice;

Overcoming and exposing exploitation with kindness and compassion;

Freeing the oppressed;

Forgiving those who have wronged us.

Does our fasting make us more like Jesus?  Then it is serving it’s purpose.  Is it bolstering us with pride, driving us back into our addictions and brokenness, or splintering the image of Christ displayed in our character?  If it is causing destruction, then we need to evaluate our methods and our hearts.

Fasting is not and never should be about weight management or fitting in a smaller pant size. If it is, call it a diet.  It is not about self-control.  It is not a New Year’s Resolution or a chance to try out a new fad diet.  It has nothing to do with anything that is dictated by the lusts of the flesh.  Fasting is about dying to self so that the life of Christ may be more fully displayed in us. 

So yes, lets all fast for Lent.  God has called us to engage joyfully in the enriching spiritual discipline of fasting.  All the big dudes in the Bible fasted frequently.  All the cool kids are doing it.  But no,  I am not fasting from food in any shape or fashion.  My eating disorder recovery is too sacred for that.

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6 thoughts on “On Fasting and Eating Disorders

  1. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability here. I agree that God is not about following rules A and B, but about our hearts. We don’t want to become like the Pharisees who criticized Jesus’ disciples for not fasting! It is all about becoming more like Christ and giving glory to God! It may be harder to fast on electronics these days than food!

    1. I certainly don’t want to make any blanket statements about how fasting is supposed to look. It is different for everyone, even individuals recovering from eating disorders. I just know that for me, in my walk with the Lord, I have to really closely guard my tendencies toward perfection and restriction. Thanks for your encouragement!

  2. Such an important topic to shed light on. I too am recovering from disordered eating and have other health issues that prevent me from going without food for long periods, and have not found much understanding for that when I have chosen not to fast with my church.

    1. I don’t think that many people “get it”. It is an important topic, and you bring up another important point: many people have health issues that prevent them from being able to fast. God gets it. I do not believe that God generally asks us to damage our bodies or put ourselves or others in danger for the sake of spiritual piety. I believe that this is where we often cross the line into legalism. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. this is super helpful, thank you so much for sharing

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