Tea and sympathy? Perhaps a few cookies to go with? The Bible is clear that God gave us food to nourish us both physically and emotionally – the two are linked and food is not just given for strength alone but also to give us pleasure: “…moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). But what about emotional eating?
The problem with food giving us pleasure or filling an emotional need rather than just purely a physical one is that, like any other idol, we can look to it to give us something that we should be seeking from God instead. Our emotional eating habits can appear to be under our control, but unfortunately, when idolatry is at play, we end up being enslaved by the very things we are trying to manipulate for our benefit.
Emotional eating falls into this category and ranges widely in severity and motivation. What is common to all emotional eaters is the fact that it has a stronghold over their relationship with food and impacts on their day-to-day life. More than that, it is a symptom of a heart problem that needs to be addressed in order to grow in their Christian’s walk.
Issues Addressed in Counseling for Emotional Eating
If you are struggling with uncontrolled emotional eating, a trained, certified Biblical counselor can provide valuable input in guiding you through the process. These are some of the issues they will typically look to address and work on:
1. Move from a victim to an “I’m responsible” mindset
Even if your emotional eating has moved into the realm of a recognized disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, it’s important to move from a victim mentality to a mindset that understands that the way you eat is something you can control.
Saying “I have anorexia” in the same way one would label a medical condition (for example, “I have diabetes”) is less accurate than saying “I practice anorexic behaviors.” The Bible indicates that our eating practices are a matter of choice and habit, sin, and righteousness: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust” (James 1:14)
While it may be hard to grasp the fact that this is something which is under our control, this truth actually brings hope. If it is within our realm of control, by God’s grace it is something we can change.
2. See that this behavior is sin in God’s eyes
Again, it may be difficult to acknowledge that eating to fulfill an emotional need is sinful in God’s eyes. It can be easy to dismiss the sin, especially if it is seemingly harmless. “So what if I ate a slab of chocolate after a hard day? It’s not hurting anyone.”
If we take our relationship with God seriously, however, and want to be released from the tyranny of emotional eating, it’s important to see that our actions are directly related to our fallen human nature.
As we ask ourselves again and again why we chose to binge, even when we know the disappointment and discouragement which follows, we need to come back to our starting point in the garden of Eden. We must recognize that humanity decided to turn to things other than God to fill the void inside.
Turning to God in repentance and confessing our sins enables us to receive the grace of full forgiveness available through Christ, no matter how harmful our eating practices have been.
3. Understand Christ’s Lordship over your body
An eating disorder that is characterized by eating to suppress, soothe, or emotionally gratify oneself in some way is enslavement – we become dominated by thoughts and actions that torment and overpower. Idolatry can only ever be rooted out by replacing the worship of the created thing for the Creator.
A Biblical counselor will work with a Christian who is struggling with an eating disorder to exchange the lordship of food for the lordship of Christ, as we should serve one Master, not two. As 1 Corinthians 6:12 states, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.”
The grounds for us submitting our bodies and how we treat them to God lies in the fact that He created our physical bodies and gave them to us, and so we need to be good stewards over this responsibility. Furthermore, He has redeemed us through Christ’s death on the cross and joined us to Him, and we are to honor Him in our bodies (“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” – 1 Corinthians 6:15a).
4. Eat for God’s glory
“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). One of the main problems with habitual overeating is that is self-focused, rather than being focused on God’s glory and being more like Christ.
When we run to food instead of God, we are showing that we do not love or trust Him as fully as we should; and that we believe that we have a quicker or better solution to the unrest in our soul. As we grow in spiritual maturity, we trust God more, and that affects our motivations and desires.
We will be able to see that simply changing our habits may not be glorifying to God; if we go on a fad diet and no longer turn to food for emotional comfort, we just may be turning our preoccupation into an equally self-focused preoccupation with appearance. Truly eating for God’s glory will enable us to have freedom and self-control, and a healthy relationship with food.
5. Understand the lies you’ve believed
What are the lies you’ve believed that lead to an eating disorder such as uncontrolled emotional eating? Is it that we believe that consuming an excessive amount of food will make us happy and bring us the satisfaction we’re looking for?
Perhaps initially, but most emotional eaters will testify to this lie being short-lived and quickly revealed for its deception. What is the lie behind the lie? A Biblical counselor will be able to help to expose these – which might be anything from not understanding God as our source of comfort to a belief that throwing away all restraint in the face of a small failure is an acceptable response.
6. Expose and correct motives
Linked to understanding the lies we believe that are linked to emotional eating comes an honest review of our motives. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, a counselor will help to uncover what you are trying to obtain through these destructive habits.
Are they being used as a weapon to punish oneself or others (“I deserve to be overweight and a failure in my attempts to exhibit self-control”)? Are they an act of worship – bowing down to the idol of pleasure, comfort, attention, or approval? Is it about greed – worshipping the pleasurable sensations of eating and trying to recreate this experience through repeated consumption?
We are complex beings, and our motives can be varied. The important part is understanding and acknowledging what is going on at the heart level so that we can move away from sinful attitudes towards growth and contentment in Christ.
7. Learn to eat with thankfulness
Food is a gift from God given for nourishment and pleasure and therefore the correct posture for how we receive this gift is in thankfulness. It’s difficult to truly eat with thankfulness when we are devouring food without even tasting it to stuff an emotional hole.
It’s also hard to be thankful when we are feeling guilty about our eating habits, and so Biblical counseling will work through these attitudes with a counselee to move them to the point of replacing attitudes and in turn transforming actions.
8. Learn biblical self-control
Self-control is listed in the Bible as one of the fruits of the Spirit – a sign that Christ is in us. As we grow in Christ, we can ask Him to help us to have the discipline to choose to die to the cravings of our flesh and to live in Him, even though letting our desires lead our decisions may feel good at the time.
Christians have access to incredible power through the Holy Spirit; a power that can deliver true freedom from emotional eating and towards being able to honor healthy boundaries. This is an amazing witness to unbelievers who may be struggling with similar issues, and an encouragement to us in Christ to keep persevering through our battles.
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