This morning I received the following question from a young lady who deeply and passionately loves the Lord Jesus, yet struggles to repent of anorexia. I am often asked this question in one way or another, and so I will post my response to her, in its entirety, below. She writes:
I know this is a really basic question, but once you saw your eating disorder as a sin and repented and died to self so Christ can live in you, how then did you actions change, did it happen all at once or was it still a process over time?
Well, first of all, to really understand what repentance is and how to implement biblical change (of the heart, which affects our actions), we have to realize that AS we confess something as sin (agree with God), concurrently our actions will change. Yes, it's a process in the sense we are NOT perfected overnight (sanctification is progressive), but neither are we honoring God if we sit back, take a passive role in our sanctification, and expect Him to mysteriously change us. There is an interplay between God's sovereign power (the Holy Spirit convicts and encourages the believer towards holiness) and our responsibility (we must actively work against sin in our lives). The two go together.
Let me give you an illustration of how this might look in the life of someone struggling with the sin of drunkenness. This was, in fact, a sin in my own life, which I turned away from at the same time as bulimia. Since alcohol is a more "black and white" issue than food addiction, it might help to clarify the principle.
If a Christian is enslaved to alcohol, the Holy Spirit convicts him that he is in sin. He does this through the Word of God, and impresses that drunkeness is disobedience to Him. The Christian agrees with God, gets on his knees, and begs God to grant him repentance. His sin is forgiven, Christ has paid it in full! Weak though He is, the Christian wants to honor God by his actions, and so he resolves to stop drinking. This is true repentance; he does not try to rationalize his drinking or strike bargains with God: 'I'll drink in moderation; I'll only have one on Friday nights.' He recognizes that he, personally, has become enslaved by this particular "lust of the flesh" and must forsake it.
Now, when he gets up off his knees, what must he do?
The next evening comes. He is tempted to drink. Does he say to himself, "Well, I'm the same man I was last night (true) with the same desire for a whiskey (also true). Since I still have this temptation, I may as well give in to it....clearly, Christ hasn't changed my heart yet. When He does, I'll just "yield" to Him and let Him have His way....but since I'm still weak, I'll just go have a drink. Anyway, I'm 'powerless' over this addiction. I cannot resist, so I'll just 'let go and let God'. When HE wants me to stop drinking, HE'll deliver me supernaturally!"
If this is the believer's understanding of repentance and he gives in to his temptation, goes down to the bar and gets drunk, he's going to wake up even more miserable than the day before. Plus, his faith in God and His power to save and sanctify will be even further eroded -- because He was not walking by the Spirit and determining in his heart to obey Christ's clear command.
What should he have done (besides pray and seek forgiveness)? Well, obviously he must not have any alcohol in the house. Leaving himself a constant temptation will make obedience harder. He, like all believers, "is called to holiness, and created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:10). Secondly, he ought to identify those places and times of temptation to drink excessively, and plan to avoid them. "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you," (James 4:7). As he begins each day, he should "put on the full armor of God so that he can take his stand against the devil's schemes," (Eph. 6:11; emphasis mine). Putting on that spiritual armor starts as he reads the Bible, prays and asks God to renew his mind, but it doesn't stop there. How does he "take a stand against the devil's schemes" (temptation to sin by getting drunk)? By actively resisting it.
In John 14:15 and 14:21, the Lord Jesus Christ affirms that if we truly love Him, our actions will show it. Now, love for God is not defined by actions, (in other words, you could do 'good' things, but not necessarily love the Lord), but if our devotion to God is sincere, that will affect the way we act. If my kids love me, they will obey me. If our Christian repenting of drunkeness truly loves the Lord, he will obey Him - by making those tough lifestyle changes. Besides 'cutting off' the alcohol, it would be wise for him to tell a Christian brother of his struggle and commitment to sobriety ("confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed"; James 5:16). Accountabilty is often an important part of repenting from a life-dominating sin. By extension, seeking biblical counsel from an appropriate counselor or pastor may also be a part, but again, the counselor cannot change the individual. Doing the hard work of biblical change comes out of a pure desire for holiness, and is something that each person individually must walk out.
How, then, do we apply this to eating disorders?
Well, we certainly don't have to whomp up any warm, loving feelings towards God in order to desire to repent. He has graciously granted us conviction, and in His kindness is leading us to repentance (Romans 2:4). The change in heart attitude towards the sin of anorexia or bulimia should, ideally, go hand-in-hand with changes in behavior. This is true repentance, and although a child of God may fall many times, there is going to be an overall tendency of change and more healthful behavior (whether resisting the urge to binge or faithfully eating and digesting meals) as one walks in obedience.
The process might look like this:
1.) Conviction ==> hatred of sin
2.) Prayerful determination to forsake it (end cycle of binge/purge; stop starving one's self) (Phil. 3:19)
3.) Renewal of mind (rejection of idolatry/obsession with food) WHILE re-establishing healthy eating habits (Romans 12:2; 1 Cor. 6:19)
Naturally, one must faithfully stay in the Word (prayerfully read the Bible daily) to truly be transformed and have the mind of Christ; the verses I cited above are only examples and are by no means the final word or "magic verse" that will combat eating disorders!
True, biblical submission entails a very real and active committment to DO the things we know are pleasing to God -- whether it be throw away drug paraphanelia, avoid the bar, eat a nutritious meal, or abstain from a fat and sugar-laden binge. We turn TO Him in the moment of temptation, asking for His supernatural strength and to give us a holy hatred for our sin; but we simultaneously turn FROM the sinful behavior as an act of the will.
When I was still struggling with the temptation of bulimia, not only did I avoid going into Dunkin Donuts or McDonald's; I'd catch myself as soon as the thoughts of planning my next binge entered my mind (2 Cor. 10:5) and reject it. Before eating (remember, eating disorders are harder to overcome than other addictions because we MUST eat to live); I would plan what, realistically, I ought to eat for nourishment and how much. Seeking the Holy Spirit's help, I would then discipline myself to stick to that plan, so that I would not spiral into "binge mode". See? Thoughts, prayer and action all go together. You cannot isolate repentance from obedience.
Many Christians have a skewed view of sanctification, thinking that if they just "yield" or "submit" to Christ, He will automatically change them. Of course, we should be living lives of surrender and constantly be yielded to His will - that is the picture of joyful obedience - but it is by no means a passive process. We must take an active role in our sanctification and practice discipline (1 Cor. 9) if we are to bring about changes that are pleasing to God. See "Godliness Through Discipline" by Jay Adams for a more thorough discussion of what this looks like when the rubber hits the road. Praise God for His Spirit within you, Who "works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13)!
"To repent is not to stay in the pig trough and carry on indulging in sin." -- Pastor Kevin Williams
For an excellent discussion of what biblical repentance is and isn't, listen to Williams' sermon "A Biblical Definition of Repentance".