Relapses, even in Eating Disorders, are Part of the (Christian) Life

The other night it dawned on me that there is a subject I have not written much about in regards to overcoming anorexia or bulimia. Because my book, "Redeemed from the Pit" is not an autobiography (although I do include my testimony), relapse into bingeing and purging while on the road to transformation is not a subject I developed too deeply, because I assumed that the reader would understand that the principles of repentance apply whether it is the first or 1,000th time you bring your sin before God.

However, I have been thinking about the dynamic of relapse in the larger picture of the Christian life (the sin-repent-accept forgiveness-sin again pattern). I realized the propensity for a repenting bulimic to fall back into her old snare of turning to food is very real, at least for the first few months. The process of transformation is a cooperative effort between God's grace and our responsibility, and we often stumble and fall along the way.

The other night, I was chatting with a young friend who had a great few months of new found joy in the Lord, but lately has fallen back into the bulimia. What I've sensed from her (although I'd not want to put words in her mouth) is that her struggle with food is a near-hopeless one. She perhaps feels, at least for the time being, that it's hopeless. Bulimia wins.

Well, a situation is never hopeless to him who believes; and there is no believer outside the grace of God. Victory is possible; but let's leave that aside for the moment. I have written so much for so long about the reality of total, permanent victory over eating disorders that one might be forgiven for thinking my own transformation (recovery, if you prefer) was instantaneous or somehow supernatural. True, biblical change is always supernatural in the sense that God's Word is living and active, and the Word and the Spirit effect change in a believer; but there was nothing mystical, magical, immediate or fail-proof about it.

As I explained to this young lady, when I initially repented of the bulimia and was prayed over, I went about 6 days without falling into a binge episode again. I quickly re-grouped and continued to do well (prior to that, I had been bingeing and purging every day for 17 years). I did, however, completely relapse into the bulimia about 2-21/2 months after my initial decision to walk away from it. In February 2004, I vaguely remember eating the pepperoni pizza at my daughter's 7th birthday party....and a full-scale binge resulted. And then another. The details are fuzzy, but that month I nearly lost all I had worked for.

However, as February became March, I reminded myself: "Look, if God was with me then, He's with me now. If, in His strength, I could resist the "urge to purge" for 6, 8 days at a time, why can't I do that again?" I repented, and rather than give in to a downward spiral of self-pity, I got back up and continued where I had left off. Each time you resist temptation instead of giving in to the sin, you are stronger against the next "attack". That's true of bulimia and it's true of sin in general. Standing firm against the "lusts of the flesh" strengthens your inner man. You truly are in a spiritual battle.

The reasons WHY we may relapse after we choose to let God change our thinking and behavior may be many, but focusing on the reasons for our failure really isn't important....it's more important to focus on the SOLUTION. The way we respond when we fail and relapse is extremely important. The "whys" don't matter nearly so much as the "what next?" Although we can't assume everyone who relapses is sinning high-handedly (being apathetic to the fact she is in sin; not really caring anymore) sometimes, if we honestly examine ourselves, we have become indifferent to the seriousness of our sin. It's not all that unusual for someone to repent of her addiction when her life has become unmanageable, and as soon as she feels more "in control" to re-adopt her anorexic or bulimic behavior. This is remorse, and not true repentance. Does this describe your heart condition? Sometimes, you might not even want to give up your eating disorder all that much, even though you understand intellectually how dangerous and ungodly it is.

I wrote:

If you don’t want to, you don’t want to. But when I was struggling with this [double-mindedness], I realized that by willfully continuing on in it, I was essentially saying to Jesus, “Thanks very much for dying for me; that scourging must have been a real bitch...but I think I’ll just do what I want and keep sinning. I don’t want to think about what my sin cost You.”
Sometimes, we resist conviction because we are afraid it will hurt too much. Conviction is the "constructive criticism" the Holy Spirit uses to call us back into fellowship with Jesus. It's a merciful, necessary first step to repentance - which is the door to freedom.

Other times, we truly are broken over our sin and don't understand why we've dived head-long back into it. But as we contemplate our misery, we stay away from the Cross because of our shame. As CCEF counselor Winston Smith wrote, "We don't want anyone - especially Jesus - to touch our guilt". (See Smith's excellent, edifying, 2-part series on shame "Do You Want to Say No to Jesus' Touch?" and "Pointing the Shamed to Christ - Feet First").

While we know His seeing, touching, and cleansing our stain is the only way we can be free - forgiven, and walking in the full knowledge of how loved we are - shame before His holiness and "do it yourself" pride keep us stuck in the pit of relapse longer than necessary. Trying to "fix" ourselves without throwing ourselves on His mercy is legalism, and is bound to fail and lead to despair. The bottom line to a relapse: GET UP. Go back to the Throne of Grace, the same source of mercy you found when you first set out on this walk. Christ's mercies are new every morning, and He has promised never, ever to turn away the contrite heart that seeks Him.

Even seven times in the same day.

When I get discouraged over repeated sin patterns in my life, I think back to the time I "fell off the wagon" as a repentant, but still weak, bulimic back in early 2004. If I had given up, would I still be alive today? Even more, I turn to the biblical examples of men and women who loved God, but messed up, and were forgiven. Guess what? After they were forgiven, they messed up again. And again. The Apostles, in case you hadn't noticed, were not exactly perfect. My favorite Apostolic homeboy, Simon Peter, seemed to have learned his lesson in John 21 (when Jesus reinstated him after his painful denial). End of story, right? Wrong! In Galatians 2, we learn that Paul much later had to correct Peter for his hypocrisy. Even after spending three years with the Lord, these saints didn't always act like it - which is why their stories, warts and all, remain for our edification.

The Reformers wrote of the Christian life being one of continual repentance and renewal. This is true in both "respectable" sins (of course, we know there aren't any, really) and major failings, like relapses. Just because you have fallen into a relapse doesn't mean it's the end, or you'll never be free of bulimia, or that God's done with you yet. He has great plans for you, but you cannot fulfill them with your head over a toilet. If you do not feel repentant but rather are numb, apathetic, or even rebellious, admit that to God. He already knows anyway. It is often the case, when we relapse into addiction, that we can only pray a "help me want to want to" prayer, and this is an honest cry that God will answer. His love for you is intense, gentle, and burdened for your well-being.

Do not put it off another day; run to Him!


  1. Here is an important resource for parents going through this with their children - Give Food A Chance by Dr. Julie O'Toole. Dr. O'Toole founded the Kartini Clinic in Portland OR, a treatment facility that specializes in treating teens and children with ED

  2. Wow, God totally led me to this post! Thank you for posting this! I got out of treatment 3 weeks ago and I ended up binging today. I began questioning whether I would ever really be free from this, but this post really helped me see that it is completely normal to struggle and to stumble. It is not about the fall, though, but about getting back up and running back into Christ's arms! Again thank you so so so much for this post! It has really comforted me :)

    God Bless!

  3. Hi Chelsi,

    Glad to hear it! I love how God does that sometimes - uses someone else's writing or a message to give you exactly what you need, or speak to a particular doubt you're having. In fact, He used the Winston Smith articles I linked to above in this post to teach me about the interplay between shame and pride when I want to avoid Him.....and I immediately thought of the connection for someone struggling with bulimia.

    Oftentimes, something will sem to "leap" out of the pages of Scripture when we're really seeking Him, too. Stay close to Christ and do not give up; allow Him to transform you by the renewing of your mind. It takes time, but with steadfast trust and repentance, you can be 100% free of this eating disorder. Then, you will be prepared to help others.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. Excellent, encouraging, hopeful, challenging and much needed!

  5. Thank you for sharing and posting such an amazing message to those that are struggling like me. I do not even feel that I would categorize myself as in the recovering stages of my eating disorder, but I long to go 6 days without binging. I pray that I can have the strength to turn to God for repentance and recovery.

  6. I needed this today. I've been bulemic for...well, since I was 14 and I am 29. In the middle of that, I turned toward anorexia and finally,at 23, I gave my life to the Lord. I love Him so much it hurts, and I hurt him every time I relapse. I know that I want to serve Him, and I waste so much time agonizing over food. I keep telling him I need help, but I think I realized I'm not very "active" in my repentance and recovery. I just beg him in tears, on my knees, to take it away. I know that Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest for me...I'm home all day with little to do, and boredom is the key to temptation. Anyhow, I just wanted to thank you. Your post brought me back to reality...to truly repent in the "return" and "turn" sense, go in the other direction, and become more active in my own recovery...which means, for me, finding ways to guard myself from being bored, which leads to self focus and saddness about my lack of relationships and lonliness. But, I wont meet anyone sitting here terrified that I will mess up and purge. Thank you...Thank you so much.

  7. Hi Anon,

    Thanks for your comment -- I WELL remember that struggle! Being home alone is THE hardest. Even if you don't have any "binge food" in the house, the disorder drives you to go out and obtain some. If you want to e-mail me and let me know what city you're in, I can try and find a biblical counselor to help walk through this hard time with you. Do NOT give up hope. I would also be happy to give you my Skype ID and would make myself available to talk to when I can.

  8. I have never posted on the internet before, but I have to say this was amazing to find this site. I have been struggling with anorexia and bulemic since I was 13 I am now 42! Wow, that's tough to write but true. I did the Daniel fast and went about 3 weeks not purging. I am now off and struggling again. I go about 7-9 days and then slip up. I get so depressed and hate myself for believing the lies of the enemy. I am also very lonely and need to resist the devil during the day when my husband and kids are gone. I have so much to say...can you tell I don't have much support in this area. It is a battle but I know God wants us to have victory more than we want it. Thanks again for this site!

  9. i need help and prayer i have relapsed and it is so discouraging!


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