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Biblical Help with Eating Disorders (feat. Manuel Herrera)

Truth in Love 438

How do we biblically counsel those struggling with eating disorders?

Oct 30, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me Manuel Herrera. He’s an ACBC-certified counselor and he’s a part of the Spanish Biblical Counseling Ministry at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He also graduated from medical school in Mexico where he currently holds a license, and in discussion, Manny, with you, you’re working on that license even here in the States. Another interesting fact about you, which I was quite ashamed of myself in this discussion, is that you speak four languages. So your first language is obviously Spanish, your second language is French and Italian and also English. Brother, I’m grateful for you and the learning that the Lord has given to you and your ability to speak and understand different languages. Okay, I want to talk about eating disorders or problems in eating. I want to set this up. First of all, I’m grateful for you to be here and the training that you have and the way that you’ve contributed already to ACBC.

Manuel Herrera: Well, thank you. It’s a privilege to me to be here with you and to be part of ACBC and see what the Lord is doing in this great ministry of the Word in every single country that ACBC is now.

Dale Johnson: I really appreciate that. We want to talk to you today, using some of your medical background, about this issue of eating problems. What is behind an eating disorder or, as we would describe, what attitudes of the heart might reflect disorders in eating?

Manuel Herrera: When we think of eating problems, we generally think of those that lead a person to deprive themselves of food. So we think of anorexia, bulimia, megarexia. The list continues to grow nowadays. However, I would like to also think about the other extremes such as overeating or some other problems that we struggle with in terms of food. My interest in this topic and biblical counseling began not precisely because of my medical practice but because one of the first counseling cases I had was of a person who was struggling with an eating disorder. This led me to think about how sufficient the Scripture is in matters such as this in eating.

Going back to your question, behind an eating disorder hides an unbiblical view of food, an unbiblical view of self and, therefore, an unbiblical view of God. So the most common idolatrous desires of a person struggling with an eating disorder are greed (a person has decided to get more than one needs or deserves) and also controlling (manipulating, expressing displeasure with life circumstances and selfish pursuit of one’s own comfort or pleasure), and finally the standard of self-made acceptable worship. Now let’s think about those whose problem is over-eating and unfortunately, this is the most silent and the most pressing eating disorder in the church, where surely we have all identified ourselves. The Bible defines overeating as a sin: gluttony. Gluttony is similar to other disoriented sins. So the logical stream of gluttony is idolatry, whereby our appetite is our god. All this reflects how serious a person’s spiritual situation can become that leads him to neglect his sound health, in terms of a proper nutrition.

Dale Johnson: I’m so grateful that you’ve brought this topic up, because it’s not talked about very much. When we think about eating disorders, we often think about the binging, the purging and the starving of ourselves and we talk less about the sin of gluttony. Although there’s a heart disposition that drives both of those extremes, one in our culture is just much more socially acceptable when we think of overeating particularly in the church. I’m grateful that you’re pushing those things together helping us to see there’s a critical heart disposition that’s at base, an undisciplined heart in relation to these things and issues that certainly need to be confessed.

Anytime we talk about issues like this, medically related, people always have questions. Because we fully understand that the body is at work here to some degree, although from biblical anthropology, we understand that every issue flows from the heart in the way we interpret and respond and how we understand things and the body is certainly feeling and experiencing those things from our heart attitudes and dispositions. But we always want to know, what are the medical conditions? Is there a medical condition that triggers something like eating disorders?

Manuel Herrera: Well, the short answer is no. I want to be wise and not simply leave you with the short answer. The truth is that there may be some health conditions or certain diseases that cause an increased or decreased appetite. God created our bodies in such a wonderful way that it works through complex mechanisms to maintain its function. For example, every time we need to eat to cover our nutritional requirements, the body produces a protein called ghrelin, which is in charge of awakening our appetite and producing that sensation we all know when we are hungry. On the contrary, when we are satiated from eating, the body produces a substance called leptin which stimulates us to feel satiated. There may be certain diseases or metabolic disorders that interfere with mechanisms like this but the vast majority of cases of people with eating disorders come from healthy people who have started with bad eating habits. That is the reason why they are described in psychiatric books rather than other medical sections like gastro or other specialties.

Dale Johnson: That’s really helpful and one of the things that we would always want to mention is, even as you discuss this, you’re providing information. We never want to say that, you know, Manny’s advice, even as a physician, should trump your own physician and that’s a critical piece. He’s giving information. We would always recommend that you talk to your doctor about these things and use this process of elimination as Manny has mentioned here.

As we talk more about this issue of eating, which I think is more pervasive than we would care to admit on both sides, whether the binging and purging, the starving or the gluttonous. What’s a biblical view of eating and how do we reflect that biblical view of approaching food? Instead of living to eat, we learn to eat to live. Give us a biblical view of thinking about eating because the Lord does say, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Manuel Herrera: I really appreciate this question because Scripture talks a lot about eating. The main Bible passage I have in my mind when I think about eating is 1 Corinthians 10:31, the one that you just mentioned. Paul makes a conclusive exhortation for all believers to eat and to drink for the glory of God. This is very important for us as believers. The Lord Jesus Christ describes himself, in John 6, as the Bread of Life, of which whoever eats of Him shall never hunger. As I mentioned a moment ago, when we struggle with an eating disorder, we generally reflect a heart with an unbiblical understanding of food and therefore, of God. But the God of Hope has the right perspective in His Word. We must understand that food is given to us by God and it is good. 1 Timothy 3 mentioned that God has made the act of eating pleasant and enjoyable and then we can enjoy it, so we can eat a steak, ice cream or other pleasant meals that we enjoy. That is a sign of God’s gracious character in our lives.

Our priorities, in relation to food, must be in the right order. The first thing to keep in mind is that we should eat primarily to strengthen and nourish ourselves, not excessively. And secondly, eating must be subordinate to our service to God. That is, it must be subordinated to our love for others and to our obedience to God. We have examples in the Bible about that. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church to abstain from meat lest they cause their brethren to sin. This reflects that the love of the brothers is above the love of food. We must remember that we ourselves must control our food, not that our food controls us, otherwise, it is idolatry. The believer reflects self-control in this. When appetite is in control, we have a desire-driven life, but when Christ is in control, we have an obedience-oriented life.

Dale Johnson: You’re really helping us to think about this idea of eating as something that’s good. Most people with eating issues think about this as being a negative thing. Even those who struggle with gluttony, as much as they love to eat, they always see it as something that’s negative. I think this is really helpful for us to think through, to reset. This is God’s provision to us, it’s His kindness. It’s a good thing that we’re stewarding and we can do that well with a heart of gratitude and thankfulness to Him, even in the ways in which we approach the table.

As we think further about what is best, what’s the best way to help someone struggling with an eating disorder? A person struggling with issues in eating didn’t get here yesterday. They didn’t come to this place overnight. This is something that’s been developing, typically over a longer period of time, and I think that speaks to issues in their heart building over time, maybe just some idolatry that you mentioned. With that in mind, what’s the best way for us to approach someone to help them with an eating disorder, keeping in mind the medical things that are very close here?

Manuel Herrera: As we always do in biblical counseling, the best way to help is to give hope with the Word of the God of hope. Many people who struggle with eating disorders are discouraged. This leads them to seek refuge in food or fasting. I would say that involvement is very important here, not to lift their mood but to love them and introduce them to Christ, who is the Bread of eternal life. The reality is that there is no eating disorder, at whatever stage, that cannot be addressed biblically. This is important to know. The best help is to biblically instruct the divine perspective on eating.

We need to suggest, as you mentioned, a medical evaluation when necessary. I would say it is always necessary in terms of taking proper care of our bodies. We are called to be people of integrity as Christians. The eternal life that Christ has given us is not only a partial life that is reflected when we attend church or when we are among other believers. It is always. Even our health care should be impacted. A godly character should be reflected in the care we give to our health. An important step is the attention we pay to our diet. We might lead our counselees and people who are struggling with this to have this important perspective, a godly perspective. We know that our priority is the inner man, which is strengthened, day by day, through the Word of God. Let us not forget that He has given us a physical body, with which we can worship Him. Taking care of this physical body is also a form of worship. It’s very important to have that remain in our minds when we’re eating and when we are doing something in our lives relating with food.

Dale Johnson: One of the key things you said at the very end was, “This is an issue of involvement,” and our call to walk alongside our brother or sister who is struggling with these types of things is to engage in their life. We want to walk alongside them. We want to help a brother and a sister bear this particular burden and struggle that they have. That type of involvement is going to be so helpful. So brother, this has been really good discussion that helps to set our minds, within the context of Scripture, in how to think about the issue of eating in a way that is grateful towards the Lord in His provision being stewards of our body in a way that is pleasing to him.

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