August 4, 2015

Amie Patrick on Eating, Body Image, and the Gospel

In April at The Gospel Coalition Conference, I attended Amie Patrick's session entitled "Eating, Body Image, and the Gospel". I went with the intention of learning how to better minister to women in my church who struggle with these issues and left with not only those lessons but nuggets of truth for myself. You'll definitely want to listen to it yourself.
Afterward, I connected with Amie and asked her if she'd answer a few questions on my blog, because I know many people--men and women--fall somewhere on a spectrum of shame and condemnation in their relationship to food and their own bodies. The gospel, as it does in every area of our lives, has something to say about these issues, and Amie draws these gospel truths out so well. She knows what she's talking about, because she's lived it and been set free herself.

Perhaps this is not your struggle. It's not necessarily a huge struggle for me, but I have at times noticed an unhealthy relationship forming toward food and my body. I do tend toward comparison and toward perfectionism, and this, of course, touches areas of body image. Even if it's not your struggle, as Amie says in her talk, we all will at some point have an opportunity to minister to other women who are struggling in this area. I pray that Amie's answers will help and bless you, no matter where you fall on the spectrum. 

Amie is married to Darrin, who is the founding pastor of The Journey Church in St. Louis, and together they have four children. While she is currently working on a book about body image, Amie and Darrin have a book coming out in November entitled, The Dude's Guide to Marriage: Ten Skills Every Husband Must Develop to Love His Wife Well

CH: How did your own issues with eating and body image begin?

AP: I realized that I was a compulsive eater when I gained thirty pounds in the first two months of my freshmen year of college. By God’s grace, I knew that there were likely some deeper issues motivating that compulsion, but I couldn’t pinpoint what they were and felt absolutely powerless to bring my eating under control. I was also profoundly ashamed and embarrassed that I had gained weight. In retrospect, I can clearly see that the roots of these issues had been growing for years, and that some challenging circumstances during that time just brought those issues to the surface in my physical body.  But I felt absolutely blindsided by what seemed like a sudden and all-consuming preoccupation with food, and even more discouraged that I was clueless as to what to do about it.

CH: You say that struggles with body image are opportunities to experience the powerful realities of the gospel. What do you mean?

Absolutely. I believe that God, in His mercy, often brings us to the end of ourselves so that we can see the depth of our need and the riches of His grace and mercy. Our struggles in this life rarely feel like opportunities to know and experience God more deeply and fully; more like awful expectations to try harder and prove that we can figure out how to improve on our own. But I believe that it’s only when we give up trying to rescue ourselves and rest in the reality that we are completely accepted by God because of Jesus’ perfect life and death on our behalf that we can find more freedom and joy than we ever thought possible. God’s acceptance through Christ creates a completely safe place for us admit and confess the depth and ugliness of our sin, and to experience forgiveness and healing (1 John 1:9).

God used food and body image issues in my life to expose how much I depended on myself and my own resources instead of Christ. For a long time, I really only believed that I was “ok” if I was at what I deemed to be an acceptable weight and was consistently making good choices about food. It was only when those things became seemingly impossible that what I really believed became clear. Much of my identity was based on my ability to perform, achieve and overcome all on my own. Although I never would have blatantly stated it this way, my functional reality was that I was justified by my own works, not by what Jesus had done for me. God is so merciful in that He doesn’t let us settle for less than all that is ours in Christ. Trying to prove your worth and earn acceptance is a terrible, hopeless dead-end. I firmly believe that continually growing in our understanding of these truths of the gospel is foundational to any sort of lasting freedom and transformation.

CH: There is so much shame involved with body image and food. As Christians, how do we overcome shame and have a proper relationship to our bodies and food?

AP: I think that we have to start with developing a biblical understanding of the purpose of food and our bodies. Both have functional purposes in this life, and both are meant to be enjoyed as gifts from God. Neither were ever meant to be worshipped or used as measuring sticks to determine our worth and value.

Many of us have deeply rooted patterns of expecting food, or mastery over eating and our bodies, to bring us contentment and fulfillment, which simply isn’t possible. And then we wonder what is wrong with us, why we can’t ever succeed with diets and exercise, or why we can't look good enough. There are a lot of people out there who lose weight, meet their food and fitness goals, and still aren’t happy. The idea that we can perform our way out of shame is a cruel illusion.

Shame is eradicated when we start agreeing with God, that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), In Christ, we can turn away (repent) of our attempts to use food and our bodies for purposes for which they were never intended, as well as unbiblical standards that we’ve allowed to be ingrained our hearts and minds. I had to repent of a long-held belief that being and staying overweight was one of the worst possible failures, which is definitely not a biblical truth. I didn’t even know that I believed that until I gained weight and experienced a disproportionate amount of shame and embarrassment. But that long-held belief was a lie that held me hostage, and it was only when I repented that I was able to let go of the unbiblical, shame-inducing standards related to what I ate and how my body looked.

CH: How can we relate with other women in a way that promotes a biblical perspective on body image?

AP: We have to start with ourselves. It’s crucial to identify what we truly believe about beauty and to examine how those beliefs do or don’t line up with God’s Word. Our culture has an extremely narrow and limited view of beauty, but God is the author and architect of all the beauty in the world, and one way that people reflect God’s image is through our physical appearances. We relate to others with words and actions based on what we believe in our hearts and minds (Luke 6:45). So if we believe things that aren’t biblical about beauty, it’s going to be reflected in the way that we relate to others. Jealousy, comparison, regarding others primarily according to their outward appearance, and attempting to prove our worth by constantly talking about our achievements with food and exercise are sins that begin in the heart. Adjusting our words and actions without examining our heart motivations and walking in humble repentance misses the point and doesn’t work long-term. 

I think we also have to be aware that most women struggle with some sort of woundedness and shame related to their physical appearance, including those who we consider to be the most beautiful people on the planet. It’s a huge issue, even for those that we assume have no reason to struggle.  Many, many women have been used, abused or regarded primarily for their beauty or perceived lack of it. The subject of beauty is a tender spot for a lot of us, and we desperately need understanding, compassion, and truth from the body of Christ in order to experience healing and see ourselves as God does.

CH: What are harmful responses to body image issues that are often given under the guise of biblical counsel?

AP: I think that many of us truly want to be helpful to others, but don’t know what to do or say. So we resort to statements that seem encouraging, like, “You look fine!” or “ I don’t know what you’re so worried about”, which can actually feel dismissive and patronizing. A few of my very well-meaning friends in college kept trying to assure me that I was beautiful and that my weight gain wasn’t a big deal, but when I challenged them that I didn’t really think they’d be ok with it if they had gained thirty pounds in two months, they had to agree they were operating from a double standard. A willingness to be a great listener, and to think deeply about how you would feel if this were your struggle is so important.

That kind of empathy builds trust that may allow you to be able to explore deeper heart issues with someone.  We often start on the surface with people who are struggling with food and body image, encouraging healthy eating, habit changes, increased exercise, accountability, etc. All of those things are important, but for those who have continually struggled in these areas, focusing primarily on outward, surface changes rarely works, and can be a means to avoid identifying and working through the deeper and bigger heart issues. Pulling weeds is good, but when the weeds have big roots, you have to uproot them in order to grow a beautiful garden. 

CH: For those who struggle with these issues, it often seems hopeless that lasting transformation can happen. What would you say to them?

AP: I understand that hopelessness, because it was my reality for several years. I begged God for a different issue, anything else, for a long time. It was very important for me to repeatedly refuse to settle for quick fixes, and to allow God to transform me from the inside out. There were always be a new diet or exercise trend out there that promises quick results, and sometimes delivers them. By God’s grace, I knew that what I really wanted was not just to be thin or fit or to make better choices, but to truly be FREE. Looking back, I can see stretches of time where I wasn’t losing weight or seeing huge outward changes,  but God was unraveling lies and deep-seated beliefs and sin patterns, little by little, one piece at a time. And gradually, I could see that I was being transformed from the inside out, and that inner transformation was producing visible changes in my behavior, habits and body. It wasn’t quick, flashy or dramatic, but it was real change.

A really important step for anyone struggling with this issue is to pray for and pursue safe people that you can talk honestly with, and who can encourage you towards inside-out change. We all need people in our daily lives who can remind us of the truth when we’re hopeless. God never gives up on us and He has promised to complete the work that He has started in us (Philippians 1:6).

CH: Have you experienced victory in the areas of eating and body image? And if so, how did you get to that place? What does "victory" look like?

AP: I definitely have. I am absolutely a different person with regard to food and my body than I used to be, and I consider that to be nothing short of a miracle, a reality that I struggled to believe was even possible.

Victory for me is about freedom, not a particular weight, clothing size, or perfect adherence to strict eating rules. It’s certainly not about perfect behavior or a perfect body. It has meant that food is not such a big deal to me anymore. I love great food and enjoying meals with others. But food is also “just food” and I don’t expect it to provide any sort of lasting comfort, fulfillment or peace. I’m also now much more free to enjoy the body that God has given me and all that it allows me to do. Stewarding my physical body well feels less like a prison sentence and more like a privilege. I have been able to lose weight when I’ve needed to, and to exercise consistently for the right reasons. Perhaps most importantly, in seasons when I’ve gotten a little off track, I’ve been able to return to healthy patterns without feeling like I was torturously starting over. 

Dealing with the heart issues behind my compulsive eating and shame towards my body was without a doubt, the primary factor in lasting transformation. Continually renewing my mind (Romans 12:1-2) has been vital.  Along with those things, on a very practical level, I worked a lot on awareness on what was actually happening in my physical body. I lived for a long time disconnected from what physical hunger felt like, how my body felt when I ate or didn’t eat certain foods, and what it felt like to be truly physically nourished from food. I learned how to pay attention to how my body felt when I was more or less fit, instead of just treating exercise as something I needed to check off a to-do list. 

One thing that I really tried and struggled to find was a community of people where I could be vulnerable  and grow in relation to these issues. Looking back, I’m ok with the reality that I may have struggled so hard to find it so that I could be a person that pushes to make sure we create truth-filled, encouraging opportunities for this kind of community in our churches. I’m convinced that true transformation is found in Christ alone, and I hope that we continue to work towards creating communities where people who struggle with food and body image issues feel welcomed, loved and encouraged by the hope of the gospel of Jesus.