There is holiness in the waiting days.
Now, here, we sit back, holding the book full of spoilers, sure that know the way the story will end. But Good Friday means we loosen our grasp on the certainty of the thing we’re promised, and we live in the terrifying space between exhale and inhale.
There is holiness in the waiting and the mourning and the longing.
There is holiness in the darkness, in the long hours before the night is broken by the sound of a newborn baby’s wail, the rumble of a stone rolling away.
We build it into our calendar, the waiting time: the longing of Advent, the grief of Holy Saturday. Immersing ourselves in the fear and the loss and the promise we don’t quite understand.
The empty manger. The sealed tomb. The silence.
God is in the grief, the days of not-yet-new, the ache and dread. God is in the ticking-clock panic of the space after we exhale, waiting to breathe in life, hope, redemption.
At the beginning of Christmas break, looking ahead to a whole glorious month of no classes, I checked out a whole armload of books from the library. Theology books, mostly – I am drinking theology these days, marinating in it. Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, for one: his brilliant pulling-apart of the biblicism that pervades American evangelical culture, and then replacing it with a “Christocentric hermeneutic,” one that views all of scripture not in light of itself (that tangled attempt to cross-reference and weave it into an internally consistent roadmap-for-21st-century-life sort of book) but rather seeing it all for how it reveals Christ, the euangelion, the Good News, the true Word. It’s a lovely book, paradigm-shifting for me as I wrestle through this time of reframing my faith.
Smith’s book, in fact, is one of only two books from my armload that I actually made it through; I was overzealous at the library it turns out, forgot that while I won’t have school to contend with over break, neither will my children. So, no increase in my available reading time; but at the last minute before spring semester started back, I plowed through Justin Lee’s TORN: Rescuing the Bible from the Gays -vs.-Christians Debate, and oh, I am so glad I did. In it Justin tells his story of growing up devoutly Christian, secure in his relationships with God and his parents, and then realizing as a teenager that he is gay. He is honest and transparent about the struggles he went through as he dealt with his identity – the things he tried in order to rid himself of his same-sex attractions: the support groups, the fervent prayers, the war between two unchangeable parts of himself. It is thoroughly worth reading for anyone who wrestles with the problem of the discord between the Church and people who are gay.
Justin spends a few chapters dealing with the problems of “ex-gay” ministries, which chapters Rachel Held Evans (the eternal Rachel Held Evans! I love her so) reviews here so I won’t rehash, but the short version is: 1. they don’t “cure” homosexuality in the sense of removing attractions to the same gender, much less replacing them with attractions for the opposite gender; 2. they often base their therapies on the roundly-disproven theory that homosexuality is caused by an inability to form healthy bonds with members of the same gender, due to a dysfunctional relationship with one’s parents, and that learning how to be more masculine/feminine and forming close friendships with members of the same gender will make one’s homosexuality disappear; and 3. they provide the church the plausible deniability to believe that anyone who is gay can be reformed by sufficient devotion to Christ (thus reinforcing the belief that a gay person isn’t really a Christian, and a true Christian can’t be gay), and the satisfaction of knowing that the church as an institution is dealing with any gay people within its walls, and so the individual members of the church have no need to see them as individuals, form relationships, and hear their stories.
Reading these chapters made me sad for Justin and for the many gay and lesbian people that we, the church, have insisted on seeing only as a sinful homogeneous monolith and not as the infinitely unique people they are, image-bearers of God instead of problems to be corrected. And then it made me go digging into the recesses of my church’s website to see if we have an ex-gay ministry of our own.
We have two.
One of the groups appears to be an arm of Exodus International, and lists no information except an email contact. The other group has several pages of resources hosted on our church website, where it declares that homosexuality is caused by “a deficiency in the boy’s relationship with the father or father-figure,” thus leading him to “isolate himself from the world of men and masculinity and consequently believe the lie that he is different from other men.” To counteract this deficiency and “diminish SSA,” the support group pairs each man with a male mentor, because “In joining with a male mentor non-sexually, the struggler will be challenged to his very core that he is not different, and in fact, has many commonalities with straight men. … Healing [from homosexuality, presumably] will manifest itself through relationships with straight, godly men and a commitment to Jesus Christ through a prolific prayer life and by devotion to God’s Word.”
This is so problematic.
And now that I have this information, now that I know about this thing that my church is doing that is not just something I disagree with on theological grounds, but is actively wrong and harmful, what do I do? Because I do not want to be a part of supporting this “ministry,” not even tacitly. Do I leave my church? Bring my concerns to a pastor, someone in leadership? Uh, write about it semi-anonymously on the internet?
I don’t know what to do now. I am determined to be an ally to LGBT people, both Christians and non-. And I am committed to my church, although that commitment has been wavering lately, something I intend to write more about soon.
What do I do now?
I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s new book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, and it has me thinking about how limited we, humankind, are when it comes to understanding the concept of God. Our minds are too little to grasp infinity, too clouded by what we think everyone else means by “God” to sort out what’s projection and what’s Real, and probably too poisoned by what we were taught about God when we were children. God is the ultimate Paradox, and we don’t sit comfortably with paradoxes. (I pride myself on my ability to perform Escheresque logical gymnastics, but hit me with a paradox as big as God and my brain is too GLaDOS ["Don't think about it don't think about it don't think about it!"] and not enough Wheatley ["Um, true. I'm gonna go with true"].) Anne Lamott writes about how some of her friends understand God:
I had a great friend named Jack, who has since passed, who was all but destroyed by the Catholic Church. So when he began a new, sober life, he turned in prayer to our local mountain Tamalpais, the sleeping Indian maiden whom the coastal Miwok worshipped. I love the memory of this plump salesman from St. Louis worshipping a sacred mountain, beseeching and praising and turning to God in Her distressing guise as a forested landmass.
I have a brilliant friend with a master’s degree who experiences God as a low-seated easy chair whose arms are very long and upholstered and actually hold her. I know a person with a Ph.D. who goes to a church based on Star Wars: May the force be with you.
A year or two ago I would’ve raised my eyebrows at this – new-age relativist hippie crap — but rereading the nativity stories from the Bible and talking them over with my kids have me seeing anew the way God gathered the broken threads of humanity’s utter misunderstanding of God, drew them into something better. I don’t think the Old Testament Israelites had a much better notion of God than the mountain-worshipping guy or the easy chair woman, honestly, given all the genocides and oppressions they committed in God’s name; reading through the Old Testament I can see Him trying to reveal Himself, glimmers of the Divine, but mostly it seems to me to be the story, unreliably narrated, of how humanity’s understanding of their Holy One slowly grew and evolved as God gently brought them closer and closer to Him.
And but so, a couple of different things have had me thinking about how God takes our imperfect, flawed understanding and makes it more perfect. One is this blog post discussing how the medieval Church piggybacked on winter solstice celebrations to celebrate Christ’s birth:
It’s no coincidence that Christmas occurs so closely to the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. In premodern rural cultures, the lengthening of the days (i.e., the “rebirth” of the sun) was a significant sign of hope for the coming spring and reason to celebrate. The parallels between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son were simply too easy for the church to ignore them. . . . Why not use an already existent holiday that celebrates hope and light to celebrate the birth of the true Hope and Light of the world? It makes perfect sense.
Further, it’s an example of some of the ways in which the early medieval church surprises us in its progressivity. It did not reject the celebrations and feasts of its surrounding culture (though there were certainly factions calling for that); rather, it adapted them, understanding that condemnation wins fewer converts than a measure of accommodation on non-essential issues.
I do agree with what he’s saying here about conversion-via-accommodation, and the whole post is worth a read; but what really interested me about this post was that it’s another instance in a long history of God taking humanity’s beliefs and practices and reshaping them into something that points toward Himself. Not unlike the way He shaped the Ancient Near Eastern creation myths into an account that revealed Yahweh to the children of Abraham (which we now know as the book of Genesis). And not unlike the way God worked within the belief system of the Magi – who were Persians, probably followers of Zoroastrianism, and whose beliefs had nothing to do with Judaism – and gave them a sign in a way they could understand it, i.e. astrology, to tell them about Christ.
This is a God who, rather than condemning us for our limited understanding, works within it, reshapes it, redeems it. And when that, too, fails, reveals Himself to us in a tangible way: Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. I find that beautiful.
Since last Friday I’ve seen a number of my Christian friends posting variations on the notion that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened because we’ve removed God’s presence from schools – from Bryan Fischer’s remark that “God doesn’t go where He’s not wanted; He’s a gentleman,” to Mike Huckabee’s explanation that “We’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be surprised, then, that they’ve become a place of carnage?”, to the t-shirt that says,
Why do you allow such violence in our schools?
-A Concerned Student
I’m not allowed in schools.
This idea that by making public schools a place where Christianity is not endorsed, we’ve nullified God’s ability to work in them makes me deeply uncomfortable. (I’ll save the tangent about how refusing to institutionally endorse the hegemonic religion is not the same as persecution for another time.) I find this notion that we’ve somehow “disinvited” God from our schools or our culture or our country to be on pretty shaky ground, theologically. It makes God into something like a vampire who has to be invited in before he can enter, or a genie who has to be summoned with just the right incantation before he can do anything, rather than what He is — the omnipotent, omnipresent God. Is He so puny that if we fail to invoke Him properly, He won’t show up? Is He so petty that if we don’t all pray to Him at the start of the school day, He’ll flounce out of the building? Certainly not — He is Emmanuel, God with us, whose love is so tremendous that nothing can separate us from it.
Also, speaking statistically rather than theologically, open endorsement of Christianity does little to deter violence or crime. The US has a much higher number of professing Christians than most European nations, and also a much higher incidence of mass shootings like the one in CT, and of violent crime in general. And as James McGrath wrote, ”Consider all the places where God is formally recognized, invoked, and addressed in prayer, while people within the congregation, in some instances even a pastor or priest or other member of the church’s staff, engages in sexual or other forms of abuse against children.”
The tragedy in Newtown certainly says something about us as a society, although it’s almost impossible to get any two people to agree on what that something is. But what it does not do is prove that we’ve somehow tied God’s hands against intervening in our schools or our culture or our lives. His light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Rachel Held Evans wrote beautifully, as always, on this same topic here. You should pretty much just read everything she writes, ever.
As so many people are, I am trying to process the tragedy that happened in Newtown, CT, this morning. Somehow my horror and grief have gotten all tangled up in Advent and the waiting — the longing for a Savior to save us, to end this mess we live in. Fix it, Lord. Come back. Save us.
O come, Emmanuel!
I understand it, I feel it so sharply – the cry of ancient Israel, the longing for a Savior, a Messiah. God to step down from His heaven and dwell among us. Stop our wars. Feed our hungry. Heal our wounded.
Where are you. Where are you. When are you coming. We are hurting and being hurt. Save us. Save us. Save us from our flesh.
And He arrives: God with us at last! Almighty God! Wrapped in — wait, what? Almighty God, wrapped not in cloud and fire and majesty but in this same broken flesh. These same bones crying out.
There is senselessness in this. This same flesh we long to transcend, and instead here you are in it, skin shivering cold in the night air, rush of heartbeat in your ears.
What are you doing.
Fix it. Fix this. Fix us.
And there he stands with his flesh, his body that breathes and sweats and dies: he who could fix us with a word, could solve us, set us right. One word and we will be whole.
He does not speak that word.
I do not understand this. I do not understand how he can bear to watch us flounder, waiting while children die, while evil prospers. I do not understand why he waits.
And I do not understand why he who could speak the word that will save us chooses instead to wrap the word in flesh and give it to us.
It is senseless.
We who could be basking in wholeness, finally set right after so many generations of wrong: instead he teaches us the word, slowly, in sign language; and we follow along as best we can like clumsy mimes.
Did he choose flesh so we can echo that word? Are we somehow elevated through this, this clumsy aping of his flesh, faded as a copy of a copy of a copy? Every once in a while bending ourselves until the right word is wrung from our flesh (whoever does for the least of these) but so much more often this hurting and being hurt?
I cannot understand. How is this better?
Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us, God become senselessly like us. When will we at last be whole?
One of my friends posted a Rick Warren quote on her Facebook wall yesterday:
“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you must agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to.”
And for what it’s worth — I agree with this statement, as far as it goes. My dear friend Stephanie is a libertarian, and we disagree on all kinds of things — healthcare! gun control! free market capitalism! — but I neither fear nor hate her. I love her, but I don’t believe everything she believes. We are able to have deep, robust, and almost entirely civil conversations about these things, and we’re each dedicated to understanding the things the other believes, and we do this because we love each other. I value her perspective, precisely because it is so different from mine.
What I don’t do is try to impose my liberalism onto her. I don’t tell her that if she doesn’t agree with me, she is not valuable. And while I give money to political campaigns that reflect my own beliefs, I do NOT support groups that are dedicated to eliminating libertarianism from our country, or equating libertarians with pedophiles and terrorists, or preventing libertarians from enjoying the same rights that I have unless they burn their copies of Atlas Shrugged and vote for Obama.
Because that crosses from disagreeing with her, to oppressing her. Even if I think Stephanie and all her libertarian friends are completely wrong — even if I can find things in the Bible to show that libertarians are wrong — it’s still not okay to make her feel less than valuable, less than worthy, less than fully a child of God because of the libertarian lifestyle she’s chosen.
So many of my friends — my Christian friends, my church friends — have been proudly supporting Chick-fil-A this week. Posting photos of their waffle fries, status updates that they bought nuggets to go for their kids’ baseball teams. Most of them are there because they agree with Dan Cathy and want to show their allegiance to someone who has publicly spoken out against sin. Some of them were there to protest the statements made by the mayors of Boston and Chicago that because of Cathy’s statement, Chick-fil-A is not welcome in their cities.
I’m sure many of those who support Cathy’s values don’t realize exactly what the impact of their support is. For them, visible solidarity is what’s important; they don’t realize, or care, that the money they spend on lemonade and ice dream cones is donated to anti-gay groups — groups that spread false witness about LGBT people, who equate them with pedophiles and terrorists, who say they should be “exported” from our country, who push harmful “pray away the gay” therapies. Hate groups. Groups that reinforce a culture in which gay people are bullied, beaten, fearful, suicidal.
Many of my Christian friends disagree with the “gay lifestyle.” And that’s their right. They are allowed to disagree with whomever they like. They can even think its sinful. But we must remember that Jesus never encouraged his followers to identify the sinfulness of others. Whenever He encountered religious teachers who were confronting a sinner, He chastised the teachers and showed grace to the sinner. He exhorted his followers to look to the log in their own eye, not the speck in someone else’s. And when the religious teachers asked Him which law was most important — for His doctrinal statement — He replied that there was no law, no doctrine, as important as love.
When our belief in God’s laws leads us to congregate at a fast-food joint like it’s an altar call, when we give our money to a business in Christian solidarity even at the expense of the well-being of the people whose lifestyles we disagree with, when we eat the chicken sandwich of hatred and lies and oppression — we are valuing doctrine over love.
When showing solidarity to a CEO becomes more important than showing grace to sinners, we have failed our calling to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
For several months now my relationship with my body and my fat have retreated in importance – a function of my growing, although certainly not yet fully attained, comfort with and acceptance of my physical self, this fat state of being – so I haven’t written much here because there hasn’t seemed to be much to say. There have been the frustrations, of course – the sprained ankle that’s been slow to heal, and the indignities of trying to seek healing in a medical establishment that overlooks and ignores the needs of large bodies; the humiliation of having to get a boot cast frankensteined together because my healthcare provider couldn’t find a manufactured boot that would fit my wide calf. But besides the ongoing daily body-stuff, I haven’t been doing so much of the ruminating on the experience of a body that is fat; it’s there under the surface always, staining everything I touch, but fading in importance for a while.
Instead lately I’ve been caught up in this – I don’t know quite what to call it. A crisis of faith, maybe, except it’s not my faith that’s being challenged. A crisis of religion is more accurate. For a few years now there’s been the discomfort where the dictates of my conscience grate against the dictates of my religious tradition, and over the past few months it’s become almost unbearable to live with the friction.
So I’m reading, and thinking, and praying, and seeking. There was a long while that I felt like the only Christian who had ever wrestled with these things, doubted the wrongness it seemed everyone else took as given — abortion! homosexuality! evolution! feminism! healthcare reform! — and I wondered if I was some kind of aberration, that I was missing some sort of crucial component that everyone else came wired with. Wondered if that meant I was Not Right With God on a fundamental level. How could I claim to love Jesus yet see the world so differently from all the other Christ-followers I know?
But slowly I began to find them – thanks be to the Internet! – the others like me, who questioned, who saw room for different interpretations. Fred Clark, the progressive evangelical Christian, who is sometimes cynical, critical of American evangelical tribalism, but also full of compassion and love for the poor, the needy, the least of these. Rachel Held Evans, who champions women’s equality in light of the Bible’s mixed messages about the role of women, and who promotes honest, respectful discussion among people from all different belief systems, both within and outside of Christianity. Addie Zierman, who writes so breathtakingly well about dwelling in grace and love within – and despite – Christian culture.
With their help and others’, I’m slowly growing, taking baby steps away from the handrail of the religion I grew up with, feeling a little less alone — trying to depend on God to shape my thinking, trying to be critical where appropriate without having a critical spirit, trying to extend grace to people who believe differently from me, trying to extend grace to myself. Trying to remember that the point of growing is becoming more like Christ, not cramming for a cosmic final exam; that even if I get the answers wrong, I am still beloved.
I may write more about this here as I go. We shall see.
Last weekend during Lady Gaga’s appearance on SNL, someone posted on my twitter timeline, something to the effect of, “It’s too bad Gaga dresses like an alien — she’s pretty hot when she dresses normal.” And even though I don’t have much interest in Lady Gaga, and I’m unfamiliar with most of her music — and even though I’ve made similar criticisms about her and any number of other women in the past — this time something different clicked into place with me, and I thought:
Lady Gaga can wear whatever she wants. She doesn’t owe it to you to look hot.
Seriously, I realize this is basic Feminist Theory 101. But to me, it’s just now starting to make sense, and it feels revolutionary: No woman is required to look a certain way that society deems acceptable. No person, for that matter. Lady Gaga isn’t. I’m not.
“Despite the fact that I’ve got cellulite and a poochy belly and fairly big hips for my frame, I don’t diet. Despite the fact that I spent my entire adolescence and young adult life actively hating my body and attempting to hide inside my clothing, I don’t diet. Because for one thing, few diets work permanently, with lost weight often regained within a year. And for another, I don’t believe that there is one acceptably beautiful body shape or figure. And finally, I’ve found a far better way to help myself look and feel good than attempting to diet my body into submission: I dress to my figure.”
I was reading along and thinking, Yes yes yes! People are finally starting to get it: dieting is futile, and it’s okay to not be thin! Until I got to the last sentence, and it hit me again: I don’t have to “look good” if I don’t want to. I don’t have to “dress to my figure,” especially since “dressing to your figure” is usually fashion-magazine code for “deemphasizing your fat parts and focusing attention on your non-fat parts.” As the article went on to say, “I sought out garments and accessories that drew the eye to my lovely waist, my shapely shoulders, my delicate ankles. I slowly began accumulating flattering, interesting pieces while simultaneously ditching the dull, curve-disguising ones. … I learned that I felt beautiful when I looked beautiful, and that I could look beautiful by wearing clothing that focused the observing eye on my glorious natural assets.”
“Dressing to my figure” still means conforming myself to an external standard for what is “flattering” and what is “unflattering,” for making my clothing choices based on the opinion of the observer* instead of on what I want to wear. It means replacing one set of rules (Be thin!) with for another set (If you can’t be thin, at least draw attention away from your fat parts!). And I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to conform to someone else’s notion of what makes my body look good. I can wear what I like, as an extension of my own personality.
(*We can say “the male gaze” here if you’d rather, but that’s a whole other topic I’m not capable of doing justice to.)
Choosing to style my body as an extension of myself is a celebration of my own uniqueness, my own created-ness. I’m celebrating the body and the personality God made me with. Wearing what I want to wear regardless of whether it’s in accordance with how fashion magazines think I should look or whether it makes me look “attractive,” and encouraging others to do the same, is a celebration of the beautiful diversity of human beings that God has created.
It may be that the choices I make end up being in line with what’s socially acceptable, but now I’m choosing to wear those items because they’re what I like, and society’s rules happen to line up with the things I like – not because I’m trying to conform.
My son dressed himself for preschool a few days ago in a yellow and tan striped shirt and red shorts. It wasn’t a color combination I would’ve chosen, and I gently offered to help him find an outfit that matched, but he said: “No thanks, I like wearing this.” And I realized: It really is that simple.
If “dressing to your figure” and following “fashion rules” is important to you, great. It’s your choice how you decorate your body. But don’t think it’s the only option for how to decorate your body, and don’t fool yourself into believing that the rules are anything more than reflections of our culture’s arbitrary standard for beauty. There are no “fashion police,” and how I present my body isn’t up to anyone else.
You don’t have to like my outfit. You might think that wearing horizontal stripes draws attention to my fat curves, and you might have a problem with that. You can think I shouldn’t wear a sleeveless top because my upper arms are wobbly, but I’m going to wear it anyway. You might think that what I’m wearing is too young for me or too old for me, you might think it clashes, you might think I wear too much eyeliner or that my purple hair is absurd. But I’m ignoring your opinion of how I look, society, because how I look isn’t about you at all.
(This post is going to be rather rudimentary HAES 101, but I need to spell it out because I’m still trying to work out what a lot of this means for me. Apologies for the tl;dr.)
A friend told me she’s just started a group Bible study using the book Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food. I’ve been on a hunt for HAES-type books written from a Christian perspective, so I did some flipping through this one with the Look Inside! feature on Amazon and on the book’s website, but I ultimately rejected it as being somewhat problematic. Here’s why (and if you’ve read the book and find my interpretation to be off base, please let me know):
Foremost, it looks to me like the book emphasizes weight loss, even without saying so directly. Although it says it’s not a “diet book” but a “lifestyle book,” nearly all of the “success stories” featured on the website recount participants’ weight loss as a result of following the study. Weight loss in this case seems to be equated not only with physical health but also with spiritual closeness with God; the book jacket (at least in the online copy) even says, “Reach your healthy goals and grow closer to God through the process.” That’s fine if the “healthy goals” are simply to adopt healthier behaviors. But if the “healthy goals” the book is trying to help the reader reach are in any way weight-focused, then the writer is conflating spiritual maturity and weight, and that’s problematic.
Then there’s the whole issue of food cravings — which in this usage seems to be shorthand for “cravings for foods that have low nutritional value.” This sentence from Health at Every Size has really stuck with me: “If you’re treating your emotional needs with food, you don’t have a food problem, you have a self-care problem.” Everything I’ve believed up until this point was that if I’m craving foods as a way to fill (or more often, muffle) emotional needs, then it’s the eating that’s unhealthy; when in fact, I’m discovering it’s the opposite. If I’m doing a good job of caring for my emotional and spiritual needs in healthy ways, then I’m not likely to be using food to fill that role, and the problem of emotional eating pretty much solves itself.
(I’m not claiming that this is true for everyone’s experience with food cravings and emotional eating; my experience is only my own, and I can’t speak for anyone else.)
Sometimes, too, we tend to describe behaviors as “emotional eating” when in fact they aren’t based on emotional reasons at all. When we diet and deprive our bodies of the food intake it needs, we may be able to override our bodies’ drive to eat for a time; but there comes a point where, biologically, our body begins shouting so loudly for food that we can’t help but eat. We attribute it to a lack of willpower or to emotional eating, but in fact it’s a result of the rush of hormones our bodies release that are designed specifically to make us eat. What and how much we eat is not entirely under our conscious control.
Within the environment of intuitive eating, I can eat whatever I want, because those wants are based on mindfully gathering feedback from my body; I know that my cravings are biological, not emotional. My body is learning that I’ll give it the foods it asks for, so it responds by asking for the foods that it needs; and I’m honoring God by trusting Him to use the body He gave me, made in His image, to take care of me. When I divorce chocolate from the connotations of guilt and food-sneaking and forbiddenness, and I’m not using food to fulfill an emotional need, then the only cues telling me to eat chocolate are my body’s physical hunger needs for that specific food. And once I’ve had as much as I need, I can set it aside and go on with my day, not carrying guilt for eating the chocolate, and not thinking about the next time I’ll get to sneak away and eat more of it. My relationship with food is no longer obsessive, but simply to meet my needs.
When my cravings aren’t colored with scarcity or guilt, I find myself craving nourishing food much more often; because while the way a specific food tastes is desirable, what’s more desirable is the way a food makes me feel. We spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what foods are best for us to eat, which ones are good and which ones are bad, but in the context of intuitive eating, this pretty much resolves itself. In the context of intuitive eating, the Food Guide Pyramid becomes not a prescription for how we’re *supposed* to be eat but a description of the foods our bodies are naturally craving, with individual variation for each unique body; the foods we crave are the foods we need to be healthy; the foods we choose are the foods we need, not because we have to, but because we want to.
(This is kind of an oversimplification of this whole process, which I hope to address in more detail later, but it’ll do for now.)
Food itself doesn’t have a moral value. The act of eating a Twinkie, in and of itself, isn’t sinful. Paul responded to the Corinthians’ question about the morality of certain foods by saying, “Everything is permissible — but I will not be mastered by anything.” With intuitive eating, I’m not being mastered by out-of-control cravings, but am able to mindfully respond to my body’s needs.
Because I know that eating releases serotonin and endorphins, I can recognize that it is intended to be a pleasurable activity and not feel guilty for enjoying food. When I’m eating only what I know my body needs, I can be satisfied that I’m not turning that pleasure into idolatry. Caring for our bodies is a moral issue, but I’m learning that caring for our bodies is incompatible with dieting — intentional weight loss defies too many of our biological processes and is contrary to how we were designed to function, and it decreases, not increases, our bodies’ health.
So, when a Christian book promises to teach me how to “Replace rationalization that leads to diet failure with wisdom that leads to victory,” I’m wary, because what it seems to be saying is that “rationalization,” not biochemistry, is what leads to diet failure and that there is Biblical “wisdom” that will result in diet victory — i.e., being able to maintain permanent weight loss. This sounds to me like it’s not only promising something it can’t deliver — because our bodies are designed not to achieve diet “victory” — but that it’s intertwining it with our relationship with God in a way that I believe could lead to further frustration and spiritual depression. For me to find a book about food cravings and Christianity useful, it would need to acknowledge that food cravings are, to an extent, valuable biological feedback from our bodies about what they need, and not impediments to a closer relationship with God.
Alane wrote a comment on my last post, and the reply I was writing grew into a full post of its own. I don’t mean to single her out by posting my response here; it’s just that the concerns she raises are, I think, pretty common among people who are unfamiliar with the Health at Every Size approach to weight. The comment is here; this is my response:
It’s wonderful that all those patients have been able to come off of their meds after losing weight. However, the problem is that without controlled testing, it’s impossible to determine whether their improved health is attributable to having smaller bodies or to adopting healthier behaviors, like increasing movement and eating more nutritious foods. Time and again, research has shown that it isn’t weighing less that improves health, but healthier behaviors, particularly increased movement — which are behaviors that can also result in weight loss. But, adopting healthy behaviors leads to better health even when it doesn’t coincide with weight loss.
The problem with conflating weight loss with improved health is that it leads people to believe that they are healthy only so long as their weight is down. When people regain the weight they’ve lost — as they almost inevitably do; research* shows that the vast majority of dieters regain whatever weight they lose — it often leads to their dieting again using increasingly unhealthy means, or to abandoning their prior healthy behaviors because they’re fat again so what’s the point. In other words, when people believe that exercise and healthy eating are only beneficial so long as they lead to weight loss, then there’s no motivation to continue doing these behaviors if they aren’t resulting in weight loss. This sense of failure can cause other unhealthy results, too, like stress, depression, and binge eating.
(*Sources: This is a link to a journal article that talks about all this and more, and which has links to a lot of other journal articles.)
It sounds like this information about depression isn’t news to you, though, and I’m so sorry for that. I really, truly understand the limitations you feel and for the guilt you’re carrying because of your weight, and I have so much compassion for you because I was so recently there.
I too believe God gave me this body and that I’m responsible for caring for it. And I know that for most of my life I have done a really rotten job of that. So I came into this process (of reexamining health and weight) with a LOT of guilt for how I had abused myself, both physically and emotionally. I really honestly didn’t see how I could make a shift toward better self-care and away from self-loathing, because all the poor choices I’d made were insurmountable.
But with a lot of prayer and seeking, I was reminded that the foundation of my relationship with God is forgiveness and grace, and that He wipes away my sins. Even if my sins include eating crap and not exercising. So I had a time of prayer and confession, and I sought His forgiveness for all the ways I’ve failed to take care of myself — and since then, I’ve let go of my guilt for my past treatment of my body, because I know He has wiped my past clean — He’s over it, and if He’s over it, there’s no point in my holding onto it on my own. I’m not saying I’m free of the consequences of my poor behavior – I still have to deal with a body that lacks stamina and strength and flexibility, that gets tired and out of breath too easily, that doesn’t like to take the stairs. But I can’t change my past actions; all I can do is choose better future ones.
And honestly, I don’t think I’d be able to make the lifestyle changes that I’m making now if I didn’t have that absolution to depend on. Every day I can choose to exercise, to eat intuitively, to play with my kids even when it leads to being out of breath. I can choose to take my fat body out in public and not be ashamed of it, to treat it with care and respect, to give that same respect to others. I can choose to listen to my body’s cues as a way of honoring God who made this body. And when I mess up, as I inevitably do, I can be forgiven for that, too, and I can move on. It’s so freeing.
I pray you can get there, too.
Other HAES readers: Am I missing anything? What information would you add to this? And non-HAES readers: are there other concerns you have about this approach?