I’ve always been jealous of other people’s testimonies; dramatic stories of God breaking into their lives, presented beautifully, bringing listeners or readers to tears. But then a friend asked me to share mine at a student gathering, and as I prepared for it, I realised that my story with Jesus is just as precious. It’s personal. It’s mine, and it’s His. So here it is.
I grew up going to church with my family: my mum, dad and three sisters (I’m the second oldest). As a child, Christianity wasn’t really a choice I had made, more of an inevitable eventuality, with its own set of routines and rules, and an extra label I got to wear. ‘Good student’, ‘curly hair’, ‘Christian’.
I always struggled with people-pleasing and striving to somehow be enough. I know a lot of people who feel similarly, and I think that, as humans, we innately crave acceptance and security, which we are, I believe, designed to find in God.
However, I didn’t look to God to satisfy that need, and as a result, I didn’t know where to find and secure my identity: I didn’t know who I was, only that I wasn’t enough.
I was all too aware of my flaws, in fact, I felt as though I was drowning in them. So I took matters into my own hands and attempted to make myself be enough by crafting a new identity for myself. I thought all I needed was a new label to cling to.
At this point, I knew God existed; I knew in my head that he made me and loved me and died to save me. I could quote back all the right Bible verses at appropriate moments, but in my heart, I wasn’t in a personal relationship with him. So I looked to find my value elsewhere.
It was easy to find identity and security in academic performance at first. I was a smart kid, in just the right kind of way that worked at school. But then, eventually, someone else would get a better mark or a higher score; they would win the prize instead of me, and my shiny label fell off. I’m naturally a very black and white thinker, and so, suddenly, I wasn’t good enough, in fact, I was worthless again. My illusion of security slipped through my fingers like sand.
Then, when I was 15, I thought it would be a good idea to find my security in food. Or more precisely, in ‘health’. Healthy eating and exercise consumed my thoughts, as I gradually consumed less, ironically, making me less healthy. In my warped perspective, eating food was like making a purchase, and I had limited money to spend. Eating less was therefore like saving money; which everyone knows is a good thing, right?
But, without realising, this obsession with perfecting myself through eating less became something that I couldn’t control any more. All along, instead of feeding myself, I had been feeding this monster that was now in control of me.
I was imprisoned by fear. I was scared to smell food. I was scared of toothpaste. I was scared that my mum was putting butter in the vegetables.
I lost kilograms, and I lost friendships - as I pushed away the people who were trying to help me. I completely denied that anything was wrong, adamant that no one would stop me from striving towards this ‘good enough’, that I could seemingly never quite reach.
And where was God in all this? I know now that he never left my side. That he carried me, and that he’s the only reason I made it out. But in the midst of it, I couldn’t see him clearly, because my vision was obscured by my eating disorder.
Eventually, the people who loved me wouldn’t back down (and praise God!). I was admitted to a child and adolescent mental health hospital. I emerged three months later, once I had met the required standards, but I was still plagued by fear. I was scared now to let go of this new label they had given me: ‘anorexic’.
The months that followed involved a lot of battling, both internal and external; with myself, with my family, and with the health professionals involved in my care.
But there came a point where I didn’t want to fight any more.
I was offered a cookie by some kids I was babysitting, and it was a turning point for me. For the first time in a couple of years, I seriously considered their offer. I thought through the possible outcomes, and came to the conclusion that, contrary to my prior belief, the world would not actually end if I ate it. So I did.
That might seem like a really small thing, but for me it was huge. It represented a conscious free choice to eat something that went against my fabricated rules, for myself, and not to please someone else.
I know that I did not get to that point of my own accord. I know that multiple people were praying for me, and I believe that it was the power of these prayers that enabled me to get to the point where I was able to make the decision to let my rules go. However, I also know that it was a decision I had to make for myself, and not for anyone else. So if you’re supporting someone struggling with an eating disorder, you should know that you can’t make them better. They themselves have to climb out of the pit they have found themselves in. But you can cheer them on. You can stand beside them, and you can pray for them.
Having struggled with this illness has given me a deep compassion for those experiencing mental health difficulties, and a passion to see a society and a church that loves and supports and listens to them. Being open about my story and sharing my experiences have given me the opportunity to help and support others, and I am so grateful to God for the beauty he has brought from my ashes.
Taking off my label and letting go of my obsession with food left room for Jesus to step more fully into my life. And over the following six years, he really truly did.
Not to say it was without setbacks. Alongside my food rules, I also let go of some of my Christian rules, and a lot of chaos ensued. For the scientists among you; it was like entropy: alone, I tended towards disorder.
If you ask me when I became a Christian, I would probably say that it was when I was 9, at Spring Harvest. We were learning about God’s grace, and there was a song that went ‘grace is, when God gives us, the things we don’t deserve’. That line stuck in my head, and I realised God’s grace was something I needed, and something I needed to accept, so I went up to the front and prayed the prayer.
But if I’m honest with myself, it was partly a people-pleasing choice. Maybe because my big sister had ‘become a Christian’ already, and my parents had celebrated with her, and I wanted that. Maybe because it was next on my Christian checklist. Maybe because there were heaps of other kids going up so I just let the momentum carry me to my knees.
Though I may have accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for me on the cross when I was 9, my relationship with Him became personal around the time I started at university. I left the security of being at home and had to live independently for the first time. But it was at that point that I realised; I didn’t actually have to be independent! I was created to be a dependent child of God and THAT was my identity.
I started to love going to church, not because it ticked a box, or affirmed a ‘church-going’ label, but because learning about God fulfilled a deeper longing in me.
Not to say that it was easy; in fact, following Jesus is similar to recovering from an eating disorder in some respects; it’s a daily choice I have to make, and no one else can make it for me.
Because of Jesus, we get to live in relationship and conversation with God. For me, the majority of that conversation has consisted of gentle nudgings and whisperings, most of which have come from His Word (which totally makes sense when you think about it; I mean, it’s His word).
And just as I haven’t had any earth-shattering revelations of the Lord, so I haven’t had a miraculous eradication of all mental health difficulties from my life. There are still things that I struggle with, but I know that they do not define me, and He will always be bigger.
As we know from scripture: ‘in this world you will have troubles, but take heart! I have overcome the world.’
He has overcome the world.
Our identity is secure because it is not our own. It is not ours to hold. It is in Christ.
I heard a sermon a few years ago where the speaker described our purpose as Christians to live as angled mirrors. We are created to look upwards, towards the glory of God, and reflect it out to the world, not to look at ourselves, or other earthly things.
So now I strive only to fix my eyes on my unseen, eternal God, because there is a greater song, and He has overcome.