Faith and Recovery… It’s Complicated.

April 18, 2024

Some of my favorite words about God come from the theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, “it is up to us to make belief in God credible in this world.” In other words, God works through us. We can find God in the struggle against what causes pain and the push for what brings joy, wholeness, and healing.

I was asked to write about how faith has influenced my recovery, and my story is perhaps a complicated one. It is not about me finding religion, or about God swooping down and saving me in some major “aha moment.” In fact, my experience has made me critique some of what I grew up believing. 

When hospitalized for my eating disorder at the age of thirteen, I wrote in my journal, “God gave me this cross to bear so I can grow and help others.” Oftentimes, when religion and illness are spoken of together, we hear stories of finding faith through a time of trial, or of God “saving” someone from their illness. Sadly, eating disorders have been categorized as a sin (namely a sin of vanity or idolatry) by some religious sources, and prayer is posed as a way of overcoming them. 

Yet, there is an issue with these types of narratives. If God “saved” me from my eating disorder, why did God not “save” the many people who still live with one, or the persons who have lost their lives due to complications from one? I can no longer believe that God “gave me a cross to bear.”

Eating disorders, my own or anyone else’s, are not willed by God or a part of God’s plan. God is not a stop gap to answer questions science cannot explain, neither is God a magic dude in the sky that sweeps down and takes away our problems if only we pray hard enough or have enough faith. If God works this way, I really do not want anything to do with that kind of God. 

I consider myself to be someone who is maintaining her recovery* from an eating disorder. I did not get here because God loves me better than anyone else, or because of any personal holiness on my part. White, cisgender, thin privilege played a large role in why I was able to obtain treatment. My work as a scholar of theology and religious studies has been focused on emphasizing that the discussion of eating disorders should not be focused on absolving individuals of their guilt (for the record, having an eating disorder, in my view, is NOT a sin), but instead on how social sin/injustice impacts eating disorder treatment. 

Sins of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and sizeism affect who has access to treatment and who does not. Insurance companies deny treatment to individuals who need it on a regular basis and even when people receive treatment, that treatment is often lacking and can do more harm than good. Stigma about mental health makes people afraid to even admit they need help, and when they do, people, including their loved ones and their physicians, may treat them differently. Many people fear that admitting that they struggle signifies weakness, and many also fear that if they seek treatment, their provider may not honor their religious or cultural identity. 

As I constantly remind my students, faith is not static. In some situations, it may be easier to feel God’s presence, and other times, we may cry out like Jesus did on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” It is OK to ask questions, and it is OK to always feel like you are exploring. Faith is not about “believing the right way,” but being open to finding the Divine in new places, and in loving yourself and other people in all of their complexity. 

When talking about faith and eating disorder recovery, I hope to shift the conversation to be less focused on telling people what to believe, or how to practice. This is not to say that prayer or attending religious services is not useful. They can be; and they can certainly play a major role in some people’s process of healing! However, it cannot be implied that people who suffer believe the wrong way, or do not have a strong enough faith. We cannot use religion or prayer to deflect attention away from systemic injustices that influence people’s access to health care. I think the most important question that needs to be asked is, “how can we demonstrate God’s love to the people around us, especially those who are feeling the most alone and afraid?”  

*I use the term “maintaining my recovery” rather than “recovered” to illustrate that recovery is an ongoing journey. Even if I am not using behaviors, I am working hard to stay where I am. 

Kate is a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Emmanuel College in Boston, MA. She is the founder of the Athletes Against Diet Culture community on Facebook and Instagram, and enjoys running, triathlons, and spending time with her friends and family.